Reminds Me Of You

Sitting on a camping chair 2,531 metres above sea level surrounded by the Moroccan mountains, I exhaled deeply and felt a peace so pure that would have seemed inconceivable to my twenty-three year old self. It was the evening of the fourth day of a week-long hiking holiday and I had left my fellow trekkers back at camp, to find a secluded spot for my daily meditation practice. The expansiveness of the landscape took my breath away and the silence of the mountains was unlike anything I had experienced before.

I was ten years sober and after another Christmas spent being the ‘single one’ amongst coupled up family members, I decided to book myself onto a walking holiday as an early birthday present. Hiking was something that I’d always wanted to do more of but rarely seemed to find the time for. I chose Morocco because it was the only reasonably priced country where the weather was good enough to trek in February. I was due to depart at the end of the month but because of limited numbers, I was asked to join a trip a few weeks earlier instead, to which I agreed. I didn’t know it then but this decision would change the trajectory of the next year of my life and leave a blemish on my heart, that I’m unsure will ever fade.

I noticed him at the airport – he was in the queue in front of me at the baggage check-in. I watched as he checked and re-checked his bag before finally releasing it onto the conveyer belt and into the baggage abyss. The screen informed me that we were heading to the same destination and as I took in his dark hair and eyes, I wondered if he was travelling back home. However, his name as it appeared on the screen, was distinctly un-Moroccan so suggested otherwise. A few hours later after landing, I discovered that we were to spend the week together as part of the same walking group.

In the van on the way from the airport to the hotel, I listened as he chatted easily with other members of the group. In contrast, I’ve always felt more comfortable as an observer of others rather than drawing attention to myself. Over the course of the week, we developed a strong bond as we discovered how much we had in common. The days were spent walking, talking and laughing – we laughed a lot. At night, we would watch the stars together while the others retired to their tents quickly after sunset.

The saying goes that, ‘you know when you know’ and after a few weeks, part of me thought that I’d found the person that I’d spend my life with. After so many years of being single, it felt like I had finally found my soulmate. I took it for granted that we’d have a lifetime full of things to talk about and do together. When our relationship came to a crashing halt, I realised that there were so many questions I hadn’t asked and so many pieces of information that I’d left undiscovered. These were the questions that I thought I’d have the rest of my life to ask.

When we returned home, I slowly felt him disappear and an invisible forcefield developed around him that I couldn’t penetrate. I tried to give him the space he so obviously needed but in the end, it felt that the distance he needed from me was limitless. It had become too painful to try to love someone who didn’t seem to have the capacity to accept, or want, that love. I breathed a brief sigh of relief when I let go – if it was meant to be, it wouldn’t be this hard, I told myself.

Over a year later and I still think about him every day – some days he’s just a thought gently passing through my mind but on others, the memories of the times we spent together come cascading back. There are so many things that remind me of him. I still see the ghosts of us in the places we visited together – I’m reminded of the night we broke up every time I pass the pub where it happened. More often than not, whenever a cyclist rides past, I look to check whether it’s him. When I overhear that his football team are playing, I wonder where he’s watching it and with who. There are songs I find it hard to listen to and TV shows that I can’t bring myself to watch, as they remind me of our time together.

I miss the way I felt around him, the safety of his embrace, how we laughed, my stomach filling with butterflies at the sight of him, the way we kissed. The thing I miss most is the way we kissed – it felt like we were made to kiss each other.

In the year since we broke up, I’ve been on a few dates and every time, my heart breaks a bit as they aren’t him. The fear that I’ll never connect with someone the way I did with him still scares me but I have hope that one day, I’ll find love and all the heartache will have been worth it.

I now ignore all the text messages he sends enquiring how I am and I avoid answering my phone when he calls, as I worry that the sound of his voice will set off an avalanche of longing so intense that it’ll encase me. Despite my best efforts to convince myself that I’m better off without him (and most of the time I actually believe it to be true), there are times when my heart still cries out for him in a high-pitched howl. It’s in these moments that I miss him so much, I can’t stand it.

Brand New Day

The fear that followed my last drink catapulted me towards my new life. I threw myself into recovery and went to AA meetings most days for the first year of my sobriety. I was amazed when I woke up each morning and looked forward to the day, rather than with the dread of trying to piece together the events of the night before that had dominated much of my mental space during the preceding year.

One of the things I feared the most before I got sober was that if I stopped drinking, I would never be able to socialise and wouldn’t ever make any new friends again. It also seemed certain, at least to me, that without alcohol and the false courage it brought, I would never be able to go on any dates again. From as early as I can remember, I was scared of ending up alone. Second only to my fear of being alone was the fear that I was boring. I worried that without alcohol, I would have no personality and nothing to offer in terms of friendships or relationships. By the end of my drinking, the desire to get sober overrode this fear of being alone. If I never make any friends for the rest of my life, I thought, so be it – it was a price I was willing to pay. By then I knew that if I didn’t stop drinking, I wouldn’t have a life anyway.

I met a woman quite quickly who guided me through the 12 steps (the programme of recovery in AA) and she reassured me that I would develop real friendships as people would get to know the real me instead of the person that alcohol had created – I no longer knew who that person was anyway. At the time, I was still sceptical. But something unexpected happened in my new life – I made lots of new friends and my social circle grew considerably. I went to gigs, open mic nights, comedy clubs, restaurants and coffee shops with the people I was getting to know and for the first time since I was a child, I started to feel that I had some worth as a person. I had fleeting moments when I felt comfortable in my own skin and I finally felt that I belonged and deserved my place in the world.

I dared to imagine that there was a meaningful life waiting for me and that it was already starting to unfold. I had taken the tentative first steps across the bridge towards my future – I was emerging from the shadows and walking towards the light.

The Darkness Before The Dawn

A few weeks after the Prague trip, I woke up one morning and a voice deep inside myself instructed me to do something I never thought I would – it told me to go to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. For some reason unbeknownst to me, I listened and that evening found myself in a room surrounded by numerous people I’d never met before, along with one person I’d known all my life. A family member had been sober in AA for about seven years by that point and as a result, the only thing I knew about AA was that it was a programme of abstinence. This detail definitely didn’t appeal and had dissuaded me from trying AA a year previously – I wanted to successfully control by drinking, not stop altogether.

However, as I sat in that musty room with tattered armchairs, I heard a woman speak about the paranoia that ensued the morning after a night of drinking. I’d never heard anyone talk about the mental anguish that, to me, was inextricably linked with hangovers before. This woman spoke to my soul and her words reassured me that I was no longer alone.

I knew that AA was where I belonged after that first meeting but I couldn’t imagine how I could live a life without alcohol – I thought I’d never be able to go on a date or meet up with friends without the crutch of a drink. A few weeks later, I attended an alumni event organised by my old university – there was an open bar and the call of the free Chardonnay was too powerful to resist. As soon as I had one glass, the familiar craving descended and I spent the next three days in a haze of drinking.

Over the course of those three days, I flew across Europe, got arrested, went to hospital and attended a counselling session – all in a state of semi-consciousness. On the third day, after meeting a man and agreeing to go back to his house, I wasn’t sure what had happened and convinced myself that maybe I had been assaulted. The police got involved and I was examined – as it turned out, nothing had happened. I was terrified that I could no longer trust my mind to tell me the truth, alcohol had robbed me of the ability to distinguish reality from falsehood. This wasn’t the first time that my inability to recollect events had scared me but something inside me changed that day and I knew it had to be the last.

The next day, I went to an AA meeting and surrendered to the fact that it was where I belonged. That day marked the beginning of my new life – a life in which I haven’t had to use alcohol to suppress my feelings or numb the pain inside myself. That was the day I began to heal.

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Shame

Two weeks after the disastrous date I found myself outside the flat of a man, eighteen years my senior, whom I’d dated for a few months the previous year. I remember being there but not the detail of what happened – blackout was a regular occurrence for me by then. What I do remember is that he was hosting a dinner party for his brother’s friends when I turned up, in a banshee-like state. I also recall how kind he was and let me stay until I had calmed down.

When I finally left and returned home, I was immediately gripped by shame and deeply embarrassed by my behaviour. I realised that I’d turned into someone, or something, that I no longer recognised – I had lost myself and had no idea how to find my way back. 

A few weeks later, in a moment of desperation I contacted a respite centre that specialised in treating people with suicidal thoughts. I don’t think I actually wanted to die but the idea of continuing the life I had been living wasn’t that appealing either. Within a few days, I was offered a place at the centre and I spent four nights there. When I arrived, I was told that I would have therapy sessions every morning and afternoon which at first terrified me – I’d spent twenty-three years running away from my feelings and having to finally confront them felt too overwhelming. At the same time, I was exhausted from the running and a small part of me was ready to stop.

I experienced relief in talking about my feelings for the first time in my life and by the end of my stay, a spark of hope had begun to flicker inside me. However, there was one topic that was off-limits – my alcohol consumption. I knew that if I dared to mention how much I was drinking, I would have to do something about it and I wasn’t ready to let go. Not yet. 

The day after I left the centre, it was my birthday and I hopped on a plane to Prague – a trip that I’d booked prior to my meltdown – with a new-found hope that I’d been cured of my malaise. I went with a friend who I’d known for about six months and up until that point, had been very careful not to get too drunk around her. She came into my life at a time when I was trying to control my drinking, with varying levels of success. I always seemed to be able to monitor how much I drank when I was with her – until the Prague trip. 

It was the height of winter and snow dusted Prague had a dream-like quality. On the first night, we walked up to the castle and stopped for a beer in one of the pubs. I hadn’t had a drink in about a week as alcohol wasn’t allowed in the respite centre and as soon as I took the first sip of beer, I felt my cells tingle and the craving for another coursed through my body.

I spent the rest of the weekend either drunk, on a combination of beer and vodka, or in bed sleeping off my hangover. My friend told me she was worried about me as she’d never seen me drink so much before. I tried to laugh it off but inside, I felt the sting of shame once more. The feeling of hope I’d had a few days earlier evaporated and I couldn’t understand why the darkness had descended so abruptly, yet again. 

Blurred Lines

By the time I reached the bar in Leicester Square where we’d agreed to meet, the high from the vodka I’d drank while getting ready had worn off and left a dull headache in its place. As we sat at the bar with our drinks in front of us, mine a cosmopolitan and his a beer, I looked at his pudgy face and watched his plump lips as they spewed sleazy compliments. Mildly repulsed by his obvious desperation, I looked longingly at the exit but felt stuck to the stool. Despite my disinterest, his flattery was a welcome ego boost as I was still reeling from a major rejection a few weeks previously (more on that later).

I reached for my drink and drained the remnants from the cocktail glass. ‘Another?’ He asked. ‘I’ll have a white wine, please.’ Experience had taught me not to mix my drinks as it usually resulted in a violent vomiting bout followed by a horrific hangover the next day. But tonight nothing seemed to be hitting the spot. The dull ache in my brain persisted even after a second glass of white wine followed by more vodka and orange. I felt numb but not the welcome kind that oblivion brings; I was trapped in the prison of my own mind with no escape hatch. It hadn’t dawned on me before then that alcohol could stop working for me.

‘I’ve got Champagne back at my place, left over from Christmas.’ His transparent attempt to lure me back to his flat made me cringe. I didn’t want to go (I wasn’t even a fan of Champagne) but I found myself following him, zombie-like, back to his place in a nondescript suburb on the outskirts of London. When we reached the flat despite his earlier promises, no Champagne materialised.

We talked for a little bit and I told him about the depressive thoughts that I’d been experiencing over the past year. I revealed my darkest secrets to this man that I was repulsed by. Such was my need for love and validation from anyone, even men I hated. Once in his bedroom, he kissed me. I felt conned and that I’d gone there under false pretences. When his hands touched my body I wanted to push him off but I felt obliged to sleep with him, I’d come back to his flat after all.

I didn’t understand then that I could change my mind about having sex with someone at any point in the process. It would take me a few more years to learn about self-esteem and self-respect and to develop, as well as to set boundaries, including those related to who touches my body and in what way. Alcohol had robbed me of the ability to keep my body safe.

The next day, I felt a sting of shame whenever I thought about the night before and the sleazy lech that I’d allowed to sleep with me. The revulsion I felt for him was no match for the loathing I reserved for myself. Despite this, I still longed for him to text me. I felt worthless for sleeping with him but in my codependent state I thought that if I heard from him, it would prove that I had some modicum of worth and that at least someone (anyone) wanted me. I thought I’d hit rock bottom but little did I know that a few weeks later, I’d fall to a new low.

Run

My eyes opened on their own but when I attempted to throw the duvet cover away, my arm failed to move. I discovered that my legs, too, couldn’t be tempted to vacate the bed. My whole body felt leaden and weary, as if it had been worn down by twenty-three years of living. I closed my eyes again, the sleeping-pill-induced headache was starting to kick in.

My doctor had prescribed the pills to help me sleep and told me to expect a hangover-type headache the morning after. This struck me as odd and inconvenient; the reason I wanted to take sleeping pills was to feel better. ‘If I can just get some sleep, I’ll be fine.’ I told myself in my naivety. But now, less than a year later I felt worse than ever.

Just as I was starting to drift off again, an unwelcome presence suddenly entered the room: my mother. She wanted to know what was going on with me and why wasn’t I getting ready for work? It was a reasonable question, I was living in her house after all. I didn’t know what to say or how to describe what I was feeling. I couldn’t find the words to articulate that I felt like I was drowning inside my own body; my head was going under and I was gasping for air. ‘I can’t.’ Was all I could offer. She threw open the curtains and let in the lacklustre January morning light; even the sun is depressed, I thought.

After she left the room, I lay staring at the rain spattered window and fantasised, as I so often did, about running away. However, the thing I wanted to outrun the most was my mind and even in my depressed state, I suspected that wherever I went my head would follow. My cheeks felt cold and damp and I realised that I must have been crying in my sleep again; the sadness found me, even when I was unconscious.

I reached for my phone on the table beside my bed and my heart sank further at the blank screen, which confirmed that there were no new messages which meant no messages from him. I hadn’t heard from Carl in over a month, not since he’d chosen her over me and told me not to contact him again. He needed to focus on their relationship from now on, he’d explained. Although he hadn’t said it, I knew that I’d become too much of a liability due to my drinking. The choice was his and he’d chosen the safer option. Two weeks after telling me that he still loved me, he’d changed his mind and decided that actually he loved her. I’d heard that the heart is fickle but is it that fickle, I wondered?

We’d met when I was twenty, at the start of the summer holiday between my second and third years of university, when I was back home in London. Carl was five years older and was training to be an accountant. From our first meeting, he made me feel safe; he didn’t drink much, played football every weekend and doted on his two nieces. He was boring but in the way I liked and represented the security that I’d craved for as long as I could remember. We seemed to click and being with him felt easy; I spent most of my weekends that summer going to stay with him in Milton Keynes, where he still lived with his parents. I wanted to immerse myself in the safety of his world. I’d spent my adolescent and teenage years dreaming of falling in love and finally it was happening.

Unlike most of my university friends, I was still a virgin; when they were hooking up with random guys they’d met on nights out at the students’ union and clubs in town, I’d always gone home alone to my own bed. Well almost always. I actually had had one boyfriend in my second year at university but despite his insistence, I’d never slept with him. I wanted to wait until I felt completely ready and he wasn’t willing to stick around until then. After a month or so with Carl, I knew that it was time.

Two months after I’d met Carl, I went on a family holiday to Corfu. As soon as I returned to London, I jumped on the next coach to Milton Keynes and into Carl’s arms; a week is a long time to be apart when you’re in love. We spent a blissful weekend together. On the Sunday evening, I took the coach back to London and got talking to the guy sitting next to me who was about my age. As we neared the north London bus stop that was my destination, he asked if I wanted to go for a drink with him. I smiled but politely declined, explaining that I had a boyfriend. In that instant I knew that I had met The One and I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to go on any more dates.

Things started to change between Carl and I when I returned to university to commence my third year; a five hour train journey from Milton Keynes. Despite his promises to come and visit me, he worked during the week and played football most weekends so rarely had the time. In six months, he visited twice. Although I sensed that he was drifting away from me (he would only call me once a week), I didn’t want it to be true so I would travel down on the coach to see him as often as possible in an attempt to keep the flickering flame alive.

Two weeks before my third year final exams, things with Carl had become fraught and he suggested that we have a break for a while – the distance had become too much, he’d said. I’ve heard it said that people who are in long-distance relationships aren’t ready to be in a relationship and in retrospect, perhaps that was true. Maybe the fantasy of falling in love was better than the reality, although at the time it felt real. A couple of months after our breakup, Carl phoned me to say that he was in a new relationship. She had been in his friendship group while we were together and they would often go to the cinema together, just the two of them. At the time I didn’t suspect anything was going on between them but obviously I should have. Although when we broke up, Carl insisted that it wasn’t necessarily forever and maybe we would get back together sometime in the future but now it felt so final; it was really over.

As I stared apathetically through the window at the rain as it fell outside on the suburban London street where I lived, I wondered whether we’d still be together if I’d gone to university nearer to home. Nearly three years after we’d broken up, I still thought that he was The One but now he had chosen someone else and not for the first time; he’d chosen her again. I felt sick when I imagined their life together – the life that should have been mine. Just to torture myself further, I would look at her Facebook profile photo (the only one that was public) again and again and wonder what she had that I was lacking. Everything would be ok if I could just get Carl to love me again, I was convinced of it.

The Beginning Of The End

As 2008 approached, I knew that I had to make a change. I was 23 years old and had spent the majority of 2007 in a perpetual haze of getting drunk and going on dates. When I wasn’t drinking, I was either hungover and planning my next drink or vowing to stop drinking for a month or so, just to let my body recover. Also if I didn’t drink for a month, I reasoned to myself, it would prove that I didn’t have a problem with alcohol, despite the ever increasing evidence to the contrary.

I had started 2007 in a relationship that I had been longing to leave since it had begun fourteen months previously. When I finally extricated myself in January 2007, I felt high from the freedom and possibility that lay before me. After spending over a year having to explain my daily whereabouts to my ex, I was excited at the thought of being able to go out with friends to bars and clubs and be free to flirt with other men without fear of being found out. Ultimately, I was looking forward to focusing on my own life and carving out a career, without worrying about a relationship. Also, I was sure that as soon as I left my ex I wouldn’t have to drink so much; I drank because I felt trapped in the relationship, or so I thought. It would take me over a year to understand that, in fact, I drank because I was (and still am) an alcoholic.

Despite my high hopes of reclaiming my independence after leaving my ex, I soon discovered that I craved the validation of men just as much as I craved alcohol. I needed both in order to feel alive and to fill the worthless hole inside me.

At first the idea of online dating, which was starting to gather momentum in 2007, felt exciting and novel. I wasn’t interested in developing a serious relationship but I didn’t like the idea of one night stands so internet dating seemed to provide the perfect solution; I could get the ego boost I needed from a few messages and dates with men here and there. I soon discovered another benefit too; as I wasn’t that bothered about seeing the guys I dated again, I could get as drunk as I wanted on the dates. However, like with all addictions, the more validation I received from men the more I needed. The combination of emotional unavailability and desire for affirmation led me to situations that I didn’t want to be in and ultimately, sleeping with men that I didn’t want to sleep with.

On Christmas Day 2007, I woke up with a horrific hangover and an overwhelming fear that I had done something unforgivable the night before. I turned my phone off as I was terrified that if I looked at my messages, they would confirm my fear. Although I’d gone into blackout, I had a vague recollection of getting into a fight with a friend I’d been at the bar with and I convinced myself that I had hit her. The only way I knew how to deal with the shame of what I had done was to get drunk and forget. However, as I downed glass after glass of Cava (it was Christmas after all), the oblivion I longed for remained elusive. A few days later I found out that I hadn’t, in fact, hit my friend on Christmas Eve. The immediate relief that washed over my body was quickly replaced with the fear that I was going crazy; I could no longer rely on my mind to recognise what was reality and what was drunken paranoia.

After the Christmas debacle, I decided that I wouldn’t drink again until my birthday in February 2008. ‘It’s only six weeks,’ I told myself, although inwardly I was sceptical that I could go six days without having a drink. Two days into my six weeks of abstinence, I arranged a date with a guy that I had met on a dating website. He looked ok in his photos although nothing special but we had a few messages back and forth and he seemed interesting enough.

I was strangely looking forward to my first non-drinking date, something which would have had me running for the hills previously. In fact, a few months before a guy had suggested we go for coffee instead of a drink and I’d never contacted him again, such was my fear of dating without alcohol as a crutch. However, as I applied my mascara in preparation for the date I noticed that my hand was trembling. ‘I know what will stop that,’ the voice in my head informed me. I only intended to have one; just a small vodka and orange to calm my shaking hand. As I drained the glass, I knew it wouldn’t be long until the familiar urge set in, not to be satiated for hours, if ever. ‘I’ve had one now, I might as well have another,’ I reasoned to myself. Within minutes I was pouring myself a second drink and had surrendered to the black hole inside of me. All memory of what had happened a few days previously evaporated and I didn’t care anymore, not that night anyway.