Life after alcohol

Now a popular Kundalini yoga teacher, Carolyn Cowan's early years were characterised by unhappiness and a searing battle with alcoholism and drugs. She tells her story.


'I am frequently asked if I miss drinking. I imagine that if you drink 'normally' this may be an interesting concept, and if you drink alcoholically, sobriety may be fascinating as a way of life.

Each time I am asked, there is a space before I answer. A moment of respect, a pause before answering.

Perhaps to avoid being too weighty with the answer, as the reality of alcoholism is not for the feint hearted, or maybe because I need to take stock, in that instant, of all that I have left behind.

Starting young

carolyn cowanIt has been a while now; 14 years. But some memories are so sharp today, I could be right in the thick of it in an instant.

I started young. There was pain to be suppressed and alcohol on the table, my friends smoked joints, and their mothers were on speed.

Oh, so easy to steal. It was simple and fun. We were all pretty, loud and well dressed. We felt invincible. I don't think I ever felt as though I did it in the same way as the others, but most of the youth I mixed with are now either dead or in recovery.

The odd few are draped over someone or something, still using heroin, alcohol or sex to keep numb, getting hoarser and craggier by the moment. We pass in meetings and at parties and mention the odd spectacular moment.

I always felt out of place, never comfortable in my skin. When high, stoned, drunk or all three I did not care.

I remember spending a few months in the company of a group of young men during my 20s. They had a replica police badge and would go out onto the streets of Chelsea and arrest people who looked as though they may have some drugs worth taking.

They would flash the badge, search the pockets, take what they found and tell the suspects to report to the police station on their own. It was hysterically funny and there was always such a haul. It was piracy, but no one got hurt, just relieved of their stash.

The first few years of excess did not really take too much of a toll. Relationships fell away, each one a little more dysfunctional than the last, but the amount needed to kill the pain rose steadily and the expenses alongside.


Rising pain

The hangers-on changed regularly and the sex became more and more necessary, yet somehow less and less satisfaction was found in anything. It all started to get desperate.

The fun was gone. I used alone, drinking by myself, carrying two hip flasks in my very smart handbag. I never travelled without drugs and didn't give a thought to the danger.

I had a flick knife with me at all times, a condom somewhere just in case and was totally ruthless. In the relationships I became violent and uncontrollably angry. I had no idea as to why.

I had moved so far from the memories that I really could not remember what it was I wanted to forget. I could not sleep without something to help. I would drink until I blacked out and frequently had to be told what had happened the day or night before.

I had Vodka poisoning twice, so much so I was never able to drink it again after the second time, but would always give the national drink of whatever country I was in at the time a really good bashing.


Life after addiction

Do I miss drinking? No. I do not miss it. I could elaborate and say that I stopped drinking, smoking and taking drugs all on the same day.

I could say that I did not sleep for three months and spent a year detoxing and nine years in therapy, or that it took me five years to think straight. But I usually just say 'no.'

I say it so simply because it is hard to tell it as it is without sounding melodramatic and making the polite enquiry a drama in itself.

Stopping was interesting. My last week of using is still very vivid. Each time I looked in the mirror I wanted to die. I was bloated, teeth and tongue black, desperate for anything to ease the emotional trauma.

I reached a place outside of myself that I would never like to visit again. I touched Hell. I hated myself, everyone else and everything. All pleasure, the ability to experience any form of pleasure had long gone.

Yet all friends, lovers and family around me thought I was ridiculous. That I did not have a problem. I was just being silly. If I had a problem then they did too and that was just too impossible.

I stopped everything there and then. I put my head down and got on with learning to live. Because this is what it is. Really being here. Present and taking part. Perhaps that does not sound exciting, but it is extraordinary, completely wild.

It took time to let go of the attachment I had to my past and my history. It took time to learn to have emotions and be fine with them. It took a long time to be present in any kind of sexually intimate situation.


Getting to grips with sobriety

I had never had sex sober. It was terrifying. But little by little, moment by moment it has all become familiar and safe. Pleasure has changed. Acceptance of the way things really are is now a reality.

I am not perfect. Very far from it, but when it is appropriate, I have great stories, amazing moments, compassion, humour and a real love of life that only leaning against the gates of Hell can give you.

The past few years had been made up of an assortment of disciplines: 12 step recovery, teachers, healers, friends, and from all of this, the heady steps towards a relationship with my soul.

My interest in the journey inside has taken me into leaps and chasms of love and faith that I had never really thought possible. I must confess to still envying St Theresa of Avila her ecstatic experiences, but I now understand that it is possible, that the state of addiction to anything is a manifestation of the loss of self.

But the biggest hurdle is getting self-esteem. I have heard so often that if you want self esteem, do estimable things. I no longer agree with this.

Yes, do good things for others, of course, but that in itself does not balance the loss of the self that addiction roots itself into. Self-esteem comes with relating to the part of one that transcends abuse, loss, abandonment and trauma. It comes when we really open ourselves to our sacredness.

Seeking inner happiness

I have come to understand that the addictive personality is looking outside for fulfilment. Giving all the strength and energy inherent in themselves to something or someone else: hoping that the intensity of the meeting, be it with drugs, alcohol, a person, food or shopping, will ease the sense of inadequacy.

Looking outside to heal the pain that is inside. Spiritual connection works so well for the addiction recovery process because it is working on connecting to the soul, the part that needs to be expanded, that removes the desire to look outside of oneself.

My journey over the past years has been towards this inner connection, towards the expansion of that experience and the avoidance of all that diminishes it. I have no desire to drink. Not even in the face of loss and tragedy, or in moments of absolute pleasure. It cannot replace all that I now have.

Perhaps the best illustration is the sensation of looking through your eyes when you were a child. It is a shift sideways in our perception of our memories. But you can feel it, and suddenly the awareness of the 'other' - the soul - becomes tangible.

We are not just our body. There is something else inside. The same sensation is happening now. We can choose to experience it again, by looking through our eyes, separating from the body and having the sensation that awareness is watching.'


Carolyn Cowan (pictured here with her daughter) is a London-based Kundalini yoga teacher. She is married to fellow teacher Jean Baptiste Hugo.



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