As I write, I am nine years sober. Notice the present tense. I am not - as newspapers, magazines and websites love to call my type - an "ex-alcoholic" or a "reformed alcoholic" or a "former alcoholic." One is an ex-husband or a reformed burglar or a former teacher. I am a recovering alcoholic; always have been, always will be.
The process of recovery is ongoing. It begins with realising that your life doesn't make much sense without an external chemical or substance. People often ask me how I knew when having fun had turned into dependence and dependence had turned into full blown addiction. In my early teens, I used to get drunk and my mood would change, I would get high, feel elated, temporarily float somewhere over the rainbow.
In my late teens, I would be irritated, restless, if I couldn't feel like that every day. I had come to crave "taking the edge off" everything. Then, in my 20s, I didn't feel normal unless I was drinking. It was a kind of mystical inversion. Everything that I used to feel when sober - tense, anxious, agitated - became everything I felt when I was drunk. And everything I had previously felt when drunk - out of control, woozy, spaced out - I felt when sober. My sense of normality capsized, got mixed up. It was like always wearing odd socks.
When I finally stopped drinking, aged 24, there was a nightmarish period of delirium tremens, a time when it was quite normal for me to hallucinate flocks of beautiful blue birds flying through my bedroom or to wake in the middle of the night, the sheets soaked through. During that time, I was like a human egg-timer, flipped the right way up once more, all the sickly grains of my alcoholism returning to where they had come from.
People tell you that rehab is the only way to get sober, that Alcoholics Anonymous is the only way to stay sober. But the truth is this: there is only your way. I didn't go to rehab. I got so physically ill that my body was close to collapse and for a while I went quietly nuts at home, climbing the walls, before being hospitalised with internal bleeding. When I left hospital, after four days of emergency endoscopies, half-hourly blood pressure checks, intravenous drips as prickly as rose thorns and drugs galore, I did not think: I am now an ex-alcoholic. I simply wanted my life to change.
Nine years and seven months later, my life is still changing. And I am only now getting comfortable with the idea that I am an alcoholic. Acceptance is the key to successful sobriety. It takes time and hard work. Since getting sober, I have dipped in and out of AA. I say dipped because the root cause of my drinking, the reason why I drank - depression and anxiety - sits uneasily with the AA ground rule that discourages members from taking any mood-altering substance or medication. Once out of hospital, I was prescribed anti-anxiety medication and ended up taking it for the first three years of my sobriety. That drug, along with hypnotherapy and exercise, played a big role in saving my life. That holy self-help trinity did more to teach me a sober life than any AA meeting.
When I did go to AA, members would sternly tell me to get off the anti-anxiety pills, that I wasn't learning to deal with my problems au naturel, that I was substituting self-medicating with alcohol for self-medicating with prescription medication. I told them that my GP had prescribed the medication, that the idea of ditching it seemed like a kamikaze move.
In response, I got a lot of mumbo-jumbo about turning my life over to God. For me, stopping drinking was an act of self-empowerment. It was about wanting to make the best of me, calling a halt to a life that had spun out of control, figuring out a way to live in peace with depression and anxiety. In short, it was about acceptance. And to achieve that, I could never buckle down and be a good little AA boy. So I went sporadically and sometimes it was great, helpful, at other times culty, oppressive.
Today, it's two years since I went to a meeting. And contrary to what AA would have members believe, I'm still sober, still working on myself, still doing it my way. I'm lucky. I've found my miracle healer: yoga. Nothing soothes the alcoholic that will always be screaming inside me better than yoga. If I am calm, if I am grounded, then I can go about my life with a clear head. And yoga gives me that possibility. And for that I am thankful.