The journalist and author of The Outrun talks about addiction, hitting rock bottom and why leaving London to return home to Orkney saved her life.
I was 18 when I went off to Edinburgh University. I could not wait to experience life in the city. I wanted to go to the nightclubs and watch bands playing – all the things I just couldn’t do growing up in Orkney.
I wanted to be free and to feel less constricted. My first few years in London were even better. I was in my early 20s and everything was new and exciting. I had a lot of fun and met a lot of people.
Addiction is gradual and progressive. It gradually takes things from you. My drinking became more solitary and I would prioritise alcohol over other things in my life. I lost jobs and relationships, found myself in dangerous situations and began getting into trouble with the police.
I returned to Orkney after I got out of rehab because I was broke and unemployed. I recall feeling ashamed and frustrated that I had washed up back there. I was planning on returning to the city when I got a job, but the islands kept hanging onto me.
I’d always loved getting out on the cliffs and seeing the big skies.I grew up on a sheep farm with birds such as curlews and lapwings flying around, so I was always aware of them and missed them when I was away.
My first job on Orkney, about a year after returning to the island, was with the RSPB, monitoring corncrakes. It was a lucky accident and marked a turning point in my recovery. I moved into a small cottage owned by the RSPB on the remote island of Papa Westray and began to write. For the first time in years all these new areas of interest were open to me.
I had to find a new lifestyle because the type of places I used to go to were no longer safe for me. I found new things, like swimming in the sea or learning about the sky, that were just as exciting. It was unexpected, though – I just had to allow myself the chance to fi nd out.
Watching the Aurora Borealis in Orkney symbolised enjoying a different kind of nightlife to the one I’d had in the city. The Orcadian name for the northern lights is ‘The Merry Dancers’ and I like to link this name back to the dancing of my past in nightclubs in London.
I have spent the summer touring with my book The Outrun, talking at various literary festivals and events. I’m thrilled that people are interested. A new part of my week now is replying to the emails and messages I get from readers. The Outrun seems to have touched people in a lot of different ways. It’s amazing.
People have been much more supportive and open-minded than I feared they might be. I’ve had such goodwill. There are different connection points for readers – the book has struck a chord with people with island or rural backgrounds as well as those struggling with drinking, addiction or other problems. It is a story that many people can relate to.
Recovery is ongoing and I remain vigilant. I continue to attend support meetings regularly. However, the cravings are almost non-existent these days. I have been sober for just over five years – which is a miracle to me.
If I could give my 20-year-old self some advice it would be to listen to those inklings you have – they are probably correct. Your drinking is not normal, so do something about it now. And keep on writing in your diary every day.
I am living back in London at the moment but I miss Orkney like crazy and I return as often as I can.
Amy Liptrot’s first book The Outrun won the 2016 Wainwright Golden Beer Prize for nature and travel writing, and is now available in paperback.
(This feature was originally published in 2016)