It was New Year’s Day a little over three years ago. I rolled out of bed a little groggy from the celebration the night before – not skull crushing hangover, but enough malaise to realize I was not at 100% of my potential. I felt a little better after a glass of water and a light breakfast. As I carefully scooped the coffee grounds into the coffee maker I paused and wondered why the hell I drank in the first place? It was not as if I felt this massive benefit or anything, or did I? What it would be like to not drink alcohol at all.
This was not the first time I had contemplated this, in fact about 6 months prior I voluntary abstained for about a month just to prove I could do it; that I was not dependent. It was not terribly difficult, but the truth is I wasn’t really challenged. I was working a lot and had few social events. I did allow myself one cheat day in which we had already purchased a special chefs tasting with drink pairings at one of my favorite local restaurants. It was a special occasion and the alcohol was part of the culinary experience.
I needed something more difficult, something that would really give me some insight into my real relationship with what I would consider the single most destructive legal substance in our society.
My relationship with alcohol started like I imagine many peoples does, with the freedom of college. Anyone who has been to an American university doesn’t need me to tell them how pervasive drinking is. Every party and social function I went to, every weekend and often weeknights involved alcohol. It was the social lubricant of the university. I won’t go into detail about the massive quantities of stupidity involved, but it takes a certain level of idiocy to start brewing beer in the dorm room freshman year. Needless to say my stupidity level was at least average, probably higher. After a couple years I learned to be a more ‘responsible’ user of alcohol which pretty much continued until recently.
If you want to understand a society, take a good look at the drugs it uses. And what can this tell you about American culture? Well, look at the drugs we use. Except for pharmaceutical poison, there are essentially only two drugs that Western civilization tolerates: Caffeine from Monday to Friday to energize you enough to make you a productive member of society, and alcohol from Friday to Monday to keep you too stupid to figure out the prison that you are living in.
― Bill Hicks
The coffee was done brewing. The irony of treating the effects of one addiction with another was not lost upon me.
At this point in my life I was experimenting with multiple lifestyle changes, including diet, exercise and the near complete elimination of television from my life. As I sat drinking my coffee, I couldn’t help but reflect upon an interesting side effect of not watching TV. When I went back to watch it I just couldn’t do it. The absolute stupidity of 99% of programing, and incessant advertising was just intolerable. It literally made me feel worse than I did without it.
The problem was that I didn’t realize how bad television made me feel when it was a part of my life. I only noticed how utterly shitty it was after abstaining from it for an extended period of time. It was like detox or something.
Would alcohol have the same effect? I was going to find out. I just needed to design the experiment.
- It would have to be a long enough time so it was a real change; something that I could not run from by just being busy. I needed it to challenge me and interfere with habits that would surface in many different situations.
- There would be no cheating. No matter how special the occasion or how fancy the microbrew I would not partake.
- I would ask no one to change their own habits to accommodate me. If my wife wanted to have a glass of wine with dinner she should just drink it in front of me with no apologies.
- I would still do the things I wanted to that involved alcohol, I just wouldn’t drink. I would still go to the bar with friends on occasion and parties where the average blood alcohol level was sure to be above the legal limit for driving.
6 months. I figured this was the minimum amount of time to abstain. I would begin that night.
The first few days are always a little tough, not because of any physical withdrawal symptoms, but the psychology of trying to break a habit. I was used to coming home, cracking open a beer and unwinding from the day. It was a rather relaxing experience to be honest, and I needed a replacement.
Herbal tea was my answer. When transitioning from a habit it is useful to replace the habit with something else, and I happen to like tea. When I felt the urge to drink I had a cup of tea which largely replaced the craving. I was also careful not to put myself in a situation where my willpower would be challenged. I had nothing in the house I really liked to drink, and I stayed away from bars for the first few days, not that this was tough since I rarely go anymore. After about 4 or 5 days I was into a routine and to be honest I didn’t really miss it or think much of it. It was similar to my last month long fast.
Over the next few months I just went on living life. There were no earths shattering events, crazy cravings or wild binges. Sorry to disappoint. The changes were much more subtle, and I gained some interesting insight into the power that alcohol has over our society.
Let’s start with the simple stuff.
- I felt better.
- I slept better.
- I had more energy.
The changes weren’t huge, but they were real. They were measurable.
This was not the interesting part though. There were other things a little more unexpected. Here were my observations in no particular order:
Mrs. Happy Philosopher started drinking much less.
Without me as a terrible influence, one of her cues for drinking was gone. Really the only time she would drink was when we went out to dinner and she had a glass of wine. She was not aware of this shift consciously. It is amazing how much we become creatures of our environment and are influenced by the behaviors of those around us.
I could still have fun at social functions involving alcohol.
I purposefully went out on occasion when my friends were meeting at the bar and hung out. At first it was maddening. I kept reaching for a drink that wasn’t there. I didn’t know what to do with my hand that was used to holding a beer. I finally settled on drinking water. Let’s just say I was very well hydrated those 6 months! Interestingly, I did not crave alcohol, even in these situations. It was the act of drinking that I craved, not the alcohol itself.
It simplified decision making.
I think most people underestimate the negative effect of constant decision making has on their lives. Many smart and successful people eliminate unimportant or unnecessary decisions from their lives so they can focus their energy on the decisions that matter. By abstaining from drinking I didn’t have to decide whether to drink or not, or how much I can safely consume. I didn’t have to decide whether to drive home or get a ride. All those decisions were pre-made for 6 months. I wrote about one of the benefits of total honesty was never having to make a decision about whether to lie or not. These things matter. They add up and wear you down by the end of the day.
It saves money.
Alcohol is expensive, especially when drinking at a bar or restaurant. If you are a moderate or heavy drinker track your spending on alcohol. You will be shocked at the financial impact. Lets say you go out 3 nights a week and run up a $40 bar tab. That’s $120/wk * 52 weeks = $6240/yr. This is over 10% of the median household income in the United States of around $52,000. That’s serious cash. Compound that for 40 years at 7% return and you will have just over $1.3 million. That’s $52,000/yr in income using the 4% rule.
It exposed a blind spot.
But the most important thing I learned was the incredible effect alcohol has on others, and how they are completely blind to it. This included me. Being 100% sober in a bar around people that are not, for hours at a time, is an interesting experience. I felt like an alien sociologist observing a strange species. When everyone is drinking a little, no one really notices the effect, it is largely invisible. The subtle cognitive decline, increase in obnoxiousness, emotional lability. These things were now obvious to me. My conclusion was that alcohol blunts our awareness of self. And this is why many of us drink and do drugs in the first place. We do not really want to be aware of our self because we don’t necessarily like what we see. Being 100% aware exposes our insecurities, guilt, propensity to boredom, fear we are not interesting enough, etc. We use alcohol to cover these up and blunt their harsh effect.
I think the warning labels on alcoholic beverages are too bland. They should be more vivid. Here is one I would suggest: Alcohol will turn you into the same asshole your father was.
― George Carlin
All of these things were more acute when I was sober, and I was forced to deal with them all. This is the hard part. I had to be with myself and all of my problems, while others drifted away from theirs. At times it was maddening. At some point I realized this and truly understood the power of alcohol.
Alcohol is everywhere. It permeates our culture. The net effect is undoubtedly negative, and yet it seems inevitable. It seems predetermined in a way. It has an undeniable pull.
When the six months was over I celebrated with dinner and wine pairing hosted by a local vineyard. I enjoyed the wine, but in the way it paired with the food rather than the mild intoxication it provided. I appreciated it for the totality of the experience. The habit was gone, and the drinking seemed much more intentional and at ease, if there is such a thing. I didn’t drink much at all over the next few months, I didn’t feel the need. But slowly the habit returned. Three years later and I’m right back where I started. The habit won. Societal pressure won. The desire to numb a little won.
I learned more about myself with this experiment than any other, and gained insight into the murky waters of habit, addiction and societal pressures. I can see how dangerous this substance is, and how it can take over. I understand how total abstinence may be the only answer for some. I respect this power, but I don’t know how I will proceed. I honestly don’t.
Like many, I still don’t really understand why I continue to drink. I know I feel better when not drinking, at least a part of me does, but I continue anyways.
Everyone who drinks regularly should do this experiment at least once. If you are a heavy drinker or have experienced withdrawal before you should only do this under the supervision of a physician, as alcohol withdrawal can be deadly.