It’s no secret I used to like a drink. Drinking provided me with a form of escape and something to mask my emotions (or not in some cases). I would often be the last on the dance floor or sat around a friend’s kitchen table because I’d mastered the art of avoidance. Avoiding thoughts, feelings and situations in any way possible especially by not wanting to go home. As a naturally anxious person I’d established this technique as a way of avoiding my anxiety, or so I thought. This tactic in fact allowed problems to grow under the surface and internalising my feelings, which just caused me to feel trapped.
Since breaking up with booze my anxiety has reduced significantly, and apart from the obvious reason (not pouring petrol on a bonfire) it got me thinking…
Growing up I was always pretty active, starting out my childhood as a gymnast then developing a love for dancing. However as alcohol increasingly intertwined its way into my life the only dancing I seemed to do was drunk on a dance floor. I would even often claim “I’m not drunk enough to dance yet” – giving me an excuse to have a shot or two at the bar first before stepping out with some liquid courage.
So where had the confident and energetic girl disappeared to? The one who use to be able to dance in front of theatre full audience? How had she got to a point where she was hiding behind this so-called ‘social lubricant’ in a dark nightclub?
Through my early twenties I think I’d underestimated the power of movement. How free it can make you feel and how it can lead to a happier, healthier version of you not just physically but mentally too. When the only regular moving I was doing was fuelled by alcohol and between the hours of 10pm to 3am it wasn’t quite having the positive effect on me that I desperately needed.
You could say my priorities weren’t in the right place but I suppose whose are when you’re at university? Despite being on the committee for dance society for 3 years I spent more time dancing on Deansgate Locks that I did in the dance studio. My roles as Events Manager, Social Secretary and Chairwoman fuelled the binge drinking ‘superwoman’ inside me that lived for AU (Athletics Union) Wednesdays, which were the definition of ‘Go hard or go home’. No matter how much I drank or for how many hours, I seemed to escape these horrific hangovers so many of my friends seemed to suffer from. I was under this invincible illusion that I could party hard and get off so lightly the next day that I continued my binge drinking days well beyond university.
My obligatory year of travelling that followed was no different, filled with boozy bingo, wild challenges to win activities and far too much goon. After almost 8 months of pretty much drinking every single day I decided to attempt Sober October with some colleagues at work in Perth – the ultimate test being a wine-tasting training session, imagine how hard it was to just smell and not taste free wine! During this time I was determined to incorporate some more movement in my life too. So alongside this I also signed up to a challenge which combined a meal and workout plan set up by one of my friends from home who was a Personal Trainer, giving me the perfect distraction and something to focus on whilst abstaining from alcohol. I could do this virtually by reporting and checking in with her whilst also posting to Instagram to keep me accountable. Having a plan to follow gave me the structure I needed and I instantly started to feel benefits even from things as simple as replacing catching the bus with walking to work and doing workouts in the local park, and of course the glorious Australian weather helped!
Returning home to the UK (in winter) however provided a different story. Although I started physically attending my friend’s private gym classes, that lasted about as long as reality TV relationships – thanks to my full time job in hospitality. With no regular rota or routine in my life, scheduling in gym classes became almost impossible. I had to find another way to get moving. One activity I had always had an on and off relationship with over the years was running. Running solo worked for me if and when I managed to motivate myself as it didn’t matter if my rota changed as running could fit in around it. The problem with this though was I had no accountability. I would set my alarm in a morning with all the intention in the world to run before work but it rarely happened. Running before a 16 hour shift? No thank you. Running on my day off? Absolutely not. I found excuse after excuse.
Accountability is something I’ve always struggled with. As a people pleaser I find it all too easy to drop any plans for myself to do something with or for someone else. This is why public gyms and me have never worked, I’ve had countless memberships at just about every gym you can think of and to be honest I might as well have flushed my money down the toilet. I would actually hate to work out the money I’ve spent against the time I’ve actually spent in them, a lesson I never seem to learn. I got to a point where I told myself I just needed a gym buddy (for the accountability) but then the problem with that was if the other person couldn’t make it – I simply wouldn’t go.
During my years of working in hospitality full time I would tell myself I was already moving everyday, on my feet for hours on end which was getting my steps in, so therefore I didn’t need more exercise surely? However this is when I needed it the most. This is when my mental health seriously declined and took a huge plunge. Coincidently it’s also when my toxic relationship with alcohol peaked – or hit rock bottom I suppose. I didn’t need the exercise for my body I needed it for my mind.
Once I broke free from the reins of the hospitality industry (a story for another day) I soon came to realise I had no hobbies. After years of no routine and being unable to attend anything regularly, I’d given up. The only thing I seemed to do in my spare time was socialise and drink. My social life had begun shifting from almost being non-existent or just revolving around the late opening hours to having every evening and weekend to myself. It was what I’d always wanted but it was a shock to the system as I suddenly had all this free time but no idea how to fill it. This was when my relationship with alcohol became very apparent. Hidden amongst working in hospitality for over 10 years it has become acceptable to drink on any day of the week. It soon became something I was very aware of once I changed industries yet something I was unable to control – it had become a habit.
Once I realised this, I consciously started filling my time with gym classes again by joining yet another gym and trying out new activities. This helped for a while but again I struggled with accountability. So I decided to pick up running again. Once I was out there I loved it. I’d always found running a great sense of release. The mental challenge of getting my trainers on then one foot out the door followed by the other and picking up a pace filled me with accomplishment. Again though I found it easier when someone joined me, it was too easy to convince myself to stay indoors when there was no one to go with or it was too cold.
When I finally made the decision to break up with booze and wrote my lists of dreams and goals, on one of my lists I wrote ‘Leeds Abbey Dash 10k’. Although I had done this a few years before during my running stint , I knew having this to focus on would provide me with the distraction I needed during October in my first month of not drinking. ‘Training’ would be a great excuse for not drinking too if anyone asked, I thought. It gave me the push I needed to get out the door and brave the brisk autumn fresh air, helping me to focus my mind and obsess over something else other than staring at the fridge or contemplating going to the shop.
“The feelings I used to numb with alcohol I found I could now control with running. It gave me a place to purge negative feelings and emotions. Things that seemed heavy and stressful didn’t seem so troubling after a run.”
Whilst running I was able to drown out not only the idle voices in my head trying to convince me I had no motivation to keep going, but also the whisperings of the Wine Witch. This time running was something that stuck with me, as did my willpower to resist alcohol. The feelings I used to numb with alcohol I found I could now control with running. It gave me a place to purge negative feelings and emotions. Things that seemed heavy and stressful didn’t seem so troubling after a run. It was the one thing that enabled me to force the Wine Witch into hiding. If I could persevere, keep moving, make the next km and not to give up though a run then I knew I could beat her. Winning this constant brain battle is like no other. Completing a run when all the voice inside your head is telling you to do is give up is very comparable to the wine witch trying to get you to give in to alcohol. It’s therefore no surprise that people who struggle with their relationship with alcohol turn to exercise to fuel their obsessive/addictive behaviour instead.
After completing the Abbey Dash quicker in 2019 than my time in 2016 I craved another challenge and applied for the ballot for the Great North Run half marathon in 2020. Being accepted meant I would have the training to keep me occupied for a good few months during the summer when I knew beer gardens would be all too tempting. However when COVID 19 and the inevitable lockdown struck, running took on a whole new value and importance, I needed it now more than ever. I needed something to get me out of bed, out of the house and gain a sense of achievement with my days that were rolling into weeks.
I set myself up with a training programme in the hope the GNR would go ahead (which of course it didn’t so I’ve rolled my place on to 2021) but instead they released the GNR Solo Challenge which I immediately signed up to, to give me a goal to work towards. Now I can’t lie, trying to run 40 runs in 75 days was HARD. I planned out a schedule and tracker for my runs working out the distances I’d need to run each week and when I would do them. This meant 4 runs most weeks and to be straight, it was TOUGH to get my little legs out there that often as I also started back at work during this time. The battle with my mind to get me up and out in the morning or after a day at work became exhausting. However each one I completed and ticked off my schedule gave me a sense of achievement. I could see my tracker itching closer to my total km every time. When I’d had a rough day I always knew once my feet were pounding against the floor with my music blaring, my worries would start to melt away into the pavement.
Although I didn’t complete the challenge due to a migraine which wiped me out on the final day when I’d planned my half marathon I still smashed the Bronze distance (and almost made the Silver). So I might not have a medal to show for it in the end but when I reflect on it, it was never about having something for me to put in a box to look at now and again; it was to keep me focused, get me through a period of uncertainty and to keep my mind moving.
Running unlocks a part of me that craves the freedom to fly. It allows my mind to zone out and forget my day in a more positive and healthy way for my body than sinking a bottle of wine ever did. Alcohol might appear like it gives you wings to fly away from your problems but it also takes away the sky. The mindset training you develop from running through practicing positive internal dialogue, learning how to drown negative thoughts out and stay motivated are all tools you can transfer into your sobriety journey. Next time you’re thinking of having a drink – try going out on a run instead and see what wonders it can do for your mind yourself.
If you wish to join me in swapping your dancing shoes for running ones then keep an eye on our Instagram page as I have a plan in the pipeline!