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What Two Years of No Drinking Taught Me

After two years, I didn’t feel empowered. I felt like a victim.

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Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

I’ll premise this feel-good piece by saying I learned a lot after two years… but decidedly not enough.

One year back on the wagon and I was slipping into old habits. It was from that place of déjà vu that I came to the biggest insight, one that I take with me even today.

I actually learned this lesson almost a decade earlier, but only recently made the connection.

As a freshman in college, I was working through what I later realized was an addictive mindset.

Through-out most of my childhood, I can hardly recall a meal unaccompanied by a soda. It was part of my normal. But college exposed me to a new world of healthy eating. I watched Food Inc. and read reports from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

I came to the conclusion that replacing daily soda with some water was probably in my best interest. Radical knowledge to be sure.

Turns out that would not be an easy overnight change. The minute I tried to reduce my consumption, the more I felt its presence at every meal or social mixer. Is it supposed to be hard to change a habit?

It took falling down a research rabbit hole to finally break it: study and study, image after image of the damaging effects of soda on the body.

I finally chose to give it up. This was the major mindset shift I needed.

I no longer felt punished into giving up a treat, something that felt like part of my normal life. I saw it a positive choice. A choice to invest in myself, in my health, in my state of mind.

This psychological switch completely broke the addictive spell. I never craved it again.

I’d come to face the same thing with alcohol.

By indulging even just a little, I was feeding my body’s intuitive knowing: “This pleasure you feel from this toxin is worth seeking.”

So one drink would lead to two, or three.

In my mind, I wasn’t an alcoholic, because I worked at creative agencies and start-ups… this was “normal.” I wasn’t drinking at home alone and most of the week I didn’t crave it at all.

But I more and more it started to feel like the drink was controlling me. Early Sunday morning runs would get side-tracked because of a late-night out. Creative pursuits would be delayed because a glass of wine at dinner — order largely unconsciously and out of convenience — lowered my overall energy and motivation for the rest of the evening.

So I cut it out. For two years. Not a drop.

I suddenly had all the time in the world… but it felt suffocating.

I removed myself from situations where I would normally have a drink — which were lots — to make it easier. I avoided bars, focused on athletics, and ate at restaurants with uninspiring drink menus.

Two (long) years in and I felt like I did it. Did what? I proved to myself I was fine without it. So the past few years were never a lifestyle change, but really some elaborate experiment.

Why not try re-integrate?

Through two years sans-alcohol, I never changed my psychological relationship with the drink. I merely avoided it.

The same routine of indulging a little slipped back into drinking out of habit and convenience.

It was never any different from my “soda addiction,” or any other addiction. My habits had power over me because I, at some level, wanted them to.

I never truly wanted to change my relationship with drinking. I could rationally list out the potential benefits, but I created the narrative that I was fighting something that was hard and somewhat out of my control. In a total act of self disempowerment, I became the victim to my own circumstances.

I did this every time I had a glass of wine and framed it as an indulgence, rather than a conscious choice.

I gave permission for matter over mind.

I shouldn’t have been that surprised: it’s not a coincidence that some of the most destructive things are also the most addicting. There’s a reason for the tongue-in-cheek named ‘Crack Pie.’

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Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes on Unsplash

When you’re paying attention, you can feel the negative impacts of say a freshly glazed, fried doughnut on your body: an upset stomach, extra sluggishness, irritability after the sugar crash.

Why then do these foods not only persist, but flourish?

They’re tasty, of course, but not just in some obvious way.

When you eat something sweet, salty or fatty, the brain releases heroin-like chemicals called endogenous opioids — this experience is amplified when you eat something with all three, perfectly balanced into what food scientists have called The Bliss Point.

Evolutionary theory supports this — sweet, salty, and fatty signal quick energy, useful in a pre-agricultural society with limited food resources. Less so when we’re marketed cheap heroin-like foods every direction we look.

Does this mean we need to abstain from anything indulgent? Not necessarily. The idea of it’s all or nothing is part of the addictive mindset.

Seeing that I control my psychology, which I can use to have power over how my body feels, experiences, and perceives its daily environment, meant those addictive substances and impulsive behaviors no longer had power over me.

Not nearly enough credit is given to the power of our perception, from self-healing to weight-loss. It’s why the best diet is no diet at all, but a lifestyle shift.

Realizing that I was training my body and mind every day gave me the keys to retrain it.

Addictive substances didn’t have power over me whether I ingested them or not. I had power over them and my response to it.

I saw a life for myself where I could have one drink consciously, be fine with my choice, and go the next three weeks without, not thinking twice that I was somehow lacking something.

Psychologically shifting how we see certain foods, drugs, supplements, or behaviors induces our body to respond accordingly.

And acknowledging the true impacts on our body and mind empowers us to decide how we want to live our lives, and not have our lives live us.

Written by

Ethnographer. Strategist. Storyteller. | Philosopher. Neurohacker. Flow State Advocate. | Mind, Brain, Behavior @ Harvard

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