I have learned that there is no failure in running or in life, as long as you keep moving
– Amby Burfoot
Almost exactly a year ago, I took part in a 26 mile organised walk through the Peak District. During that day I had a very honest conversation with my cousin on a subject I don’t often go in depth about.
In September 2013 I woke one morning feeling too hungover to move, slowly remembering how I had behaved the night before and how much I’d had to drink. It was a lot. Several bottles of wine, shared with a wonderful friend. Nothing wrong with that, except that we had been at a quiz in a posh Gastropub and the levels of consumption were way outside appropriate levels. I had been ill in the night in more than one area of the flat, and my husband (then my fiancé) had left the house without even wanting to wake me up or speak to me.
This was a true low point. I felt so ashamed that day that it was a struggle to even look myself in the eye in the mirror. Sitting on the sofa when I eventually dragged myself out of bed, I took an online quiz about levels of alcohol consumption.
This was the day I accepted that yes, my relationship with alcohol was definitely dysfunctional enough to be formally defined as a Problem.
My cousin was surprised when I told her this story. She knew I liked a drink, but hadn’t known the full extent of the problem. Addicts are great at getting what they want and at hiding what they don’t want people to know.
This picture of me was taken during the time when I was drinking quite heavily. I have mixed feelings about it. On a shallow, aesthetic level I don’t like it all. But I keep it out there on Facebook and saved to my laptop because it acts as a reminder to me of where I was, compared to where I am now. It’s easy to see in this picture how exhausting the effect of living with this problem was, and where it had taken me. I look so tired. There is no light in my eyes at all. I look simultaneously defeated and like I just don’t give a shit.
All this is on my mind at the moment because during the week I watched a documentary about actress Danniella Westbrook, who was working through her addiction problems with therapist Mandy Saligari, herself a former addict. Mandy described addiction as a way of self-medicating for some sort of internal pain. According to her methods, each addict has a gap between the way they truly feel and the way they look to the outside world, and their addiction of choice is what they use to buffer the gap. Her theory is that you have to be comfortable with the real person inside before you can let go of the need to put on that front.
In the documentary, Mandy referred to the possibility of a childhood trauma being the cause of Danniella’s particular problems. Now I can’t say the same; I had a happy childhood with a supportive family and wonderful parents. But up to the point when I acknowledged I had a problem I had gone through a difficult few years. I had been in a long term relationship from my early to late 20’s. It was one of those relationships which start from a place of infatuated idealism, like you do in your early 20’s, and it took us too long to work out that the common interests and values we had projected onto our relationship were not, in fact, real. We moved in together really quickly, we shared a friendship group, everyone expected that we would get married eventually. We became entangled to the point that it was too hard and too scary to be honest and just end things at the natural fizzle point.
I won’t insult him or the memory of the happy early years by going into the details, but suffice it to say that during the unpaid overtime of our final year together, we were both escaping into a wine bottle too often and we hurt each other very badly.
Although I was ready to move on when things finally ended at the end of 2009, there were big adjustments to make. It’s not easy to go through a major life change on your own. It’s frightening; trying to find and fund a new place to live, trying to appear like everything is fine on the outside, trying not to drown in your own fear and confusion. For me, a big part of it was trying to reconcile the person I found I was after the relationship with the person I had been when we met. I didn’t really like who this person was. I had changed a lot of what I was about during the relationship, at least on the outside, because it didn’t fit in with his or his family’s expectations. I take the blame squarely for that. There were many times I could have spoken my mind and said what my real opinions were but I was afraid it would mean he would like me less. He might have respected me more, to be honest. He was an intelligent guy.
This idea of fear and anxiety feeding a person’s addiction was explored in the documentary. Danniella discussed with Mandy that there is a level of anxiety connected with allowing yourself to be vulnerable, and an overwhelming sense that bad things will happen if you allow the world to see your true face. So you retreat and use what you can to mask that fear. There is a vicious circle around not really liking who you are when abusing your particular poison, be it drink, drugs, or gambling, but also being frightened to stop because what if you don’t like the person you are when you’re not doing those things either? That person is just you, no excuses. If you don’t like that person then you’re really in trouble.
For me personally I was two completely different people when I was drinking and when I was sober. I vividly remember one particularly bad morning after the night before when my Mum told me that although I was a ‘lovely girl’ when I was sober, I was a disgusting drunk and she was thoroughly ashamed of me. I love my Mum more than anything in the world and was devastated that she had this opinion of me, but even this didn’t get me to stop. Anyone with an addiction to anything will tell you that you won’t stop because you are told to. It can only happen when you take that decision for yourself.
Danniella Westbrook is often in the celebrity gossip mags, most recently in articles about her dating toy boys accompanied by faux earnest quotes from ‘close friends’ who are worried she’s about to relapse. These articles are always written with a sense that if she just pulled her socks up and stopped what she’s doing to herself then she’d be fine, and then for balance they usually finish on some completely inane, hollow comment along the lines of ‘we hope she can deal with her demons and find her happy ending’. These approaches are insulting and unhelpful at best and damaging at worst. For anyone who has never struggled with addiction, even implying that it’s possible to just decide to stop shows that you don’t have a clue how hard living with this condition is and that frankly, you don’t know how lucky you are. There is so much more to addiction than ‘just say no’.
Even defining what alcoholism is to a non-addict is tough at times. I never had an issue with physical dependency on alcohol. I’ve never had a drink in the morning before going to work or anything like that. I remained fully functional throughout. My problem was with the first drink. I have a total inability to stop drinking once I start. Seriously – if I had that first drink, I would stay in the bar til closing time, make sure my route home went by an off licence, buy more booze than necessary to make sure I didn’t run out, and if I did run out I would scratch around the back of the cupboards and drink whatever was in there. All because of taking that first drink.
This is a form of mental dependency on alcohol which is just as real as the physical dependency. Indeed, if left long enough it’s easy to see how physical dependency would be the natural progression. It sounds perfectly obvious when you lay it out like that but I honestly don’t think most people believe this is genuinely a type of alcoholism. During the early days of my sobriety, I found myself explaining to a great many friends that no, I couldn’t have just two glasses of wine and then stop. I physically couldn’t do that – that was the whole problem.
Addiction changes the way you think and can have a catastrophic effect on your mental health. In the documentary, Danniella referred to her addiction as the quickest way to medicate herself into a death. I never had fully defined thoughts of wanting to die, but at my lowest ebbs there were times when I would be lying in bed at the bottom of my second bottle wondering whether it would actually matter if I passed out and never came round. I don’t know what stopped me from going deeper into that black hole, but whatever it was thank God for it.
On the day I took that online quiz, I also checked out Wikipedia’s description of alcoholism. I was startled to read that in young women, excessive drinking can have the effect of mimicking the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder. You may be familiar with this condition from Susanna Kaysen’s memoir Girl Interrupted, or from the film of the same name. If you haven’t read or watched either, please do. The book is brave and wonderful, and the film is equally brave and wonderful with the added bonus of stellar performances from Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie (back when she still best known for her acting talent), Brittany Murphy, Elizabeth Moss, Vanessa Redgrave and Whoopie Goldberg.
The major symptoms of BPD are described as:
‘… marked sensitivity to rejection or criticism, and intense fear of possible abandonment. Overall, the features of BPD include unusually intense sensitivity in relationships with others, difficulty regulating emotions, and impulsivity. Other symptoms may include feeling unsure of one’s personal identity, morals, and values; having paranoid thoughts when feeling stressed; dissociation and depersonalization; and, in moderate to severe cases, stress-induced breaks with reality or psychotic episodes’.
I recognised at least half of these things in myself. You can see why this spooked me and made me finally decide something had to be done.
This was on 16th September 2013. I haven’t touched a drink since.
And it’s wonderful. It’s so freeing to look at your week and not have to plan it around the opportunities for drinking or how you will manage the fallout and hangovers. It’s also not easy. Smelling a good Speyside single malt or a Sonoma Zinfandel does make me a little sad, knowing I’ll never taste them again. At times my mouth has physically watered under such circumstances. But I have never regretted giving up alcohol and I hope and pray that I will never be tempted to take that first drink ever again.
It’s clear to me, however, that I have addictive tendencies to my personality and that still has to be dealt with on a daily basis. For example I can avoid alcohol all I want, but I still have to eat, and compulsive eating is another thing I work hard to stay on top of. In the Danniella Westbrook documentary the therapist also mentioned exercise as a possible avenue for addiction.
I find this one interesting. Part of me accepts that Running Me, like Drunk Me, is not the complete picture of who I am. It’s not a coincidence that I started running more when I started drinking less, and particularly over the last year or so I have used my running to transform my life. I am without doubt a different version of who I used to be.
Personally, I think Mrs. Duff 2.0 is a vastly improved model. The operating system has less glitches, more battery life and more resilience. Fundamentally, she’s just a lot easier and more pleasant to be around. I like her a lot more than the old one and as far as I know so do most other people.
If dedication to my running represents transference of addiction, then I think I’m ok with that. I don’t think it stops me from being myself. In fact if anything, I think it has helped me to reclaim who I was before I spiralled down to the bottom of the bottle. It certainly hurts my life less and increases my potential a whole lot more. Most of the time I manage to find the balance with it; I certainly know people who train far more intensively and are far stricter about hitting every session.
When I am ‘on plan’, as I am at the moment, then it’s true that I have a tendency to treat it like a second job, but if I need a day off then I take a day off. Maybe it’s easier to do that when the side effect of what you’re doing is physical exhaustion, not mental.
So if it is a sort of addiction, then it’s one I’m happy to acknowledge that I need in order to keep the bigger demons at bay.
Part of the inspiration for this post came from a reaction piece I read on runHistory to an article in which the writer questions the sanity of anyone attempting a marathon. Why, he asked, would anyone take up what is effectively an unpaid second job in order to run 26.2 miles from one place to another? Why are these people paying for the privilege of exhausting and potentially injuring themselves for no reason? Why run?
I would like to explain to that writer that he has misunderstood. It is not for no reason. It is not about travelling to a destination. It is not as simple, not as finite as that. The running IS the reason. And that goes on forever.
For some of us, the mental injuries that led us to running in the first place are far harder to bear than anything training for or running a marathon can throw at us. The distance, the pace, the terrain – these are all goals to keep moving towards, to prove we’re here and that we can do it, whatever it is. We’re still working on surviving those mental injuries, so please do shut up and allow us to get on with whatever helps us to just keep moving past them.
We’re not hurting you as we keep moving past you. We’re not hurting ourselves either.
Some of us are trying to put ourselves back together again.