This second part of what brought me to Soberistas turns out to be the most difficult to write. I had assembled all of the ingredients for the life I hadn’t even dreamt of yet, the makings of a dream that was still in gestation. At the point when I met my husband (of 33 years now) I was living in the moment, from payday to payday, with only a vague notion of wanting a family at some point in the future and no real career aspirations. When I say “living in the moment”, of course that was only the perception of an unconscious mind, I was existing in the moment but I wouldn’t know that yet. I was definitely seeking love, commitment, happy ever after, but with no sense of agency. I was waiting for “it” to happen and in the meantime fishing in the least productive of pools and devoting energy to some very unpromising relationships.
Everything changed on a Christmas Eve in the early 1980s when, with one humungous hangover from the office party the night before, I succumbed to pressure from my best friend to go to the pub. I was dragging myself around the shops at the last minute, trying to find an appropriate gift for my goddaughter who I was seeing on Christmas Day, with very little money left from my pre-Christmas festivities and having cut up my credit cards into tiny little pieces to prevent me from adding to the growing debt I had accumulated. I think I ended up buying her a selection box, oh the absolute shame of it. I bumped into said friend and she sent me straight home to bed to prepare myself for the evening’s celebrations, I didn’t have the energy to argue and, anyway, I had no other plans.
I met my husband that night, in the pub. He was the brother of another friend, but I didn’t even know he existed up until then. He was in the midst of a divorce, had two young boys, it was messy and common sense would have told me to avoid him like the plague – but as we know, there is nothing common about sense! We connected straight away and have grown in love ever since. This was the inauspicious beginnings of my happily ever after, but we had a long way to go before we could lay claim to that ever-after happiness. I was a damaged little soul and I now have the insight and awareness to realise that our souls recognised each other and were attracted by what we saw reflected there.
Life began happening to us pretty much straight away, not much time for a honeymoon. Within a year of our wedding my mother was diagnosed with cancer and, at only 63 years old, she had passed out of our lives before our 2nd wedding anniversary. That same year my one and only ever pregnancy ended in miscarriage, and John’s father was diagnosed with cancer. My own father was to die from a heart attack before John’s, and suddenly our older generation was thin on the ground. All of this dragged me down slowly but surely into depression. I could not find the wherewithal to rise above it, to accept it as life which happens, not “to me” but around me and around everybody else too. I took it all personally, the loss of my mother especially and at such a young age, coupled with the growing realisation that the children I had expected to just materialise were not coming, I felt that all of it was happening to me, and through me to us. I carried it around like a cross (“we all have our crosses to bear”, they said, and in my mind this turned out to be true for me).
It has to be said that in the midst of these life events we bought and renovated an old maisonette, working together evenings and weekends, listening to Capital radio and heading to the pub for one quick pint before heading off home to prepare for work the next day. We saw the boys every other weekend and took great pleasure in spending time with them. We fought in the court for overnight access and a once-a-year holiday. We capitalised on our efforts and managed to buy ourselves a 3-bedroom terraced house with a garden, which we proceeded to renovate and enjoy, had annual holidays abroad, developing a love of the Greek islands. We took the boys to Florida to visit all of the attractions and, on our return, moved into a four bedroom detached house, with plenty of room for the children we still hoped and planned for. We were doing fine, it was all going well, John’s career was going from strength to strength, he was given more and more responsibility, was working longer days and came home exhausted. We began to drink more and more, going to the pub several times a week where we would sit over a couple of pints and talk about his work, our plans for a family, before returning home to open a bottle of wine over dinner. All the time I was becoming increasingly depressed.
After a year of fertility treatment at a private clinic, and aged 40, I decided I was not going to be a mother, it was time to let go of this unfulfilled chapter of my life story and move on, it was part and parcel of the cross I had to bear. John’s salary meant that I didn’t have to work for a living, but I was running a typing agency to have an independent income and through that I met a criminology professor who liked to hand write all of his work and needed someone to type it up for him. That was a fortuitous meeting, for both of us, and marked the beginning of a new and exciting journey into academia. I was so enthralled by this man’s writing, the style and the content, that I found myself yearning to understand it better and enrolled for a degree course in sociology and criminology, ending up with a first class honours degree, then a masters with distinction and studying for a PhD whilst teaching at the university. It was a ten-year rollercoaster of intellectual pursuit, new friendships, foreign travel and drinking.
There was a student bar on campus and from day one it was the place where I hung out with my student friends and the teaching staff. Always one to drink to excess, my drinking reached new heights in this environment where heavy drinking seemed to be part and parcel of the lifestyle. Some of my most shameful memories of alcohol consumption are associated with academic conferences, away from home and from John’s moderating influence, and high on my new-found inclusion in a world I had never even hoped to be part of. Being a friend of the professor I met and mixed with some of the best known names in my chosen field (I used the word chosen loosely here, there was little choice involved). I was a success, until I wasn’t any more. My PhD, which I worked long and hard for and which appeared to have the necessary provenance for success, was rejected at the viva stage, much to the surprise and disbelief of everyone around me. Everyone except me, to be honest. I expected this failure, I had been waiting for it to come. I had something called “imposter syndrome” before I ever realised that it is a thing. I was waiting to be found out and was bitterly disappointed when it happened, but not really surprised. I’d gotten away with it for 10 years or more. By this stage I was a full-time lecturer, on the staff, my position wasn’t dependant on the PhD, but I found that increasingly my confidence and ability to continue in the role was. I declined the opportunity to re-submit, became more and more anxious and depressed, and went on sick leave with stress, and resigned after a few months when it was clear that I had no desire to go back.
I had learned a great deal during my time in the academic world. Through sociology and criminology I now saw the world in a different way, and one that resonated deeply with the inner me. Through my friendship with a brilliant man and engagement with his work I learned about humility in the face of uninvited celebrity, and the ability to critically evaluate deeply entrenched opinions and beliefs. I discovered that I was an effective teacher, and much more besides.
That brings us up to the point at which I was sat at home in front of my PC, playing computer games and checking out my Facebook, whilst drinking a couple of bottles of wine a night, every night, and more at weekends. The dream that I never dreamed had materialised and turned into a nightmare. From the moment I discovered, as a first year undergraduate, that it was possible to get a first class honours degree, nothing less would do for me. I would prove that I was no imposter in this world of academia, I not only belonged but I would own this world, rising to the very top of the profession by my own effort. I can conjecture about who it was I needed to prove this to until the cows come home, it didn’t matter then and it definitely doesn’t matter now.
A few years of that was enough. Somehow – and I genuinely do not know how – one day I realised that I had to stop drinking alcohol if I was ever going to emerge from the dark anxious world I was inhabiting. I didn’t act on that straight away of course, because I could not even contemplate a life without alcohol in it. Eventually, however, I did stop and John stopped with me. After a while I came to realise that in the midst of my darkest days John had stayed, had not abandoned me, and for that I am both relieved and immensely grateful.
If I hadn’t met my friend on that Christmas Eve shopping fiasco – but I did. If I hadn’t met John that night – but I did. If I’d continued on my previous life’s trajectory – but I didn’t. If I had been allocated any other external examiner for my PhD viva – but I wasn’t. I played with the cards that I’d been dealt. It wasn’t all doom and gloom but there were some very dark days before my awakening.
I joined Soberistas a few weeks into my AF life and the rest, as Lucy Rocca might say, is history – although I prefer to call it herstory. The next chapter of this story will be about life after alcohol. It will be a joyous story, not a fairy tale by any means because it’s all very real, and not a horror story either about how dull and empty life has become. Three years into living the sober life I have realised that at long last I am living the dream, the nightmare is over now although I still catch glimpses of it and don’t think it’s ever going to disappear completely. That’s just as well because it serves as a reminder of what can happen when I find myself pursuing someone else’s dream, one that was never meant for me. But that, as they say, is another story.
Namaste, Nana Treen