My Way Ahead with Harrogate Sanctuary

I was at the bottom of the heap buried in guilt, shame and failed promises to myself to stop drinking. Of course I DID NOT have a problem – I just relied a little too much ‘sometimes’ on wine and gin in the evenings to get me through a difficult day. I went through a divorce (fuelled by those ‘odd’ glasses of wine and gin) to smooth my pain and loss and the fury and hurt of my two children. But I was OK. I was going to the gym, building a new business, looking after my teenage boys – I was strong and powerful and nothing was that wrong provided I had the ‘odd’ glass of wine or the white stuff to help me through. Sometimes I drove when I shouldn’t have – I needed to get the boys from A to B and they began to realise and ask awkward questions like ‘how much have you had to drink?’ Evenings were tricky – they knew not to ask for lifts but I was drinking from the moment I got up in the morning so I wasn’t safe at any time.

The ‘odd’ glass became a couple or more bottles daily and I had to go out each day to fuel the craving – I never allowed myself to go and buy crates of alcohol because, well, honestly I didn’t drink that much did I? If I did buy a crate of six it was gone in two days – having to go out daily meant I had to slow down. I just needed the ‘odd’ bottle from time to time but it was a real pain to have enough supplies every day. I had to plan on which days I would go to the convenience store where they knew me and would know how much booze I bought and when I went further afield to the anonymous big supermarkets – although even there I got to know the assistants who needed to come and ‘clear my booze’ and ‘verify my age’ – about which we always joked. Increasingly I had to get rid of empties in the public waste bins at the bottom of the street – too ashamed to fill up my own recycling bin. Turning round furtively to see who might be behind me as I dumped my noisy bottles in case it was a neighbour I knew – or one of my boys.

I will stop soon I told myself. I tried to stop and I would manage for a day or so – joy! Then I could drink again because ‘I knew I could do it’. But I also I knew as I got older my body was less resilient and less able to heal but I still had time I thought. I was only in my 60s. I had some medical investigations around alcohol (utter shame but mandated by my GP) – the state of my liver and blood count. I was on meds for high blood pressure. The consultants said things were not critical but I was warned that they would become so soon and I should drastically reduce my alcohol consumption. Soon? So when was that? Not yet. Not tomorrow. Just get through the next hurdle and then I would stop. Of course I was totally in control.

I did acknowledge that things were not great – I told a few very close friends in quiet desperation but they seemed quickly to forget I had ever said anything and had no issues themselves so I thought well this can’t be that bad. I tried AA several times but I did not meet like-minded people of my age, gender and situation; I did not relate to the framework, the premise of the recovery programme nor the structure of the meetings (although individual people there were very kind and welcoming). I was terrified of meeting people I might know in my local meetings or – even worse – patients I was working with on other issues. It felt risky and exposed and anyway everyone celebrated their sobriety of hundreds of days, months and years but I had to have a vodka just to get to the meeting and a few when I got home to get over it.

I knew my sons were increasingly concerned but I felt helpless. Then one of them told me about Sarah Turner and her programme. He had heard it from a friend of his – I didn’t ask how or why but I was intrigued. Here was a personal programme – perhaps I could even be totally honest about my drinking in the way I had never been with doctors or even AA? But what would she ask of me and how could she help where I myself had failed so often? Could I allow her into my private world and help override my own rigid structures and mind games? I was on holiday away from work and other stresses. I called her. That was the beginning of the most amazing journey that I am still travelling.

I understood I needed to stop drinking, at least for a while. Not ‘give up’ or deprive myself – just stop for now. This was not about an occasional or weekly or weekend drinking – I needed to STOP and clear my body and mind of the effects of alcohol. Sarah is incredibly knowledgeable about the physical effects of doing so after drinking heavily for so long and what happens to the body and how to begin the healing process. We discussed many aspects of my diet and appropriate antidotes and supplements to reverse what I have done to my body through alcohol – not to put me on a myriad of pills but to explain where I have depleted essential nutrients and how to replenish those in a healthy way. She did this with a very through personal discussion about my health and my experiences of operations and illnesses – so that I felt I was getting a tailored and sensitive analysis that would work for me – rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Most importantly Sarah was not judgemental in any way – just endlessly supportive, practical, focused and firm. She enabled me to be honest. She asked the really difficult questions and took on board the answers without widening her eyes or sharp intakes of breath. I realised she had been here before many times. I was not a monster nor a failure – I was someone with a disease who had been ill for a long time but this is a disease that is treatable and of which many of the adverse effects can be contained (if it has not gone too far). I felt throughout that she was on my side. I made a lot of strides in stopping drinking in the early days of her programme but I also fell back into it for various reasons or for no reasons at all for a day, a weekend or a week. She encouraged me to tell her honestly day by day how it was going, how I was feeling, what I was achieving, what was really difficult and what else was going on in my life. She helped me make connections with drinking and the good stuff and bad stuff I was experiencing in day to day life. Really importantly she was honest that the bad stuff in my life would not go away but it could be managed (much more effectively) without being drunk. She offered reality and honesty not a fairy tale nirvana. Her insights were extraordinary. She helped me look forward and back. She shone a light on stuff I was burying at the back of my cupboards along with the empty bottles. Once I lied to her to avoid the shame and she figured it out pretty quickly – not at all in a judgemental way but in an understanding but firm realisation that our connection had been ruptured in some way and needed to be re-set. Amazing mindful connection! I realised there was no point in lying – I would get a lot more guidance and help and useful input if I was honest when I had failed than pretending I was perfect and just needed praise that sat so heavily if it was based on a lie.

I have not yet conquered this beast. I am in the midst of my healing process but I truly do believe that with Sarah’s help I am on my way. It is one of the hardest things I have ever done and I realise how drink is promoted so heavily within our culture at all levels not only as “norm” but as fun, sexy, interesting, racy, adult and so on. Sarah is not just a health professional delivering an antidote to a horrible disease. She listens to the ups and downs of my life and understands implicitly how that relates to my use and craving for alcohol at certain times. She never judges – but that does not mean I get away with stuff – because she always questions and takes me to a new understanding of why I have done what I have done and how I might respond differently another time. She is uniquely insightful given her long experience with this drug – personally and professionally. I feel understood and helped in a way I so desperately needed. I had thought I would find that in alcohol. She has insight, humour, understanding and empathy and is available in a much more open way than any professional I have encountered in this field.

I wish I had never got to this point. I hate what alcohol has done to me. I hate my weakness in succumbing to this disease. I hate what I have done to my family and friends and to my body which is the only one I have. But Sarah has helped me to heal – to soften the self-hate – to minimise the crippling shame – to look to the future and to see that I CAN find confidence and pride in myself again in a world without alcohol to prop me up and bring me down. I feel like I owe to her massively this portion of my life and my future.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

It will be totally different for everyone (and that is what Sarah intimately understands but these are some of the core elements of working with her that I think are helping me):

Total honesty and zero judgement. I never told any medical professional nor anyone else honestly how much I was drinking because I feared the dire consequences that I could not face and I felt they could not understand. Someone telling me to stop is useless. If that is all it took, I would have done that years ago…

Empathy and attempting a real in-depth understanding of who I am and why I drink and what it does for me. Helping me to face the positives I get from drinking and what are the negatives. No punishment –just curiosity and pointing out what happens when I drink. Helping me to think about how it feels when I wobble and drink again. What did it achieve? Why did I do it? How did it feel? Quickly I see how utterly useless it is and why it achieved nothing for my enjoyment of an event even if I go ahead and do it again.

No orders to STOP. I can go on drinking myself to death if I choose. My end goal is my own – not Sarah’s. It is my choice and my responsibility and not hers. I can’t lay it on her if I fail. It is crucially important that she does not profess to hold the responsibility – what I do in my time and to my body is my own choice. It is both harder and easier. And I learn to be humble and honest instead of boasting to her how great I have been. And she never punishes because what on earth would that achieve for either of us?

On going contact and support. I started with a six week programme – I did ok (much better than I expected) but it was very hard and when we reduced contact I fell off the wagon. Sarah picked this up instantly and we went back to a greater level of ongoing contact – I clearly wasn’t yet ready to stand alone without support. Again no judgement or criticism – only empathy , support and unending encouragement. I am still struggling but I can honestly say I am much further along and I do feel I hold the key – I just still shut the box sometimes, I forget I have the key and I forget to turn it sometimes to the life outside that black box. I still forgo the sunshine but I can feel its warmth.

Interaction and personal interest Sarah wanted to know all about my life and my family and how that impacted on my drinking. She got to know us all – my family and friends, my journey to a new professional career at the age of 60, the sad history of my divorce, my life now with my wonderful boys and my experiences of loneliness, ageing and wondering about my future. She had an uncanny knack of seeing where things were going wrong or right and I felt she was truly invested in me as a person not just another sad drunken client. She also readily shared some aspects of her life, work and her previous experiences so she was real to me and engaged with me. It felt like we were friends and not just a medical professional and a miserable failure of a client. I also felt that she really knew and understood my struggles – she had been there and was working with others who were struggling. I was not alone.

My future –helping me to think ahead and plan for a life without alcohol. Sarah helps me to think about ways to navigate social occasions (Christmas, New Year, parties, dinners out etc). I went through Christmas and New Year 2021 without a drop of alcohol and I had a ball! At her suggestion I did a 10 year plan (very scary!) and I started a journal. I learned how I could speak to others about my choices and handle their reactions. I am encouraged to think about my priorities and my goals. I learned to bring my beloved sons back into my life of recovery rather than into one of disease and sickness. I started to realise I could actually think OUTSIDE the alcohol wine box.

I am not there yet. This is a very, very difficult road for me. However, for the first time since I realised my drinking was dangerously out of control, I carry within myself the hope that I can do this – that I can stop alcohol being any part of my life and that I do not need it in order to be the person I want to be. Sarah has shown me all of that – she cannot work the magic for me (I wish!!) but she has shown me the way and supported me so strongly and so gently.

My Way Ahead with Harrogate Sanctuary