My life improved significantly after I quit drinking in 2006. I’d been battling with addiction since the eighties, and it felt incredible to be free at last. It sometimes seemed like I had the golden touch as my situation improved in ways I wouldn’t have dared to imagine while still drinking. There have also been plenty of dark days since I gave up alcohol, but overall it has been a wonderful experience.
When it comes to the big questions about life, I’m strictly in the “don’t know” camp. It does feel to me as if things happen for a reason, and I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today if things didn’t unfold as they did. I happen to like where I am in life now, so if I had access to a time machine, I wouldn’t want to interfere too much with my past. Still, here are six things I’ve learned that would have made my life easier when I first gave up alcohol:
1. Self-Hatred is My Biggest Problem
I’ve come to the conclusion that most of my problems in life, including my alcoholism, have been fuelled by self-hatred. I turned to alcohol as a teenager because I wanted to escape being me. I saw how it made other people witty, adventurous, and confident, and I wanted the same. I didn’t understand that by abusing alcohol, I’d only be taking my self-hatred to a new level of ferocity.
Even after I got sober, I continued to bully myself mercilessly. It was like living with the drill-sergeant from the movie Full Metal Jacket in my head. This inner-Nazi would turn even my most simple mistakes into a reason to berate me and treat me like shit.
Turning off this bully has turned out to be fairly straightforward, but I never realized I had the option up until a few months ago. These days I try to be my number-1 defender and source of comfort because that is the type of person I need living in my head – I think we all do. This doesn’t mean I’ve turned into some type of narcissist who refuses to hear any criticism, it means that I’m willing to face the consequences of my actions because I’m no longer afraid of my inner-tormentor.
2. I Can Only Be Happy to the Extent That I’m Willing to Risk Pain
I drank to numb myself against the pain in life, but it also meant that I became numb to happiness as well. I now know that I can only experience happiness to the extent that I’m willing to risk pain, and I can only experience love to the extent that I’m willing to be vulnerable enough to the pain of love. This means that anything I do to protect myself from the pain of life is ultimately self-defeating. The good news is that when I open my heart to pain, it is nowhere near as bad as the discomfort associated with resisting it.
3. Nothing Special Has to Happen for Me to Be Happy
All of the ingredients for happiness is available to me in practically every moment. I don’t need to wait for my finances to be sorted or for other people to tell me what a ‘great man’ I am. Happiness isn’t something that needs to be earned, it just needs to be acknowledged.
4. It’s Okay to Feel Bad
Sometimes my job in life is to feel bad. If somebody close to me dies, it is only human that I should feel bad about it. If a major client stops sending me work, it is okay for me to feel disappointed. This all seems perfectly logical to me now, but I didn’t always think this way. I used to believe that feeling bad was very wrong, and that something needed to be done to remedy the situation – my favourite fixer used to be alcohol. These days I’m able to just feel the pain, and the amazing thing is that it is far more comfortable than fighting it.
5. Thinking More of Other People is the Key to a Great Life
I used to think that dying in my sleep would be the way to go, but I now know that dying with the final thought being love for another person would be ideal. I’ve wasted most of my life treating other humans like they are just a backdrop to my amazing adventure – I now see them as the thing that gives my life meaning. I no longer judge my progress in life by my possessions, but by the amount of time I spend thinking about the needs of other people.
6. I’m a Normal Person and That’s Okay
One of my excuses for my overenthusiasm for alcohol was my disappointment at not amounting to much in life. I felt special, and I needed the rest of the world to acknowledge my specialness. I honestly used to believe that I’d be headhunted by a talent scout who could see some potential in me for greatness – I wasted years sitting on a barstool just waiting for this person to find me. I continued to suffer because of this feeling of specialness even after I became sober, and if anything it got a bit worse after I managed to get a book published.
Just over a year ago, I was on holiday back in Ireland, and I went for a walk in a local park. For some reason, I started thinking about how other people in the park must see me. To them I was just some anonymous middle-aged guy out for a walk, and this realization really hit me hard. I understood that I was just some anonymous middle-aged guy and that was perfectly fine by me. It felt so liberating to understand this because if I’m just a normal person, it means that I’m allowed to make mistakes like other people. I don’t have to achieve anything to become worthwhile, I already am worthwhile.