Esther Nagle is a mother who struggled with an alcohol use disorder for 20 years. Since getting sober on October 12, 2014, she wrote “Bent Back into Shape: Beating Addiction Through Yoga” and hosts the Sober Living Rocks podcast. Esther uses her yoga practice to reduce stress, increase her energy and maintain her sobriety.
Hello and welcome to Ready for Recovery. I'm your host Sarah, and I believe sharing stories of recovery can help both the person struggling with addiction and the person sharing their story. So today I have the lovely Esther Nagle on the show with us. She's the author of “Bent Back into Shape: Beating Addiction Through Yoga,” and she has been living a life in recovery for over two years now. So I'd like to welcome you on the show Esther and thank you for taking the time to come on and talk to me about recovery.
Hi, Sarah. Lovely to be here to talk to you today.
Yes definitely, and I know we had a lot more to talk about today, and I'm sure by the end this I'll be inspired to do a little bit more yoga, too.
That is my mission in life.
Let me start off by asking you this. What does being sober mean to Esther?
Well it means I think mainly I think the main thing that it means to me is that Esther likes Esther. I didn't used to like myself at all. I mean that was the vicious circle of the addiction growing out of a need to hide and then the addiction creating the shame and the self-loathing that meant I needed to hide even more. The biggest thing that I've got out of it is self-respect and being able to look at myself in the mirror and smile at myself. Since I've stopped drinking it has absolutely given me my purpose in life.
That's awesome. I mean recovery isn't an easy process, and for you to take the steps and to find yourself again through being sober is really inspiring.
It's much better. You can't imagine when you're looking at what — could I possibly live without alcohol and you're trying to imagine what your life might look like. You just can't imagine how much better it can actually get. It all feels so much better.
I want to know more about your childhood and the dynamic of your family growing up and if you think that contributed to addiction.
Oh, gosh. Well I'm the eldest of 4 children, and when I grew up I always felt quite outside of everyone. Not so much in my family. I was the only girl out of all boys so there was always that sense of being different. But where I live — in the community where I live — I never felt like I really belonged here. And I still live here. I still have that feeling now really, that I don't quite fit here. When we’re children we just want to fit in don't we? And we want to be like the other children. I had an unusual name and I spoke differently, I was raised by a mum who isn't from here so I spoke very differently. I had a very different accent, different dialect.
Everything about who I was made me a little bit different, a little bit odd, and I was definitely odd in my ways as well. I wasn't interested in the same things that the other children were interested in, and I did live in my own little bubble quite a lot. It seemed like there was always reasons why people would know me and know of me. My mum was a teacher, and so a lot of people knew me who I didn't know, so I would get people coming up to me and shouting at me because my mum had told them off in French class.
I was very good at French as well, so when you're the odd kid who nobody is entirely sure if they like and then you're really good at the subject your mother teaches, you're not going to be the cool kid at all. So I didn't really enjoy going to school and growing up in an awful lot of ways, and I'm fairly sure that seeds were sown for a life of low self-esteem and trying to hide from the world very much in my childhood. Just that constant feeling that nobody liked me, and when you're a child and you think nobody likes you, you assume that that's because there's something profoundly unlikable about you. I never what it was, so I just thought there must be something wrong with me.
At the age when I wanted people to be cool and I wanted the boys to like me, I was just not ever going to get that sort of attention. So low self-esteem was a bit of a problem for me in my teens.
Yeah, and I mean it's really hard when you don't feel like you fit in and you're just trying to find anything to fit in with a group of people.
And it seemed like everything I did just made me a little bit weirder. I thought I was doing the cool fashionable things, but I because I would go at it with my take on things because I was different I would always do things slightly wrong. Instead of fitting in and being cool I managed to be really quirky. Now I look back at it and I think, well I was just me and it was cool and I wish I could go back and tell that 13-year-old that it's awesome that she wants to wear her hair like that because she's not the same as everybody else. That's brilliant.
Exactly, like you're special by being different in your own unique way.
Yeah. Now I love it. I love not dressing like everyone else. I love not looking like everybody else. It's great I'm really glad.
I know that you've talked about in your own podcast, when you're talking about your recovery, you mentioned bulimia. Do you think that that led to anything. Because there's like co-occurring disorders where you're struggling with an eating disorder and then you kind of cope with substance abuse or substance use. Do you think that contributed as well?
Entirely. Completely. I think that I think that bulimia was the direct path to my drinking. I developed bulimia and it wasn't dealt with particular, it was not dealt with at all really. I stopped eating but it was more I was kind of forced into eating again rather than looking at the issues. I was always a very fussy eater as a child so I think the assumption was — and I think that's what I thought as well — that it was just an extension of my being a fussy eater. So nobody looked to see if there was anything else going on below the surface. So I was just kind of told that I have to start eating again, and I said okay I'll start eating again but I'm not eating meat so you've got to let me be vegetarian. I felt like I had won because I won the battle of the vegetarianism. I needed that place to hide I didn't have. I couldn't engage in the bulimic behavior anymore, but I'd discovered alcohol. That's a far quicker way of self-destructing than bulimia.
So explain to me what happened when you had your first drink.
Well to start, when I started drinking it was okay. I was 16 when I started going out with my friends and drinking. I just felt — I realized very quickly that it made me feel different. That it made me feel more confident and I could talk to people that I wouldn't otherwise talk to. I would dance a little bit more and I just feel a little bit more relaxed. But I never got really drunk in those early days. It was only when I was 20. I was suffering from goodness only knows what mental health issues. There was definitely depression. I needed to hide and my life blew up completely when I was 20. By then, I'd already realized that alcohol gives you that escape from negative emotions, that you can pretend to feel better than you do and you can hide from the negative. You can hide from the voices in your head telling you you're worthless. When I needed a place to hide, I knew alcohol would give it to me. I didn't really have any other ways of coping with the storm that was raging in my head.
I tried to ask for help. I went to see my doctor and I was told there's nothing wrong with me that I just needed to get a job.
So I went home and bought some vodka — I'm saying all right I can't get a job — I just never asked for help again. That was when I was 20 and I just didn't bother asking for help again. Because that kind of put me off, because I bared my soul to this doctor and he just told me to go get a job. Yeah, I think mental health care in this country has evolved quite a lot since I was 20. I don't think I'd get told that now if I went for help now. I wouldn't get told just go get a job I'm sure.
Yeah, I would hope not. I mean that's — I can't even believe that happened to you.
I know. And you know I had forgotten about it until I started the yoga teacher training. I started looking back at my early 20s and I suddenly remembered this. I burst into tears. Yeah I can't believe that happened to me. My life could've gone very differently had I had a more sympathetic doctor, back then when I desperately needed help but I didn't get it.
Wow. I know that you're a mom, so how did that impact your role as a parent?
I was drinking a lot, but I was a functioning alcoholic in complete denial that she was an alcoholic. I was pretty more or less functioning.
But I look back now on his childhood and he suffered a lot. He's very forgiving and he loves me and he's incredibly proud of me now, but I think that there's things that maybe he doesn't remember. I wasn't always the most attentive of mothers. I loved him and there was no doubt about that, but I was an alcoholic and that comes with a certain set of priorities shall we say. So yeah, it definitely affected how I raised him. I always did try and put him first. He's come out of it well. He's in his second year at university studying physics now and he's happy and we're very close.
So it's good and he's possibly more proud of me than anybody else, because he's seen me at my lowest. He's one of the few people that ever said to me, “I think you may have a problem.” Which, he said to me just before I started yoga teacher training a few years ago. He said “you know mum, I'm a bit worried. I think you're drinking too much.” I loved the fact that he said that to me, because it must have been really hard for him to actually pluck up the courage to say that to me.
Yeah and I'm happy he was able to come to you, instead of being afraid and afraid of what you'd say.
Yeah, well we've always been really close. When he was little it was very much me and him against the world. We were a really tight little team. We've always been very, very close. I think we both have mutual pride and admiration of each other.
Then there's my youngest who's 7 now. I suspect if he hadn't have come into my life, I might still be drinking. The difficulties of trying to cope with the most horrendous year of my life and being a single mother of a toddler and a teenager went a long way to pushing me over the edge, into the breakdown that I had to have in order to come back up again. So my little one, he doesn't remember me drinking. He doesn't remember me smoking. He's great, and yeah, he's brilliant.
Aww. You were saying before that your other son, he came to you right before you decided to do your yoga teacher training class. How did exercise and yoga jumpstart your recovery?
Well yoga — it wasn't really about the exercise. I’ve been doing yoga for about 6 years. I’ve been going to yoga classes, I was very into walking, I was very into swimming. I was very into exercise. I mean, I had managed to convince myself that I was really healthy because I was doing all this exercise. Then I was going home after that and getting completely wasted. With yoga it was about all the other component parts of yoga, beyond the exercise. I mean the physical stuff obviously helps a lot but for me, learning to breathe was absolutely fundamental. The balancing of the nervous system that comes with learning to breathe was just life changing. I think if I come out of that with one thing, that as long as it was breathing, I'd be okay. All the other stuff helped, but the biggest thing that helped me was learning to breathe properly. I was an asthmatic. I was a smoker, I was a heavy smoker with asthma.
So learning to breathe just transformed everything for me. It changed how I dealt with my stress levels, it changed how I processed my emotions. It obviously increased my health. I stopped smoking. Also beyond that is the Yama and the Niyama, which is the foundation of yoga. The first of the two, the first two of the eight limbs of yoga. Which basically they are like the 10 commandments. They are also a bit like — I call them the 8 but the 10 steps to recovery as well — because they are the things that guide how we live.
So you got Ahimsa, which is non-harming. You got truthfulness, cleanliness, self-study, surrender and controlling one's desires. Just all these different ways that help us to think about how we live and how we treat ourselves, the world and the people around us. It was those that forced me to look at my life in a completely non-judgmental way and look at the mistakes I've made, and look at the things that have happened to me. The things that other people had done to me. The things that I have done to me. The way that I had been hurt. The way that other people had hurt me. I had to find a way to come through all that. To process it, to forgive. To let go, to learn the lessons and feel gratitude for everything that's happened to me.
Good or bad it's contributed to who I am right now in this moment. So how can I feel anything other than gratitude for that? It's the other aspects of yoga that until I started that teacher training, I had absolutely no knowledge of at all. I thought I knew yoga because I knew the postures. I came out of my first teacher training class feeling like a complete beginner and it was amazing. I got full of ego and thinking I know all this, and I came out feeling like a total beginner and it was incredible. It made me so excited that there was so much I was going to learn. I was absolutely so fired up about it and I think if I hadn't realized that there was so much I didn't know, I think I would have possibly stayed a lot more complacent throughout the course. Instead, I threw myself into it as enthusiastically as I ever threw myself into a bottle of wine. It just changed my life completely.
That's amazing. I know you were saying before how you were still doing yoga and exercising and walking, then going home and feeling good about yourself and then having a drink. Did you have a day or a series of things leading up to where you realized you're at the lowest point of your addiction or you had some kind of moment where you realized I need to stop drinking for good?
I don't know. It's weird. I mean there was a day. The day that I mark as my sober anniversary was a bit like one of those moments, but it wasn't that moment of surrender really. That was more like a — okay I've discovered I can live better than this now and I don't need to do this to myself anymore — moment. The moment when I had that lowest point moment, was about a year before when I was listening to a Queens of the Stone Age song off their last album, which I'd been completely obsessed with for months. I love Queens of the Stone Age. I just couldn't stop listening to this album. I was actually, I mean it was almost like a craving where I had to keep listening to this album. There's one song in particular. The song talks about feeling lost and feeling lost to yourself and feeling like you've gone from yourself. I was sitting outside my house with a cigarette and a glass of wine sitting on the doorstep and I suddenly realized that that was exactly how I felt. That the song was basically as if Josh Homme had gone into my head, seen how I was feeling and written a song about it.
That was a real pivotal moment for me, because it was that point that I realized I was lost. I hadn't realized up until that point. I was in the middle of a massive breakdown and I hadn't even noticed. A few weeks after that, I finally surrendered into the breakdown that had been coming all year, possibly for the last decade. I think the breakdown had been coming for a long time. That was what led me to yoga teacher training. Then 7 months into the teacher training I woke up after a very, very heavy night, a really good fun night. I stopped drinking once all the alcohol in the house was gone including some whiskey, which I didn't even like. It was almost as if I was having a big blow out subconsciously knowing I wasn't going to do it again. I don't know.
I woke up the next day and I felt like I was dying and it was an element of — maybe it would be nicer if I just died right now — because I was in so much pain and felt so horrible and so ashamed of myself and there was so many things I wanted to do that day that I wasn't going to be able to do, because I couldn't get off the sofa. I just lay on the sofa. I woke up sober and I really enjoyed yesterday and because at this point I was doing a lot of yoga in the morning. So I was getting up early most mornings, and I wasn't drinking in the week. I was only by this point drinking at weekends. I just lay on the sofa reflecting on how much I preferred being sober and all the reasons why I was using alcohol for the previous 20 years was gone, because I had all these other tools that were helping me process my emotions and deal with my stress. So I was just lying here thinking, well I don't need this anymore, and so I decided that I was going to not drink the following weekend. I just made that be my, just going through that — not today, not today, not today — thing for a few weeks.
Then I went to a wedding, my brother’s wedding, where there was lots of alcohol available freely and I chose not to drink. I had such a good time that I realized this is my life now. I was much happier sober. By that point, I wasn’t drinking because I'd already built that resilience into my life through yoga. I did my recovery the other way around for a lot of people. I got to a point where I didn't need the alcohol and then I could stop. I don't think it would've been possible for me to do it the other way around.
I tried loads of times to control my drinking in the past and failed dismally. Just knowing that was what I was doing, was enough to make me need a drink. I'm queen of self-sabotage. I have to get to that point gradually.
I mean recovery is different for everyone. What works for you might not work for everyone, but I'm happy that you found your own way.
Yeah. Oh yeah, we've all got our different paths. We've all got our different ways. I think that's one of the beautiful things is that there are so many ways that you can do it.
You're using yoga to improve yourself physically, mentally, your spiritual health. Did anyone in your yoga classes know about your sobriety or did you have a support system in your yoga classes?
Well the teacher training was well, it was a very supportive little group. I wasn't really very open about my drinking. Because it was only really a few months after I stopped drinking that I found myself actually being able to talk about it. So they could see that I was going through massive amounts of change and I was talking about the fact that you know, I hadn't had a drink. I told them that I stopped drinking. I didn't talk about the extent to which I'd been drinking. I think my yoga teacher knew, because I was writing some stuff about it in my coursework. I think that a lot of my turmoil was more obvious to them than I realized anyway. I'm very much a wear your heart on your sleeve kind of person, so I'm not very good at keeping things to myself. So maybe I was talking about it more than I realized. I don't know.
Yeah, I mean everyone has their own way of coping with difficult situations too. I know for me like, I like to talk it out and get it all out in the open and if people know and they judge, I'm me.
I'm like that now I'll tell anybody.
So how did you celebrate your first year sober?
First year sober, did I do anything? I think I wrote a blog post. I think I might have done a little sort of Facebook party and that would've been 2015. I don't really remember. Last year for my second year, that was when I published the book in paperback. My second year anniversary, I don't really remember. I definitely would've written a blog post or two about it. I probably did a video and I don't really remember. Isn't that funny?
Well it sounds like you had like the time to like reflect and write it down. Even that is just great to do.
Yeah. I had not long started teaching at that point, so it might have been something to do with my yoga classes. I'm not sure.
Yeah. Do you happen to have any tips? Because I need to get more into yoga myself. Like you were saying before, I feel like I know it all because I can do the poses but I really don't know it, you know? Do you have any tips for people wanting to try yoga in recovery, and do you recommend a certain time of the day, or an amount of time people should practice?
Time of the day would have to be whatever works for you. For me, it's if it doesn't happen in the morning when I first wake up then it's probably not going to happen. That's the story I need to stop telling myself because sometimes I think — well this is ridiculous — just because it's lunch time doesn't mean I can't do my yoga practice. It's just a question of when you can find the time that works and something that you can stick to. It's best if you can do something every day, even if that's just sitting down for five minutes with your eyes closed. Just you know noticing your breath, just focusing on your breath and just being aware of your breath. I think that it is the physical stuff, that's the postures and all that, they are hugely valuable. But the most powerful thing you can do is learn to breathe properly. I think that is one thing I say. You know if I can only ever teach people one thing, if my purpose in life is to teach the world one thing, it's going to be to learn to breathe properly.
Because when you learn to control your breath, to take better breaths — to breathe out better, to breathe in better — it changes everything about how your body and mind function. It changes, you know, it balances out your nervous system, it improves your energy, it helps you to sleep, it improves your skin, it improves everything because you're getting more oxygen to every part of your body and you're releasing more carbon dioxide. You hang on to less because you're letting go better. So every time you breathe out, if you're making sure you that you breathe out properly you're letting go with every breath. You find you hang on to less stress, less annoyance, less everything.
In that space where we take a deep breath we can change how we react to things as well. So, if you're feeling very stressed take in some deep breaths. You know, we all know, we all say it's part of the language take a deep breath and count to 10 is something we say. But how many of us actually take a really good deep breath and pause before we react? I know how easy it is to get caught up in an emotional response and you react. When we react from our emotional response, we make decisions. We react in ways that we then think, okay maybe I didn't handle that as well as I could have. I had such an instance yesterday in fact.
There's somebody who really knows how to push my buttons did and instead of taking my own medicine and taking those deep breaths, I reacted immediately. And then of course, when I calmed I thought, maybe I was a bit hasty there. So you know, in those moments where we take those deep breaths when something is really stressing us out — when somebody is really stressing us out — taking those deep breaths can transform how you deal with that moment. It can be the difference between a reaction that you then have to apologize for or try and make amends for, or live with regret, or whatever. Or making a more rational decision. So yeah, I think that you should find somebody who teaches breath work.
If you're looking at doing yoga, find someone who teaches breath work and make sure that they do lots of relaxation practices. Because there’s some yoga that's very fast and physical and it's very body focused and doesn't really give your mind a chance to catch up. I think in terms of yoga for recovery — if you're looking at yoga for fitness than that's fine — but if you're looking at yoga for recovery, you want to try and find a way to balance mind and body and in order to do that you need to get still. You need to let your body rest. The style of yoga that I teach we rest after each posture just for a couple a breaths, but just in time enough to raise your awareness of the release of tension, so that overtime that helps you to kind of balance your stress levels out.
Yeah, those are some great tips and I'm going to have to do that myself and practice better breathing when I get stressed out. Because, again yesterday I should've just taken deeper breaths instead of reacting too. So that's definitely something to keep at the front of my mind when I get, you know, I want to just pounce on a situation and react to something. Do you have any resources you can share with people that might be able to help them in their recovery besides yoga?
Yeah, I've got well obviously there's my book, which is it's partly my story and it's also it goes into some detail about the different aspects of yoga and the different breathing techniques. There is some online resources that you can access through the book as well. I have actually got a short course on my website — which I'm looking at revamping very soon — called “Breathe in a New You.” That teaches a very basic breathing technique. Also, there's my free opt-in on my website, it’s a 5 day journaling challenge. So it helps you to kind of start digging deep and getting to know yourself a little bit. So if people want to go to soberliving.rocks, there will be several infuriating pop ups that will come up and you can put your email address in and you get a series of emails from me about that. I've also got an 8 week course — which has just started, which is like an ongoing course so you can pick it up whenever — called “Sparkling Sobriety” and that's available through my website as well.
That's awesome. I love the journaling feature, that's so great. I forget to take the time to journal everything down and just write it down and get it out of my system, so that's an awesome tool that you have there.
It's very powerful. And I know from feedback that I've had from some of the people that have done it, that some of the questions are quite challenging and they get you really thinking about things that you wouldn't otherwise think about. So there's an element of encouraging you to journal every day. Just you know, get your stuff down. There's some questions that will make you think about parts of yourself that you might not have thought about in a long time. So it's a real journey into you.
I love that. Love that so much. Is there a direct way that someone can reach you besides your website? Maybe an email address or Twitter handle someone can reach you at?
Yeah, so my email is [email protected] And yeah I'm on Twitter, so it's @soberlivinrocks. And I've got a Facebook group as well, which is called Recovery Pathfinders. Recovery pathfinders support and accountability, it's something like that. So if you look for that you can join that group as well.
Oh, it's a private group?
It's a private group. It's quite a new group and people are starting to share a little bit more in it now, so it is private because people are opening up a little in the group now. But I think if you were to go to if you go to my Sober Living Rocks page on Facebook, then you'd be able to find the group as well, and it's linked off the website as well.
Perfect, that's awesome. I'll definitely have to check that out as well. I'm so happy Esther that we got the chance to talk today about your recovery and ways to help manage recovery. Thank you so much again for coming on the show. I know that your story not only impacted my life, but for those listening right now, and I'm sure it's helping them. Thanks again for being with us.
Thank you so much Sarah, it’s been lovely to talk to you.
Lovely to talk to you as well. Until next time, this Sarah Grathwohl with Ready for Recovery.
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