What I Learned From A Month Without Alcohol
First, you take a drink. Then, the drink takes a drink. Then, the drink takes you.
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald
I was 17 years old the first time I got drunk.
When I recollect it, odd memories stick out. My friend’s cousin owned two hamsters; the smell of wood shavings and Bacardi rum permeated her tiny one bedroom apartment.
I took a drink
Some people hate their first shot, but to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever had one so smooth.
To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
The spirit went down my throat, and up came a single word: “More.”
The drink took a drink
We laughed and poured another. And another. I wanted to impress my friend’s cousin — she was 23, after all. She had red hair. Her tattooed boyfriend smoked menthol cigarettes.
I felt good.
The drink took me
I put my hand on the countertop. I peeled it away and felt that sweet, sickly, boozy film; a foreshadowing of so many kitchen counter libations to come.
On the balcony, my hands shook as I smoked a menthol cigarette. I vomited over the railing and prayed no one could see.
The cousin with red hair brought me chocolate milk.
(Milk was an odd choice.)
I tried to sleep on a rocking couch. The room spun (metaphorically), the couch rocked back and forth (literally), and as I lay in the dark I whispered to myself:
“Alcohol is terrible. I’m never drinking again.”
It’s a phrase I have uttered time and time again. Sometimes jokingly, laughing over brunch the next day. Sometimes sternly, staring my goals down as they recede from me. Sometimes fearfully, poking at broken glass and broken relationships.
I’m not an alcoholic.
Yet, nearly all my friends have a story of one drink too many.
Caleb jumped off a table during karaoke and broke his leg; he landed at a bad angle. It was seven days before he left to study in Europe. He hobbled around Paris on crutches.
Bryan stole a golf cart on Catalina Island; he took it on a harmless joyride until he was pepper-sprayed by police. He had drugs in his cigarette box the cops never found.
I came home so drunk that I vomited on my girlfriend’s floor. She had cancer; we were living with her mother. I told her it was food poisoning.
Alcohol cuts. And when it does, you bleed shame. You wake up in a panic wondering who you need to apologize to.
But, potently, alcohol’s exculpatory effect seems to last far longer than its euphoric one. Over time the cuts heal; even scars fade. And then? More.
In Paris, Caleb had sympathetic French women pour wine into his mouth; his hands were occupied with crutches. Bryan picked up a bad habit of drinking Fireball whiskey and yelling at the police. I drank seven beers with my girlfriend and laughed about my “food poisoning”.
I just got too drunk — it won’t happen again.
Did we have a problem? Quite possibly. But we were in college, and every Sunday morning we confessed our sins to mutual approval.
Judgment, offended it had been so rudely rejected the previous night, rarely revisited the following morn.
We laughed and swept up the broken glass. Someone turned on Netflix and we made plans for brunch.
There’s a maxim, oft-repeated by American students:
“You’re not an alcoholic until you leave college.”
It’s a strange cover-all for the binge drinking that seems to define the American university experience. An exoneration of excess. An emancipation of Epicureanism. More.
I’m 25 years old now, and that’s a strange age. Half your friends are doing coke and the other half are shopping at Pottery Barn.
I’m somewhere in the middle, I suppose. Strictly an Ikea guy.
There’s a particular affliction that plagues folks around this time of their life: the Sunday Scaries.
It’s a phenomena you might be familiar with. That mild but distinct anxiety which grips you on a Sunday afternoon.
The weekend is over already?
You’re nursing a hangover and re-watching some television series, when suddenly your heart starts pounding.
You should have done more this weekend. Gone for a hike. Taken that free MIT course you’ve been talking about. Holy shit, I spent $70 at that bar? How? Did you buy a round for everyone? You did. That’s right, you fucking did. You bought everyone tequila shots. And the girl you were trying to impress didn’t even take the shot. Tequila, really Michael? Are you still in college? You need to do laundry. How often should I be washing my towel? Why did I eat three chicken sandwiches at McDonalds last night? When am I going to get my life together?
Fortunately, Sunday gives way to Monday.
You eat a salad. But, eventually, Friday rolls around again. More.
These days, my friends aren’t going to jail.
Our consequences are more mild. Ubers that cost too much. Drunk texting your ex. Staying up too late and getting a cold. Losing jackets. Inadvisable sex.
Broken promises instead of broken legs. Fighting hangovers instead of bouncers.
But it’s a double edged sword. Our rewards have also become more mild. Our best laid plans result in repetitive weekends: endless tessellations of identical cocktail bars with lowercase names.
For shitty Old Fashioneds and new Linkedin connections, we’re trading the only two things we can’t get back: our time and health. It’s a Faustian bargain. More.
I did a sober October last year and had no plans to do it again. After all, I live in London — drinking isn’t a problem here, it’s a national pastime. It’s a city that wouldn’t exist without the rum rations of World War 1.
However, I got injured climbing Marmolada in the Italian Alps. My knee was all banged up and I could barely walk, so I thought that cutting out alcohol would help it heal faster.
Two weeks later, I wrote my most successful Medium article ever. I finished reading a novel that would usually take me a month.
Three weeks later, I learned rock climbing techniques I’ve been putting off for a year. I was eating clean. My knee stopped hurting. I felt amazing.
Four weeks later, something seemed wrong. I was so anxious that I woke up in the middle of the night. I obsessed over insignificant decisions like what color raincoat to buy.
Now, five weeks later, I have no idea where alcohol should fit into my life.
On one hand, I could quit drinking entirely. I’d be healthier and more productive, without question.
Maybe that’s just a part of growing up. When I look at my older friends who still party hard, I feel a mixture of admiration and trepidation. I applaud their youthfulness; I pity their loneliness.
I don’t want to end up as some 45 year old “free spirit” buying shots for college students.
But surely, even that must be better than the life of quiet desperation one could otherwise be doomed to. A milquetoast existence with endless hours of Netflix and gardening; bougainvillea instead of bacchanalia.
The “right” answer, the most responsible, of course, is moderation. A beer or two while watching football. A glass of Cabernet with a good steak. Republican drinking.
Teddy Roosevelt famously defended accusations of drunkenness in court by listing all the times he drank. Under oath, he claimed:
“I may have drunk half a dozen Mint Juleps in a year.”
That sort of moderation is admirable, and it certainly has its place.
But so does drunkenness. It may be controversial, but I think Roosevelt should have drunk all those Mint Juleps in one night. More.
Surely, there’s a reason why alcohol is the most commonly used mind-altering substance in all of human history.
The “drunken monkey” hypothesis postulates that our primate ancestors developed a taste for alcohol from the rotting fruits on the jungle floor. It was an easy source of high-calorie food, if you could digest the ethanol.
We are attracted to the substance for the same reason we are attracted to sugar. It’s an anachronistic survival mechanism that’s now killing us.
Experts estimate humans first started brewing alcohol around 7,000 BC. We have used it for practical purposes (water purification), religious purposes (communion), and recreational purposes (beer pong).
But alcohol has also served a purpose that is seldom discussed: mental health intervention. Before modern pharmacology, alcohol was one of the only chemical tools humans had to combat depression, anxiety, and other ailments.
One need look no further than the Bible for evidence of this.
Proverbs 31:6–7 states:
“Let beer be for those who are perishing,
wine for those who are in anguish!
Let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.”
One can find iterations of this theme in literature from nearly every culture. Even in the Islamic world, a generally teetotaling realm, we find writers like Omar Khayyam, who wrote around 1100 AD:
“Today is the time of my youth
I drink wine because it is my solace;
Do not blame me, although it is bitter it is pleasant,
It is bitter because it is my life.”
Omar Khayyam’s words seem strangely modern — you can almost imagine them pasted across a depression meme.
But is his advice less salient today?
To even suggest that alcohol may benefit mental health seems horrifically controversial and taboo — the kind of thing that only an alcoholic would say.
But the science backs it up: a meta-analysis from 2000 determined that moderate drinking correlated with positive findings on:
“…subjective health, mood enhancement, stress reduction, sociability, social integration, mental health, long-term cognitive functioning, and work income/disability.”
I would go one step further and suggest that even drunkenness should be an occasional part of one’s life.
Escapism is profoundly underrated; it’s one of the few ways we can discount the emotional toll that modern life takes on us. The structure that we so painstakingly build up over the days and years of life — routines, social norms, even vocabulary — comes crashing down with alcohol. This can have terrifying consequences, but it can also be transcendental.
In the words of social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister in Escaping the Self:
“People need occasionally to be liberated from the fetters of selfhood, to be allowed to stop being true to their various ideas of self. The self that is known must also, sometimes, be forgotten.”
There’s a reason why alcohol has been associated with creativity since the time of Dionysus. It’s emotionally liberating. Coworkers can laugh over embarrassing stories. Friends, long apart, witness a liquidation of the distance that’s been between them. Men can look each other in the eyes and say words that are truly taboo: “I appreciate you”.
Escaping oneself is often necessary to understand oneself. Sometimes, the drink takes you to unexplored corners of your identity.
When I was in high school, I was a bit of an overachiever. High strung. Straight A’s, speech and debate state champion, theater, enough extracurriculars to choke on. My teachers thought I’d be president.
But this attitude also narrowed my worldview. I treated life as if it were a sleeping parent not to be woken.
I went to college, and drink by drink my risk tolerance increased. Adventures started small: late night food runs, karaoke, climbing on someone’s balcony. But in time, they grew in stature and eventually lost their relation to alcohol.
At 14, I read Jack Kerouac and wished I had the courage to explore. At 21, I drove around America for months. At 22, I moved to India. I’ve climbed mountains, cavorted with criminals, careened around corners on motorbikes in Vietnam.
Surely, there have been consequences. I’ve traded far too many Saturday nights for Sunday mornings full of shame. Boredom for fear.
But I made another trade as well: I indulged in that first, delicious shot of Bacardi, and in return I’ve received a life full of color, texture, and complexity. More.
It’s been five weeks since I stopped drinking.
The anxiety that has crept up worries me; some would say it’s a sign that I have a problem. That therapy would be better than a beer.
And they might be right.
My family tree drips with booze like early morning dew. I see the alcoholics with my blood (and, at times, my blood alcohol content) and I know that, no matter how comfortable and controlled my drinking is now, there is always the possibility of a spill.
That’s one of the reasons I take a month off. Alcohol can serve functions of both self-care and self-destruction. It needs to be used cautiously, but not always sparingly; six mint juleps is sometimes just the right amount.
So, I think I’ll take a drink. Then, I’ll let the drink take a drink.
But I need to be very, very careful about letting the drink take me.