Following a string of abusive relationships, an unresolved eating disorder and the lasting effects of childhood bullying, Esther Nagle became an alcoholic. It was her way of coping. The single mum of three boy tells us how yoga aided her recovery…
Esther Nagle, 43, has three sons: Josh, 25, (a travelling carpenter, currently in France), Liam, 19, (at uni) and Marcus, six. She works as a yoga teacher and life coach and is a recovering alcoholic.
“The last time I was in a relationship it was very controlling, and took a massive toll on my mental health. I knew from very early on that it was not a good relationship, had many warning signs and gut feelings but found myself pregnant just five months in, at 36.
I decided I had to end it when I saw a poster about domestic abuse and recognised so many of the signs (emotional rather than physical abuse, ‘gaslighting’), and noticed that I was becoming physically as well as mentally withdrawn from the world.
I ended the relationship in Nov 2011, he left the house in September 2012 – the controlling lasted a lot longer than the ‘happy family’ did!
After my last experience of living with someone went so wrong, I decided I’d prefer to be alone. Having said that, I do sometimes feel that I would like to be with someone, but won’t let anyone assume the role of father in my children’s lives for a long time.
Sometimes, it would be good to have someone to talk to about things more – and to back me up with the kids – but my previous experience with past partners didn’t convince me that I would get that with them anyway.
Sometimes, I do get fed up of having to be the one who does the cooking, but I’m working on getting the little one competent in the kitchen soon.
I had a breakdown. Changing wasn’t a choice, it was survival
On the other hand, I get to do things my way; I am not good at being managed in any way so autonomy in my own home is important. I am strongly independent and used to doing things my way. I love being the one responsible for the kids.
Becoming an alcoholic
My addiction to alcohol stemmed from low self esteem in childhood, seeking oblivion after a devastating decision that altered the course of my life (I am not going to discuss this, it involves too many other people but I feel that undiagnosed mental health problems were a big cause), an unresolved eating disorder (I was bulimic for a while, it was never properly dealt with, and I strongly think that this fed into the addiction that developed not long later) loneliness, no coping skills when faced with stress, feeling overwhelmed with life, no way to relax.
Through the self-study I have done over the last couple of years, I can see that there are many patterns of behaviour I exhibited over the years. The low self-esteem left me wanting to hide from the world from a very young age. Dr Gabor Mate talks about the effect of childhood trauma and links to addiction. While I was not abused, I was definitely traumatised by bullying and singling out in school, struggles to fit in with my peers, and a feeling that I didn’t really fit anywhere. I have written about this.
I had a breakdown. Changing wasn’t a choice, it was survival – if I hadn’t changed, my life would have fallen apart completely. I went into yoga teacher training because I knew that returning to 9-5 commuting/childcare/sitting at a desk all day was going to do my mental health no good, and I decided that I would take the breakdown as a sign that I needed to do something that enabled me to be more relaxed and present in my day to day life. had no idea when I started that it would change my life so much.
I had practiced yoga for a number of years as a physical practice (an exercise class only) without it changing me. I was angry, hyper, full of fear and fury at the world and myself. I was riddled with self-loathing, and projected that out into the world, finding fault with everyone and everything I could.
I had terrible trouble sleeping, having suffered from insomnia since childhood, when I developed a terrible fear that my family and I were all going to be murdered in our bed, and I was very scared of going to sleep. The fears of night-time murder abated when I grew up, to be replaced by something far worse – the inner critic, those voices in my head that would tell me repeatedly what a terrible person I was, reminding me of all the mistakes I had ever made in my life, and keeping me awake for hours.
Drinking ‘helped’ me with this insomnia, allowing me to pass out instead. I would stay up till 1, 2am drinking, then flake out in bed or, often, on the sofa.
My days were always stressed, starting out badly as I was always late waking up, and always groggy and tired. I got through the day with never ending cups of coffee (fuelling the next night of not sleeping!), and would sometimes get to the afternoon with very little recollection of the morning’s events.
Now, I have little trouble sleeping at night, and wake early. I drink coffee sometimes because I enjoy it, not because I need it.
A close friend has told me that I am a considerably nicer, gentler person than I used to be. I can see that myself. I see the way I react to situations, to people, to everything, completely differently. I am far less prone to stress than I used to be, and find far more to be joyful about than ever before.
The biggest difference in my life is that I now like myself. I am still a work in progress, there are still things I do that I wish I didn’t, and things that I want to improve on, but I no longer think I am a terrible person because of my weaknesses.
How me being an alcoholic affected my kids
When I was in the throws of my addiction, I don’t think I was always a good mum. I tried to be. I was very present with my 19-year-old, we had a really good time as he was growing up, although he does have more memories of me drunk than I would like, but we were very much a ‘team’ and we are very close.
With my youngest, I struggled a lot. Being a new mum at 37, then a new single mum again at 38 (my decision and the best decision by far, but still scary) was not easy, particularly with a savage split from his father.
My children were a big part of my reason for wanting to get well. I LOVE that Marcus, my youngest, has no recollection of ever seeing me drunk, or smoking, and seems to find it very odd to think that I used to do either. He is my mirror in life; I see how I am in him. When he was small I thought he was really naughty, wilful, hard to deal with and would make my life very difficult.
As soon as I started to calm down and be happier, he started to change, and is now a very sweet, loving, gentle little boy (still strong willed, but I like that now!). It made me see just how much our children reflect us, and how important it is that we give them our best. I know that had I carried on the way I was, I would have a very different child now.
My older boys have been hugely supportive and are now, I think, very proud of their mum.
To other single mums, I would say remember that you are doing a really bloody hard job, but know that your kids will know how hard you worked and how much you love them. Remember to always make sure that you make time for fun, don’t get too bogged down in the minutiae of life; you create the rules. Learn with and from your kids, enjoy all the hugs and kisses, and be proud of yourself and the way you are raising them.
If you are newly in recovery, take each day at a time, focus on the positives, and never forget your ‘why’ – why you are trying to beat the addiction
Make sure that you take care of yourself, don’t devote yourself so much to the kids that you neglect your own needs, they will benefit immeasurably from you being well, happy, and prioritising your own self care. If you have sons, you are teaching them how to respect women, if you have daughters you are teaching them how to respect themselves. So treat yourself well, and they will reap the benefits as well as you.
For people wanting to beat addiction there is so much I could say. If forced to summarise, I would say talk about it. Share your fears, your worries, your doubts. Don’t hide it. I hid my addiction for years because I was scared of the potential consequences of admitting I had a problem, but in reality I was making the potential consequences far worse.
Talk to someone you trust, who will accept what you say without judgment, so that you can break the shame that keeps you tied to your addiction. You are not a bad person because you are an addict. Addiction is a symptom of other problems. If you can get help to deal with those issues, you can beat the addiction. You don’t have to face this alone, there are plenty of places you can get supportive, loving, non-judgmental help.
If you are newly in recovery, take each day at a time, focus on the positives, and never forget your ‘why’ – why you are trying to beat the addiction, how your life is going to get better as a result. Don’t beat yourself up for the addiction, start practicing self-forgiveness.
Above all, make sure that you are supported through this in whatever way works best for you – for me it was yoga, finding new friends who didn’t drink and writing, there are many other ways that you can get support.”