As with any addiction, it all starts fairly innocently and gradually, but drinking at weekends as a teenager quickly turned into hiding bottles of wine under my bed in my early twenties, which escalated to dabbling about with recreational drugs as a university student and before I was even aware of the hold that alcohol and drugs had had on me, by 25 I had a serious dependency and toxic relationship with using.
I didn’t want to be sober, it was a choice I made rooted in fear; I had reached a stage where my drug taking was no longer fun anymore, the rushes weren’t the same, I had exhausted my body of energy because I wasn’t eating (unless I was using that day so the drugs would have something to settle with) and my friends were beginning to ask too many questions which triggered an unsettling paranoia so I shut myself away. The fun of that first high had worn off and I found myself repeatedly stood over my sink with my fingers down my throat trying to force myself to be sick so I could feel another rush of the pills I had taken, jabbing and gagging until they made their way back up and out of my broken body. When I strip it down, all of my drinking and drug taking was born from one thing: a thick and stubborn sadness. I couldn’t cope with the intensity of my depression and I wanted a way out of my own head.
My last overdose happened just before the summer of 2020, what a strange year that was, not just for me, but for the whole world. The year of lockdowns; ears and eyes fixated on the next news story, bulk buying toilet roll, neighbours overbearing surveillance, and in amongst all the madness, there I was; exhausted, sad and hopelessly lost. I had tried a stint at sobriety (not my first attempt) and managed just over 2 months before feeling the pull of my addiction tug at my weakened stature once more. I had a boyfriend at the time who was still using which made it especially difficult to stand my ground because as much as I was addicted to drugs, I was also addicted to the emotional push-pull cycle of our relationship – when he was distant I wanted him closer, when he was close I wanted to run away. I must’ve broken up with him over ten times before we ended for good, I’m not sure how many times I broke up with alcohol and drugs but it must’ve been about the same.
I don’t remember whose idea it was to get wasted that night but I was definitely a willing participant. We had invited a few people over to my flat to drink with us and before you know it, it was 10am the next morning and we were still going. This wasn’t unusual for us, we could go for days without seeing sunlight if it meant we could drink and sniff and drink some more, over and over again, until we were too tired to stop. As I previously stated, I was at the point in my journey where I had started to experience a lesser effect of the drugs, in fact, I had built up such a tolerance that on this particular morning, I felt no effect of the MDMA I had been bombing all night. It was a horrendous feeling, and I had this awful realisation that I may never feel happy again. I thought I had found happiness and an escape from my sadness that I couldn’t reach in any other way, now that this was no longer working, I was consumed by the idea that I would never find that again. Looking back, this sort of thinking was so skewed, but I had no concept of what truly makes life so beautiful. I had forgotten about affection, even though I had a family who cared for me, forgotten what basking in the sunlight on a beach felt like, even though there was a beach at the end of my road. I had forgotten the first sip of a warm drink on a cool evening before bed, forgotten what it felt like to be held by a lover who wanted to keep you safe, not one who was bound to you through a poisonous ritual. I had no idea how to be calm, peace was a foreign concept, one that I had no clue how to even touch, let alone embody. I couldn’t feel excitement, sincere belly laughter, safety, warmth, or love.
I left the room where my boyfriend and our friends were drinking and went to sit on my bed, I wasn’t in the mood for partying any longer. I picked up the journal that was sat on my bedside cabinet and began writing: “I’m sorry. I love you all, but I can’t do this any longer.” I had a hidden stash of MDMA in my drawer wrapped in half gram parcels and I swigged one of them down with my can of beer. I knew that with my tolerance I would need to take more than a half gram to cause any real damage so I poured another half gram parcel down my throat. the bitter taste hit my tongue, it tasted like the juice of 40 of the sourest lemons mixed with thick sand. I quickly downed some more of my beer, swallowing the MDMA, before a dry heave could reach my throat. I lay back, expecting the come up to be instantaneous, even though I knew that it usually took about half an hour for the effects of the drugs to work. This was the moment when my boyfriend walked in. It was only him and one other friend who was left in the other room drinking together and he wanted me to come back and join them. I looked at him, hazily, and pointed to the opened journal next to me. I watched as he read the words, not quite taking them in. He then noticed the empty parcels of MDMA on the other side of me and asked what I was doing. I told him I wanted to die, he looked at me and said “don’t worry, you’ll be fine”, took me by the hand and led me into the other room.
What happened after this is like that of a dream I can’t quite make clear. I remember the physical symptoms; the tightness in my chest, the dryness in my throat, heaving up dry MDMA crystals, the sharp scratching at my throat as they made their way through my oesophagus. My body kept convulsing and I was unable to stop myself from shaking, then all of a sudden I would slump down to the floor, again unable to move or control what was happening. I kept switching in an out of erratic seizures to passing out and coming out of the blackouts catching my breath as if I was drowning in a waterless ocean, gasping and longing to feel hydrated. What used to be the spongey flesh of my skin, now felt as though metal had taken it’s place. I was a conscious cluster of bones in a dry darkened dessert, desperate for a trickle of water.
I was rushed to the hospital where I spent the longest 8 hours of my life flitting between fits of crying and screaming to visions of hospital staff tormenting me and hearing voices so loud I completely forgot that silence existed. This wasn’t the first psychotic episode I had been hospitalised for, but it was the worst. Some of the things I experienced in the hospital are too intense for me to revisit – this is what I meant when at the beginning of this feature I stated that sobriety was a choice I made rooted in fear.
Even though the beginning months after my episode, I was still hearing voices, having nightmares and a lingering paranoia that manifested in covering up the mirrors in my flat and being reluctant to trust anyone or leave my house, I managed to stay away from drugs. I rarely drunk alcohol too, although there was the odd occasion that I did. Looking back, albeit a horrendous experience, I am grateful that I tortured myself with the most intense overdose symptoms and am still alive to tell the story of how I bounced back.
After 4 months of debilitating anxiety and being too scared to go within 100 metres of a hospital, I watched a documentary about Wim Hof. Wim testified that open water swimming in cold temperatures was beneficial for a number of health issues, including anxiety. I had the beach on my doorstep, but in the 3 years of living in my flat, I had rarely ventured outside, having the occasional walk now and again. I’m not sure what pulled me toward the ocean, but I knew the feeling of the moisture from my body being dried up that I had experienced in my overdose was a factor in my longing for a hydrated life. I was fed up of feeling paranoid and after I came out of hospital, my entire focus was solely on getting through the day alive, surviving the best I could. It was in these following months that I had the realisation that that morning after I had written a note of goodbye and tried to end my life, what I really wanted was not to die, but to escape the pain I was in. I wanted to feel joy, excitement, affection, love – away from the artificial high I had exhausted use of. I didn’t want to die, I wanted to feel authentic happiness: this is what Wim Hof embodied and I believed that this was the answer.
I begun to swim every day in the morning, I found a swimming group called The Blue Tits Chill Swimmers who all met in the morning at 8am on the beach. I swam with them but most of the time I went alone. I wanted this to be a thing I did by myself, I knew this was a journey I had to travel alone. When you have experienced a dark depression, torturing thoughts and screamed in a hospital bed for 8 hours, the cold slap of the ocean every morning felt like a familiar pain, except with this pain came no terror, only a sense of fulfilment once I was out of the water and back home, choosing to go again each day and choosing not to give up.
In the space of 6 months I went from feeling like dried up bones in a sandstorm dessert to a sturdy ship on the cleanest saturating water, but I wasn’t just aimlessly floating, I was setting sail into a brighter future and it felt great. I relapsed once more after this and although it was unfortunate, it was nowhere near as traumatising as the time before, plus, this time I had the strength to bounce back quicker because I had discovered the magic of the ocean.
As well as swimming, I started regular exercising and I found that the physical strength I gained from my workouts affected my mental strength too which urged me to break free from the turbulent relationship I had. We had gone back into isolation so all temptation to go out was removed and I quite enjoyed the following months I spent swimming, journaling, doing my home workouts and I even started mediating too. I had CBT therapy and went onto do life coaching after this which again were both monumental for my recovery. The U.K. lockdown was set to be stopped in July of 2021 and although I had a sturdy foundation for my recovery in place, I was still anxious that I could be thrown back to my addiction and I needed to reduce my triggers. This was when I decided to set up the Sober Book Club. I didn’t know any other people around me who were sober but found many people online so I thought this would be the perfect project to keep me on the straight road and as well as swimming, writing, therapy and exercise being a fundamental part of my recovery, so was reading. I had always loved reading, I would read novels in a week as a child and my Mum would proudly tell everyone how much of a bookworm I was.
Now a year and a half on, I have managed to grow the bookclub into an online safe space and community of over 3,400 members from places all over the world. We read a different book based around the theme of sobriety each month and have read books such as The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, Quit Like a Woman and The Sober Lush, which are my personal favourites. We meet on the last Sunday of each month at 5pm U.K. time to discuss the book we have been reading that month and a general chat about sobriety with our members. Since the book club has grown, I now have 3 other team members who help me to run the social media pages and we also have a website and weekly newsletter containing the latest sober news, book recommendations and information about our bookclub. Through this community I learnt that although I had made such amazing progress on my own, I couldn’t continue alone without the support of other people who truly understood my experiences.
If you want to join The Sober Book Club all you have to do is follow us on instagram @sober.book.club or twitter @soberbookclub for updates. You can also sign up to our newsletter here: , have a look at our website here: and as we are a volunteer based community you can help us to grow bigger and better by donating to us here: .
About the Author
Emily Tisshaw is the founder of the online community the Sober Book Club whose focus is to read Quit Lit books. As well as running the book club, she is also on the board of Reach charity; a disability charity for children and families affected by upper limb difference. Emily is a writer with a specific interest in disability, addiction, gender and sexuality and is currently working on her debut book, On The Other Hand; a memoir about her experiences of living with a disability. You can find Emily’s work on her personal blog www.emilytisshaw.com where she shares stories and poetry, she has written for Ink Cypher and writes regularly for Within Reach, a charity magazine that helps people with upper limb differences. Her podcast is called Reasons To Be and Instagram and Twitter account is @emalemonpie