Happy New Year everyone. So I’m starting 2017 by not drinking any alcohol for four months.
The decision wasn’t made in the throes of a January 1st hangover. I had committed to an extended teetotaling break a few weeks before, the morning after attending the staff Christmas party of my former employer.
It was a rather restrained night, as far as get-togethers at the pub go. But the next day I remembered a detail that made me realize I’ve been making a huge miscalculation the entire eighteen years I’ve been drinking.
There seem to be three basic relationships a person can have with drinking. There are drinkers, dabblers and teetotalers.
Teetotalers never touch the stuff. Dabblers may have a glass of wine or a beer now and then, or even regularly, but they only occasionally have enough that they’d have to call a cab. They see drunkenness as an accident, a morally salient line one should avoid crossing. Drinkers get drunk on purpose, and obviously believe it’s worthwhile.
I have always been in the drinker category. Throughout my adult life, I’ve regularly gone out with the intention of having six or more drinks, sometimes many more. This is socially acceptable where I come from, but only recently has that begun to seem strange to me.
It seems like a mistake of history that our species has such a casual fondness for what is actually a very hard drug. It’s only drinking’s popularity that makes it seem like a sane thing to do—fairly normal doses are enough to make people sway and stumble, say rude things, throw up, writhe in bed the next day, and often much worse. It’s addictive, expensive, frequently life-ruining. Even the kindest person in the world, having had enough alcohol, becomes awful to be around.
I’ve mostly kept myself within the bounds of “socially acceptable” drinking, for what it’s worth. I don’t drink alone, I don’t drink and drive, and I’m only rarely the drunkest person in the room. But I’ve been drunk a lot. Over twenty years, it’s almost certainly more than five hundred times, maybe a thousand.
How is it possible for drunkenness to be such a worthwhile drug experience that I’d do a thousand times? Even if it was free, physiologically healthy and zero-calorie, the drug itself still represents a very questionable tradeoff in terms of mental faculties. For a few hours, you gain some relief from rumination and stress, and it’s easier to laugh and open up. But you lose a significant degree of what are probably the best human capacities: judgment, self-control, intelligence, basic awareness and kindness.
Maybe others are getting more out of it than I do, and giving up less. But for me it is very obviously a bad deal, and it’s getting worse as I get older.
An obsolete tool
It may have been a good deal at first. When I was in my teens and early twenties, drinking probably gave me a net benefit socially. Those first few years of drinking came with a real social freedom a shy person like me couldn’t get any other way. After a few drinks I could talk to people easily and I made friends quickly, and I had no other tools for doing that.
But I’m no longer an awkward teenager who’s afraid to talk to people. I have more chances to socialize than I can make use of. I seldom stress about work. I like my life. And I like myself, except when I’m remembering being drunk.
My drinking has tapered off from more than once a week to less than once a month. I drink so infrequently for a “drinker” that it didn’t seem worth quitting. So why is this suddenly troubling me twenty years into my drinking career?
That night out in December shattered two myths I’ve used to rationalize my drinking habit. To make the story short, I woke the next day feeling intense shame about a flippant comment I’d made to the bartender. It wasn’t mean, just snarky and abrupt. I doubt I offended him through his hardened bartender skin.
(*Because I know people will ask, I’ve included the entire story in an endnote.)
I know I’ve made many unhelpful remarks like that over the years, but there was a reason it got to me this time. That morning, I remembered exactly how I felt as I made the comment—and I know that I felt aware, restrained, almost sober.
This was alarming, because I believed my many years of drinking had left me with a somewhat reliable sense of how unreliable my faculties were at any given stage of impairment. Who knows on how many other occasions I believed I was sober enough to be witty and still polite, but had already become annoying and oblivious.
The mirage of responsible drinking
For a long time I’ve believed I could achieve a sort of “happy window”, about a drink past “tipsy”, where I could reap the upsides of the drug without reaching the point where the serious downsides kick in. Theoretically, I could enjoy the freewheeling spirit alcohol offered without getting obnoxious or overly familiar. Obviously I would overshoot that window sometimes, but I could dismiss that as an error in execution, not in the plan itself.
However, that morning I was mortified at my behavior, and I knew I hadn’t overshot my window. I had monitored myself as well as I knew how to.
That horrible morning, I spent two hours journaling on the topic of alcohol: why I drink, what it does for me, what it costs me, and why the idea of abstaining completely is so scary. The list of costs was long and alarming—the financial and caloric costs alone are enormous, and they’re nothing compared to my growing morning-after self loathing, interactions that are worse than I realize, and the disruption to my fitness and meditation regimens.
The list of upsides was pathetic. I don’t feel any social advantages anymore, so I was left with stuff like: People will bug me for not drinking. I might not get invited to things where most people are drinking. Beer tastes really good sometimes.
This journaling also led to the other major revelation: all those fun memorable nights out with friends weren’t great because I was drunk, they were great because I was with my friends. This was a basic attribution error: Parties are fun. I am drunk at parties. Being drunk is what makes parties fun.
It’s clear now that if there is a responsible, happy window for me, I can’t depend on knowing where it is if I’ve been drinking. And that means the kind of moderation I believed I was practicing either doesn’t exist, or I am still incapable of it after twenty years of drinking experience.
Canceling a bad deal
Even “restrained” drunkenness erodes almost every part of my personality that I like. Alcohol still makes me feel free, on a very superficial level, but only in exchange for turning me into a person that would annoy me if I was sober. Responsible drinking, for me, seems to mean not drinking, or at least not being drunk.
So I decided not to touch the stuff until May, when I take a trip to the UK. I reserve the right to visit a pub. After that I’ll have a lot more insight into what life is like both with and without this habit.
Still, I doubt I’ll never drink again. There is communion to be found in drinking with others, and I don’t think it’s all an illusion. While alcohol does break down a lot of inhibitions that keep us from doing stupid things, not all of our inhibitions are good—booze is known for making people feel free to tell their friends they love them, for one thing. Sometimes these confessions are sloppy and sentimental, but sometimes they’re genuine and long overdue. Clearly there are healthier ways to achieve that openness, but we are fearful beings and we don’t always find them.
This communion effect is a major reason I resisted taking a break, and at least part of the reason our species is so fond of this substance. The drug is not—maybe unfortunately—devoid of value. It just has so many costs, depending on the person, that it may not be worthwhile to use it often, or at all.
How is your relationship to alcohol? Are you comfortable with its place in your life?
Photo by Fabrizio Russo
*Six of us remained after the bulk of the Christmas party had cleared out of a local pub. I told the bartender, in what I thought was a joking tone, “You’re the worst bartender we’ve ever had!” To my surprise, he did not laugh and neither did anyone else in our party. I had meant it as lighthearted remark to break the tension after someone had called him out for ignoring our end of the bar. We had interpreted his obtuseness as poor service, but in hindsight it was clearly a passive-aggressive attempt to get us all to leave—one remaining former co-worker was in rough shape, having started drinking that afternoon. He needed to be escorted to a cab before he fell asleep on his stool, but nobody was taking the initiative to do that. We knew him but were not quite friends with him, and so nobody felt responsible for him. I suppose we believed that he had chosen to drink irresponsibly, unlike ourselves, and the bartenders had overserved him but now considered him our problem to solve. My comment was meant to tone down the confrontation level, but unbeknownst to me it was completely tone-deaf and out of place.
Even though I was nowhere near our colleague’s level of intoxication, I was still completely oblivious to what was actually happening, including how my comment landed, until the morning after. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I was in a position to help several people who needed help. All I did was make a ham-handed comment that I never would have made if I had been even close to the person I am when I’m sober. Yet I remember in that moment feeling like I was only “responsibly tipsy”—still sharp and witty, and miles from being crass. Realizing all of this the following morning was mortifying and I don’t ever want to be that unaware again.