This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.
We welcome women with stories to tell to email us as sharing one’s life story, however negative or positive it may help someone else. So when this message dropped into our inbox, we knew this could help so many out there who are struggling:
“I’m simply dropping you a line to talk about a book (Everything You Ever Taught Me) I’ve written about being a menopausal woman in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Since I couldn’t afford the Ferrari and couldn’t be bothered having an affair, I went from previously perfectly locatable in the Cotswolds in the UK to utterly bewildered living in the wilderness of America when I set about walking from Mexico to Canada. The writing outlines my progress as I shlepped across California, Oregon and Washington. It is funny at times (I can’t help myself) and very much focused on being a solo woman traveller.”
I have never accidentally found myself in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. Still, once, when I was very new to recovery and very thin-skinned, ashamed, and sensitive, I walked into the wrong village hall, this one hosting a session of AmDrams and asked if they were there for their drinking problems. I’m not sure who was more traumatised by the experience: me or the women I’d directed my question to.
Five years later, I can openly admit I am a recovering alcoholic, although I rarely do because it’s simply no one’s business but mine. Because I regularly attend AA, it’s traditional to never use our full names at the level of press, radio, and film. So I’m now PI, or Person Irresponsible: a menopausal woman suspiciously in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Only I cannot afford a Ferrari, and I can’t even be bothered to have an affair. I’m single in any case, which sort of relegates any forays with the opposite sex to meaningless dating.
I think that probably explains why I went from perfectly locatable in the Cotswolds to utterly bewildered living in the American wilderness, where I’d set about hiking from Mexico to Canada – a mere stroll of 2,653 miles. Previously, I had walked from the sofa to the fridge and back many times. I was mid-forties, fat, female, fairly funny, and in my fourth year of recovery. I had previously declared camping to be a ‘loathsome pursuit’, and nothing about living amongst all of God’s more terrifying creatures for six months has changed my view on this matter.
Out there, I sang “God Save the Queen” to a pair of bears I’d rudely interrupted from the slumber. I curtseyed at a rattlesnake and allowed it its full right of way. Unfortunately, I also discovered it was the fluffy bees that were most likely to be the death of me. I staggered through seven hundred miles of southern California desert, only then to lunge up to 13,000 feet in the snow-capped Sierra mountains. I dodged wildfires and volcanoes in Oregon and appreciated the finest parts of Washington trails: outdoor latrines. I got terribly skinny – which I loved, and my only regret is this was not a permanent change.
Of course, there was also the small matter of a global pandemic raging worldwide. Sometimes a few hundred miles away from true civilisation, day after lonely day, I could only hazard that I might be humankind’s last surviving person, and even if I did meet a man, my ability to procreate would unlikely be sufficient to repopulate the world. So I didn’t even ‘find myself’, as people assume the purpose of such an endeavour. What I did discover, though, was that I have immense levels of fortitude and determination. Also, I proved I still have no sense of direction. Oh, and the best invention since sliced bread is…deodorant.
I also realised I have a strong ambition to talk about women’s wellbeing. This is especially odd because on those rare occasions I talk about being in recovery, in my interlocutor’s eyes, I immediately turn into a Catholic priest, and they hastily submit their confessional. I have no idea why this happens, but it happens almost every time. Given that women are supposed to limit themselves to a single bottle of wine a week, if you feel the need to tell me how fine your drinking is, then you’re probably overdoing it. If you also notice that when you want to stop, you keep finding a path back to the aisle of death in the supermarket, then realistically, you’ve got a very similar problem to me.
I don’t know about everywhere in the world, but drinking during lockdown hit new highs, and there are unique obstacles for women getting into recovery. AA is archetypal ‘grey, pale and stale’ written by two blokes hoping to save a few other blokes from end-stage alcoholism. Fast forward nearly ninety years, and it’s one of many methods of recovery, and you really don’t need to drink to the bitter end. AA is the only method I’ve used, so I can’t offer opinions on other systems. What I have learned, though, is that alcoholism is not about a man sitting on a bench, drinking vodka out of a brown paper bag.
Women’s drinking is at home. It’s sometimes around the clock but sporadic binges between competing responsibilities. It’s often a means of combating trauma, boredom, and isolation. It is a growing problem amongst well-educated career-orientated women. I can personally attest that as a sofa-surfing, cat-cuddling, cake-loving former problem drinker who has now walked across America, alcoholism has nothing to do with willpower. We have bucketloads of ability to withstand pain, suffering, and discomfort. My story is living proof of that, but being in recovery is not about the drinking: it’s about learning how to tackle life on life’s terms – even when one’s current life is circumventing the fringes of Death Valley.
Everything You Ever Taught Me charts my journey as a novice and quite idiotic, thru-hiker who had nothing but AAs twelve steps of recovery to rely on teaching me today it one day at a time, one step at a time, and one bloody ginormous mountain at a time.