A Story of Contentment & Purpose
Alcoholism, Suicidal Thoughts & The Beginning of a New Life
As I write this at 39 years old, I have, for the last 2 ½ years, been completely sober. Prior to this, I spent nearly two decades drinking heavily. The sum total of days I didn’t drink during this period probably stands at fewer than 30. Every night, and often during the day, I would drink alcohol in whatever form was acceptable and available, and lots of it. While I was, by any definition, an alcoholic, my condition was hardly remarkable; that isn’t the subject of this story. It isn’t about alcohol, or giving up, or the wonders of an alcohol-free life; there’s plenty of all that elsewhere. This is about what I learnt after giving up. It’s about how it might apply to you.
Having spent many years agonising about how much I drank, lying about how much I drank, and trying all sorts of little strategies to reduce my intake, I was depressingly aware that my only option might be to give up altogether. But how? The task seemed Sisyphean. Perhaps I could occasionally go one day without the poison, but two days? Then three? Then weeks? And months? Years? To never drink again? It felt like the longer I resisted, the stronger the urge would grow, like pulling an elastic band. The more I pulled, the harder it would snap back on me.
Quite apart from the addiction, there were the other things — the actual reasons anyone drinks — even those who indulge only occasionally. How would I relax at social gatherings? How would I celebrate the weekend? What would I drink with meals? How would I find my creativity?
And then, if I finally did manage to go teetotal, what would I tell people? How would I deal with the shame? What a huge, huge problem giving up would be. So I didn’t.
And then, in October of 2018, I got a new job. I was delighted at first, as it seemed to be everything I was looking for. I was an English teacher, and this company would hire me full time, after years of taking random private classes. There seemed to be good opportunities for progression within the company, and I’d have a stable income.
But it wasn’t as it seemed. The company was poorly managed and the teachers were pretty much left to our own devices. There was no recognition, morale was low and teachers would get fired on a whim. The only people who actually had been promoted were the owner’s mates, and they didn’t often last long.
The real problem with this was that I was starting to feel like there was no way of achieving any progress in my life. I knew I had real skills but they would probably never be valued properly. The EFL sector (English as a Foreign Language) is a broken mess of cowboy companies and there’s very little money to be made, and not much job satisfaction. That’s why it’s the preserve of students and teachers from poor countries. So, I felt like my options were extremely limited and I would always be penniless and exhausted.
I fell into a deep depression, started drinking more and even experienced suicidal thoughts. Ellie, my incredible girlfriend, urged me to go to the doctor. He prescribed me some medication and I took sick leave. I also knew that I was never going to back to my employer.
A few weeks passed and, having seen me incredibly drunk a few times, Ellie became deeply worried. To be fair, while I had always drunk too much, it was rare that I’d get paralytic until that point.
And then, after a really bad night, on the 23rd of March 2019, I knew I would never drink again. This decision, one that I had agonised over for years, suddenly felt so simple. Alcohol was fucking up my life and Ellie’s. It was also harming my other relationships and making everything harder than it needed to be. I just knew that it was an incontrovertible net negative in my life, and that my time with it had ended. I didn’t care how difficult it would be; I knew it would be easier than being hungover every day.
And then it wasn’t difficult at all. Ever since I stopped, I have experienced zero cravings. Occasionally, I might think, ‘Oh a cold beer would be nice’ when the weather is hot; such is the paucity of non-alcoholic non-sweet drinks. But I also know, on a deep, visceral level, that it wouldn’t be nice at all. The small buzz of pleasure would last a few minutes, before being replaced by the desire to drink more. That desire is not pleasant, and it leads to darkness.
And then something really weird happened. Gradually, life became more colourful, more real, and more fun. I started to get really excited about small things, like having our favourite dinner or playing a video game. Properly excited, like a child. Ellie saw less of the cynical side of me, and much more of this big boy that wanted to do dumb, fun things together. At the same time, I was growing more responsible, ambitious and hopeful. I decided that, rather than making almost no money as an English teacher, I would help people get jobs; I knew there was a future in that. I set up Shewbridge Coaching.
There was a side to me that nobody had ever seen before. I was more considerate, more sensible and yet a lot sillier too. Ellie loved it and I did too.
And I’m going to say something now that I hope you’ll read with caution. Please understand that I am not recommending you develop a crippling addiction to anything; it really isn’t worth the risk. But the truth is, spending nearly 20 years with a hangover makes you resilient as fuck. It really does. I was what is commonly known as a ‘functioning alcoholic’; so I went to work, merrily taught kids, and did the supermarket shopping, all while feeling like complete shit.
After that training, everything became really easy. I almost feel like I’m cheating now. That doesn’t mean that I’m incredibly capable at everything; I am just super persistent. If something is difficult, I work it out. I Google it, I practise, I think — really hard — and then I become more and more competent. And I know that I can teach myself more or less any skill. Very few of them are beyond me. Sure, my body and the laws of physics mean I’ll never be a professional football player, nor will I ever have the time or dedication to master chess, but most valuable skills aren’t anywhere near that difficult. It takes time to learn anything, of course, but I now dispassionately dedicate my time to learning the next important thing, whatever that may be. And I just keep going.
At this point, I should make one disclaimer, and be very clear about it. Just before I stopped drinking, my mum gave me and Ellie a house. Seriously. She had this property in Spain, which wasn’t worth much and she was having difficulty selling. She knew that, without the financial pressure of rent, I’d have more chance of making something of myself, so she offered me the deeds. I’m paying her back over time, but the house is ours forever. That gives me an incredible sense of security that allows me to take my time trying different things with the business. We still have financial obligations of course, but I am extremely lucky in a way that I know you may not be. So, to be clear; I’m not saying I’ve done this on my own; I absolutely haven’t. But my luck has imbued in me a huge sense of responsibility; a visceral need to help others less fortunate than me. I do this most days in one way or the other, but I rarely talk about it, as there’s just no need.
But back to the new, alcohol free me (I promise we’ll get to you shortly). Why wasn’t I craving alcohol? Why was I feeling fine — at the very least — and usually much better than fine? The conclusion I reached, and still wholeheartedly believe, is this:
Almost everything that is accepted as common knowledge about alcohol is bullshit.
Mull that over for a while because, while it may be a bold assertion to make, it’s worth thinking about. It is possible, if only based on my own anecdotal evidence for now, that almost everything you think about alcohol is wrong. And if so, you might want to think about what that means for you.
Here’s what I think: the most difficult thing about giving up alcohol is believing it will be difficult. And if you no longer care how difficult it will be, or don’t think it will be difficult at all, it’s not. Sure, you’ll have cravings for like 5 days at most and then, boom, no more pain. You do have to be aware that your neuroplastic brain has changed as a result of the alcohol, and that if you drink again, the cravings will almost certainly return. It may take years for the brain to change so much that you can drink again without harm of addiction. But you won’t care. As long as you don’t drink alcohol, you won’t want alcohol. It really is as simple as that.
But what do you do about social situations? How can you be fun and funny? How can you celebrate the weekend? How can you get over a bad day? How can you enjoy holidays?
Well, here’s the thing: if you’re not enjoying those things while sober, they’re just not that enjoyable. And if you’re not fun and funny while sober, then you’re even less so when drunk. Trust me on that. But don’t worry, it turns out that you will enjoy those things, and much more than you used to. Sure, some social situations will be boring and awkward, so just drive home. No one will notice.
But anyway, this lush of an article is getting out of hand, so let’s stagger gracefully back to the point: In my experience, almost everything that anyone says about alcohol is bullshit. And, what’s more, many thousands — if not millions — of people share the same experience as me, so the very least we can say is this:
For many people, giving up alcohol will be extremely easy, no matter how addicted they are.
And when I discovered this, I got to wondering what else might be bullshit. And it turns out that, while I can’t be sure that any one particular idea is bullshit, quite a lot of them probably are. That’s a far more powerful statement than it sounds, but we’ll get on to that later.
Anyway, so everything was getting better and I started working on building up a business. It was incredibly liberating and, free of the shackles of alcohol, it all seemed quite easy. It has taken a long time, but every day, I get a little busier. Basically, you just pull out all of the stops and delight your customer. At some point they’ll recommend you to someone else and it just gradually but exponentially builds from there. But how do you know how to do a good job? Well, it turns out that I think in a way that is based on an idea called First Principles, which frankly, is common sense as long as you filter out all the bullshit.
First Principles thinking is an approach by which you strip a problem back to its fundamental truths. You forget all the layers of bullshit that may have accumulated on the problem over the years; they just get in the way.
Think about cars, for example. If you design a new car, and you want it to be fun to drive, you’ll want to make sure the gears change satisfyingly and the engine makes a good roar because everyone knows that. Because that’s what drivers love. But hang on. Forget about the gearbox and engine note for now; they’re not fundamental to car design. Just design your car as well as you possibly can and then adapt the design later.
As you’re thinking about the car, you realise that, for many reasons, an electric motor is fundamentally better than a dirty petrol engine, so you go with that approach. But you’re worried because there will be no gears to change and no engine roar. Well, perhaps you’ll think of something later; maybe a synthesised engine noise?
As you take the car to market, worrying about the lack of engine noise, something weird happens: the car flies off the production line, with even dedicated petrolheads buying it. You can’t make enough to satisfy the demand. So what’s happened? Do people no longer care about engine roar and gear changes?
No, they don’t. Because they never did. They cared about having fun and showing off. And your new electric car, with its wow factor, incredible acceleration and massive iPad, is far more fun and showy than gear changes and engine notes ever were. Who knew?
The thing is, it is not a first principle that cars have gear sticks and growly engines. It is a first principle that cars be fun and impressive. First principles thinking can be applied to any situation.
So that’s what I did, back when I started Shewbridge Coaching. I asked myself, ‘What is a CV for? What is an interview for? How can you make them as powerful as possible?’
I quickly realised that a CV just has to say to whoever is reading it, ‘I understand your problem, the pain it causes and how to take it away.’ Because a really useful first principle here is that people don’t like pain. They will throw money at you if they believe you can take it away.
Of course, you can’t just say that on a CV; nobody will believe you. People only really believe stories, so your CV has to tell the story of your courageous battles against project overspend in the pursuit of continuous improvement. Tell that story well enough, with engaging enough language that a bored, stressed manager can make sense of it, and you’ve got a good chance of getting an interview.
And yet, look on the internet about how to write a good CV, and you’ll see pages and pages of stuff about ‘action verbs’, never using pronouns and all sorts of dumb shit that is tangentially related to reality but is all spectacularly missing the point. I worried a little, when I started out, that I might be making a mistake in ignoring this — in sticking to my first principles about what made a good CV. I even told my first clients that it might be a bit unconventional but we should give it a try anyway.
I needn’t have bothered. My clients loved the CVs, and the interview invitations all started flowing in. Not everyone gets an interview for the first job they apply for, but it’s usually pretty quick. There are still factors outside of my control, like fake job adverts, internal candidates, and rival candidates with much more experience, but these CVs just work. And I break all of the rules because the rules don’t make sense.
As the business continued, I reimagined what it could be, again, based on first principles. I thought about who might use my service and what their pain was. I used a bit of imagination and empathy, and thought about why people hate job hunting, and what I came up with was these principles:
- People, rightly or wrongly, derive a lot of self-worth from their work. They are personally invested in how valuable their job makes them feel and being rejected really hurts.
- People get anxious when they have to write their own CVs, because they’re constantly worrying about if they will meet expectations.
- People want their jobs to feel important and to give them a chance to be and look competent.
- Jobs not only contribute to our self worth but our ability to fund our existence. The pain of not knowing how long it will take to secure another job is unbearable for these reasons.
- People get confused by all the conflicting advice out there, and that’s demoralising.
And I thought about all of that. And I thought, and I thought…