Category Archives: Psychological

Do I think like you? Alcoholic Personality

The Betty Ford Clinic maintains there is an alcoholic personality which they describe below:
The first is a low frustration tolerance. Alcoholics seem to experience more distress when enduring long-term dysphoria or when tiresome things do not work out quickly.  Alcoholics are more impulsive than most.
Secondly, alcoholics are more sensitive. This sensitivity relates especially to nuances of interpersonal relationships. Alcoholics have a “low rejection threshold.” They feel more apart or left out. Incidentally, a drink or two “works wonderfully” to deal with this feeling. Yet, it is known that sensitive people are often especially creative. Alcoholism seems to selectively strike gifted people. Most American Nobel Prize winners in literature suffered from alcoholism.
Another trait found in excess in alcoholics is a low sense of one’s own worth. Then there is isolation. Alcoholics are loners. It is with most difficulty they are able to share innermost thoughts and concerns with anyone.
Although they may be articulate, charming and very persuasive, they operate behind an armor or shell that keeps the world out. They are afraid of intimacy.
So let’s dissect and analyze:
Low frustration tolerance (LFT), or “short-term hedonism” is a concept utilized to describe the inability to tolerate unpleasant feelings or stressful situations. The feeling that reality should be as wished, insisting that everything that a person dislikes should be resolved quickly and easily, and if it’s not, it leads to emotional disturbance.[1] Behaviors are then derived towards avoiding frustrating events which, paradoxically, lead to increased frustration and even greater mental stress. *Check*
Are your own feelings easily bruised and do you worry endlessly about hurting other people’s? Do you well up when watching charity adverts for illness or animal cruelty, dislike scary films or feel bothered by loud or irritating noises (think music coming from somebody’s earphones) in a way that those around you don’t? Then you could be a Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP, a condition that’s common but until now rarely understood. *Check*
Fear & Anxiety are the cornerstones of low self esteem (Low self worth and low self esteem are synonyms; they mean virtually the same thing). Those who suffer from low self-esteem experience extreme fear and anxiety frequently. Believing that there is something innately wrong with themselves, these low self esteem sufferers experience self-esteem attacks (often called panic attacks) when they do something they deem to have been stupid, something they think others have noticed, and something that confirms their own feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, being undeserving or unlovable. During these attacks they may attack or withdraw and isolate while feeling embarrassed, humiliated, devastated, depressed, even despairing. Depending on how seriously they perceive their “mistake” they may not recover for minutes, hours, days, or longer. They are often too fearful to ask for help, thinking that needing help is an admission of inadequacy. *Check*
So that’s three out of three for me and yes I isolate too.  Do these traits and descriptions resonate for you too?

MDMA used in world’s first trials to treat alcohol addiction

This was a news piece in The Independent in July looking at MDMA being used in trials to treat alcohol addiction.

In a world first, scientists in Bristol are using the psychoactive drug MDMA as part of a treatment programme for addicts and alcoholics.

The study was created by a research team at Imperial College London, and involves giving doses of MDMA – known by the street names Molly or ecstasy – to help patients battling addiction. They claim this could be more effective than conventional methods. Those on the trial will also be put on a course of psychotherapy.

“We know that MDMA works really well in helping people who have suffered trauma and it helps to build empathy,” said Ben Sessa, a clinical psychiatrist on the trial and senior research fellow at Imperial College London.

On his website, Sessa stated: “3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine is a remarkable substance. Forget what you know about the popular use of this compound in the context of the recreational drug ecstasy.

“MDMA is a medical drug that started its life in the clinical setting. It has a unique receptor profile that makes this drug, when combined in a supervised clinical setting with experienced psychotherapists, the perfect tool to enhance trauma-focused psychotherapy.”

Participants on the trial are all heavy consumers of alcohol, typically drinking about five bottles of wine per day. They were chosen through the alcohol services in Bristol and have undergone repeated treatments for alcoholism.

After going through a detox period, those on the trial receive two therapy sessions, followed by a day where they receive a capsule of high-dose MDMA.

The drug has shown promise in treating those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). At the Psychedelic Science 2017 conference in Oakland, researchers showed that after more than one year after two or three sessions of MDMA-assisted therapy, about 67 per cent of participants no longer had the condition.

However, experts warn that recreational use of the drug can cause harm. “I’ve seen people in my practice who took MDMA at a party and weren’t prepared for the memories that came up, and it was really harmful for them,” Michael Mithoefer, a psychiatrist and a principle investigator in the MDMA trials said in a Nature report.

Alcohol-related deaths have increased by 13 per cent over ten years, according to the report Statistics on Alcohol: England, 2016.

I will be greatly interested in reading the research papers following this trial to see what the outcomes were from this experimental process.

Alcoholism continues long after you stop drinking: my 15 years sober

This exceptional piece of writing comes courtesy of Tanya Gold featured in The Guardian earlier this year.  Beautiful writing about alcoholism and how for many of us it is but the symptom of much deeper issues.

It is easy to get morphine in University College hospital, London, if you are a good liar. It hurts, you tell the midwife, although you can’t feel anything, being so high on morphine already that someone could hit you with a sledgehammer and you would only laugh: what else you got? It was close to midnight on 13 August 2013, and I was on medical-grade opiates; nothing else can make you forget you are about to give birth. Eleven years without alcohol or drugs, and I fell, complete, into the waiting groove. I loved it. I was having a party in the high-risk maternity ward and they didn’t even know it. I lay back on my pillow and gurned with joy: oh, Morpheus, god of dreams.

When the morphine ran out, I had a baby. He was very small and handsome, and he was an imposition. I could say I was frightened, but that would be self-serving. It is possible, even likely, that I was afraid. I was definitely high.

I stared at him and thought: I am more vulnerable than you, even if you are a baby. Then I told the midwife: my husband is trying to kill me. My evidence was that he had brought me a tin of biscuits. This, then, was the comedown, and I was at the bottom of the curve. I must have said that the baby was not important to me, because my husband became angry and I became angry, and I told him I hated him and had never loved him. I considered walking out into the traffic, or throwing myself under a train, and that was our baby’s first night on Earth. We went home and I locked myself in my bedroom, without the baby, and looked at photographs of him on Facebook, and ate a ham.

Strange things can bring you to a crisis, like realising that you cannot read Dickens out of jealousy. Or more obvious ones, like thinking: the baby should live with my sister, she will do this better than me. Or, when he was two months old: when is he going to university? In my history of alcoholism, I have been at my most healthy when I knew that I was ill. If you remind yourself that you are ill, you can do better. Now, in my son’s room, wishing his childhood away because I did not know how to care for him, I knew I was ill. I was not drinking or using drugs, but I was as lonely and frightened as I had ever been. I was back where I had started.

***

Alcoholism is a strange condition. If you survive the drinking stage, and many don’t, it has relatively little to do with alcohol, which is merely the drug with which the alcoholic treats herself. It is, rather, a way of thinking, and continues long after you have stopped drinking. It is a voice in the head: a malevolent voice that wants you to die. I certainly see it that way: it makes it easier to pick my way through the days if I know what, exactly, I am dealing with. Is this the voice speaking, or not? Which one made a decision, and which one doubted it? To discover the true root of any plan can require forensic vigour, and much time. It is perpetual inner warfare.

The party in the maternity ward aside, I have not taken drugs or alcohol for 15 years. You might think I would be better by now, but for the alcoholic there is nothing as prosaic as “better”. There is only a daily remission, based on how you deal with the voice in your head. (“Hello, monster. Where have you been?”)

One morning in early 2002, at perhaps 5am, which is, as all addicts know, when the night breaks, leaving you with mashed lips and mad eyes, I stood in front of the mirror in my mother’s house. I had been drinking alcoholically – that is, without stopping – for almost nine years, and I was very near the end. I pointed at myself – I remember myself as a very attractive drunk, red-lipped and irresistible, but this is the voice again, for I was nothing of the sort – and I said, very clearly, “I hate you and I wish you would die.” I knew then what the voice in my head wanted, and how powerful it was. It made a mistake by being honest and, because it made a mistake, I lived.

I could no longer blame circumstances or others; I would have to do something about it myself. It is frightening, seeing yourself wish death on yourself in a mirror, and – because you are full of cocaine, as well as alcohol – being able to remember it. Alcohol shrouds itself in blackout, and you wake to a queasy blank; but cocaine is very bright, and pointed – it is almost telescopic. I was frightened enough to attempt one year without alcohol.

I was prepared to be conscious (I loved the WH Auden line “But who can live for long/In an euphoric dream?”) but I was under the delusion I was a literary genius, even though the only job I could get at the time was as a freelance reporter for a now defunct Daily Mail showbusiness column called Wicked Whispers. Wicked Whispers was so awful that, occasionally, the subs forgot to put it in the paper and no one would notice. If the celebrities I stalked stared at me, and asked, kindly, about my pitiful excuse for a career, I was stunned. Looking askance at Gillian Anderson when she, clearly and without malice, pities you, is, for me, a definitive act of insanity.

I was too scared to drink alcohol, but I couldn’t do anything else about a condition I barely understood. I went to self-help groups in gloomy church annexes, which seemed as despairing – though less vivid – as what I had left behind, and heard people talk about “spiritual growth”. I missed my near-death, for it had not been boring. I did not know what they were talking about. I could not hear them. I said I was an alcoholic, because I supposed I must be, but I didn’t really know what it meant.

I did know I needed a new soul, the old one having broken, and I chose to build it with ink. I thought that I should be a famous journalist, so I stood outside the Daily Mail building and offered up a prayer, like Salieri: Lord, make me a great short-form showbusiness columnist, and then, if you think it right, Lord, may I progress to features. I got a job on the features desk, a job I called “Idiot Girl”. I was required to report in fancy dress – Saxon peasant, old woman – and I loved it. It was evidence of my survival: she mugs, she pratfalls, she lives! The voice was impressed, and temporarily silenced. (I believe everyone is a secret Daily Mail reader, even the voice.)

I built a career in journalism but I felt, always, that the person in print had nothing to do with me. She looked like me, but she was my ghost, and she was not reliable. I could never stop working, but I could never stay in any job; as soon as I arrived, I yearned to leave. I became marvellous at being fired and learned to soothe, and even thank, the person who was firing me, the better to start again at the beginning. It was a game I played with myself. I would procrastinate over my work to stoke the fear, but I was not lazy. I met a sensitive, clever man and married him, but I worked on my wedding day. I worked on my honeymoon. I worked in the labour ward, until I was offered the morphine. I was terrified of losing things and I would try to lose them so I could be, momentarily, at peace. My husband, at least, knew that, which is probably why I chose him. I am not a complete idiot.

I was, for a while, a columnist, but that was no good, either. To write a good column, I had to work myself into such a state of rage that the week was empty of anything else. I had a schedule of rage, which I followed dutifully; if I wrote on Wednesday, I would be numb on Thursday and would then stoke the rage over the weekend. On Monday, the rage would ebb, to be replaced by terror, which would reach a pitch on Tuesday night, after which I would write what seemed to me not sentences, but tiny, insistent stabs. That is not a job; it is a condition.

I was still at the mercy of the voice, but she had regressed to sludge. She manifested as a cloud of anxiety that travelled with me and occasionally mutated, helpfully, into dread, and then back to anxiety. I was a cartoon character with a personal cloud, Charlie Brown with a mood disorder.

Late summer in 2013, I was sitting in a self-help group. This one was surrounded by a very fine, old graveyard, like a metaphor, with many famous intellectuals in fabulous tombs; we sat calmly with the dead, as if we belonged there. The baby was at home in the cradle. I always said the same thing at this self-help group, and they were very patient with me. If I had published a good article in the previous 24 hours, I was happy because I existed in a form with which I was comfortable, and which other people could recognise and approve of. If not, I moped, and complained that I was not happy. I avoided self-help groups where they talked about their gratitude. I did not believe them.

I listened and thought about how much, then, I hated being an alcoholic. I mourned the lives I could have lived if I had not been cursed with this condition. I could have been an MEP! I could have been a chef! I wondered, in a broad way, what had happened, and what I could do. I became aware, quite suddenly in the quiet by the graveyard, of the constancy of the voice. I had waited, every day for 15 years, to wake up and find she had gone, and that was my error.

I knew then that she has always been there. When I was five, she told me my parents didn’t love me. I remember repeating, very insistently, to my parents that I knew they did not love me, because she had told me so. Evidence doesn’t matter to the voice; she kicks it away. She cherishes a passing piece of thoughtlessness, nurtures a harm. She lives in the small places beneath my conscious mind.

When I was 10, she said I was friendless at a noisy suburban school. When I was 12, and mooching about the dull streets of Kingston upon Thames, she said I was alone, and probably always would be. For the nine years of my active alcoholism, she told me to drink, first because it wouldn’t harm me – and what else was there? – and then because I couldn’t be saved.

She says only what she can get away with. She could never, for instance, convince me that my sister doesn’t love me; instead, she tormented me, when I was drinking, with the possibility that my sister might die. She wants so much to be believed, this voice, and is almost as pitiful as the other me, which is the one that is writing this story: the one that wants to live. I am quite aware how mad this sounds, but it is the truest narrative of my alcoholism that I can offer. Perhaps in 15 years I will have another one.

We coexist uneasily, today, the voice and I; she tells me to procrastinate over my work, to start fights, to give up. If I am unwary, she can plunge me into the deepest despair, and I have learned to construct an obstacle course to thwart her. It is made only of ordinary human love. Nothing else works.

My son helps me. His is three now, and knows what is important. “I must teach you to play, Mummy,” he says, and invites me, without irony, to pretend to be a monster. Then, of course, the voice whispers, “You have made him a parental child”: a creature who will care for me and not himself. I try to ignore her, because I cannot send her away. But I wonder now if it is she who is afraid, and not I.

As so many of the comments said too – thank you Tanya.

Thursday Sober Inspiration: 4 years clean and sober! (Straight Sun)

As I celebrate 4 years clean and sober it has prompted renewed reflection. So much has happened between this time last year and now.  Much of it has not been as positive as we would have hoped but then sh*t happens whether you are sober or drinking.  Some of it has been stressful, emotionally overwhelming, and felt downright difficult and unfair but again such is life.  One thing is true through all of this though – at no point has the thought of drinking crossed my mind as a good idea.

So when I wrote last years 3 year soberversary post I hoped that we would now be living in Australia and that isn’t so.  Our plans took a turn for the worse at the end of June when the Australian govt announced that they were reducing the age cap on the permanent residency skilled migrant visa from 50 to 45 effective 1st July.  As I’m 48 that was pretty much the end of the road to our emigration plans.  We may get the opportunity to go over on a temporary work visa for 4 years but it’s highly likely we’d have to return after that. The odds aren’t looking good so we’ve accepted as a family this is most likely the end of the living there dream but we  can still go back on holidays to visit our family whenever we wish.

I hoped that I would have been able to successfully publish my Cambridge research and that isn’t so either.  It is however my writing and so I can publish it here if I so wish, and I do.  So here is my research paper written last year for the University of Cambridge Postgraduate Diploma in Education Studies (Counselling).  This isn’t a true academic piece of writing because it is written in the first person rather than the third.  It uses much of my lived experience (phenomenological approach) so is a mix of qualitative and quantitative research.  That is partly why it isn’t suitable for academic publishing without a great deal of rewriting.  What I would ask is that you are respectful to the personal content contained within it.

What is the link between insecure attachment, alexithymia & addiction

If I had to write a time-frame of what this journey has been like to date I would say this:

  • Year 1 was about escaping the physical & psychological pull of drinking & getting through all the social triggers or big sober milestones (week-ends, weddings, parties, Bank Holidays, birthdays, Xmas & New Year, holidays, seasons).
  • Year 2 was about living sober – having made it through the milestones this year can be harder than the first because it is now ‘normal’ to be a non-drinker rather than a drinker in these social situations.  As Mary Karr writes in Lit: “If you live in the dark a long time and then the sun comes out, you do not cross into it whistling.  There’s an initial uprush of relief at first, then – for me, anyway – a profound dislocation.  My old assumptions about how the world works are buried, yet my new one’s aren’t yet operational.”  Sums it up beautifully 🙂
  • Year 3 was where I started to process the emotional sobriety elements of living in recovery.  It was too soon to start deep diving in to the issues but I started to tentatively explore the work that needed to be done later and build my emotional resilience in preparation.
  • Year 4 has been the mother-load of emotional recovery work for me.  Now I’ve felt emotionally robust enough to deep dive on some of the underlying reasons why I drank and to be resilient enough to sit with those feelings and it not trigger an emotional relapse that is then a risk for a full relapse.  And again in the words of Mary Karr from Lit: “A lot of therapy is looking through a child’s eyes, she says.  This is looking through an adult’s”  Again, absolutely bang on!

This is only my experience of sobriety though and we are all very different in how we experience both drinking and recovery.  Melody Beattie in her book: Beyond Codependency describes the stages of recovery as expressed by Timmen Cermak as: survival/denial -> reidentification -> core issues -> reintegration -> genesis (which beautifully mirrors my years 1-4 so far!).  She goes on to say: “This is the recovery process.  It’s a fluid process, with carryovers and crossovers at different stages.  There isn’t a fixed time frame for moving through these stages ….. Recovery is a healing and a spiritual process.  We travel from self-neglect into self-responsibility, self care and self love.  I’ve learned that self-care isn’t narcissistic or indulgent.  Self care is the one thing I can do that most helps me and others too.

And of the genesis stage which is where I now consider myself:

This isn’t the end.  It’s a new beginning.  We’re no longer carrying around our “imprisoned” selves.  Nor are we indulging in all our whims and desires.  Discipline has found its place in our lives too.  Like butterflies broken loose from a cocoon, our selves are “flying free” …  We’ve found a new way of life – one that works.

I would not have changed any of it and remain certain that my decision to stop was one of the best of my lifetime so far.  My life would have been poorer were it not for the friendships and connections I have made out here on the inter-webs because of that single decision to put down my last drink on the 20th September 2013.

Although drink holds no appeal right now I am under no illusion that like Smaug in Lord of the Rings my addiction is like a sleeping dragon that one drink could awaken.  Because as Tolkien wrote Smaug is “a most specially greedy, strong and wicked wyrm”.  I remain alert and resolute heartened by the knowledge that as I head on towards 5 years sober this time next year, the risk of relapse drops to around 15%.

And to end this post?  The only way I know how to celebrate – with a tune!  Orbital ‘Straight Sun’ and some fantastic timeframe video of the UK 🙂

I know how alcohol can ruin your mental health. So why is it so rarely discussed?

This article on alcohol and mental health was in The Guardian in May.

It’s amazing to see the British finally begin to talk about our feelings. But even as we mark this year’s Mental Health Awareness week, there’s still an elephant in the therapist’s waiting room: alcohol.

The physical health risks of drinking are well known. Less discussed are the mental health consequences. These are real and significant, and seem to be getting worse. For instance, the number of people admitted to hospital with alcohol-related behavioural disorders has risen in the last 10 years by 94% for people aged between 15 and 59, and by 150% for people over 60.

Alcohol played a key part in my own problems but it took me years to come out of denial about it.

I never drank in the morning or in parks, just in a British way, bingeing along with, well, everybody else. I didn’t question it because no one else seemed concerned.

Presenting to therapists over the years with anxiety, patterns of self-destructive compulsive behaviour, swinging between thinking I was the most important and the most worthless person on the planet, they barely asked how much I was tipping down my neck. And it was a lot.

The more I drank to medicate my low self-esteem, the worse my anxiety got and the more I drank to dull it. Years passed and I couldn’t see I was stuck right in the classic “cycle of addiction”.

Eventually a friend of mine who had gone into Overeaters Anonymous sheepishly suggested I might have a problem. I resented it hugely. I was successful with a good job. There was no problem.

Eventually, it was a work incident that woke me up. As editor of Attitude magazine, I believed it would be culturally significant to have Harry Potter on the cover of a gay magazine. When Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry in the film franchise, agreed, the only gap in his schedule for a shoot was early on a Sunday morning, which was annoying. Saturday night was my favourite time to go out. But fine. I could do this.

I decided not to drink the day before. No wine at lunch, nor during the play I went to see, and then straight home. All went well. Just as I was about to go to bed, ready for the shoot the next day, curiosity got the better of me and I logged on to a dating site, just to check my messages.

The next thing I remember was waking up, empty cans everywhere, with a bunch of messages on my phone asking where I was. Daniel and his publicist couldn’t have been nicer when I arrived with my lame excuse, insisting I go home to bed and that the shoot would be OK, and he found time later in the week to do our interview. Disaster was averted but it was the wake-up call I needed.

Since finally giving up alcohol, I’ve learned many things. First, that addiction is everywhere. That it is not about the drinking (or whatever the substance is), but the feelings underneath. Usually there is some kind of childhood trauma that needs to be addressed. I’ve learned that it isn’t about when or where you drink but about whether you can easily stop once you’ve started. I’ve also learned that there is an astonishing lack of understanding about addiction in general, not just from the public but sometimes by professionals who, being human too, often have their own issues to deal with.

The positive news is that despite alcohol being a socially acceptable carnage-causing drug that is pushed on us from an early age, it too is beginning to be talked about less furtively. Brad Pitt spoke in an interview last week about his struggles, Colin Farrell recently spoke on Ellen about being 10 years sober. Daniel Radcliffe himself has spoken about his problem drinking.

Last year I did another interview, with Robbie Williams and singer John Grant talking about their life-saving experiences of recovery from alcohol, drugs and sex addiction – and this time, I wasn’t late for it. Studies continually show a link between alcohol abuse and violence, domestic abuse and suicide, so talking about it is not a luxury, it is a necessity.

The British drink too much. Alcohol must be next on the mental health agenda.

Completely agree Matthew!

Sober inspiration: Out of the Shadows, Out of the Shame

So another month another book – the final one downloaded onto my kindle relating to recovery before I pause and allow all of this reading to be internalised and processed.  Out of the shadows, out of the shame indeed.

Claudia Black’s book Changing Course is about recovery and as the book is described:

“Claudia Black extends a helping hand to individuals working their way through the painful experience of being raised with addiction. “How do you go from living according to the rules – Don’t Talk, Don’t Trust, Don’t Feel – to a life where you are free to talk and trust and feel?” Black asks. “You do this through a process that teaches you to go to the source of those rules, to question them, and to create new rules of your own,” she explains. Using charts, exercises, checklists, and real-life stories of adult children of alcoholics, Black carefully and expertly guides readers in healing from the fear, shame, and chaos of addiction.”

This particular section really struck me and so I’m sharing it here:

Recovery is living a life free from shame.  It is recognising that you are not your secret; you are not your family secrets.  You are a person with a myriad of experiences, some of them very painful.  But, the pain of exposing the secret very, very rarely compares to the pain of keeping the secret.  And once the knowledge is shared, the relief feels like the warmth of the summer sun after a very long, cold winter.

The following are some of the reasons people reveal secrets:

  1. It relieves a burden.  You no longer have to continue to lie to others.  The secret has made life more difficult.  It is no longer necessary to spend any more energy keeping it.
  2. It allows you to be true to yourself.  It allows you to be honest with yourself.
  3. It prevents a possible surprise discovery.  Some secrets are shared to lesson the shock or surprise that would be created if a significant other found out.
  4. It enables you to have a more honest relationship with another.  When you share a secret with someone, you are conveying the added message that you trust them with something very important to you.  You are sharing at a more vulnerable level and that often creates in the other person a reciprocal willingness to be open and vulnerable.  The result is that a greater trust develops between the two of you.
  5. It stimulates family change.  When you decide to speak up, other family members are encouraged to make changes in their own lives.
  6. It could be a plea for help.  When the secret you confide still needs to be attended too (for example, if you are drinking too much and not yet in recovery), telling another person is a way for you to begin to move yourself towards getting help.

Recovery does not include secrecy.  It means speaking your truth.  You must end the Don’t Talk rule for yourself.

This is all so true for me and I carried such shame around my drinking.  At approaching 4 years in recovery my shame is almost non-existent.  A friend recently asked me if I was still not drinking.  I said that I wasn’t and that it held absolutely no appeal to me now.  I now know deep in my soul that drinking would not improve or make any situation better.  To be free from the shame is a gift that one drink can never compete with, and that is all it would take to undo it all.  If you’re reading this and think you’re drinking too much, reach out to someone and share your secret.  It could be the most powerful thing you could do for yourself.

Friday Sober Inspiration: Reasons to Stay Alive

So I read the book by Matt Haig Reasons to Stay Alive quite early on in my recovery.  It was published in December 2015 and it was Bryony’s interview with him on the MadWorld podcast series that reminded me of what a great book this is.

You can read an extract from it here.

And here’s an interview with Matt from The Guardian when it was published:

Why did it take you 15 years to get the courage to write about depression?
I was meant to be writing a blog for the Books Trust, as their writer in residence, about novel writing but ran out of things to say and was starting to repeat myself. So I thought: OK, I’ll write about depression, this thing I had always had inside me and wanted to get out. And I got an incredible response, not because the blog was great but because I’ve noticed when anyone talks honestly about depression, it breeds a warm, sincere response from people. Everybody has a story about depression yet, for decades, we have been silent about it.

Is writing a way out of depression?
Writing is not the way but it helps. In February 2000, I was in the depths of depression. I was 24 and back from Ibiza, living at home in Newark [Nottinghamshire], in my childhood bedroom. I started writing bits and pieces – unreadable, angsty stuff. Articulating what is in your head is therapeutic. Words are a shared thing – depression lends itself to melodrama: you believe you’re going through something no one else has been through. At 31, Abraham Lincoln wrote: “I’m the most miserable person now living.” That is the drama of being a young man. That is the drama of depression.

How did you recover?
I still get bouts of depression but I am a lot better than I was. Staying sane and well is a complicated, never-ending process. The critical thing was that I had people I could talk to around me. My solution was never medical. What ultimately helped me was time. Depression told me I wouldn’t make my 25th birthday, then I made my 25th … and then I made my 30th.

One of the surprises is how speedy you make your experience sound, saying that adding anxiety to depression ‘presses fast-forward’?

Most people have depression with anxiety. They overlap in complicated ways. Mine trickled over into OCD and panic disorder. One of the main symptoms of anxiety is racing thoughts.

Why were you living in Ibiza?
I was a party person at university. I went to Hull, then Leeds. I used to drink a lot. (In one fell swoop, I gave up drinking and smoking. I became scared of anything that could alter my brain chemistry). Anyway, I met my partner, Andrea, early on and we went on holiday to Ibiza. After another winter in Hull, we thought it would be nice – probably against our parents’ wishes – to try and get work in Ibiza. I was selling tickets, doing a bit of PR. Andrea got the good job – running the office for the island’s largest party. Ibiza contributed to depression in that I was run down: we weren’t eating well, there had been heavy drinking, no sleeping, a lot of unhealthiness.

How worried were your parents when depression struck?
It happened suddenly so they had to be aware of that. I wasn’t mad or delusional but I was worrying about things too much. I knew who I was. I could hold a conversation, there was nothing obviously wrong with me. My mother had experienced postnatal depression but that made it harder for her because it brought it all back. Unlike with physical illnesses, there is always with depression, I believe wrongly, guilt and blame attached.

Your dad is quoted telling you to pull yourself together …
I feel guilty about that but you can’t write what is vaguely a memoir without betraying someone. I wanted the main person I betrayed to be myself. My mum has only just read the book…

How did she react?
Long, emotional texts that said it was hard for her to read but she thought it was brilliant and that it made her understand depression better.

Is depression different for each person who experiences it?
I don’t know. I’ve only ever been me.

Is it safe to generalise?
It is dangerous not to – despair is universal.

Is technology a contributing factor?
I became ill in 1999 and didn’t even have a mobile phone. Facebook and Twitter provide a Samaritans culture: people are there to chat to 24/7. That said, the addictive aspects of the internet, comparing yourself against other people, is negative for mental health.

Your most unexpected message is that depression can be a force for good?
If you took away all pain, if everyone lived for ever, everything would be bland, flat and boring, there would be no reason for art, music, newspapers, love because we would all be in a mono state of happiness. You cannot belittle depression yet a lot of people would not undo that side of themselves because it changes your thoughts. It makes you appreciate things you would not have appreciated before: like just being alive. Thinking about death makes you analyse what life is. Anxiety makes you curious and curiosity leads to understanding. I wouldn’t be a writer without depression.

Did becoming a published author boost your self-esteem?
It gave me a sense of identity. I had the confidence to write a novel and send it off which I wouldn’t have had before. We were in debt which gave me this ridiculous drive. I wrote a book about talking dogs – a reworking of Henry IV Part 1 – and ended up in more debt! Being published gave me that sense of: that is what I am here for.

What does Andrea make of your writing about depression and her role in helping you?
She is a shy person and we are both a bit antsy because it is your life and people are going to be disbelieving. She and I used to write side by side. Her books were – she hates the word – “chick lit”. When we had kids [now 5 and 7], she stopped but is now writing again, she has some ideas for children’s books.

Do you worry about your children inheriting the depressive gene?
Yeah. It is a confidence thing – if there is a link between how you raise a child and the adult. We try not to be unreasonably critical but I’m of the grim belief that each generation corrects its parents’ mistakes and then makes new mistakes of its own.

You once worked in a cabbage factory warehouse. That could bring on a depression?
Strangely, I don’t get depression in adverse situations. Hard work can be therapeutic. I hated the cabbage factory but it wasn’t capital D depressing.

You suggest we’re losing sight of what matters in over-affluent lives?
Yes, absolutely. I’d feel worse in shopping centres. Adverts, designed to make you feel bad, depressed me – they create a void. It’s easy to lose your priorities and think: I’ve got to have this sort of job or earn this amount of money. It would be lovely to live in a culture where calmness was the aim.

What is the single most important thing to tell someone depressed?
However much in the foreground depression feels, you are separate to it. This is going to sound cheesy but I’d say: You are the sky. A cloud comes and dominates the sky. But the sky is still the sky. Depression tells you everything is going to get worse but that’s a symptom. Don’t give depression power – constantly discredit it.

Giving up alcohol was a major part of Matt’s recovery in the earlier years and you can hear him talk about it with Bryony here:

https://bryonysmadworld.telegraph.co.uk/e/mad-world-matt-haig/

Like Bryony I loved his lists in the book.  Although this is written about depression it could so easily be about alcohol dependence too (excerpt taken from his blog):

7. Ignore stigma. Every illness had stigma once. Stigma is what happens when ignorance meets realities that need an open mind.

Friday Sober Jukebox: Humour as a defence (Lit)

humourThere were so many gems in Sally Brampton’s book ‘Shoot the Damn Dog‘ that I have already shared here before.  This is also utterly true and resonated for me – humour as a defence.  I’m a nurse – gallows humour is our professions stock-in-trade.

First Sally’s words:

They don’t like jokes in group therapy.  Humour is a defence.  I am in denial, they say, which is just another word for smart ass.  I use humour to hide behind, because I cannot bear to feel my feelings, cannot face the truth.  I use too many words, they say.  I hide behind language.  I intellectualise my feelings and then explain them away.

‘Stop using your head, Sally.  How do you feel?’.

‘How can I tell you how I feel if I don’t use words?’

They sigh.  I can see the word ‘difficult’ captured in bubbles above their heads.

‘Feel the feelings’ they say, again.

And then what? My feelings are stuck in my throat.  The feelings that I can’t, actually put into words.

Once again, she nails me, completely.  Yes, yes, yes.  Thank you Sally 🙂

And this is what Psychology Today says:

This may explain why some psychologists classify humour as one of the “mature” defense mechanisms we invoke to guard ourselves against overwhelming anxiety (as compared to the “psychotic,” “immature,” and “neurotic” defense mechanisms). Being able to laugh at traumatic events in our own lives doesn’t cause us to ignore them, but instead seems to prepare us to endure them.

Perhaps laughter could be most properly considered as a weapon against suffering and despair. If we can joke about a disappointing or traumatic event, we’ll often find ourselves feeling that what’s happened to us isn’t so bad and that we’ll be able to get through it. This expectation serves two vitally important functions:

  1. It diminishes or even eliminates the moment-by-moment suffering we might otherwise experience as a result of a traumatic loss, which
  2. Actually makes it more likely we will make it through a trauma unmarred and flourish once again

So back to gallows humour then.  This is what Wiki says:

Sigmund Freud in his 1927 essay Humour (Der Humor) puts forth the following theory of the gallows humor: “The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.”

As the Psychology Today article continues: Laughter is a powerful means by which we can encourage ourselves. That when confronted with setbacks, adversity, trauma, or terrible news, even if it may seem socially inappropriate, we should reach toward humor. We should try to find a way to make light of whatever circumstances make us afraid. Because if instead of focusing on the negative impact of an adverse event or experience we focus on simply laughing about it, actively and consciously pursuing a perspective that makes it funny, we just may be able to activate the most under recognized but powerful weapon we have against suffering.

MrHOF asked for this to be the Friday Sober Jukebox and the video made me laugh 😉

PS Don’t forget that this Sunday London hosts its first Mindful Drinking Festival!

Sober inspiration: Co-dependency vs Self-Love Deficit Disorder

I’m currently reading Melody Beattie Co-dependent No More and that prompted me to dust off this post which has been in draft format for over 2 years!! :O So on my day 600 I shared a video that looked at co-dependency that carried a warning and I know from feedback that it caused a few wobbles.  Well imagine my delight when I watched this Jason Silva Shots of Awe where he says ‘what’s wrong with co-dependence?’.  Obviously we’re talking healthy rather than unhealthy co-dependence  here but just the same relying on other human beings is not in and of itself a bad thing!

Here’s his video:

And then consider this also as pioneered by Ross Rosenberg:

Men and women always have been drawn into romantic relationships instinctively, not so much by what they see, feel or think, but more by an invisible and irresistible relationship force. “Chemistry,” or the intuitive knowingness of perfect compatibility, is synonymous with the Human Magnet Syndrome.

He has 18 guiding principles of Self-Love Deficit Disorder and The Human Magnet Syndrome which you can read in full here, but below is a taster with the first principle outlined.

1. “Codependency” is an outdated term that connotes weakness and emotional fragility, both of which are far from the truth. The replacement term, “Self-Love Deficit Disorder” or SLDD takes the stigma and misunderstanding out of codependency and places the focus on the core shame that perpetuates it. Inherent in the term itself is the recognition of the core problem of codependency, as well as the solution to it.

Above is his Self-Love Abundancy Pyramid where the goal of SLDD recovery, or “The Codependency Cure”™ is the healing the trauma responsible for one’s self-love deficit (SLDD) and the acquisition of self-love or “Self-Love Abundance” or SLA.  

I’ll drink a sparkling water to that! 🙂

Sober Inspiration: How to Be a Little Less Certain of Yourself

I’ve been reading this book over the summer and really like Mark Manson’s writing.  Thought I’d share his wisdom about how being less certain of ourselves can be valuable in terms of personal growth and insight.  This excerpt is based on his blog post that you can read in it’s entirety here: https://markmanson.net/wrong-about-everything

Over to Mark –

Questioning ourselves and doubting our own thoughts and beliefs is one of the hardest skills to develop.  But it can be done.  Here are some questions that will help you breed a little more uncertainty in your life.

Question 1: What if I’m wrong?

As a general rule, we’re all the world’s worst observers of ourselves.  When we’re angry, or jealous, or upset, we’re oftentimes the last one to figure it out.  And the only way to figure it out is to put cracks in our armour of certainty by consistently questioning how wrong we might be about ourselves.

“Am I jealous – and if I am, then why?” “Am I angry?””Is she right, and I’m just protecting my ego?”

Questions like these need to become a mental habit.  In many cases the simple act of asking ourselves such questions generates the humility and compassion needed to resolve a lot of our issues.

But it’s important to note that just because you ask yourself if you have the wrong idea doesn’t necessarily mean that you do.  The goal is merely to ask the question and entertain the thought at the moment, not to hate yourself.

It’s worth remembering that for any change to happen in your life, you must be wrong about something.  If you’re sitting there, miserable day after day, then that means you’re already wrong about something major in your life, and until you’re able to question yourself to find it, nothing will change.

This was me when I was drinking.  I KNEW something was wrong and I was unhappy but this thought was cognitively dissonant to my belief (beliefs drive values) that my life was not worth living if I couldn’t drink alcohol (my addict voice could be really melodramatic!!)

Question 2: What would it mean if I were wrong?

Many people are able to ask themselves if they’re wrong, but few are able to go the extra step and admit what it would mean if they were wrong.  That’s because the potential meaning behind our wrongness is often painful.  Not only does it call into question our values, but it forces us to consider what a different, contradictory value could potentially look and feel like.

Aristotle wrote, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”.  Being able to look at and evaluate different values without necessarily adopting them is perhaps the central skill required in changing one’s own life in a meaningful way.

Probing questions are necessary in order to get at the core problems that are motivating our dickish behaviour.

So the contadictory value I needed to consider was that a sober life or a  life was worth living if I couldn’t drink alcohol.  I had to consider the possibility – which is where sober blogs and communties are so powerful!  Here’s an excerpt of a recent post of Prim’s saying pretty much the same thing!  Thank you Prim 🙂

“If you are in the early days of sobriety – which I would classify as at least the first 200 days – then you may well have taken that decision because all the evidence has been proclaiming to you that your belief that consuming alcohol is an enjoyable and vital part of life is NOT TRUE, at least for you. and after decades perhaps of drinking, and social conditioning, that is an immensely hard belief to back away from, to challenge, to change.

one of the reasons I blog is to try to help those who HAVE identified they have an issue with alcohol, and to offer hope and example that life without alcohol is not lesser, but vastly more. that it is not a case of not being able to drink, but not having to drink. which is something I am still thankful for, every day.”

Question 3: Would being wrong create a better or a worse problem than my current problem, for both myself and others?

This is the litmus test for determining whether we’re got some pretty solid values going on, or we’re totally neurotic fuckwads taking our fucks out on everyone, including ourselves.

The goal here is to look at which problem is better.  Because after all, as Disappointment Panda said, life’s problems are endless (but equally happiness comes from solving life’s problems).

With drinking my options were – Option A continue drinking or Option B mistrust my  (addiction driven) belief that my life is not worth living if I can’t drink alcohol and remain humble and open to the idea that a life without booze might very well be the better problem to have.

Option A felt easier for sure at the time and Option B appeared hard and painful so it felt like the more difficult choice.

I try to live by a few rules, but one that I’ve adopted over the years is this: if it’s down to me being screwed up, or everyone else being screwed up, it is far, far, far more likely that I’m the one who’s screwed up.  I have learned this from experience.  I have been the asshole acting out based on my own insecurities and flawed certainties more times than I can count.  It’s not pretty.

That’s not to say there aren’t certain ways in which most people are screwed up.  And that’s not to say that there aren’t times when you’ll be more right than most other people.

That’s simply reality: if it feels like it’s you versus the world, chances are it’s really just you versus yourself.

It was me versus myself – well actually me versus my addiction.

Our most radical changes in perspective often happen at the tail end of our worst moments.  It’s only when we feel intense pain that we’re willing to look at our values and question why they seem to be failing us.  We need some sort of existential crisis to take an objective look at how we’ve been  deriving meaning in our life, and then consider changing course.  You could call it “hitting bottom” or “having an existential crisis”.  I prefer to call it “weathering the shitstorm”.  Choose what suits you.

If you’d like to read my answer to Question 3  I was recently a featured Sober Story on Living Sober: http://www.livingsober.org.nz/sober-story-lou/

Learn to sustain the pain you’ve chosen.  When you choose a new value, you are choosing to introduce a new form of pain into your life.  Relish it. Savour it, Welcome it with open arms.  Then act despite it.

I won’t lie: this is going to feel impossibly hard at first.  But you can start simple.  You’re going to feel as though you don’t know what to do.  But we’ve discussed this: you don’t know anything.  Even when you think you do, you really don’t know what the fuck you’re doing.  So really, what is there to lose?

LIfe is about not knowing and then doing something anyway.  All of life is like this.  It never changes.  Even when you’re happy.  Even you’re farting fairy dust.  Even when you win the lottery and buy a small fleet of Jet Skis, you still won’t know what the hell you’re doing.  Don’t ever forget that.  And don’t ever be afraid of that.

If you’re certain about your drinking not being a problem  – maybe it’s time to ask yourself these questions?  And if you’ve hit bottom please reach out.