It feels weird drinking again.
After 90 days of no alcohol my first drink is an American peated whiskey that Lydia brought back from a trip to Washington, one she claimed was as good as the Islay single malts I adore. It sat on our kitchen counter for the duration of this challenge. At first, that caused a lot urges, but towards the end it –like most instances of cravings – faded into the background.
I’m finally tasting it (and she’s right, it IS that good!), but as with beer and food, the drink isn’t causing any urges, even during the act of consuming it. I’m appreciating it, but oddly, the craving aspect just isn’t there. It’s just an act of scheduled appreciation.
EXPERIMENT: ARTIFICIALLY RAISED URGES
Like my previous challenges, I used my tally clicking system to record urges for any alcohol across 90 days. This time, I tested the hypothesis that artificially exacerbating cravings would change the graph. If it’s just a matter of a certain number of urges to get over, pushing them early should result in the entire cycle finishing earlier, contributing to a faster, more efficient quitting process. I did this for one week.
To do this I watched shows like Mad Men and Lucifer, watched cocktail making videos, liquor commercials, and mini-documentaries on crafting spirits. I started writing down my best memories with alcohol, and several nights even poured brandy in a glass, stuck my nose in, and sniffed it repeatedly to conjure cravings.
In general, the quitting process was very similar to quitting beer, cigarettes, and processed carbs. It was easy to ignore urges and there was never a point when I felt like I’d break down, even while deliberately summoning cravings.
As for my artificial exacerbation experiment, my hypothesis seemed to be true. On day 60 my SRHI for the habit of observing and ignoring urges was at a 79 - close to super habit status. But I didn’t take a snapshot of the SRHI on day 60 for other quitting attempts. And while there were fewer average urges for alcohol versus food in the 3rd month, it’s unclear to me whether the difference is significant enough to warrant changing my protocols (average food cravings for 3rd month = 2.26, average alcohol cravings for 3rd month = 1.58).
In terms of surface level results, I didn’t really see much of a difference in weight loss (I’ve been weighing myself every day).
But I took a blood test and my ALT, uric acid, and iron levels are in healthy ranges, when before they were not. These have relationships to alcohol and liver functioning, so that was to be expected - it was just nice to see external confirmation. And my triglycerides have gone down considerably. It’s not the best before and after snapshot because the last blood test I took was 5 months ago, when I had already started my healthy eating plan.
As for deeper, self control results, the challenge was a fantastic success. I did conference networking, parties where everyone was drinking and pushing alcohol on me, and even went to 6th street in Austin and hung out at bars all night without drinking. It also worked through some of my particular triggers - grilling and fancy restaurants - with ease.
However, I definitely needed a release, and indulged in other vices, like hookah and cigars as a crutching mechanism. This valve release is an important issue, that I’ll get into in another post.
Observing the urges - and therefore the tangled set of psychological associations - uncoil and clarify was particularly interesting. Cravings mainly arose in 4 instances: social situations, boredom, as a method to relax, and in situations where I thought it was a matter of convenience.
An urge to grab a drink functioned as a shielding mechanism when things got socially uncomfortable, or when I felt tense and nervous, especially during awkward silences. An easy fix was using vipassana to observe how the tightness and tingliness that comprise the emotion spread across my face and chest during such encounters. Socializing without alcohol took some getting used to. I found that people started repeating themselves or acting odd, and I had to remind myself that they were probably in a different state of mind than I was.
My lack of a steady community was an overlapping factor between socializing and boredom. I crave socializing, and I usually satisfy it in the shallowest way - by going to a bar to be around people. Luckily, I’m exploring more groups in Houston, which, combined with my planning habit, lets me know what options I have on any given day.
But drinking is mostly just an easy way to fill boredom. Without it, my mind naturally tried to find other things to do. During this time I started getting involved in other activities - from group events, to joining a mountain climbing gym, to just hitting up the apartment pool.
Alcohol and relaxing at the end of the day have gone hand in hand with me for a long time. It’s ritualistic. Opening a bottle of wine or getting a drink with a friend is a signal that conversation is officially about to happen. I found that replacing it – using relaxation exercises, pranayama, and mobilization – helped, as did going to the pool. Getting a bit of sunlight as soon as I woke up also caused me to get sleepier earlier.
Drinking as a matter of convenience is the hardest thing to nail down. There’s a feeling of expectation, but not real pressure. It’s just easier to order a beer than figure out good drinking options, or if you want something that isn’t water. This wasn’t so bad, but it’s a subtlety that came up a lot.
BUT WHY STOP?
My limit these days is pretty low, usually 2 drinks. During the challenge I had a number of people who asked “but why do you want to quit if you don’t have problems?”.
I recently watched a Netflix documentary - The Truth about Alcohol - which discussed why alcohol - any amount - isn’t a good idea. Alcohol is connected with cancer. People tend to consume significantly more when they are drinking. And it interrupts self regulation, and that’s particularly bad for this project.
But I’m not doing it for any of those perfectly valid reasons. What bothers me is the cavalierness we all have when it comes to alcohol.
During one of my aforementioned meetings a boisterous member asked if I wanted a shot of crappy whiskey at 7 pm. And everyone was drinking beer. I was able to notice that people weren’t often drinking alcohol to truly appreciate it - they just needed something in their hand. Drinking isn’t a personality, but for so many people, it is. And all of this definitely applies to me.
One method I used to spur on urges was to write memories that I had with regards to alcohol. Like a mental contrasting exercise, I included both the good and the bad.
I discovered I have a lot of bad memories. I have a lot of good memories, but most of that goodness derives from closeness with friends, moments of deep connection and a shared community. What I learned is that alcohol is an easy way to get that, but not the best way out of the possibilities. Saying goodby, even only for this 90 day challenge was oddly sad. It felt like saying goodbye to an innocence that allowed me to be wild and carefree and have people love me for it.
CONNOISSEURSHIP & HABIT CIRCLES
This test helped me hone in on what exactly I like about drinking.
Drinking regularly, even in small amounts makes my appreciation of alcohol decrease dramatically. I don’t really care that much about any given beer. It’s just a habit when going to a bar. And I’ve noticed that change even in a week of drinking it again. I estimate that at the low end I ended up saving $600 from not drinking across 3 months, which makes me wonder how well I can up connoisseurship through buying higher end alcohol and only drinking it once a month.
A climber friend of mine once described how the community doesn’t really drink that much because they usually want to get up early to climb. When I don’t have the easy, liquid option of getting rid of my issues, it forces me to naturally find ways that are better. I think having more hobbies and activities helps a lot - it forces you to form a family of good habits that promotes things like better sleep, outdoorsy-ness, waking up early, going to bed earlier, better food decisions, more robust communities of people who are interested in what you’re interested in, not just their interest in drinking etc. For climbers, climbing is the high they’re chasing.
But if I analyze my circle of behaviors, socializing generally equals drinking at night. I don’t think there’s something intrinsically special about those people with a good family of habits. Rather, I think they just happen to fall into this circle of behaviors that supports one another. The key for any real system of self-help figuring out how to artificially kickstart this.
WHAT DOES DRINKING LOOK LIKE IN MY FUTURE?
It’s Houston restaurant month and I’ve ordered the wine pairing at an award-winning restaurant and it is blowing me away. The way the wines and mezcal pair and change my dishes is something that I appreciate in an intensely human way. It is, for me, life worth living.
I like drinking.
There’s no question that I’d indulge if I’m appreciating terroir. If I’m in Scotland or Kentucky, or provenances in France, or the Caribbean, I’m going to drink scotch and whiskey, cognac and rum.
I’m going to splurge on higher brands.
I’m also going to drink when there’s a moment of shared experience - my friend’s 40th birthday is coming up, and I’d love to have a quiet drink of communion with him. It’s just part of the ritual.
But those exceptions, when I actually look at them, are exceedingly rare. And a once a month indulgence, as with food, might help me reap the benefits both worlds – Epicureanism without rigid asceticism.
I’ve decided to allow all forms of drinking (Including beer) until I finish this article. Naturally, it’s taken longer than I expected. Alcohol is still an easy release of stress and boredom at the end of the day. This is something I need to replace, and is inline with my long standing view that forming an end of the day routine is paramount. The alternative seems to be what I do now - flail about and grasp at the easiest options.
As I regress to my normal levels of imbibing during the rest of the week I acknowledge that the first drink was noteworthy, as was the wine pairing at the restaurant. But were the rest? Will I remember them in any significant way?
More and more I’m beginning to think - “no”.