This week Esther shares her story of alcohol addiction, recovery and how yoga helped her stop looking externally for answers and to start looking inside to find more peace.
I think Esther’s story seemed quite familiar. It felt quite close to home for me, and I think it will do for many people. A lot of people find life very hard and start looking externally to change that. That can all too easily come in the form of alcohol, drugs and other substances, as they are a way of escaping, a way of getting a little bit of respite from the toil that life can sometimes feel like.
But ultimately those external things don’t work. They damage and lead to more hurt. Eventually, there is a requirement to move away from those external things, however hard that may be, and to go inside. That’s when it starts to get really hard. But if you can push through that, I really believe you can transform yourself. But it’s not an easy journey.
So I think when people are able to share their story of how they navigated that difficult path it can be really useful to others who are nearer the start of the journey.
Find out more about Esther’s Yoga practice and her story at her website: http://balanceandbreathe.co.uk/ .
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If you feel that you would like to contribute to a future episode please get in contact - firstname.lastname@example.org - and check out my website www.theministryofchange.org for more details about my mental health journey around the UK.
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Marcus:1:48Today's podcast, which is with Esther. She is going to be sharing her story about alcohol addiction recovery and how she found yoga and, and how, how that yoga sort of really helped her stop looking at externally for the answers and really go inside and find more peace. I think it's the sort of story that's really familiar. It really felt quite close to home for me. I think a lot of people find life very difficult and look externally for the answers and that can all too easily come in the form of alcohol, drugs or other substances as they are a way of escaping, a way of providing a little bit of respite from this difficult toil that life can sometimes feel like, but ultimately those external things, they don't work. They just damage. They lead to more hurt and eventually I think there's a requirement to sort of move away from those external things, however hard that may be, and to go inside and that's when it to get really hard. That's the hard bit, but that's the bit if you can really push through that, I really believe you can transform yourself, but it's not an easy journey. And so I think people that are willing to share their stories of that journey sort of really helped open up that area is for other people to be able to see the potential when they maybe are still in that really like difficult place and using these external things as a coping mechanism, which is fair enough. Anyway, I'm really, really grateful to Esther, for sharing her story.
:3:50When I was growing up and into my adulthood I had a very real sense of not belonging, not really fitting, not really knowing who I was or who I was supposed to be feeling that I had since childhood. That I didn't really feel like I belonged where I live. I didn't really feel like I knew anything about what was expected of me or who I actually was at my core. And I know that most children don't know who you are and how you are, but I just felt really lost from a very young age. I was very lacking in confidence and self esteem and sort of saw that in other people. If people liked me, then I must be okay. And when people didn't like me, I took that as a, as a real, not just that they didn't like me, but there was something wrong with me. If one particular person didn't like me, then there had to be something wrong with me as a person. So my self esteem, my sense of who I was was very much tied up in other people. I was raised in going to church and having faith in God and then when I was about 12. I lost that quite spectacularly and very suddenly. And I replaced it with obsession with pop stars and Rock Stars in particular, The Beatles, George Harrison. And as I grew up, I felt more and more safety and emotional support in music.
Esther:5:42And that became one of the only ways that I had to soothe myself for a very long time, by turning the music up loud, singing at the top of my voice and dancing. When I was 18 I developed an eating and for about six months I was binge eating and then scoffing down as many laxatives as I could get my hands on and made myself really quite unwell. And this wasn't really dealt with very well. It was kind of just forced out of me rather than being dealt with. And I think this was the start of some really dangerous territory for me because I had a lot of issues that I was trying to deal with and I didn't know how to deal with them. And I tried to deal with them through music and I tried to deal with them through controlling and, you know, the self destructive pattern of eating with the bulimia.
Esther:6:42And that wasn't accessible to me anymore. I very quickly discovered when I made some new friends who went into partying and taking drugs, I very quickly discovered that if you drink enough alcohol or take enough drugs, then you could forget about your problems. It was only for a little while. Most of the time I would end up remembering them and being too drunk to be able to do anything much about them, to make any sense of how I was feeling. But there was this discovery that I could find oblivion and I spent a lot of time then seeking oblivion. I didn't like who I was. I didn't like how I felt. So alcohol in particular provided the perfect solution. It became a real comfort blanket to me for a very long time. So at about the age of 20 my life fell apart, quite catastrophically.
Esther:7:41And I immersed myself really deeply in alcohol. I started drinking on my own, but mostly drinking to excess with friends, but drinking on my own quite a bit. That patent of behaviour carried on for the next 20 years with me drinking, increasing amounts of alcohol on my own. My tolerance would go up and I would find that I would be drinking six to eight cans of cider and a bottle of wine would go quite easily. Sometimes a bottle and a half of wine. I just drunk and lost an awful lot. Far, far more than is even remotely healthy. This was my only coping strategy. Alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana in particular where my only coping strategies that I had in life. I made sure that all my friends would drink as you know, if somebody didn't like getting drunk, I couldn't be friends with them.
Esther:8:42I couldn't understand them. I couldn't connect with them and they probably wouldn't like me anyway. So I became very comfortable in this space where binge drinking, excessive drinking, taking drugs, smoking were all completely normal. So I didn't even really see that there was a problem. I knew that not everybody would get into such a mess as I did. That people would remember things that I wouldn't remember. People didn't seem to be drinking on their own the way I was doing and I know I didn't tell my friends that I was doing that, so maybe they were. Maybe they do still, I don't know. But I kind of knew that I was doing harm to myself, but I didn't really know that there was any other solution. Drinking was just normal. It was part of my everyday living and I was never one of these people that could just have a glass of wine. I couldn't see the point of drinking alcohol if you weren't going to get yourself very, very drunk.
Esther:9:47So I did this. This was my way of living for 20 years. When my brother died in 2005. So when I was 32 and I remember in the week leading up to his death, I remember he was in a coma. And I remember thinking to myself, I mustn't start drinking in the day. And I had this knowledge that if I started drinking in the day, I would probably never emerge. And it's really weird to look back at that now because I had this awareness that I had a drinking problem, but I never really articulated that. I just knew that I couldn't risk going down a path that I could see myself very easily going down. I didn't even realize I was already on that path. It's just that I managed to stop myself kind of getting a taxi to rush to the finish line of that path I suppose.
Esther:10:46So that was, I mean, that was 12, 13 years ago, a long time now. And it still surprises me now that I was never able to make that link once I emerged from the shock, that I didn't do something about my drinking. But I managed not to start drinking during the day when my brother was in a coma and then died. And I did drink an awful lot. But I managed to not go down that dark alley. But I did carry on drinking. But at the same time, while a little while after my brother died, I started going, walking, started going for walks, long walks with my mother. And started to really enjoy going out walking and this became a new passion for me and more importantly, it became a new coping strategy. If I'd had a bad day at work or I was just unhappy in general because I was struggling with grieving for my brother and I was, you know, I had a lot of other mental health problems and I was struggling to cope with the fact that my brother had died.
Esther:11:55So instead of automatically go into the pub or buying a bottle of wine on the way home, I would put my walking boots on and go for a walk. And you know, it might only be for an hour. It might be all day if I had the weekend. And that became part of my toolbox. I was still drinking a lot. But there were times when if I wanted to go on a guided walk, for example, that started at 10:00 in the morning and I had to drive for an hour to get that on a Saturday. I would stay sober on a Friday night so that I could go and enjoy the walk. But then I would reward myself with drinks when I got home. So although walking helped me to lower my alcohol levels, it was also still tied up with it. It was the reward for the long day of walking.
Esther:12:45Even though I thoroughly enjoyed the walking, the alcohol was still very much this idea of having a reward. And this whole time I was still stressed. I was still going through obviously bereavement and the trauma of my brother dying at 30 and I was still struggling to process all that. My whole life has been lurching from one disaster to the next. One thing to stress me out. Then once I kind of got over that and move onto the next stressful thing. So there's always been this catastrophic, chaotic feeling to my life. And looking back now I can see how much the drinking was contributed to that. Alcohol, I've learned now actually raises your cortisol level. It raises your stress level. So if you've got issues with stress and anxiety, which I had, that's going to make that worse.
Esther:13:48It's a depressant. So if you have depression, alcohol is gonna, make that worse. And I thought that all the alcohol was helping with all these problems, but it was actually exacerbating them. I suffered terribly from insomnia. Since I was a little girl I struggled to sleep and I used to use alcohol to help me sleep. But of course that's not sleep. I would drink until there was no wine left and then I pass out or I drink until I passed out. And then I'd wake up utterly exhausted the next morning because I hadn't slept properly. And then I would be keeping myself going through the work day with coffee. So then in the evening I'd be too caffeinated to be able to sleep. So there was this cycle that I was on where one, my coffee addiction was actually fueling my alcohol addiction. And both of those things will elevating my stress levels to such a high level that I actually couldn't cope with anything at all.
Esther:14:46I was permanently wired, permanently stressed. Even when I felt like I was quite calm, I was still, you know, even on a walk I would go up for a 10 mile walk, come back, feeling great, but still needing alcohol at the end of the day. So I lived this way for 20 years. The only time I was able to actually say, "Right, I'm not drinking at all", was when I was 37. I found myself very unexpectedly pregnant and because I knew I had caused my body so much damage over the years, you know, drugs, bad eating, alcohol, cigarettes. I knew that my body was in a terrible state, so I decided I wanted to give this baby the best chance, figuring that there might already be a chance that the baby was going to be damaged because of my poor self care. So I gave up drinking.
Esther:15:44I gave up smoking immediately, but I couldn't wait to get back to them. Even when I got a year of not drinking and not smoking, it was always just a pause. It was never going to be an end. And I've often thought about that first time I had a drink after having my son. It was like returning to the arms of your long lost love. It felt like I was going back to my best friend and I was going back home. It felt really like I needed it. I really needed it. I was very unhappy in the relationship I was in as well at the time with my son's father and I just needed that so much. For three years after my son was born, I had what actually turned out to be the hardest year of my life. Harder than the year in which my brother died. My brother died at the end of the year, but that year it had been a really good year up until the point where my brother got ill. 2013 was the worst year I've ever experienced.
Esther:16:44It was just one thing after another. I think of it as like life kind of decided I was going to have to change because I had problems at work, my mother got ill, I had problems with my ex, I had all kinds of stuff going on that was just pounding down at me and I was already struggling to cope with life anyway. And then all of these things just kept hitting me over the head, really making my stress levels higher and really reducing my ability to cope with life. And in the August of that year, I reached basically breakdown point. I was almost literally on my knees. I couldn't cope any longer and I decided I was going to give up my job, which I did in floods of tears seven weeks into a new job.
Esther:17:44I had to form the HR department in floods of tears and tell them that I couldn't go in. I don't know if they actually understood the words I was saying, but I think they understood the intention. I just sort of fell into this breakdown, which I think had actually been a long time coming. I think that I needed this breakdown to happen. I felt almost a sense of relief that right now I can just fall apart. I didn't feel like I had to hold everything together anymore. I could just allow myself to fall apart, go crazy for a bit, which I did. I'd made a lot of really strange decisions during that time. But then towards the end of that year I was thinking about how much yoga helped me. I'd been doing yoga classes by this point... For about six years? Five or six years I think. No, maybe a bit less, but I'm not sure exactly. I'd always loved it. I loved the way it made my body feel. I didn't like the breathing exercises, but I loved the way it made me feel.
Esther:19:01But after Yoga Class I would still go home and drink a bottle of wine. So there was something missing from my yoga practice, but I knew that it was an important part of my life. And I thought for a long time that I wanted to teach it at some point and so as the the of the fog of the breakdown lifted and I started to figure out I need to actually start thinking about what I'm going to do with my life now. I decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to try and find a teacher training course that I could do. I tried before, but they'd always been some obstacle in the way that had stopped me from doing yoga teacher training. But as I decided that a brand new teacher training course was starting to be promoted on Facebook.
Esther:19:52So I contacted this teacher who I'd never met before. I registered to join her class the following April. And as soon as I made the decision that I was going to do that, it felt like I already started to relax into it. I decided on New Year's Day of 2014, I decided that I was going to stop drinking on my own because I knew no matter how much denial I was in about the extent of my addiction, I knew the drinking on my own was really not good for me. I had a little boy sleeping upstairs and I was getting drunk on the settee downstairs, so I made that decision that I was going to stop drinking on my own and it was a lot easier than I ever anticipated. I'd never been able to control my drinking alcohol in the past. I'm quite a rebellious type even when it's something I want to do.
Esther:20:45So if I say you're not going to drink in the week anymore, I'll drink every day that week, you know? That's the way I've always operated. So knowing that I was going to be a yoga teacher helped me to just calm a little bit and I was able to reduce how much I was drinking. Then when I started doing the yoga teacher training it basically transformed my entire world. I learned how to breathe properly, which was just so life changing. It's not the only thing that has helped me to get to recovery, but I think the biggest factor in my recovery was learning to breathe properly because it helped me to relax. It helped me to calm the stress, calm my nervous system down, and it helped me to just create a bit of space in my head to create space in my body and to just be a bit more present.
Esther:21:44And all of the things that the yoga teacher training gave me, gave me, gave me the resilience that I'd never had before. The stress management strategies that I'd always sought in alcohol and drugs. It gave me the ability to be with myself, to be able to look at myself with a bit of compassion instead of criticism, to be able to accept the fact that I've made a lot of mistakes in my life. That I made a lot of decisions that I wish I hadn't made. And to look at those mistakes with compassion instead of with anger and rage and blame and shame. It helped me in particular to shed a lot of the shame that I felt about the way that my life had gone. Shame is such a toxic emotion that it's really destructive. Brenee Brown talks about shame and how it, how it correlates to addiction, how it correlates to depression and stress and suicide and violence.
Esther:22:50So to be able to actually work through some of that shame that I felt for mistakes that I've made in the past was really empowering and really helped with my healing. And halfway through that training I was able to stop drinking and stop smoking. Obviously there was still a lot of healing to do. I've done a lot of work on myself through the yoga and I'm still a work in progress four years later. Still very much working on myself. But it's just amazing when you think about how something as simple as learning to breathe gave me that piece that I've been seeking in drink. You know, I'd always wanted that comfort blanket of alcohol. But the comfort blanket became, as they tend to, became something that was suffocating me and killing me with no doubt about it.
Esther:23:52It was killing me. And I look back now at the person that I used to be. You know, if I've been sober now for three and a half years, I look back at the person I used to be. Whereas I used to look at myself with such and such hatred. I couldn't bare looking at myself in the mirror. You know, we're talking on video now. There is no way I would've been able to do that a few years ago. I would have hated it. Every time I catch a glimpse of my face now, I don't mind now. I quite like my face now. I think it's quite a nice face. To be able to actually look back at that person that I was now, and know how much I hated myself, how unhappy I was.
Esther:24:36I can feel such compassion for that person. Which if I'd been able to do that back then, I wouldn't have been in the state that I was. I think that self compassion is something that we struggle with so much when we have got mental health problems. It's so hard to find that compassion for yourself because we're so caught up in what's going on in our minds that we can't actually look outside of ourselves and look at ourselves from a different angle. It is so empowering to be able to just step back and look at the things that are good about yourself and the progress that you've made in life and look at how actually just because you made a mistake that day doesn't mean that you're a bad person. Or just because you feel like this today doesn't mean that your life is terrible. It's just been such a powerful journey that the not just the last couple of years of recovery, but the whole journey, the whole 25 years now. I've been talking about 20 years for such a long time. I still did not notice the five years have passed, but you know, 25 years of addiction and then recovery has been such an amazing, painful, but an incredible journey into self discovery. And in some ways it sounds weird, but one of the things that yoga has taught me has been gratitude and the power of gratitude and there's a very big feeling that I have now of actually being grateful for what I went through. If I lived in easy, comfortable life, I would never have done all the soul searching or I might not have done the soul searching that I've done because it tends to be that we learn about things, we learned lessons through pain, through difficulties. When things are going well, we don't really stop and evaluate that, but when things go badly, that's when we tend to look at life and look at ourselves and look at the way things are going and why. And I think I've learned so much because of the difficulties that I've had. I mean, there's still, I wish my twenties hadn't been so horrible, but at the same time, I've learned such a lot. I think that there's an awful lot of power and looking back at that pain with gratitude, because it happened. There's no point regretting it. It happened and my life has taken its trajectory that it has. And now I think I can use my experiences to hopefully help other people to understand that, you know, if you are that single mother sitting on the settee with a bottle of wine in your hand and your kids upstairs and you feel that you're the worst person in the world because you're doing that, but you don't know what else to do.
Esther:27:44At least I can say to them, you're not the only one. And there is help out there and you can learn to love yourself. And it doesn't mean that you're a terrible mother. Because you do, you beat yourself up so much when you're doing that. And that just makes it worse because you pile that shame onto yourself and when you're in shame, you've got nowhere else to go other than further into shame. So, when I started my training, we were given three rules of yoga which have helped me along my journey. They are, don't judge, don't compare and don't beat yourself up. And I think they are such powerful things to remember when you're thinking about life in general, but especially I think when we are within this mental health space because it's so easy to look at people and think, "Oh, my life isn't as good as theirs".
Esther:28:49"My life isn't as bad as this", we can compare both ways. Comparison doesn't help you in any way, shape or form because you either come away thinking that you're better or better off than somebody or worse or worse off than somebody. And it's not helpful. But the beating yourself up one in particular is really good. You make so many mistakes when you're in addiction. I let my children down. I've let my family down, I've let myself down, I've let colleagues down, I made all these terrible mistakes. If I spend my life beating myself up for things that I did when I was in the grip of an addiction, I'm never going to be able to move forward. So if you can stop beating yourself up and actually look at, "well, how can I make sure that I never do that again?"
Esther:29:42Then you've got power. There is power in that mistake instead of shame. I think that the first of those rules - the don't judge, I think that all of society we need that. And particularly in the mental health space, we have this horrendous stigma around mental ill health and addiction and it just doesn't help anybody at all. I think that we need to start by showing the lack of self judgment and that if we started being kinder to ourselves then it might ripple out to the rest of society.