Do you ever feel scared about what it means to stay sober?
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. Terrified about who I was going to be without alcohol to prop me up.
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. My unconscious mind was desperately trying to protect me using all sorts of tactics to get me to go back to the patterns it knew and trusted. One of these tactics was to try and convince me that living life sober was a terrifying, traumatic and difficult thing.
The truth about fear, though, is that left alone, 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 retreats more and more 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 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 sweating, not sleeping and getting increasingly anxious about it. I only had a couple of hours' sleep the night before and woke up in the morning feeling nervous and sick. By the time I got to the start of the walk, I had reached a state of heightened anxiety. I was desperate to feel “normal” and to be laughing and relaxed like the rest of the group of friends I was with, and I 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. As the walk progressed, I discovered I was okay. My brain got distracted by the majesty and beauty of the scenery around me. I noticed myself admiring the views and laughing with my friends. I was still breathing, I was still alive and I was even enjoying myself. I discovered that all that fear I’d been carrying round for days had been pointless. The walk was fun, I was relishing the drama of the landscape and nature surrounding us and I was feeling excitement and adrenalin rather than fear.
Then, suddenly, two-thirds of the way round, things got trickier. We rounded a bend on the narrow ledge we were walking along and I became super-aware of the drop to the left of me into the gorge below. The height felt like it was too much for me. That sheer drop to the 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 ahead as some kind of survival instinct kicked in and I just wanted to get it over and done with. I marched onwards and looked straight ahead of me (I couldn’t look down as it made me go dizzy), I concentrated on breathing in and out 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 the 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 could follow in her footsteps. I finally 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…
We re-grouped, set off again, rounded a corner and came face-to-face with what some people think of as the pinnacle of the walk - a suspended bridge that goes from one side of the gorge to the other. The bridge is made of steel mesh (you can see through the base and the sides), it's suspended from the sides of the gorge by steel cables and, on this particular day, was swaying from side to side in the wind. I took one look at this and the fear flooded through me. I heard myself saying out loud that I couldn’t do it. My body and mind were gripped by a paralysing belief that I couldn’t make myself walk over that bridge and I would have to go back. Except I didn't want 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 the bridge, 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 the space around me 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 an energy that hasn't been equalled since.
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" - 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 repeat it. 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 experience the Caminito too so I’ve ended up doing it another couple of times.
The second time I did it was better than the first. I was far less nervous 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 when I was 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 I did it 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.
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. We can feel the fear and carry on anyway. We don't have to let the fear control us. Getting through a social situation sober is way easier than walking the Caminito del Rey. And, each time you practise that event, that situation without alcohol, the easier it will become.
Have you ever been terrified of something and done it anyway? What tricks does your unconscious mind play on you to try and get you to return to alcohol?
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