Sunday, 23 July 2017

Sober School Holidays

Schools everywhere are breaking up for the summer holidays.

I was scrolling through Facebook yesterday, and I came across several variations of the same meme: a headline saying SCHOOL'S OUT FOR SUMMER, then a caption saying KIDS over footage of children going wild with excitement, a caption saying TEACHERS, over footage of adults doing the same, then a caption saying PARENTS over footage of a mum looking harassed and glugging from a glass of wine bigger than her own head.

Each of these memes has had millions of views.

In the old days, I would have merrily added my own comment and shared to all my Facebook friends. Then I would have cracked open (another) bottle of vino, secure in the knowledge that everyone else was doing the same thing. Facebook said so.

This summer, however, I realise - more than ever - that wine does not make the summer holidays flow more swimmingly. Quite the reverse.

The kids, dog and I are up in the wilds of Scotland. We have a house which is, literally, in the middle of nowhere.

The nearest shop is ten minutes drive (about one and a half hours by foot) away. We hole ourselves up with board games, piano, guitar, ukulele and an open fire.... and chill.

Yesterday, we ran out of milk. I didn't want to drag everyone out in the rain, so I left my (relatively) responsible teenager in charge of her two younger siblings and headed out to the nearest town.

About three quarters of the way there, the car started shuddering wildly, as if I was crossing the surface of the moon. I suspected a puncture.

I got out of the car to take a look and I had literally no tyre left at all on one of the rear wheels. Total blowout. Disaster.

I knew that it would be hours before a breakdown truck could reach me and I had to get back to the kids. I was an hour's walk away, at least.

Few cars travel down that road, but, luckily, after a few minutes I managed to flag down a friendly white van man who drove me home.

I then called the AA (Automobile Association, not Alcoholics Anonymous), who said that they could tow my car to the nearest tyre fitter, but it would take an hour and half to get to me.

I asked if they could collect me from my house and drive me the five minutes it would take to get back to my abandoned car. They said no, take a taxi.

I explained that the nearest taxi firm was forty-five minutes away and had to be booked days in advance. They said to walk.

I explained that it would take an hour to walk and I had three children with me. They said sorry, but it's company policy. I had to meet them by my car.

I walked to the nearest neighbour and begged for a lift. For the second time, the kindness of other people saved me.

I got back to my car, met the breakdown chap, was towed to a tyre place, spent all my shoe money on a tyre and got home.

But the real miracle about all of this is that it all happened without me getting at all cross. Or stressed. Or shouting.

I didn't get annoyed with the AA lady for refusing to bend the rules (not her fault). I didn't panic, stamp, yell and curse. I was zen.

Needless to say, in the drinking days I would not have dealt with a day like that in the same way. You know exactly how it would have gone. You've been there too, I expect.

So now I look at those Facebook memes, at those mums glugging back the wine, and I think I get it. Been there, done that. But that's really not going to help, you know.

Step away.

Love SM x

Sunday, 16 July 2017

I Don't Want a Fight With AA

I had an old friend round for lunch yesterday.

She's an amazing woman, who has dealt with issues that would break many people, but has come out stronger.

For a few years, L lived with a cocaine addict. She saw, up close and personal, how drugs can destroy the lives of the user and those who love them.

As a result, once she'd found the strength to get away, she re-trained as a psychotherapist and an addiction counsellor.

I am in awe of the people who not only survive their own life traumas, but then use them to help others.

So, a while back, I gave L the name of my blog. She never told me whether she'd read it or what she thought of it.

Then, yesterday, L said "I read your blog."

"Oh yes?" I replied.

"I have to say, I don't like your refusal to use the word 'alcoholic.'" She said.

I imagine she was referring to this post: Am I an alcoholic?

Then she continued, "there are an awful lot of people who feel the same as me."

"I have no issue with anyone using the term 'alcoholic' if they find it helpful," I explained, "it's just that I don't. I think it's one of the reasons why so many people find it difficult to confess to having a problem and asking for help. We're worried about being judged."

But the truth is that anyone who is a member of, or works with, AA feels hugely strongly about the A word, and I'm not sure that I can take them all on. I don't want to have a fight with AA - I think they're an amazing institution doing an incredible job.

But I know that I, and many of my readers, feel strongly about this issue too. I am very happy (well, sort of) to stand up on national television and confess to drinking a bottle of wine a day. I'm happy to confess to being an alcohol addict.

But I'm not happy to say "I am an alcoholic." I don't believe I have a disease. I think I became addicted to an addictive drug, the same way I did to cigarettes, back in the day.

I found it much easier to say 'I have cancer' (when I was diagnosed with breast cancer 18 months ago) than I do 'I am an alcoholic.'

The truth is, people sympathise with cancer victims, but they assume that women who are 'alcoholics' are weak, diseased, and terrible mothers who neglect their children while they pour vodka on their cornflakes.

Surely the words I use are a personal choice?

It seems extraordinary that one word can cause so much trouble. But it will....

Is this really a good idea?

Love SM

Sunday, 9 July 2017

False Memory

Our memories are much less accurate than we believe them to be.

Rather than a frame-by-frame photographic reflection of our past they are riddled with holes, like a swiss cheese. Whole chapters are re-written as we, unwittingly, cast different lights on what actually took place.

Two recent events have bought this home to me. The first was, last weekend, a thirty year reunion of my old boarding school friends. THIRTY YEARS! Where did all that time go?

Now, I lived with these women for seven years, through all those turbulent teenage days, and yet there were a few of them who I swear I had never, ever, seen before.

Even when I heard their names and looked up photos of how they looked back then.... nada. They'd been swallowed up by one of those many memory black holes.

But even much more recent memories are playing tricks on me.

I've been editing the book I've written about my first twelve months sober - the year when I also found and, hopefully, dispatched with breast cancer.

Reading back over that year is like reading a novel written about a character who has nothing whatsoever to do with me.

Whilst I know I had cancer - I have the scars to prove it, and I have to take tablets every day for the next decade at least - the detail of it all is a blur. It feels like it happened to a different person in a different age.

Even more so, the drinking days. When I look back on those I can remember drinking more than I should have, but the implications of that, the details of how it affected my life, my moods, my family... all burred.

There's good reason for this. Our subconscious minds have a built in protection mechanism. It's not good for us to remember all the bad stuff vividly, for there lies post traumatic stress syndrome, depression and anxiety. So they, helpfully, allow us to forget the detail.

Who would give birth more than once if this were not the case?

It's only because of this blog that I am able to remind myself, in all it's gory detail, what that time was really like. And reading back over it, then writing about it, is painful. I had to do it in small chunks. It made me cry, quite a lot.

But the reason for telling you all of this, if you're still reading, is that writing it all down at the time is really important. Because that's what stops us doing it all over again.

I can honestly tell you that if I did not have this record of those dark days I would be drinking again now. Because when I search through my memories I see only the good drinks. The rose on a hot day. the champagne at weddings. The single glass of fine red with a meal in a restaurant.

I don't see the bottle of wine drunk every evening by myself.

I imagine that if you don't quit drinking until you hit a spectacular rock bottom, then it is less easy to forget. You have drink driving offences, broken relationships and a lost life to remind you.

But, if you - wisely - quit before that point, you only have your unreliable memories to rely on. The memory bank that it all easy to rob of its treasures.

So please, write it all down. Before you forget. Start a blog. A diary. Tell someone.

If you'd like to read my story from the start, then click here (or wait for the book!)

Love SM x

Sunday, 2 July 2017

When Disaster Strikes

I'm still haunted by the images and stories from the Grenfell Tower disaster, nearly three weeks ago.

On the 14th June, just before 1am, a faulty fridge-freezer caught fire in a flat on the fourth floor of this 24-storey tower block of public housing flats in North Kensington. The residents were some of the poorest people, living in one of the richest boroughs of London.

The fire services told all the families in the block to stay in their flats as the fire would be contained, and the one stairwell needed to be clear for the emergency services.

The fire, however, spread rapidly, via (it is thought) the newly applied cladding on the outside of the tower which was not fire resistant.

At least eighty people died that night, in a fire that raged for sixty hours despite the efforts of hundreds of firefighters and forty-five fire engines - men, women and children, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.

The pictures that emerged straight after the Grenfell disaster were horrific enough, the numbers and the details of that night even worse. But what is truly haunting is the personal stories that are, as the smoke clears, being told.

Jessica Urbano was only twelve years old, about the same age as my eldest daughter. She lived with her mum on the twentieth floor.

That night her mum, as usual, had gone to work with one of the many unseen, unconsidered, groups of people, who clean the city's offices overnight.

A few hours into her shift she got a call telling her that the tower was on fire. She raced home and ran towards the tower entrance. The firefighters would not, could not, let her in.

Jessica called from a neighbour's mobile. She sobbed "Mum, please come and get me!" but all Jessica's mum could do was to watch the flames roaring up the side of the building and hope and pray that her daughter would make it down the stairs and walk through the entrance.

She never did.

We never know when disaster might strike us, or one of our friends or family. Although, thankfully, these terrible events are rare, they seem to be occurring more and more in London at the moment.

One of the things that, finally, prompted me to stop drinking was the thought that something terrible might happen to one of my children - an accident or an illness - and that I would not be sober enough to deal with it as well as I should.

I would never have forgiven myself.

Many times when my children were small, they would cry in the night because they were hungry, or had a bad dream, and - more often than not - Mr SM would wake up, as I, after a few glasses of wine, was sleeping too deeply to hear them.

Imagine if he had not been there. Imagine if they'd woken, not because of a bad dream but because of smoke or flames.

The Grenfell Tower disaster does have a light side as well as a dark side.

The bravery and dedication of the fire service, who removed (against all regulations) their own face masks to help people escaping down the stairwell. The generosity and spirit of the local community who have worked tirelessly distributing food, clothing and money. The stories of the people who did make it to the ground - the survivors.

Love SM x