Sarah has been the only therapist I have seen, and I have seen quite a few over the years of my drinking, 41 to be precise, that has not only given me a range of tools to stop drinking, I have not given it up I have STOPPED, she is firm with that vocab, but rearranged my view of life, both past and present.
There was so much to unravel, I had hidden so much with I thought skill and lots of bravado, under the reinforced thin skin that I did have, the complete tangle of negative emotions and unspent good ones too have been reset and arranged in a way that I can cope with, with no reliance on my old go to and absolute habit with wine.
I had read self help books, tried to keep up with online forums, found groups anonymously, addiction counsellors, but never trusted anyone enough to give them the whole truth, or respect to be accountable.
It wasn’t six weeks to sober for me, I stayed with Sarah for three months, and still keep in touch weekly. Stopping drinking was an outcome of so much more detritus I had inside. Sober means so much more than not drinking, it means being level, balanced and contented.
There is insight and depth with Harrogate Sanctuary, and the work covers so much more than alcohol.
So many thanks to you Sarah, and thank goodness I was lucky enough to be recommended to you.
As more women are becoming alcohol free, and understanding that life, partially intoxicated by a cheeky little Pinot was not the sparkly marshmallow world that the marketeers would have them believe, I have been making some interesting observations.
First of all, just because supermarkets smother us with promotions and attractive pictures of how life will be if you drink, does not make it true or right.
This promotion is hardly indicative of a grocer, is it? But it suggests that this enormous bottle of wine, not some crisp rocket or fresh broccoli would be the main reason you would do an online shop. Other supermarket items are just as heavy, milk, bottled water, or perhaps laundry powder. We seem to just accept that it’s quite normal to encourage us to ditch any obstacle that might come in the way of home drinking and women particularly, I am sure the marketing department were not thinking of men when they came up with this image. So, let’s just put this into an appropriate place mentally. If you are going shopping the first thing on your mind should not be how much the wine you can buy and carry, if it is then you must become concerned. This is not normal at all.
Secondly the constant battles that women I talk to do with their thoughts of how people will perceive them without a glass of wine in their hand. Rather than focusing on how nice it might be to meet up with old or new friends, chat about fun or serious stuff, the whole process of going out seems to focus on whether they will get some awful stick for not drinking alcohol. Hours can be spent getting worked up over this. If these people are really friends, what difference will it make to them whether you are imbibing or not? They like you for what you are not for how much you can drink. There is nothing dull about being able to string your words together without losing the plot or having no recollection of what went on with the night out or lunch. Being out of control in some quest to become more likeable is just madness. For the most part no one cares what you are drinking if you don’t interfere with their habits, and anyone that does really isn’t worth knowing. All that time wasted on the what ifs of not drinking is just pointless. Alcohol in quantity is never desirable, the only solace for the drinker is avoiding uncomfortable withdrawal.
Thoughts of being seen as a ‘do gooder’ really get my back up too. No disrespect to do gooders, but we are just being real without a crutch of alcohol, who should have a problem with that? None of us in my posse are trying to change the world, ban booze, but we are saying that we are quite enough without it, so now let’s move on.
After 35 I am not sure where the good times come from with wine time. Most clients now drink at home, alone. Where is the fun in that? It’s isolating and lonely. If your drinking revolves around socialising and being responsible, that’s great, but I have not met that many women who have families and work commitments that are able to do that. They retreat into a world of sofa, tablet, teli and Prosecco.
I am still amazed that so many people, especially women, are not more upfront about not drinking anymore. What’s the problem? You have stopped hurting yourself, and undoubtedly others, you are able remember everything you do, and more than likely are looking a 100 times better than you once did.
On the whole, people don’t judge these days, they are all too embroiled in their own lives, very aware of the PC world we live in. There will always be gossip, and for the most part it’s baseless.
I do hope that after having daily bulletins on COVID admissions and deaths, that there might be a varied bulletin regime by the news channels, that includes the harms that alcohol causes, not just to the young, the disadvantaged and poorest in our society, because as Waitrose clearly shows, middle-class, middle-aged women are dying for a drink.
Working with Sarah has given me the impetus I needed to reassess my relationship with alcohol. While I was nervous to go into a ‘programme’, I’m not one for deep introspection and oversharing, the relief of the honesty combined with the matter-of-fact way in which Sarah treats the subject was very reassuring and liberating. I’m so glad I made the decision to work with Sarah, it feels like a grown up thing to do – taking responsibility for a behaviour that was on its way becoming out of control. You wouldn’t allow your children’s behaviour to spiral out of control, so why your own?
Getting firmly into the land of alcohol-free living (and ensuring that you stay there without the Wine Witch luring you back into destructive old habits) requires a degree of forward planning; knowing what emotions to expect once the old crutch has been kicked away, preparing for the potential pitfalls and learning how to work through cravings will all stand you in good stead when it comes to maintaining your alcohol-free lifestyle.
Becoming sober and learning how to be happy with regards to your decision to live without booze amounts to so much more than merely pouring all the remaining wine in the house down the sink – living as a non-drinker takes some getting used to, especially if the drinking has been protracted and heavy. Maintaining an alcohol-free approach means finding out who you really are beneath the falsity of booze and learning how to interact socially without your old alcoholic prop. It means experiencing raw emotion and discovering how to cope with negative situations without drinking the problem away.
Quitting alcohol can lead to uncomfortable truths coming to the fore; a relationship may not be all it appeared to be when under the influence of booze, underlying mental health issues such as depression or anxiety disorders, traumas buried, could suddenly become exposed having previously been disguised by the mood-altering effects of alcohol, and the emotions of guilt and shame arising as a result of erstwhile drunken behaviour may now demand attention, no longer so easily hidden with a constant stream of wine.
It is these wrinkles and creases which will need ironing out in the first few weeks and/or months of alcohol-free life, and which if left unattended could prove to be the root cause of the sober apple-cart being upturned.
A whimsical notion of stopping drinking can quite easily never come to fruition, prevented from developing into something more concrete by an omission of thought pertaining to how to explain such a bold and (for many) radical lifestyle choice to friends and family, or to the practical solution of what to drink as an acceptable alternative to alcohol, or of how to fill the sudden vast increase in spare time each evening. Without forward-planning, an initial rush of enthusiasm for a commitment to alcohol-free living can be quashed in no time at all, purely as a result of the individual in question not putting into place a viable plan of action and instead attempting to coast along exactly as before only minus the glass of vino to hand.
Becoming a non-drinker is a completely different process for everyone and despite there being common themes (for instance what might constitute a trigger point or act as a craving eliminator), we all became heavy drinkers for different reasons, and it is these we must address if we’re to have a good chance at committing to booze-free living. A lack of self-esteem and confidence in social situations is a frequently-cited reason for drinking excessively, as is struggling to cope with a bereavement or single parenthood or the breakdown of a long-term relationship; whatever the root cause is behind drinking to excess, it is this which a) must be identified and b) needs to be dealt with through an alternative coping strategy than alcohol.
In addition to the plethora of reasons why we as individuals come to develop our own unique dependencies upon booze, it is also worth acknowledging that the culture we are all submerged in holds alcohol in high esteem and is one in which it is promoted ubiquitously. Should you be one of the many who finds themselves unwittingly dependent on this addictive substance, then to extricate yourself from its tenacious grip can be incredibly challenging when all around us are messages of how alcohol injects our lives with glamour, sophistication and fun.
As further reinforcement to the alcohol industry’s campaign of promulgating alcohol as an essential social lubricator and utterly acceptable feature of most people’s lives, there exists in society a very negative perception of those who choose to be non-drinkers. Because those who have freed themselves from the alcohol trap are in the minority, this way of life which should be considered normal is in actuality regarded as being odd by many, and that by not partaking in regular binge drinking a person is weird and anti-social. This social pressure is another reason why remaining AF can sometimes prove to be an uphill struggle. So how exactly should one go about the task of cutting alcohol out of their life for good? Because the reasons for abusing alcohol and the level of dependency differ from drinker to drinker, a useful approach to becoming AF is to create a personalised plan of action.
In essence, the glaringly obvious reason why so many relapse is that these root causes haven’t been addressed from the get go. No one would need to hit rock bottom, if they have access to the right approach. Constantly being told that all you have to do is stop drinking, stay stopped, and not mending these background issues with good therapy instead of incessantly having to define yourself as an alcoholic until infinity and beyond is not a label that would ever heal the wounds that brought you to the point of almost self destruct in the first place.
That is the difference between the Sanctuary Six Week Programme and many other methods, calling time on wine o’clock is a very small part of a much more complex picture of our fake desire for it. We have to recognise our flaws in detail, then and only then, can you be truly free. Rather than count the days, count the number of mental health battles you win.
Many addiction services no longer have competencies in-house to deal with co-morbid mental ill-health, and mental health services frequently refuse to work with people who have a co-morbid alcohol use disorder, such that patients wanting help with the depression that they see as causing them to use alcohol, are often told they cannot be helped until they are alcohol-free. People in truly desperate states are bounced between addiction and mental health services, with many often falling through the gaps.
So what can be done?
1. We all need to be more aware of what we drink, and why, and at a population level increase our alcohol health literacy.
2. We need to be aware and challenge the alcohol and advertising industries’ attempts to encourage alcohol as the only narrative in our social world.
3. We need to encourage conversations about alcohol use as we now seem better able to do about mental ill-health.
4. We need health professionals to recognise alcohol as a modifiable risk factor for so many mental (and physical) health disorders and have the competence to manage it.
5. We need mental health services to reclaim alcohol use disorders as primarily a disease of the mind, and genuinely embrace person centred care.
6. We need government to commit to the resources required to redress the balance of 10 years of funding cuts.
This may seem like a lot that needs to be implemented, which it is, but the most effective thing we can all do is make small but sustained changes to our own alcohol awareness and behaviours.
I would be more than happy to discuss this issue with the relevant department, there has to be a structure in place of prevention, and not as is currently happening, only trying to deal with the awful fall out of this ever-rising problem.
Reaching 50, aware that I had spent most of my adult years under the influence, at varying degrees, stopping and starting, peaking and troughing, losing so much emotionally, and financially, I needed to find an answer, and by pure serendipity, I found Harrogate Sanctuary.
It is so difficult to describe the Sanctuary Six Week Programme. There is nothing else like it, and believe me, I have tried so many times to stop drinking. Notice I use the word Stop, not Giving Up. Sarah does have a unique way of switching off any positive thoughts about alcohol, it definitely can take time, for sure there was a white knuckle period, but the availability to talk with her at times that worked around my schedule, write to her and meet up online, were always a safety net. There was zero clock watching, weirdly I found it all so relaxing and genuine. Only the first phone call for me was anxiety ridden.
There were no comparisons, no one telling me that I would be doomed if I slipped, and the most important thing for me was complete trust and confidentiality. I am not special but have a reasonably high profile job in the media, had no desire to return to rehab, which I had done twice before, and certainly couldn’t get the AA ethos, as one of the rehabs I went to used The 12 Step Programme and it did nothing to help me.
I had partied, been the life and soul, and as my thirties came around, less and less did I feel comfortable about being in the spotlight, it was as if I was becoming the evening’s entertainment for those I socialised with. Gradually I started to make mistakes, felt embarrassed although I hid it well, in the end my drinking became a solo act. At home, one bottle a night became two. The rehabs I went to certainly dried me out, but never got to the root of my desire for booze. The first lockdown played right into my hands.
Sarah coaxed me to tell her about a very private and extremely painful trauma, that I had buried for over 29 years. I trusted her enough to spill the beans, and that was the key to my new alcohol-free lifestyle, often glorious, sometimes tough, but now I understand how I tick, can manage any urges or wistful thoughts that a glass or two wouldn’t hurt.
I continue with a maintenance programme with the Sanctuary, which has little to do with alcohol and more to do with my wellbeing. Sarah is a fixer and covers many aspects of mental health.
She will not accept that she saves anyone, only that she gives us the tools to mend ourselves, it is a remarkable gift. She has taught me that the drinking was not because I was born to be alcoholic, dependent, whatever word you like to use, but almost forensically examining my past showed me that I did have a future that I could face without damaging myself or anyone else for that matter.
I used to drink too much, worry too much, project too much, and because of alcohol, almost every thought I had was pickled with negativity. It was extreme self-destruction, that harmed others, to wake up in the morning, and know you have not hurt anyone is a magical feeling. In my work, naturally confidentiality has always been key, but the more empowered The Sanctuary women become the more they are now beginning to start the BIG conversation in real time, about what was once a very toxic issue for them. Without stigma or tambourine bashing, they have overcome the fear around talking openly about their reasons for not drinking to excess anymore, and I hope as they do, that they will in turn encourage others who find themselves in the same concerned and fearful position to be able to do the same, casting aside any shame or guilt. For after all, it was never a choice that we became so dependent on such a well marketed and dangerous, legal drug. Wine is dressed up so adeptly as being very acceptable, affordable and a quick, effective way to relax. It is also completely normalised, for many of us, it was never considered ‘proper’ drinking until the wheels fell off, With the added easy edge, that it needs no prescription, just a grocery shop and a fridge. Of course it is not the first time that we have been seduced. Gin was the craze in the first half of the 18th century, the Absinthe movement in the latter part of the 19th Century, and more recently, Mother’s little helper Valium washed down with Gin and Dubonnet in the 60s was a favourite mix for middle class Mums. My Mother was a victim of this over prescribed prescriptive drug, trusting advice that it would make all the tragedy and angst in her life disappear, sadly the reverse was the case. So many clients are prescribed Anti-depressants, Citralopram, Prozac, wash them down with a cheeky little number, ignoring the fact that their drinking totally negated the effects of the other legal drug they were taking. It is not the fault of them or the GPs, admitting that we drink too much to ourselves and others is far too painful because of the stigma that surrounds it. So, in many ways history is repeating itself. But this is a modern problem, faced by modern women, who wanted it all, and for the most part got it, except for the indisputable fact, that biologically we just are not equipped to drink like men. In everything else of course, we beat them hands down! This BIG conversation will only start with us. Like minded women, from different backgrounds, who have had enough of the self-destruct button. Without being preachy or evangelical, by playing our wellness and clarity forward, we can make a change. We do not have a rule book, or belong to a cult, but we are very obviously, savvy, intelligent, articulate women who have now got control and choice. Methods at the Sanctuary are not mainstream, I have no time for the depressing thought that I will be burdened with a lifetime of regret. The gold standards of care that are in place today, are antiquated and inconvenient for many. What I would love all women who are concerned about their drinking, is to campaign for at the very least gender specific care, and at best combine that with age specific care. To be told once you have decided to cork it, there should be immediate and appropriate therapy in place that maintains your determination to make this change. If you broke your leg, your GP doesn’t fix it you’re referred to a specialist. Only when the problem has become desperate, mopping up the outcome of misuse costs the UK at least 37 billion a year, surely that money would be better spent in prevention that does not come across as weakness of the client, the opposite, it so courageous. There is no value with ineffective care, waste of time and money. Because of the drip feed with drinking, rarely do we count the financial cost of it. We did the stats at the Sanctuary. Last year the average saving per client, was £4674.00 per annum, and that did not include, any wild online shopping, guilt purchases or taxi fares. We must be proactive, vocal and concise in the inappropriate way our once problem is handled. We need to speak with the powers that be, MPs, local Councils, to all services either private or public who would are involved in change. We should join forces pool our resources, one small group will not have enough leverage, but given the amount of online help out there, surely it would make sense for those groups, sites and forums to get involved in real time. We need to make bars and clubs give balance to the drinks on offer, and we need too to tackle our supermarkets and get them to address this balance also. We are the consumers and there is strength in numbers.
We have to banish the taboo, there is none with sexuality or smoking, so why the hell are we still frightened of talking about once drinking too much? It’s insane, and the best definition of insanity provided by Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting it to change. We have all been there! We live in the 21st century not the dark ages.
To coin a saying that did the rounds with COVID, we all are in this together, but not outwardly, in reality, doing anything about it. Sending messages across the internet, staying anonymous simply is not going to stop this escalating epidemic, we have all find a way of joining forces and taking this to those in power and make them listen.
I am 57 years old and have been a heavy drinker for many years. Up until my menopause, I was highly functioning, admittedly in complete denial of the problem, and selectively ignored any reference to my habit.
Sarah has explained to me the type of plateau I was on, then I started to slide down the other side of my personal mountain. I felt hormonal, anxious, and afraid of what I saw a chapter of my life in which I would start to disappear, old, haggard, and alone.
Then lockdown. Like many others, I was furloughed, and had more time and opportunity to drink, given the stage I was at, it was almost like a warped gift rather than a disadvantage or a worry about isolation, I had isolated myself already with wine. By the time the first lockdown was lifted, I had replaced food with wine for both lunch and dinner. One evening in July last year, I had a blackout and fell down the stairs. When I came round, I knew I had to call for an ambulance, there was blood everywhere from a head injury. The paramedics were compassionate and thorough, that all changed when I arrived at A & E.
Carrying a shedload of shame, guilt and fear and shocked into sobering up, I was then bundled onto a trolley, left for an hour, seen by a nurse then wheeled into to a room with a tub in it, was roughly stripped and put into tepid water. I had not been examined but was told I had to have my hair washed to get rid of the blood. As I watched the water turn red, I saw clumps of hair swirling around in the water, matted because the blood had dried as I must have lain at the bottom of the stairs for a while. Not strands, handfuls. My personal hygiene had not been good I saw no point, but I had always had thick long hair, one of the only parts of me that I could admire, my body had shrunk, almost skeletal, this event was my last part of complete breakdown of self respect, and I cried for the first time for many years.
Back in the hospital bay, I was then given the statutory tests, heart, BP, bloods, put on a drip and left again, my head was still bleeding, but the wound had been covered. Time was vague then, but eventually I did have my head looked at by a doctor I think, a CT scan was arranged, where thankfully there was no serious injury.
I was transferred to a small ward, women only, I found out all were there because of alcohol problems and consequences they were all over 50. I was asked to get into the bed. The others were laying still, quiet, detached. It was very eerie, I wanted to say hello, to engage I suppose, somehow that didn’t seem appropriate. My balance was extremely poor and needed assistance. Left again with another drip, I asked for a glass of water. I waited more than an hour for that. Eventually a doctor came and asked me questions about my drinking, and assessed whether I was a fall risk, I was, and he would arrange for a mental health worker to visit me.
During the rest of the night, I wanted to go to the lavatory, was told they would put me in waterproof pants, so to stay still, I simply could not go through that humiliation, and wanted to get out of bed. I did make it to the toilets, hanging onto the rail at the side of the corridor, with two nurses, one in front and one behind. I constantly apologised for wasting their time.
The next morning, I had a talk with one of the mental health team, there was no advice, no mention of how to handle my drinking, or which came first, the drinking or my issues that I drank upon. He ticked boxes. After this very cursory meeting, I was then told that a Physio would visit to address my imbalance and whether I was fit to walk unaided, climb stairs, my house has lots of steps, with a view to me being discharged. That exercise consisted of again a nurse behind me, the Physio in front of me, and I managed with real difficulty to climb two steps. That was it.
I also then summoned up the courage to talk to the others. They were in different stages of alcohol dependence, one was very late stage. They had tried to stop, three had been here before, two were extremely disadvantaged, had no transport, no internet, and old broken phones. One had had a very good job, until her world fell apart, and was now so shut down that having gone through instruction to seek help she had tried, but could not succeed, and had now given up, she said she was only in hospital because someone had found her collapsed in backwater of the town. She had wanted to be left.
I was told by the next doctor the obvious, I had to stop drinking. I asked if I could have a detox plan, that was not possible, no course of tranquilisers so that I didn’t have a dangerous withdrawal, but only that I should taper off the alcohol. One sip of this toxic substance that had been my crutch for so long, would never be enough, I told him this, he shrugged, and told me that was the only option. I cried again, if that was going to be the only way to stop I was doomed.
I asked him about support from the mental health team, he said he had nothing to do with that, but they probably would be in touch. Then I was discharged, given my crumpled clothes, and told to go home and the discharge team would visit the following day. I had thankfully got my bag with me, and able to afford a taxi home.
I lived alone, in a fairly hazardous house for someone who had been through a head injury, and yes, it was self-inflicted, but not intentional, I felt judged and even more of a hopeless case than ever. I was a drunk, middle aged write off. That was the impression I got, and I guess I deserved it. I sat down, and then started to have intentional thoughts of ending everything. I was useless and worthless. This may sound like a pity party, but I truly didn’t see any other way out.
I was shaking, couldn’t walk without having items to hang onto, struggled to do anything but get a plastic beaker of water. I hallucinated, I was too frightened to go up the stairs, get a toothbrush or toothpaste, which was never offered to me in hospital, just a dirty, smelly piece of broken humankind. I don’t live in squalor, I am not disadvantaged or deprived, to the outside world, I wore the mask of a middle class, middle-aged woman, with a good job, nice house and chattels, never needy, always quick to ask how others were. No matter what social strata we are on, the outcome of being hooked on alcohol is the same, pride certainly has got in the way with me, when I experienced this, I had no pride or respect left for myself.
The next day the discharge nurses arrived. They were efficient and brusque. They did get my toothbrush & toothpaste, along with some soap and a towel, told me I could wash in the kitchen sink, looked at my downstairs cloakroom, decided that for now the seat was too low for my limited mobility, ripped the toilet seat off, and installed a plastic temporary steel framed contraption over the pan, and told me to sleep on the sofa for the time being. They watched me trying to walk, unaided, two steps at best, and got a walking stick out of their car, and told me that would help. I asked again about the severe withdrawals I was having and was told to call my GP.
This is a précised version of the event, but the disjointed, unempathetic way I was treated and those other women, will stay with me. I wanted to stop drinking so badly but given what I had experienced felt that I would simply end up a statistic.
I did call my GP, as the withdrawal hadn’t killed me in the 48 hours from my last drink, he would not allow a prescription, nor a home visit, lockdown had ended, I was given a number to call, for alcohol problems, and the number of AA. With the addition of an offer of anti-depressants. There was no encouragement for both my decision or willingness to seek help. I am not entitled to more than anyone else, but reassuring words when I had summoned up the courage to call would have been something. I then assumed that whoever I rang would make me feel as though I was wasting their time.
I am now alcohol free, once I told my family about the depths I had sunk to, I was overwhelmed with the look of relief on their faces, and in turn the help they gave me. My sister knew about Sarah, and then organised an ice breaker meeting with her, and although it has been very tough to face my fear, with unlimited time during the six weeks and more with Harrogate Sanctuary, I have realised that I lost the right to choose with alcohol, that I am not a bad person, but with any alcohol inside me, a very sick one. I was lucky, once I had fessed up, I did have support and financial help to access care that would work for me. It haunts me daily the lack of immediate intervention within the system, and how those other women could ever get out of their hell.
I have got honest, I have regained my confidence, I have told friends, I have got my self-respect back.
This is a long read, and maybe not the way it is for others when admitted into hospital, perhaps they have accessed aftercare, in that ward on one of the darkest nights of my life, every other woman in there looked as scared.
I shall reveal my true identity a little further down the road, but for now, I am not as frightened of revealing that I had a drink problem, as I am of the repercussions of describing my experience with the NHS. I do have the greatest respect and sympathy for what all the staff have gone through with COVID, but I think very few of us wanted to be a burden to them or highlight any failings. Please can we start to feel able to address this with kindness and as Sarah says, remove the taboo status that surrounds it.