Updated: Jul 2, 2019
eighteen months sober, I arrived in the wilderness.
September 2017 I travelled to Svalbard for a writing residency.
For three weeks, we sailed around the Norwegian Arctic, 30 artists, plus catering staff, crew and our guides. We landed, sometimes twice a day, at places with names like Ymerbukta and Fjortende Julibukta. The idea was to make work, collaborate and think, but the only thing I could think about was drinking.
Was I really alcoholic?
Besides the literally freezing deck and my shared tiny cabin, the only place to hang out was the drinking saloon of my dreams: dark, varnished wood, padded booths, a sign-for pay system ON A BOAT. I was surrounded by talented, hardworking people on a traditionally rigged tall ship, sailing in a frozen desert, and I couldn’t appreciate it. All I could see was the beer taps and wine bottles. Could I really not just drink? Three weeks, suddenly, felt like a prison sentence. All of my recovery disappeared.
Drinking, my head told me, is the answer. Drinking makes life, which is essentially intolerable, tolerable.
The ‘pink cloud’ of my sobriety had worn off, and reality — including myself and my meagre writing talent — seemed wholly inadequate. I had a lung infection, which didn't help, and for some inexplicable reason had only packed wellies, which meant I felt freezing and ill each time we landed. But it was my thoughts that tortured me most.
Drinking is the only thing that makes you fun or interesting or part of the group. And now you’re not allowed to do it. Because you decided you were alcoholic. Idiot!
As soon as we set sail I felt spooked. The engine groaned and rumbled like the bassy backing track of a contemporary horror film. What if the ship sank or somebody turned psychotic?
I want to go home, I found myself thinking, again and again. I don't feel anything. What’s wrong with me? On a loop.
I missed trees. This landscape was too alien. The only life I could see was the artists, with their relentless camera clicks and enthusiasm. Watching them laugh and bond I felt myself identifying with the frozen desert, every inch of which begged: Please. Leave me alone.
The view was endlessly breathtaking: monochrome, graphite mountains and a pale moon that hung low in the sky for hours. We saw a polar bear and Arctic foxes and the Northern Lights, and I felt a tiny spark of life.
All I could think or write about was whether or not I could drink safely — and how come those who seemed to drink the way I did, didn’t seem to give a shit about it. They hadn't ruined it for themselves by declaring themselves alcoholic. Why had I developed such a conscience? For the first time since leaving home at eighteen I was deathly homesick. And I hated myself.
Arctic Prison Ship
This expedition is decadent, these projects are pointless. Humans are not supposed to be here. We're melting the ice.
I lacked not only self-belief, but belief in general. The higher power I’d spent months cultivating some kind of faith in hadn’t boarded the boat with me. Instead, what had climbed aboard, but my pesky ‘alcoholism’.
Life, alcohol-free, was bleak. Fun over. Smiling impossible. Worse still, the others seemed to have fallen deeply in love with each other. The role of alcohol in this didn’t seem incidental, to me in my obsessive state. It was bonding them together. I was doomed to always be an outsider.
There were many moments of respite — my cabin mate was, I suspect, an actual angel, and I wrote thousands of words — but mostly I counted the days until we landed.
Finally we docked in Svalbard, and I left the island a day early, unable to tolerate my own feelings or artists living their best lives for 24 more hours. I desperately craved solitude.
My boyfriend had written me an email every day I was away and reading them I felt my heart come back online. He drove to collect me from Heathrow and arriving home, cuddling my cat, settling back into our routine, I felt better. But my inability to enjoy this expensive expedition had shaken me. And it had shown me two things.
I undeniably had a problem with alcohol.
And I still believed life was worse because I couldn’t drink it.
It was meaningful to feel so happy to be home after years of wanderlust mixed with feeling I belonged nowhere, but I didn’t want my newfound nesting instinct to be at the cost of my sense of adventure. Something needed to change.
Ask for help
Back in Bristol, I decided to find a new mentor, someone who could reinvigorate my approach to sober, contented living. One of the cheeriest and no-shit-taking women I knew — Saskia —agreed to help me, and we met for coffee.
“Most of the time I’m just really happy — annoyingly so!” she told me. “But I have to put the action in.”
That night, Saskia sent me an email full of instructions, asking me to commit to a morning routine, call two people and ask how they were, read inspiring, spiritual literature, meditate, think of others... The list went on. How would I ever get anything done if I had to get through all of this just to feel okay?
I remembered my deep sense of isolation in the Arctic, even — especially — as I was surrounded by beaming, creative people; I remembered the reality of what my life had been like as a drinker.
I thought of Saskia, smiling over at me from across the table.
I committed to following as many instructions per day as possible. It was a lot, but so was being miserable.
Gratitude is a social emotion
Gratitude was particularly powerful for the negative spin-cycle of my brain. Saskia instructed me to write a list of ten small things every evening.
“Then read it in the morning as part of your routine,” she said. “It has to be really specific, though. Not just my boyfriend, my flat, my cat.”
Emotion-provoking specific sensory detail! I gave this advice to my students all the time. The hope moths in my stomach fluttered.
That evening I sat and reflected in bed before trying to sleep. I remembered a white seagull sweeping across the navy sky. The calm that covered me as I stared upwards. 1
2. How the cat curled up in the nape of my neck, the way he had since he was a kitten.
3. My boyfriend putting a pair of my pants on his head to do the washing up.
I didn't stop until I had ten items.
We all know the research; a gratitude practice can relieve stress, improve mental and physical wellbeing and elevate the quality of sleep. But it’s more than that.
Robert Emmings a leading expert on the science of gratitude, explains:
“Gratitude is a social emotion… a relationship-strengthening emotion because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.”
Gratitude rescues us from the illusion that we are separate and different, the way I felt on that boat in the Arctic. The way I feel when I am ‘in my addiction’.
To help myself stick with the habit I invited friends to exchange lists. Reading the highlights of their days cheered me up, and inspired me to catch mine. Quickly I recognised that my life was full of beauty. I noticed that mostly this wasn’t the dominant feeling days left me with. The mismatch between my thoughts and reality was striking.
Frequently my lists get terse and repetitive, even verge on resentful. Sometimes I neglect them completely. Occasionally I tell my gratitude app to go fuck itself. And then I try again. I revive my observation, force myself to pay attention, make an effort. I wake myself up.
I fail often, but I keep practicing.
Over time gratitude changes you. As you focus on the positives, and appreciate the small kindnesses of strangers and friends, as you continue to drag your attention from favoured resting spots of rumination or envy to reflect on the simple beauty of a new fern or to actually listen to whoever you are with as fully as they deserve, you become a different kind of person: more present, more connected, more appreciative.
But only when you keep practicing. Like writing. Like vulnerability. Like not drinking. Like love. It is something that you choose, over and over and over again.
If I had been practicing gratitude in the Arctic, the way I have since I returned, I believe my experience would have been different. I was surrounded by gifts, by beautiful humans and so much opportunity, but I was too entrenched in negative thinking to appreciate it.
My dream writing residency taught me that anywhere can become a prison if your head isn’t right. But it led me to gratitude too.
Lovely, free, portable gratitude: I’ll never leave home without it again.