From her mid-teens onwards, alcohol played an increasingly important role in Anna Donaghey’s life, helping her to fit in and cope with feelings of inadequacy. Despite a successful career in advertising, a happy marriage and motherhood, she drank every day, which ended up affecting her performance, sleep, health and marriage – and even, at times, her safety.

That is, until eventually there were too many red flags to ignore and she had to find new and healthier ways of employing her addictive personality. She told Marina Gask how she went from being reliant on alcohol to putting it aside altogether.

I’m pretty sure I gravitated towards a career in advertising because of the heavy drinking lifestyle, although I now think that whatever industry I’d found myself in, I’d have been a drinker, because alcohol gave me the social confidence I lacked.

My first foray was trying cider when I was 15 and drinking with my then-boyfriend who was older than me. Getting a job in manufacturing at Rover after three booze-filled years studying European Business at Brighton University, the heavy drinking culture fitted me perfectly. I used to drink to fit in, to sit with the blokes on the track and be part of that team.

When I moved to London and got a job as a planner in advertising in 2000, I felt like I’d found my tribe. Everyone else seemed so accomplished, so together, and my sense of belonging would always be enhanced by a few drinks to put myself at ease. There was an unhappiness in me back then and alcohol helped me to suppress it. I fell for that ridiculous concept that I had to be happy all the time, so any time I didn’t feel happy, I drank. Alcohol was my go-to for mood management.

By this point, the path to addiction was already set and I was working in an environment that gave me permission to drink, because it was what everyone was doing. This creative ad agency environment, with its own bar and late-night beers while we worked on big projects, felt like a kindred industry, and if I wanted to drink, I could always find fellow travellers to lead down the same path.

I was good at my job, but soon alcohol was affecting my performance. One of the lies I told myself was that alcohol makes you more creative, but it only helps for the first half hour, and then you just churn out nonsense. Drinking habitually depleted and drained me. I didn’t sleep well so I woke up every day on the back foot. It also affected my productivity and judgment.

I met my now-husband Kieran through friends in 2002 and we were both part of a social group who would pile out of our offices around the same time and go out for meals or to bars before heading home, pretty much every night. On those nights, I’d frequently consume a bottle of wine and a couple of pints, but at that point my drinking didn’t register as a problem because we were all doing it. I knew I drank too much, but I worked hard and loved my life – I just thought “this is what it’s all about.” There was always someone in a worse state than me.

I used to reassure myself that I didn’t drink at home, but in fact I’d always help myself to the wine or cider in the fridge. It was never a case of thinking: “Hmm, what mood am I in?” I just drank what was there, sometimes a bottle of wine to myself. Kieran liked a drink too, but was much more measured and moderate, never drinking with the same intensity as me. He’d have a couple of glasses of wine a few nights a week, and more if out with friends – but never to the point of abject drunkenness.

There were a few wake-up calls, like the time I was mugged outside my flat after a heavy session. I’d been drinking all afternoon and have no clear memory of it, but I know I’d drunk too much. I’d put my bag down as I drunkenly groped around for my keys and got thumped and lost a tooth as my bag was swiped and I hit the ground. My brother wanted me to report it to the police, but I couldn’t have given a description of the mugger. I couldn’t even fully remember where I was coming home from. Legless and vulnerable, it was a red-flag moment.

Incredibly, I still carried on drinking for several more years, even after I had my two children. There were many other wake-up calls before I finally quit drinking at 49, like Kieran telling me I drank way too much and shouldn’t be drinking in front of our two children. He was absolutely right, but it didn’t stop me.

I’d always told myself I would grow up at some point, when bigger responsibilities came my way, but that moment had already been and gone with motherhood. The fact is, on maternity leave, I missed my work and the lifestyle that went with it and didn’t like what had replaced it. I was good at my job and knew exactly how to get results, but when it came to motherhood, things didn’t feel intuitive and nor did I particularly enjoy it. I was bored and felt ashamed, overweight and achy, so I drank.

I can clearly remember my eldest daughter, when she was about six, asking Kieran why her mummy was behaving so strangely. It was mid-afternoon on a Sunday, and I’d orchestrated a perfect opportunity to drink – batch-cooking meals for the week, with a bottle of wine to help me through. I’d had the whole bottle. Instead of sitting down to play a board game as a family, I was drunk.

I knew at this point that it was an addiction, but I didn’t want to give it up, and repeated cycles of trying and failing to moderate my drinking just made me feel worse about myself. There’s nothing like feelings of shame and self-loathing to make a drinker drink. So, I was just in a perpetual cycle.

Increasingly, I would find myself awake at 3am, beating myself up for drinking again. On one of those nights, I Googled: am I an alcoholic? Of course, I wanted the answer to be no, but instead I found an article about a book called This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness & Change Your Life by Annie Grace, and this message from the ether gave me hope. Reading on, it made me realise that while my addiction was not my fault, it was my responsibility to take control. As a result of this, I dug deeper. This alternative approach to AA advocates that by working out the reasons why you’re drinking and finding better ways to deal with them, it’s entirely possible to leave alcohol in the rear-view mirror. And that’s what I’ve done.

This approach worked for me because instead of thinking “I’m never drinking again,” I decided to experiment with how I felt if I didn’t drink for a while. Having the space to explore it without that pressure was really freeing. And soon my sleep was better, as was my skin, and I lost weight. My mood improved, I got on better with Kieran and was no longer snapping at the kids. I learnt so much about myself as I fundamentally questioned my alcohol beliefs – all the while building up this body of evidence as to how much better my life felt without alcohol, and realising that social anxiety was what drove me to drink in the first place. And I just kept going.

It was my addictive personality that ultimately freed me from alcohol. Strength, determination and drive, the traits of successful chief executives, are also the positive aspects of an addictive personality. And while I’d got into some really dark places with my drinking, I still had that ember of curiosity and drive to see that the traits that had got me into problem drinking were the very same traits that could get me out of it.

Since I gave up alcohol, intrigued friends and former colleagues have asked a lot of questions. I don’t think it’s changed my friendships, but I am probably more selective in what I do. So, if I go to a party, I extract every bit of loveliness out of the evening – no more social anxiety – and go to bed at midnight, then wake up fresh thinking back on a wonderful evening. It’s far preferable to staying until the bitter end, drinking too much and not remembering any of it.

Now I’ve trained in the Naked Mind principles and techniques and become an alcohol coach (thebeliefscoach.com) helping people in leadership to change their behaviour around alcohol, because I understand those addictive personality traits and how to harness them. I have huge respect for AA but wearing the badge of “alcoholic”, and always being “in recovery”, doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. In my approach, the key to control comes from thoroughly understanding your relationship with alcohol. Doing so allows you to work out what jobs you’ve given it to do (e.g. overcoming shyness) and helps you to find better tools to do those same things.


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