Softer

be softer with you
you are a breathing thing
a memory to someone
a home to a life
Nayyirah Waheed

Never one to do things by halves, at the end of October 2017 I made the dramatic (and what now seems completely bloody mad) decision to give up alcohol for a whole year.  The possibility of E’s marriage to P (he was still refusing to discuss it) had upset us all, and I’d noticed that my wine consumption was slowly creeping up again.  It wasn’t at anything like the levels I was drinking when E had first left, but it was enough to make me very tired and it was also dramatically increasing the levels of anxiety I was feeling.  I was beginning to exist in a constant state of fight or flight – any little thing going slightly wrong would disproportionately upset me and I was fretting over the tiniest of details all day long.  Frustratingly, I was aware that this was happening, but I just couldn’t stop it.  A couple of glasses of wine before bed would numb things enough to let me fall sleep, but it would then increase the horrible heart palpitating fear I’d feel in the Dark Hours (there’s an actual word for this – hangxiety – the feeling of fear and anxiety caused by alcohol leaving the system).

My birthday was looming and I felt the need to make a big change.  I also wanted to take control and to do something positive, both for myself and for other people.  Two very important people in my life, my Mum and my Uncle are currently dealing with the effects of cancer and its treatment and I’ve lost some very dear friends and family to this vicious disease over the last few years, so I decided to try and get some sponsorship for Macmillan whilst I was at it.  I know I couldn’t do much, but I wanted to do *something*.

I decided to give up alcohol from my 48th birthday onwards, thinking that I’d get my birthday, Christmas and New Year over with quickly and that the rest would be much easier.  However, as we head towards the summer, I now realise that I’d under-estimated how much I enjoyed a glass of wine in the sun… I suspect the next few months could be my biggest challenge yet.

All in all giving up alcohol was, and continues to be, a positive experience, but, it had one very unexpected result.  I’d assumed it would help with the problems I’d been having with anxiety, however, rather than decreasing the problem, I began to struggle increasingly with my mental health.  I realise now that I’d probably been self-medicating with alcohol and that it had been helping to subdue a lot of the emotions I was feeling.  Suddenly, without wine numbing everything, things felt very raw and I began to feel very exposed and a little overwhelmed.

Whilst I didn’t feel I needed or wanted alcohol (on the contrary I was enjoying not drinking), I began to realise that emotionally I was all over the place.  I was snapping at the kids for no reason, I wasn’t sleeping, my self-esteem had gone through the floor and my brain was beginning to do its Dark Hours run through of everything I’d done wrong, ever, and everything that I was worried about, all day as well as all night.  The slightest thing would reduce me to tears and I was increasingly struggling just to get out of bed and leave the house in the morning.  I think it was a bit like delayed shock – after nearly a year of coping with massive hurt, huge changes and firefighting new problems almost every day, everything was hitting home and beginning to become a bit too much.  I began to feel bone-achingly tired.

A similar thing was happening to Oldest Daughter up in Durham.  I’d been quite keen for her to get away after everything that had happened in 2017.  She’s the sort of person who takes the weight of the world on her shoulders and, even though I’d told her again and again that she wasn’t to worry about me and that I was ok, she had spent most of the year worrying about and trying to ensure that her siblings and I were ok.  I think leaving home suddenly brought home to her the amount of stress she’d been under and she began to suffer problems with anxiety.  She was offered counselling and reported back to me with some surprise how useful it was and how emotional she was finding it.  I was gratified by the amount of surprise (horror) the counsellor apparently showed at Oldest Daughter’s account of E’s behaviour – it made me feel that the fact I was struggling was a reasonable reaction.   Hearing that someone else thought he was completely out-of-order made me feel slightly better about myself and how I was dealing with things.

Youngest Daughter was also struggling emotionally, she too was having counselling at school, but she also had all of the *stuff* that all 15 year olds have going on – huge amounts of stress because this was her GCSE year, problems with friendships groups, that she took far too personally (she is just emotionally unable to be pragmatic about these things and shrug them off), and the usual growing up, hormonal, stuff.  She’d always been the most complex and emotional of the children and I’d always said that she would give me a run for my money in her teenage years.  I was right.   Oldest Daughter and Oldest Son are just too laid back to be arsed with being stroppy teenagers, but Youngest Daughter has got it nailed down to an art form.  She’s not rebellious (I have a feeling that will be Youngest Son’s job – he’ll be with one with a loud motorbike, who comes home with a traffic cone on his head and throws up into my newly planted flower beds), but she’s just got so much going on in her head that her inner turmoil can manifest itself as ‘moodiness’.  Fortunately, that very same ‘moodiness’ can mean that when she’s happy she can be the sunniest and funniest of my children, so it has its upside.

The boys seemed to be ok.  They were clearly not happy with how E was behaving, but they seemed to accept it more easily.  I think the fact that Oldest Son is so laid back and accepting of change really helped him and Youngest Son’s wicked sense of humour came into play.  He now had a wide range of insulting names for his Dad and a few canny one liners (“why won’t anyone play board games with Dad?  Because he’s always cheating…”) all delivered with a cheeky grin and a hug.

I guess, as we headed towards the end of the year, and prepared to face up to our first Christmas as a five, we were all starting to heal in our own way, it’s just that it was taking longer and was much harder work than I wanted.  Frustratingly, there was no magic pill.  There was no instant solution.  Giving up alcohol was great, but it wasn’t the answer to my problems.  Similarly, for the girls, attending counselling was an important first step, but they had a way to go before they’d be ok again.  I’ve always been impatient, and I’ve always been hard on myself, and I think, because I’d decided I *should* be ok by now, that I therefore shouldn’t be struggling.   I slowly began to accept that feeling better would just take time for all of us.  Rather than consisting of one major moment of clarity, being ok again would comprise a series of minute adjustments, one tiny change at a time, and it would not be until a few months, or even years, down the line that we would see what a massive change had in fact happened.  Of course it would have helped if E would just tell us if he was married nor not, but we gradually realised that we’d just have to live with the fact that he wasn’t going to tell us and we made another small, almost unconscious, adjustment to accommodate this uncertainty.

And so, usually one to stride through life reacting to it by making big changes, I learned  instead to negotiate life step by tiny step. As someone who likes to make changes and see results immediately, it was really difficult for me to learn to be patient (I still struggle), but as I did, I found I began to be a little bit kinder to, and more tolerant of, myself. I learned to take a breath and be still, to observe and think about my feelings rather than immediately, and emotionally, reacting to them.   I still have my flare-up, instantly reactive, moments, and I’m still inclined towards the grand gesture, but I am definitely learning to be a little softer with myself.

Once again my Mum, who frequently describes me as striding through life obliviously leaving chaos in my wake, was right – sometimes, it’s better to take your time. Sometimes the softer, slower, path is the better one.

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