Friday 28 October 2016

The Final Addiction

We've been up in the wilds of Scotland over half term.

A few days ago, I was driving with the three children and the dog down a dual carriageway when a big red warning light flashed up on the dashboard:


Not what you want to see when you're an hour from home and it's getting dark already.

As well as the ominous warning, I'd lost all power in the accelerator. Even with my foot on the floor I couldn't go faster than fifty miles an hour.

I called Mr SM for moral support.

Now, Mr SM is no mechanic, but he does like to have an opinion, nonetheless.

"Maybe you should try turning it off and on again?" He suggests. This is his go-to solution in his job as an IT whizz.

I harrumphed.

"There's probably something stuck in one of the pipe thingies," he tries. I hang up, angrily, and we manage to limp all the way home, followed by a long queue of angry motorists.

The house in Scotland is in the middle of nowhere. You have to drive for fifteen minutes to find a pint of milk. It would take several hours (in specialist clothing) to walk to the nearest shop. If we were without a car for a day or two, we would be totally stranded.

It struck me then that in the drinking days my primary concern would have been stocking up on booze.

I would have detoured via a supermarket, risked turning off the engine and not being able to start it again, risked being stranded with three children and dog, just to make sure that we didn't run out of Chablis.

One of the very best things about quitting the booze is not having that constant fear of running out. Not having to think the whole time about where (and when) your next drink was coming from.

I remember once arriving, after a very long journey, at a family holiday in France. Our first evening in a gorgeous house by the beach with my parents, brother and our families was ruined by my horror on realising that the local shops were closed and we only had one bottle of wine between six adults.

I was constantly going out of my way, changing routes, upsetting plans to make sure I could get to a shop to stock up on booze supplies. I was the same with cigarettes, back in the smoking days.

But now? Now, so long as I have the basic human needs - food, water, shelter, warmth and love - I can be completely happy and relaxed. And that's freedom.

Oh, and my iPhone, obvs. With good wifi connection.

The internet: my final addiction.

By the way, when we got home I turned the car engine off, then turned it on again to check that it would still fire up. The warning had disappeared, as had any problem with the acceleration. I took it to a garage to be checked over. Apparently a bit of gunky oil had temporarily caused an engine blockage.

So, turns out something was stuck in one of the pipe thingies and all I'd needed to do was to turn it off and back on again.

Love SM x

Tuesday 25 October 2016

Stiff Upper Lip

Yasmin le Bon has been in the press a lot this week talking about how the strains of juggling a career and motherhood led to her having a breakdown.

Yasmin admitted that, when it all got too much, she would often hide in the bathroom and cry.

Under the same circumstances I would have drunk a bottle of Chablis. It strikes me that Yasmin's reaction is altogether healthier.

But it's not very British. I'm sure it's no co-incidence that the land of the 'stiff upper lip' is also the home of heavy drinking.

The British see crying as a form of - at best - weakness, at worst - mental instability.

When I started work in the early nineties, it was perfectly okay for my boss to quiz me about my sex life, or to pat me on the arse. It was 'banter.'

Another senior director stroked my thigh under the table during one formal dinner. I discovered afterwards that he was doing the same to my friend on the other side. How did he manage to actually eat anything?

All that sort of behaviour was totally acceptable, but one thing I was warned about in no uncertain terms was crying.

I asked one of the (few) female directors for her advice when I first joined. "Never cry in the office," she said. "Your career would be over. If you feel like you're going to cry, go to the loos and whistle. It's physically impossible to cry and whistle simultaneously."

I whistled a fair bit, and drank an awful lot, during my twenty year advertising career, but I never cried. Not once.

Then, exactly a year ago, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I discovered the miraculous power of crying.

Weeping is nature's pressure valve.

You know those old pressure cookers your Mum used in the seventies? The steam builds up and up until you need to release it with the valve on the top and it makes a really satisfying whooshing sound? That's what crying does.

Last year, the children were on half term and I was getting to grips with the idea that I might not be around to see them grow up. I couldn't cry in front of them, so I would take the dog out for a walk and weep in parks.

One day I was standing alone on Eel Brook Common howling like a banshee when I was spotted by one of the mums from the school playground.

I didn't know this mum well. I didn't even know her name, but I'd always been rather in awe of her. She looks a bit like a rock chick, and at a school where everyone calls their children names like Octavia and Joshua, hers are called Spike and Buster.

Anyhow, she starts walking over to say hello, then realises that I'm falling apart in front of her. She freezes, not sure whether to come over or to escape as quickly as possible.

Understanding how terribly awkward this situation was (for a Brit), I went over to her.

"I'm so sorry," I said, through the howls (another British trait: always apologise for everything, especially if it's not your fault), "I've got breast cancer."

She was utterly lovely and we've been friends ever since (in that building up gradually to eventually meeting up for coffee way that the British make friends).

Anyhow, my point is: CRYING IS AWESOME. And it really works.

So, next time you're finding life just too overwhelming and you can't turn to booze to take the edge off, have a damn good weep instead. Much more effective.

Love SM x

P.S. Check out a fab new blogger I've come across:

Thursday 20 October 2016

Phil Collins and 'Mid-Life' Drinking

The prevailing wisdom about alcoholism seems to be that it is a disease that you are born with (or not).

Therefore, you're either an alcoholic, in which case you can never drink 'normally', or (like the vast majority of people) you're not, in which case you can quaff away as much as you like without ever getting into trouble.

But that's not what I see in this blog, or in the e-mails I get from readers.

There are many women I've come across who have always had a dysfunctional relationship with booze, who have been aware from the moment they had their first taste of alcohol that the way they drink is not like other people.

However, I also hear from a huge number of people (like me) who drank 'normally' for years, decades even, only to find that in the forties or fifties it bites them in the arse.

So, I say hurrah for Phil Collins, who has recently published his memoir which led to this headline in the Telegraph yesterday: Phil Collins and the rise of mid-lifers drinking their way to oblivion.

I've always been fond of Phil Collins. For a start there's that awesome drum solo in 'In the Air Tonight.'

Also, I remember watching his video for 'You Can't Hurry Love' on Top of the Pops with my Mum. He used a particularly avant guarde technique which meant there were three identical images of him on screen simultaneously.

"Oh, I like this band," says my Mum. "Who are they?"

"The Collins Triplets," I replied. For years afterwards my Mum referred to 'those nice Collins triplets', which cracked me and my brother up every time.

Anyhow, Phil says "I stopped work because I wanted to be a dad at home. As bad luck would have it, as soon as I retired, my family split up. I didn't have anyone to go home to. That's why I started drinking."

"It took me until the age of 55 to become an alcoholic. I got through the heady 1960s, the trippy 1970s, the imperial 1980s, the busy 1990s. I was retired, content, and then I fell. Because I suddenly had too much time on my hands."

I've heard that story time and time again. Many of my readers drank perfectly happily until redundancy, divorce, bereavement or caring for a special needs child tipped them over the edge.

For me it was just that peculiar mix of stress and boredom that comes with being a stay at home mum.

Phil started with a glass of wine in the afternoons while watching the cricket. Gradually that turned into a couple of bottles, then vodka at breakfast time and, eventually, he was hospitalised with pancreatitis and nearly died.

The Telegraph article cites a major study of more than 9,000 people published last summer which concluded that drinking among the over-50s had become a hidden “middle class” phenomenon, and the higher somebody’s income the more at risk they are.

The number of over 65s admitted to hospitals in England and Wales for alcohol related disorders increased by 40 per cent between 2007 and 2014.

Research commissioned by a lottery funded scheme to reduce alcohol related issues in the over 50s found 17 per cent of them class themselves as “increasing risk drinkers”. 40 per cent blamed it on retirement, 26 per cent on bereavement and 20 per cent on a loss of sense of purpose.

Those aged between 55 and 64 are the most likely to die an alcohol related death. Often these are people who would never class themselves as 'alcoholics' but who have shared a bottle of wine over dinner every night for twenty years or more.

Hopefully, articles like this (click here to read the full text) will encourage more people like us to find help and to turn their lives around.

So, thank you, Collins triplets. You still rock. All of you.

Love SM x

Friday 14 October 2016


For the last week or so I've been feeling a bit meh.

I think this is partly triggered by breast cancer awareness month.

It makes me want to yell, like a crazy person, "I am already effing AWARE. It's exactly a year since I got it, I've got a cancer check up in the diary that I can't stop fretting about and I do not need your silly PINK RIBBONS in order to remember breast cancer. In fact, I could do with forgetting all about it, so eff off with your fundraising t-shirts and bake sales."

But that wouldn't be very nice.

The quicksand of meh has not been helped by Mr SM and the children pointing out, somewhat gleefully, that the lady who threaded my eyebrows last weekend must have been drinking (oh, the irony), because one eyebrow is higher than the other - permanently cocked in surprise.

This means that whatever anyone says to me, my face replies with a rudely sardonic "oh, really?"

I have a sarcastic resting face.

I am trying to even out my errant brows with tweezers, but am mindful of the occasion when I was at boarding school and offered to trim a friend's waist length hair. I tried to take an inch off, but it ended up shorter on one side than the other. So I cut more off. This time it veered in the opposite direction.

Needless to say, she ended up with a bob. A wonky bob. I tried to convince her it was very Depeche Mode. She cried.

Perhaps this is karma?

In the old days I would have drunk my way through the meh. But this time I am being helped by something a reader sent me a few weeks ago. She said that whenever she felt bleurgh she'd remember this quote by George Denslow (who was bipolar):

Honour your rhythm.

We all have natural rhythms, but heavy drinking masks them, and after decades of drinking we become totally oblivious to them, stuck in a permanent fug.

Our moods are affected by many things, often beyond our control - hormones, the weather, our sleep patterns and so on.

We are so used to self medicating that we forget that it is okay to feel sad sometimes. It passes. Recognise it, honour it, then sit with it until it moves on.

I've found that two things help:

Exercise - especially out doors, ideally surrounded by nature, even better with a dog, best of all with a dog and a friend, and a doggy friend for your dog.

Then, the opposite: hibernating. Wrapping up warm, clutching a hot chocolate and going to bed super early with a good book.

And, after a few days of doing just that, my meh is clearing.

This is helped by the fact that I've got the painters in.

(That's not a euphemism - I really do have the painters in).

For the last few years the front of my house has looked like a sad, neglected, middle aged lady, covered in cracks and blemishes.

Now she looks years younger. All bright eyed, clear skinned and optimistic.

If only they could do the same for me....

Happy Friday everyone!

SM x

Sunday 9 October 2016

Alcohol and Nicotine

Looking back now at my addiction to vino, it strikes me how identical it was to my addiction to nicotine.

And, funnily enough, my old smoker friends, who were also hooked on a packet a day (at least), are the exact same ones struggling with booze now.

What about those really annoying 'social smokers' (Mr SM was one of these) who'd steal one of your last, precious, Marlboro Lights at a party*, then not smoke for days?

(*Known in 1980s England as 'bumming a fag'. That's an expression that doesn't translate well to American).

They're the ones who slowly savour one glass of wine with dinner then stop. Happily. Damn their eyes.

The last smoking years were much like the final years of drinking: I tried again and again to quit, sometimes only lasting a day or two, sometimes weeks or months.

I, once, managed to quit for a whole year, decided I'd cracked it and could live life henceforth happily as a moderate, 'social' smoker. Ho Ho. Two weeks later and I was back on thirty a day.

I wasn't enjoying my habit any longer - it was making me cough, it was making me smell, and my nails, teeth and skin were turning yellow. I hated myself for my lack of willpower.

But the main reason I knew I had to quit smoking was that it had started messing with my head.

I would leave parties early and walk for miles to find a twenty-four hour garage selling cigarettes, rather than stay without my smokes.

I would wrap up a client meeting early on some feeble excuse so that I could squash the edgy feeling. I would avoid any no-smoking restaurants like the plague. I was very cautious about actually making friends with a non-smoker.

Is this ringing any bells? Because that's exactly how I was, by the end, with booze.

And quitting the ciggies was just like quitting booze: a few weeks of uncomfortable, bordering on unbearable, physical withdrawal, followed by months of feeling edgy, obsessed and not knowing what to do with my hands.

I didn't know how to deal with stress, fear, boredom, celebration - anything - without lighting up.

But, instead of replacing my trusty smokes with something healthy like exercise, mindfulness or yoga, I found something altogether easier and more familiar: WINE!

Oh, the irony.

There is, however, one huge difference between my two favourite addictions: other people.

When I quit smoking everyone understood. They all - even the avid smokers like myself - knew that cigarettes were evil, that they were killing us.

No-one thought that I was weird and had a problem - they understood that I'd just been trapped (like millions of others) by a highly addictive drug.

There's loads of help out there for the quitting smoker - the encouragement of friends and family, free support groups, hypnotherapy, patches, gum, inhalers, e-cigs.

Nobody expects you to huddle anonymously in church halls berating yourself and blaming your situation on a disease.

But here's the good news: now I look at smokers and I don't envy them at all. Not even the tiniest bit. I think you poor, poor fellows. If only you knew how much simpler, healthier and more peaceful life is without the tyranny of nicotine...

....and I'm starting to feel the same way about booze, too.

Maybe, one day, society will support and cheer the quitting drinker in the same was as the quitting smoker.

Alcohol and nicotine - they are just the same.

Love SM x

Wednesday 5 October 2016


I don't think you ever properly appreciate your own mother until you have children of your own.

It's then that you realise how much she did for you. All those grazes kissed, tantrums diffused, stories read. And now that #1 is nearly a teenager, I am in awe of how pitch perfect my Mum was through all those difficult years (most of the time).

Looking back, she seemed to know exactly when to let me make my own mistakes, when to intervene with a guiding hand and when to keep her counsel, however hard that might have been.

Over the last few weeks I've been telling a handful of people about this blog, and the possible book. They've all been amazing - really supportive and genuinely enthusiastic (although I have, I think, chosen my audiences wisely).

But I have not told my Mum.

Then, last week, Mum, #1 and I went out for lunch together. Three generations of women, bound by genetics and by love, but very different in so many ways.

We're all happily slurping our ramen when #1 pipes up with "I'm so proud of my Mummy. She's had two agents call her about her book."


"Ah yes," I said, cautiously, "It's non fiction. I'll tell you all about it if it actually comes off."

My mother looks me firmly in the eye and says "I hope you're using a pseudonym?"

"I don't think I can, Mum," I reply, "as the publishers will expect me to do lots of publicity. You know, Woman's Hour, Loose Women, that sort of thing."

"Mmmm," she replies as we all stare into our bowls of noodles, and we do what we always do when there's an uncomfortable atmosphere: we change the subject.

And now this is making me think she must know already. Why else would she ask if I was using a pseudonym? I might be publishing a book about knitting, or fairy cakes.

When we were in Cornwall last year I told her I was writing a blog, because she'd accused me (jokingly, I think) of having an affair, as I kept sneaking off to use the laptop and closing the lid when anyone approached.

Did she track me down?


Love SM x