I've been asked to speak at The Rising Festival in Cambridge, in celebration of International Women's Day. Here is the transcript of my speech. I do hope you enjoy it.
Three things I learned from the worst year of my life.
My name is Clare Pooley, and I’m going to tell you the story of the worst year of my life. I realise that doesn’t sound particularly uplifting. Bear with me.
The worst year of my life was 2015. I was totally stuck in a rut. I was depressed, a terrible insomniac, two stone overweight, anxious all the time, and self-medicating with a bottle of wine a day.
In March of that year, I quit drinking alcohol. Eight months later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Yet now I see that that year was the most important one of my life, which has, since then, been transformed in incredible ways. Here are the three things 2015 taught me:
1. When you drink to numb all the difficult things in life, you numb all the good bits too.
I drank in the way that many women do. At the end of a busy, stressful day, when the big hand hit ‘wine o’clock’ I would pour a large glass of Chablis (because if you drink expensive wine you’re a connoisseur, not a lush, right?) and tell myself that it was ‘me time.’ Because I was worth it.
Gradually, over a period of years, that one glass became two, then three, and the glasses got larger. By 2015 I was drinking a bottle a day, more at weekends. Even I knew that was WAY more than the government guidelines.
Drinking was my hobby, my thing, my passion. I drank to celebrate, to commiserate, to relax, to have fun, for pretty much any reason at all, actually. Every now and again I’d worry about whether it was getting out of control and I’d find myself, late at night, asking Siri if I was an alcoholic. Siri would give me an online questionnaire which would ask questions like ‘do you drink alone?’ I’d answer ‘no’, because I was with the dog.
I would scroll through my social media feed and chuckle at all the memes about ‘mummy’s little helper’ and ‘mummy juice’ and feel reassured that everyone drank the way I did. And I wasn’t wrong.
In the UK, it is middle-aged, well-educated women who are most likely to be problem drinkers, not the hedonistic youth. An OECD report estimated that one in five female graduates drink hazardously (at more than twice the safe level).
I totally ignored the fact the that the WHO classifies alcohol as a group 1 carcinogen, or that alcohol causes insomnia and exacerbates depression, anxiety and dementia. I ignored the 700 calories in a bottle of wine, because it was a liquid and didn’t count.
Instead, I would focus all my attention on the studies that showed that red wine was good for you. It was part of a Mediterranean lifestyle. It was made from grapes, for goodness sake. One of your five a day! I would imagine myself as one of those wizened, but happy, crones, dressed in floor length black shapeless dresses, gossiping on the sun-drenched steps of a piazza at the age of one-hundred-and-nine.
I didn’t want to stop drinking. I thought my life would be over. And I was terrified about what people would think. It’s not easy at my age, in today’s Britain, to tell people that you don’t drink.
If you quit smoking, people treat you like a hero. They tell you that you are brave and clever and pat you on the back. If you quit dairy or gluten or sugar you can boast about it on Instagram and get loads of ‘likes.’ If I told people that I’d stopped drinking tap water they’d not bat an eyelid. But if you tell people at a party that you don’t drink alcohol they look horrified. And then they want to know WHY. They want gory details. They want to know if you got done for drunk driving, had inappropriate sex with inappropriate people or passed out in gutters in front of your children. Alcohol is the only drug you have to justify not taking.
But then, when I finally plucked up the courage to quit, miracles started to happen. Not immediately, but gradually over the next few months. For a start, the insomnia that had plagued me for decades disappeared, and I started sleeping like a baby. I also lost two stone. The low-level anxiety that had been my constant companion for years slowly drifted away and I felt much more positive and energetic about life. It was like someone had turned up the colour contrast on the TV, and life morphed from rather grey to technicolour.
As a teenager, I’d always loved writing, and when I stopped drinking, that passion returned with a vengeance. I became more creative and imaginative than I’d been for years. I started writing a blog, which I called Mummy was a Secret Drinker, an online diary of what I was going through, and within a few months, my blog picked up hundreds of thousands of readers from all over the world.
I wasn’t alone in finding that quitting booze can reinvigorate your life and your career. Readers of my blog have done extraordinary things since they stopped drinking – they’ve launched businesses and new careers, written books, rediscovered old hobbies and found new passions. It’s no co-incidence that many of the most successful people in any field don’t drink. Anna Wintour and Tina Brown – don’t drink. Bradley Cooper, Tom Hardy and Samuel L. Jackson don’t drink. Kim Kardashian, doesn’t drink.
I realised that for the previous decade, in trying to numb all the difficult parts of my life, I’d numbed all the good bits too.
Then, just as everything was going swimmingly, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I learned the next big lesson of that year:
2. Dealing with addiction or trauma turns you into a superhero
It’s not easy giving up an addictive drug, especially when the majority of the population don’t treat it like one. You take it one day at a time. You spend hours wrestling with the demons in your own head. Then, one day, you come out the other side and you think wow. I did it. I’m free. And then you think now I can do absolutely anything.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer was a bit of a shock. It shouldn’t have been. The American Society for Clinical Oncology estimate that alcohol is the direct cause of more than one in twenty of all cancer deaths globally. In fact, alcohol kills more people around the world than malaria, meningitis, tuberculosis and dengue fever put together.
If I’d still been drinking at that point, all the wheels would have come off. I’d have dived into a vat of vino and not reappeared for some time. I’d have yelled and screamed in front of my children and would have been entirely focussed on me, not them. As it was, sober, I coped. Everything carried on as normally as possible, I took it one day at a time and wrestled with my demons.
And, when it was all over, I thought wow, I did it, I’m free. Now I can do absolutely anything.
When you self-medicate your way through any difficult patch, trying to rub out any feelings of fear and anxiety, you become more and more cowardly, and unable to deal with the vicissitudes of life.
When you learn to deal with trauma completely raw, you become braver and braver. And you realise that on the other side of your maximum fear lies all the best things in life. That is where the magic happens.
So, I faced up to my biggest fears. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of being judged. And I wrote a book. I called it The Sober Diaries,(available from Amazon and most good bookshops. My publisher told me to say that) and I told everyone my darkest secrets, about how badly I was addicted to wine, and how much my life had changed since I gave it up.
And that’s when I learned the third lesson:
3. Speaking your truth changes lives
We spend so much time curating our own images, and presenting perfect versions of our lives online. Then we make ourselves miserable by comparing the truth of our lives with the fiction we’re shown of other peoples.
Social media does not tell the truth. It tells us that everyone is beautiful, happy and successful, when the truth is we are all struggling with something. Behind all the whitened smiles are people dealing with addiction, redundancy, caring for parents with Alzheimer’s or children being bullied. And many, many of those people are feeling totally alone.
Oprah Winfrey said, in her speech at the Golden Globes “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.”And, you know what? She’s right, because when I published my truth, I learned that stories really can change lives.
I’ve had thousands of messages from people all over the world saying “I thought I was the only one struggling with my relationship with booze, and I thought life without it would be miserable, so thank you for making me feel less alone and for giving me the courage to quit.”
I’ve now been sober for four years, and cancer free for three, and life has never been better. I’ve done a TEDx talk, up here at my old Cambridge college, talked from the stage at WOMAD for Radio 4’s FourThought, and have had the great honour of being invited here to talk to all of you. I’ve also written my first novel – The Authenticity Project – which is coming out in Spring 2020. So, my new fear is whether anyone's going to want to read it!
Sometimes, what feels like the end is actually the beginning.
You might be lucky enough to be the sort of person who can drink ‘sensibly.’ If so, I applaud you! (Although, full disclosure, I hate you a little bit too). But the truth is that most people use something to take the edges off life, whether it’s bingeing on sugar, spending hours on social media or a fortune on internet shopping.