wellness

"Pissed. Fell in a rose bush." The doctors note that should have made me quit drinking.

Leaving a friend’s house after more than a few drinks one afternoon, I stumbled into a rosebush.

It was just embarrassing. Until we discovered a thorn was embedded deep in my neck, right by the jugular. 

Admitted to hospital for an overnight stay, the pain might have ended there - if it wasn’t for my discharge notes. In that unmistakable doctor’s scrawl, I clearly read the words: 'Pissed - fell into a rosebush.' 

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It wasn’t exactly an unfair assessment. And it wasn't my first offence either.

I was the woman who had passed out cold in the back of taxis, while looking after my children. But, incredibly, none of that - not even those words from the doctor - prompted change.

Then, one night, as I tucked my 11-year-old into bed, she asked me to please leave my wine glass outside. Suddenly, none of it looked like fun anymore.

It occurred to me that my pre-teens were watching me ‘adult’ and framing up their own experiences of the world. And even they weren’t comfortable with it. 

So often we talk about a playground 'mummy wine culture', but when that lifestyle ticked over into my own middle-age as my kids' headed into puberty, I realised I wasn’t just affecting my own life - I was responsible for another generation’s relationship with alcohol.

I realised it was time for a big change. 

The last thing I wanted was my children replicating my mistakes. I'd been on a fast-track to burnout for years but I’d justified it as ‘the juggle’ - corporate life, working mum life, with this misguided notion I was showing my kids all that a woman can be. 

In reality, at that crazy time in their life, in the hell of puberty, the person they were relying on for stability was spinning out of control herself. 

My previous attempts to stop had been awful. I’d felt like I was missing out on something vital and white knuckled my way through, only to return to drinking with an even greater enthusiasm than before.

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This time it was different, I was still drinking, but I started to become aware of when, where and why I was drinking and what it felt like in my body. I read ‘This Naked Mind’ by Annie Grace and listened to her podcasts on my daily runs.

After a few months of knowledge gathering and mindful drinking I joined This Naked Mind’s Alcohol Experiment to kick start what I had decided was going to be a year off the booze. 

And I told my kids - a BIG move.

I couldn’t believe what a difference all that pre-work had on my experience of stopping drinking. When I finally stopped, it was such a relief.  

It was like I had flipped a switch. I no longer HAD to drink. I knew this was a really effective way to stop drinking, and I wanted to share my experience with other mums like me.

Crucially, what worked for me was the realisation that there was no need for shame and blame. Alcohol is addictive – its entire purpose is to disinhibit, to lower your barriers and leave you wanting more. 

If you’re a human being and you drink alcohol over a period of time, unless you have extremely strong guardrails developed through different parts of your life, your consumption will increase. And, if you start to associate alcohol with relief from something, with relaxation or de-stressing, then it's likely that your brain will start to make that connection and it will start to use alcohol as a way to medicate.

That knowledge was the best way I could find to break the habit and be at peace with my decision. The alternative was feeling that I was living in a state of constant deprivation, with the ‘forbidden’ remaining the most appealing thing in the world. 

But that still left me with some big questions about how to turn things around for my children.

My own grandparents started Happy Hour before lunch with a Gin and Cinzano. And back then a lot of parents seemed to think, ‘if we let the kids drink with us then they'll be used to alcohol and better able to manage themselves’. Which meant I started drinking when I was 13... maybe even younger. 

But these days we know better. 

All the research points to teens introduced to alcohol at home as being more likely to drink to excess and have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol in later life. Alcohol consumption increased during lockdowns too, and our kids witnessed that while dealing with their own distress.

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The good news is – and I can testify to this – that while it’s easy for our drinking to increase without us really noticing, we can just as quickly reset and change how we role-model for our children. Whether they’re four, 14 or 24, developing our own new behaviours can have a massive influence on their lives. 

And, crucially, the ability to pick ourselves back up is just as important to model for your kids as getting things ‘right’ (whatever that looks like!).

As the parent of a child who has become a young adult before my eyes, I’m rapidly learning that it’s also about a whole lot more than modelling; it’s about honest conversations, clear boundaries and the understanding that we cannot control our children – we have to enable them to make good decisions for themselves.

One of the great things I’ve discovered about sober me, is my ability to have less reactive conversations – to be more responsive and considered. And the goal, after all, is connection. We have to be able to talk about things in an unemotive way, and without judgment. 

Our kids have to feel safe coming to us if they find themselves in a scary situation or feel vulnerable. In short, they need to feel more certain of our help than they are fearful of our anger.

So, does that mean everyone needs to kick the booze? Absolutely not. And that goes for you as well as your kids. Being a positive role model for them means demonstrating healthy boundaries, and if you can manage that – happy days!

But that does mean putting a very different frame round the typical role of alcohol in our lives. For example, you're not ‘going drinking’ or drinking to ‘unwind’, but you might choose to have a drink with a meal. Children learn from observing responsible drinking.

It’s also good to be able to decline the offer of alcohol occasionally, to organise alcohol-free events and otherwise moderate. 

But beyond that we have to understand that alcohol isn’t the whole problem. Sure, we’ve conditioned our bodies to want and need it (by sheer perseverance!), but it could be anything – food, shopping, whatever. It’s only when you take the drink, or the chocolate, or the spending away, that you can start working on the real issues. That, in itself, can be a scary thought. 

But it’s those big, scary things that can lead to big, beautiful realisations and a whole new perspective on life. 

Emma Gilmour is a qualified Counsellor and Psychotherapist and a certified This Naked Mind, Gray Area Drinking & Tuning in to Teens™ emotionally intelligent parenting coach for parents who want to model a healthy relationship with alcohol for their kids - www.hoperisingcoaching.com. 

Feature Image: Supplied.