This experiment commenced on schedule on July 6, 2009. See my progress log here.
As much as I don’t like so say it this explicitly, drugs have been a significant part of my life for some time now.
I know I’m far from alone. Drugs use is very common. Drugs are a part of human culture everywhere in different capacities: as medicine, as recreation, as escape, as tradition, as sacraments.
I try to avoid the common distinction between drugs that are legal or illegal, socially acceptable or not socially acceptable. A drug is a drug, regardless of the government’s opinion of it.
That unfair distinction creates a lot of undue prejudice and ignorance, it alienates people and ruins lives, but I’ll save that debate for later. I know most coffee drinkers would not identify themselves as drug users, but they are. It’s unfortunate that the term ‘drug user’ has come to be a condescending slur rather than just the objective descriptor it should be.
Partly because of the culture I live in, both the broader culture of North America, and my own local combination of friends and influences, I have become habituated to using certain drugs regularly. People all around me use them to different degrees.
The drugs that have had the biggest influence in my life — the ones whose negative effects have made me want to undergo this experiment — are alcohol and caffeine. Both can be used safely in moderation (perhaps even harmlessly) but in my life, due to the considerable forces of habit and social dynamics, they’ve come to cost me more than they are worth.
I have experimented with other substances, but none play a consistent role in my life at this time and will certainly not be a problem to abstain from for 30 days. I take no medications right now, but if a doctor prescribes a drug in the next month, I will take it. This experiment is about beer and coffee.
I do not intend to give them up forever, nor do I think I’m incapable of moderating either of them rather easily, I just want to see how my life changes if they have zero presence in my body for a month.
There are negative physical and social effects that are not worth the pleasurable parts, so I’m going to see what happens if I simply refuse to indulge in these pleasures at all.
In my “88 Important Truths” post, I mentioned that addiction is a much bigger problem in society than we commonly believe it to be. I think it is the fundamental source of suffering for human beings. Attachment to desires, great and small, is the traditional spiritual explanation for what suffering is, and I don’t think addiction is anything different.
We tend only to call it addiction when a person’s attachments reach life-destroying levels of intensity, and I think that’s one of the reasons it is so difficult to treat: because we wait so long before we consider it a problem.
We all suffer from attachments, and this makes a certain amount of it normal and almost invisible. We fret when someone interrupts our plans, or when we’re going to be late for work. These are attachments too, only they don’t revolve around the consumption of a substance. When an attachment occurs as a behavior pattern, it can be described as an addiction, no matter how mild.
So under this looser definition of addiction, I am addicted to alcohol and caffeine. They are such habits that I get nervous at the thought of shutting them out completely because I can’t predict the consequences of changing such long-standing behaviors. I will explain what I mean below.
You may be wondering how much I consume. One or two cups of coffee a day, and 10-15 drinks per week.
This is the easier of the two, I’ve gone without it before. I usually have coffee in three different situations:
- First thing in the morning at work. As I’ve sometimes hinted, my job is not tremendously inspiring these days and getting my coffee is a gratifying warm spot in any morning.
- When I sit down to write or work on some project at home. This is in the same vein as my at-work coffee. It’s part of the getting-down-to-business ritual; it signifies a serious intention to work, somehow.
- Social coffee. After dinner at my mom’s house, or at a coffee shop with friends during the day. This is when coffee is most joyful to me, and I will probably return to it as a social rite once this experiment is done. But for now I need total abstinence.
I’ve never been a true coffee-head, but just the thought of giving it up makes me a little sad. The truth is, I do love coffee and will almost certainly return to regular coffee drinking in some capacity, it’s really just the coffee-as-a-tool habit I want to change.
The costs of coffee-drinking that I don’t want to pay anymore:
- It takes more energy than it gives. I know that the more coffee I drink, the more tired I am later in the day. It seems to supply energy in the morning, but it’s borrowed from later at a high interest rate. I suspect my sleeps will be more restful when I’m off it.
- It stains the teeth. Not a huge problem with the comparatively small amount I drink, but it’s still gross to think about.
- It dehydrates. Caffeine is a notorious diuretic, and if I don’t drink a lot of water to compensate, I’ll end up feeling not unlike I’m hungover. I get headaches, I get irritable and I lose energy fast. Coffee consumption also gives me painfully intense urges to pee at inopportune times, such as at site meetings and in moving vehicles. What I don’t understand is the people I know who consume coffee all day and never drink water. Insane but common.
- It has become an alarmingly regular routine for me. My body is even reacting like one of Pavlov’s dogs. When the theme to the morning news comes on the radio, I literally start salivating and I think “Where’s my coffee?!” Sometimes my arm actually shoots out to where my coffee mug normally is, whether I’ve made coffee yet or not. This is disturbing to me.
- It causes withdrawals. This is another unsettling occurrence that has appeared recently. I will get headaches if I don’t have coffee in the morning, or if I have a lot of coffee in the morning and none in the afternoon. They are the cruel, piercing kind. Thankfully they go away quickly.
- It gives me an unhealthy feeling. I don’t like how it increases my heart rate without my permission, and if I drink a large one, I sometimes get a dizzy, sickening feeling. I shudder to think what a caffeine overdose must feel like. Caffeine really seems to have a nasty edge to it.
- It prevents me from being calm. I like to take a minute here and there at work (and at home) to become mindful, but caffeine seems to want my mind and body to keep moving. Even if I park my body to become still, my teeth or my tongue or my toes start moving. It certainly does not lend itself to meditation; the mind and body both become needlessly excited. I want to be able to slip into still awareness at any time of day, and this and other drugs really get in the way of that.
Alcohol plays a much more complicated role in my life. I have a few circles of friends, and in social settings they all use alcohol to some degree. I’m in my twenties, and at least around here, alcohol plays a dominant role in nightlife and the local music scene. Drinking to get drunk is normal and expected behavior where I come from, among professionals and slackers alike. Many of you will not understand, but some will.
Some of my closest and most dear friends are very heavy drinkers. They drink virtually every day, and if that is not already alcoholism, it is certainly on that path. Perhaps once a week I join them. Copious beer consumption has always been a large part of the time we spend together, and I wonder exactly what effects this experiment will have on our friendship. I can’t describe the details of this dynamic without getting too personal, but suffice it to say that my non-drinking will change things.
This is summertime: barbecues, pools, camping, bonfires, sitting on the deck. These are some of the greatest pleasures of Manitoba’s short summer, and I’m going to be abstaining from beer during prime time. I really wonder if I’ll be feeling a consistent pride for my abstinence, or the constant ache of left-out-ness.
I have had so much fun drinking with my friends — genuine fun, not mindless indulgence. Mostly. Alcohol just happens to have been a part of so many of my best memories. I wonder how much fun I had that I don’t remember.
The costs of alcohol-drinking that I don’t want to pay anymore:
- It’s expensive. This is one of the more convincing reasons to do it. Including beer from the vendor, drinks at bars and restaurants, and the necessary taxi rides, I figure drinking costs me a few hundred dollars a month. Very significant for somebody scrounging for travel money.
- It’s a lot of empty calories. About 150 per beer. For a night out on the town that could be a thousand calories or more, not including the whole pizza I ate.
- I can’t be mindful after my second drink. This is a big deal. In social situations I really like to sink into my chair and observe and appreciate people. I like to practice mindfulness when I’m around a lot of action, but usually the effects of alcohol prevent this.
- I can’t drive! This makes me make all sorts of other inconvenient arrangements, and outright prevents me from going to a lot of interesting venues and parties. I’ve taken expensive cab rides, sketchy inner-city bus rides, and long, and many lonely walks home when my ride wasn’t ready to leave.
- I can’t make a good impression on new people when I’m drunk. This is a very costly side-effect that has increased significance now that I’m a more social person. I would love to talk to more people in public but so often I will not approach them if I know I smell like alcohol or I can’t trust myself to speak clearly. I love being grounded and social, alcohol really gets in the way of that.
- Sometimes it just makes me feel awful. I’m not talking about hangovers, which I rarely get. Sometimes I find myself drinking beer even though it is only making me feel gross, just because I’m out and I’m so accustomed to doing it.
- Sometimes I do things I regret. I’m mild-mannered compared to some, but after a rougher night I sometimes remember having been rude or uncharacteristically aggressive. There’s nothing worse than remembering something awful you said to or about somebody when you were under the influence. These days I don’t often drink enough for this to happen, but sometimes I do.
- It’s a big time-waster. It’s not uncommon for me to go out at 7pm and not get home until 2am, then sleep until 10am. Excluding the eight hours of sleep I would have had anyway, that’s seven hours that I did not spend creating any lasting improvements to my life. And I’ll be in compromised shape when I wake up. I feel so pressed for time these days, that this alone is reason enough to take a break. Time is so valuable, what a dumb thing to spend it on.
- It’s habitual for me. It’s a hard drug that I use regularly. I need to know how important alcohol is to my lifestyle. If it can’t be cleanly removed without affecting my relationships and my way of living, then I need to do something about it now.
I’m drinking a beer right now as I write. And I’m getting nervous. I will certainly face peer pressure, not that it’s my biggest worry. One of my friends in particular will certainly rag on me, and discourage me from doing this. Another one of my friends is moving back to the city and will want to party like the old days.
But most of the pressure will come from me. I worry that I won’t be able to do it. I worry that I will find myself reasoning that a Heineken with my restaurant meal adds far more than it subtracts, and that I’ll lie to you about it. I worry that I’ll reason that this experiment was conceived in haste, and I should have thought it out better and planned for all contingencies, and that I won’t honor my commitment. I even worry that I’m so physically used to the act of consuming these substances that I won’t realize I’m doing it.
These doubtful thoughts keep coming as I write. This is genuinely scary for me, and it scares me that it’s so scary.
Because if this is so difficult, then I really have a problem. Not with alcohol, but with discipline and honesty. This shouldn’t be difficult, but it is, and I know that betrays a weakness on my part.
This experiment will last 30 days.
During the experiment I will not drink caffeinated or alcoholic drinks.
The first day will be Monday, July 6, 2009
The last day will be Tuesday, August 4, 2009
I’ll have a progress log up on the experiments page sometime today or tonight.
Readers: What is your relationship to alcohol and caffeine? Do you ever regret drinking alcohol or coffee? Did you find yourself giving one of them up at some point in your life?
If you liked this article, get email updates for free.