Recently I came to realise, or I should say, I decided to consciously acknowledge that I’ve been a pretty consistent, often daily drinker for close to 20 years.
Once an elite athlete, upon retirement from sport I allowed drinking to become a new past time. At first, I think it signified freedom. During my training years I was expected to uphold strict, usually non-drinking behaviours, enforced by my coaches and myself. Aside from special occasions, at the end of ‘big’ races like national championships or world cup/world championships, alcohol would seldom pass my lips. We certainly made up for this on the ‘special occasions’. When ‘allowed’, I could put the drinks away as quickly and plentifully as the next person. Upon retiring, having been bound by expectations for so many years, I decided it was time to do what I wanted and to find myself outside of sport.
It was a rough time mentally! I was adjusting to having decided to leave sport behind. I wasn’t 100% sure it was what I wanted to do. I just knew I needed change. Beyond this, I was adjusting to accepting my sexuality. It was late 1999, early 2000. I’ began realising my sexuality a couple of years earlier but hadn’t discussed it with anyone out loud. By 1999 I’d taken to writing poetry (I use the term loosely) to get my feelings out. I had journal after journal filled with poems of yearning for love, yearning for self acceptance and yearning to find that what I was feeling was normal. It was then that I found a safe online space. I was very new to the internet but I somehow stumbled upon a community of people who appeared to either be a lot like me, or at least to accept people like me. It was an Ani Difranco fan website. Ani was a musician whose music made me feel like someone else knew what I was going through. This website, inspired by Ani, was filled with like-minded people so I retreated into their little online world. They had a poetry board and I would write, share, read and respond to others. I felt a part of something bigger than myself. Though these people were online, they felt like friends. I told them things I feared telling my ‘real life’ friends. I am thankful to this day that I stumbled upon this little online world, for a time it became my world.
At this stage I wasn’t “out”, so I wasn’t going to clubs and socialising in ‘the real world’. I had begun having one or two, sometimes more drinks at home and writing. I felt like it made me more expressive and free to write. This was becoming a habit but I thought it was a good one. After all, I no longer had to get up and train two or three times a day, I was free to stay up as late as I wanted, and to drink if I felt like it. The way I saw it, alcohol was allowing me to open up and be myself. Eventually I started coming out in my real world. It was nowhere near as bad as my mind had conjured up. Most people in my life didn’t have much of an issue with my sexuality. Those that, at first struggled with the notion of me being gay, came around pretty quickly. Irrespective of this, I felt the need to run – to find a new life, and i did.
In early 2001 I moved to a different city, started uni and sought out gay bars. I started to frequent clubs, made new friends and fell into a world of drinking and drugs. Thankfully drugs scared me, so while I dabbled, they never really became my thing. Drinking however, was now pretty much part of my every night, be it at home or out. At first, the home drinking was just a glass or two of wine. Once in a relationship for a while it changed, we began drinking a lot more. Sometimes we stuck to wine or beer, other times and increasingly it was scotch, either way it didn’t matter, I was an adult, it was my choice and I was convinced I was fine with it. Sure, there were times I questioned how much I drank, but then I’d tell myself I was fine. After all others were doing the same.
The years went on, I suffered my first heartbreak, In an attempt to sooth my heartbreak, I stupidly slept with an ex. I got involved in a relationship with a girl who threatened suicide when I tried to leave her – held me hostage in my own home (hospital, police, a quick getaway – blah, blah – that’s a story for another day), I moved back to where I grew up – another relationship and a one night stand came and went. So many things changed but my old faithful companion, alcohol, remained a constant.
In recent years I’d come to question myself a lot more frequently, how did I get from elite athlete – representing my country – to washed up, daily drinker looking at others bad habits to justify their own? I decided that I no longer wanted to live like this. I have since quit drinking and am now 6 weeks sober! So far it’s going great. I have taken back control of my life. It’s early days but already I’ve found that I’m healthier, happier, – according to the laughter of my girlfriend of 8 1/2 years – I’m funnier and I think I’m whole lot nicer to be around.
Thanks to a couple of audio books, first “The unexpected joy of being sober”, by Catherine Gray, which gave me more uh ha moments than I could have imagined. Then “This naked mind”, by Annie Grace, I’ve come to realise, the freedom I was searching for in alcohol was a false, deceptive freedom. Real freedom comes from understanding that you don’t need alcohol (I don’t need alcohol) to feel free.