When I stopped drinking, I was terrified. Terrified about how empty my life was going to be. Terrified about what I was going to do instead. Terrified that I wouldn’t be able to relax or enjoy anything ever again. Terrified that fear, panic or anxiety would take over.
I spent a lot of time fearing fear itself. Ridiculous as this might seem, it’s a perfectly natural and normal response. I had lost my cure-all medicine and the unconscious part of me was panicking and desperately trying to protect me using all sorts of tactics.
The truth about fear is that it dissipates. When we do the thing we’re scared of, it turns out to be less scary than the anticipation of it. When we repeat it and practise it, the fear gets less and less and eventually goes away.
The other truth about fear is it doesn’t control you – you control it. Being scared of something doesn’t mean you can’t do it. In fact, being scared of something and carrying on and doing it anyway brings huge rewards, boosts your wellbeing and gives you greater confidence.
A couple of years ago, I walked El Caminito del Rey (The King’s Walkway) in Andalucia, Spain. This is an incredibly spectacular walk that happens to be situated on the side of a sheer rock-face that forms part of a gorge. I’m scared of heights and this was terrifying to me. I spent the days leading up to the walk becoming anxious about it. I didn’t get much sleep the night before and woke up that morning feeling nervous and sick. By the time I got to the start of the walk, I was in a state of heightened anxiety – I was desperate to feel “normal” and be laughing and relaxed like the rest of the group of friends I was with, and probably did a pretty good job of seeming that way on the outside, but on the inside, fear was consuming me.
Then something weird happened. I discovered I was okay. I started walking with everyone, admired the views and was fine. I was still breathing, I was still alive and I was even having a laugh at points. I discovered that all that fear I’d been carrying round for days was pointless. I was quite enjoying myself.
Then, two-thirds of the way round, things got tricky. The height felt like it was too much for me. The sheer drop to one side of me as I made my way round the wooden walkway that was bracketed to the side of the rock-face genuinely scared me. This wasn’t made-up anticipatory fear, this was real, visceral I’m-so-terrified-I-can-scarcely-breathe fear. I left the rest of the group to power onwards and looked straight ahead of me (I couldn’t look down as it made me go dizzy) and concentrated on breathing and taking one step after another. My right hand was gripping the steel cord attached to the rock to my right and my left hand was gripping the steel cord that formed the top of a barrier to my left. Everything in my body was clenched and tight. There was a woman walking ahead of me and I fixed my attention on her and just followed her, knowing that if she could do it, I could do it. I reached the end of that “section” of the walk and sat on a bench, relaxed a bit and waited for my friends to join me.
Obviously all of this was a huge achievement and I momentarily felt a flood of relief and adrenalin as I realised that the worst was over. My friends eventually joined me, excitedly chatting, laughing and fearlessly leaning over the barrier to look at the drop below…
Then we rounded a corner and saw that we had to cross a suspended bridge that went from one side of the gorge to the other. The bridge was made of steel mesh (you could see through the base and the sides), was suspended from the sides of the gorge by steel cables and was moving gently in the wind. I took one look at this and the fear seemed to take over. I told myself and the others that I couldn’t do it. My body and mind were gripped by a paralysing belief that I couldn’t make myself walk over the bridge and I would have to go back. Except I couldn’t go back either as I was too scared of that last section – I didn’t want to go through that again. I felt completely trapped and my fear levels had spiked.
I still don’t know exactly what happened in my head but I kind of flipped a switch and decided that, if other people were walking across it, then it was physically possible to walk across it and therefore it was physically possible for me to walk across it. I just decided in a split second that I was going to do it. The only problem was what my mind was doing to me and I didn’t have to let that stop me. So, I did it. One of my friends went in front of me, one went behind me, I gripped the steel cords again, concentrated on the rockface ahead of me (ignored what was to the sides and below me) and made my legs walk.
I tell you, the adrenalin and hysteria that washed over me as I descended the final section of the walk after that was like nothing I’d experienced before. I was on a natural high of a kind that I don’t think any alcoholic drink has ever given me. I experienced sheer joy and actually started to properly take in the majesty and beauty of the views around me.
Afterwards, when I thought about it, I realised that that split second when I had decided to walk over the bridge and had completely ignored the physical sensations in my body and the mind-talk in my head had provided me with one of the most powerful realisations of my life: No matter how strong fear seems, I am in control and I can do whatever I want.
This is something that I already logically knew and I had read other people’s thoughts and insights on fear and had quoted all of the “feel the fear and do it anyway”-type phrases to myself and others over the years, but there is nothing quite like experiencing fear and disregarding it to really understand the truth of this. It’s very empowering.
After this Caminito del Rey experience I thought that was it. I thought that, although I was happy I’d done it and had had this incredibly powerful realisation, I had no desire to do it again. Once was enough. However, it hasn’t gone quite according to plan. I’ve spent more time in this part of Spain and I’ve had friends and relatives come and visit me here and they’ve wanted to do the Caminito too so I’ve done it another two times.
The second time was okay. I was far less nervous than the first because I already knew I could do it. I knew I could physically get round it and I knew I could walk across the bridge. But I also knew how much fear I’d felt the first time and was anticipating that happening again… which it did in that final section. But I also set myself an extra challenge. Because I already knew I could walk across the bridge, I challenged myself to stop in the middle of it and spend a couple of seconds there. I even looked over my shoulder so my dad could take a pic.
The third time (a couple of days ago) was amazing. Not only did I set myself a further challenge (stopping on the bridge, unpeeling my hands from the steel cords, turning round completely to face the other way, having a selfie taken and looking down to the drop below – twice!) but I discovered that, although the fear is still there on that third and final section with the sheer drop, I am much more accepting of it… I have almost started relaxing with it. I spent way more time enjoying the views, being fully present in the moment, laughing with my friend, Rosa, and appreciating the experience than I had done on both previous occasions. And, I didn’t feel any nerves or anxiety beforehand – only excitement.
So, the lesson from all this – and what links it to how we experience stopping drinking – is that whatever scares us or makes us anxious about going without alcohol doesn’t have to stop us doing it. And, more importantly than that, each time you practise that event/situation without alcohol, the easier it will get. The more you challenge yourself, the more you will achieve and the more at ease with it you will become.