I don’t normally get very personal on this blog but I thought I would let all the readers in on a few important decisions that have impacted my life. This is a long post but may be useful if you have ever questioned the role of alcohol in your life.
I have a funny relationship with alcohol. I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve hated it (often in the same 24 hour period). I’ve said on multiple weekend mornings I’ll never touch the stuff again only to profess the very next week how excited I am to tour the new microbrewery in town. I’ve had a few friends that didn’t drink for various reasons and I’ve been with friends who can’t enjoy a social situation without alcohol. I’ve replayed the constant battle for years in my head about the joys and tragedies of consuming alcohol.
So, Why aren’t you drinking? It is hard to capture the social complexities and subtleties that encapsulate drinking in two sentences. I’ve spent years trying to figure out exactly what my thoughts were about the age old liquid. I’ve spent a lot of mental energy debating the pros and cons of the substance, its marketing, and its social status. I’ve traveled to countries where wine is everywhere and spent time in countries where alcohol was illegal. I’m impressed at the range of views that exist on the simple fermented beverage. (Photo: Train Wreck Winery)
After a particularly exciting night out with a bunch of buddies downtown, I woke up with a massive headache. I don’t know if it is just me but it seems like the older I get the worse those get too. I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I thought: man, it would be nice to take a little break from alcohol. Maybe I’ll stay in this weekend. Maybe I’ll take a week or two off. Maybe a month or two to clear my head. I needed time to answer the questions: Is alcohol giving me the true satisfaction promised in its advertising? or maybe: Is alcohol truly adding value to my life?
To start, I never thought I was addicted to alcohol. Probably because I didn’t know what alcohol addiction or dependency looked like. I think for me, I associated dependency with the person on the street corner drinking at 9:00 A.M. to get rid of the shakes from the night before. I thought about the person who woke up and couldn’t function without getting more of the juice into their system. That wasn’t me. I was far too sophisticated, enjoying my local microbrews, homebrews, and the best rated wine they sell at Trader Joe’s. I never felt a physical dependency on alcohol- that was reserved for the alcoholics.
How did I find out I was dependent on alcohol? For me, it was the mental battle I had with myself the first time I considered not drinking. The fear that arose with the thought of not having alcohol as part of my life. The hole that I perceived when I thought about weddings, gamedays, holidays, relaxing, concerts, and date nights. I realized I had positioned myself to need alcohol in these situations to feel normal. The fear of being left out in situations where alcohol consumption was expected. The fear of missing out on fun.
I’ll talk about two different but similar ideas: Addiction and Dependency. I think both have similar connotations but imply different things. I think addiction is most often associated with alcohol and it implies a compulsion or physical need to consume alcohol. While I think there are many individuals who suffer from alcohol addictions, I don’t think most of my family or peers really identify with that concept of alcoholism. Dependency is a little different. It sounds more like a desire than a compulsion. It implies a little more control. I realized that I was dependent on alcohol. I actually did need alcohol. And what was strange- it seemed like almost all of my friends had bought into the same concept. How did I know this? How did I realize I wasn’t in control. When I answered the question to myself: What if I never drink again? It literally made me sad to think about giving up all the future happy memories I might make over a cold beer, glass of red wine, or some fruity drink at the beach. Is a datenight a real datenight without a bottle of wine? Can I actually have a deep conversation with my wife without a bottle of fermented grape juice? Can I enjoy the company of my best friends without a case of cold beer? I was sadden at the answers in my mind to those questions.
After reading a lot about habit change and working at controlling my life through Direction and Self Discipline (In all areas: Diet, Exercise, Finances, Relationships), I decided that I was going to take an official break from alcohol. I was going to be bold! I was going to go off the wagon for an entire year! That way I could prove to myself that I wasn’t addicted and also give myself some time to think about what my permanent relationship with alcohol would be. Why a year? I thought that would get me through most of the social situations I would be likely to face the rest of my life (football season, weddings, new years, holidays, golf tournaments, bachelor parties). I would ‘sacrifice’ fun, excitement, being cool (or more like ‘not being lame/boring’), and relaxing and hanging out in bars with my drinking buddies, simply to prove to myself that I could do it. To prove I was in control of my life and I wasn’t an alcoholic. To prove to myself, since most of my best friends and family thought I was strange or didn’t understand why, and because it is still hard to articulate a response to the 30 second conversation of: ‘Why aren’t you drinking tonight?’
Alcohol Marketing ( And My Pushback)
The alcohol industry has done a magnificent job of marketing. Wow, they are good. And spending a little over $1 Billion a year does a pretty good job shaping social perceptions and influencing both teenagers and adults alike. Does it impact you? Surprisingly, some of the subtlest forms of advertising have the greatest impact. In fact, Vale has written an entire book and it is one of the five books that has changed my life. Please Drink Responsibly. Don’t Drink Alone. Thank Your Designated Driver. Real Men Drink Beer. Subtle, yet effective. In fact, I’m still convinced that no other product over promises and under delivers on a consistent basis more than alcohol and alcohol marketing (aside from maybe tobacco).
The association of fun and alcohol. The alcohol industry has gone to great lengths to interject their brand and advertising into areas of life that are entertaining (following in the marketing footsteps of Coca-Cola). Concerts, sporting events, weddings, parties, and holidays are all targeted with huge spending budgets to insure these events are surrounded by alcohol. Marketers understand that associations can be much more emotionally important than their actual products. Ironically, spending time at entertaining events and with close friends is unbelievably entertaining without any type of drug in your system. Are situations where you desire to drink fun because of the alcohol, or simply the situation and marketed expectations that have been pounded into our brains?
“Please drink responsibly” is probably the greatest marketing campaign ever devised. Why is it so amazing? What is impressive about the seemingly wholesome side of alcohol marketing is that it accomplishes an incredibly unique goal. It transfers the liability of the excessive drinking, not to the drug or product itself, but to the user of the substance. I think the alcohol industry has gone to great lengths to transfer responsibility to the user. They say, you are not strong if you can not control your alcohol intake. You are weak if you get drunk or tipsy when you don’t want to. You are not good enough if you have more alcohol than you intend. It is important to realize that alcohol itself, by its very nature, is designed to make you want more when you have it. It, by its very make up, loosens inhibitions and changes the way we think. The lack of self control you feel is the very design of alcohol! It is the drug itself that is much more powerful than most people realize. Advertising has a much stronger impact than most people will ever know. Are you influenced by the alcohol industry’s advertising? Are your friends?
Simplify My Life
I’ve spent the last several years working toward simplifying my life. I’ve removed most of my physical clutter but I’m still working on the mental clutter. When I made the decision to give up drinking, I was actually able to get rid of significant mental stress and anxiety. I didn’t have to make the decision every time social situations would arise that require me to drink, limit my consumption, or make choices about what and how much. In addition, removing alcohol also simplified my financial picture by removing another significant variable expense each month.
I don’t want to be addicted to anything. Not tv, coffee, spending, facebook, my cell phone, sports, or alcohol. I don’t want to have to take a drug to feel relaxed, have fun, sleep, facilitate conversation, or enjoy the company of others. In addition, removing alcohol has made many of my commitments, including my marriage, stronger. Situations and temptations of all types are significantly reduced by removing intoxicants from the picture. I am in control. In addition, I enjoy a healthy state of mind. For me, drinking is the opposite of working out. When I drink I try and avoid physical activity. It lowers my inhibitions in regards to the nasty food that I’ll consume and the activities in which I’ll engage. I have made plenty of poor lifestyle decisions that included alcohol consumption. And lost mornings due to the hangovers were just the start.
Finally, I think about becoming a father. Having a little girl. Thinking about the ways I want to protect her. Things I wish she wasn’t exposed to or didn’t have to deal with. I’ve seen many close girl-friends and young girls make poor decisions under the influence of alcohol. Some of the scars girls I know will never be able to heal because of alcohol. I don’t want that for her. And I want to be an example to her that there is more to life than dependency on alcohol. I want her to know that there are options. I want to give her a choice.
If You Gave Up Alcohol
When you quit you will get very little support. In fact, you will probably get the opposite of support. You might get a little support from some; but more often than not, if you are surrounded by others who drink alcohol regularly, you will get questions and consternation. People will question your self control, while at the same time, feel judged by your lack of consumption. You might have to change your situations. Even some of the people you hang out with. It will force you to examine your relationships and how they are built. It will make you aware of the people around you who are dependent on alcohol for relaxing or enjoying social situations.
What were my biggest problems with alcohol? It was about some of my conversations, thoughts, and- least frequently- my actions. The jokes I’d laugh at or the situations I put my self in are often compromising to the desires I have as a person. I would give up a lot of really fun times with alcohol to take back a few bad nights. I’ve made a lot of bad decisions during, after or in the direct company of alcohol consumption. Some of the stupidest and most dangerous situations in my life were surrounded by alcohol. I don’t miss that. I won’t miss that.
Filling in the free time. What do you do with all of your time after you stop drinking. I had built my life, social structure, and friends around drinking to the point where abstinence left me lonely. Slowly, I’ve replaced many of my bad habits with more intentional, productive ones. Some of the activities I enjoy without alcohol include: playing sports, working out, golf, fishing, hunting, eating, reading, watching movies, watching sports, growing things, cooking, music, fixing things, drinking coffee, teaching, writing, playing board games, hanging out with family and friends, and biking.
I’ve learned that I can still have fun without alcohol. I can still have great conversation, dance at a wedding, and enjoy a football game without anything to drink. I still have great friends and the relationships that are most important to me are fully accepting whether I choose to drink or not. I enjoy the relaxation that comes from the lack of worry in potentially compromising situations. I’m happy to be free of the pressures and expectations. When it comes to my legacy, I’d still prefer to look a lot more like Mark Richt than Mic Jagger.
My fear in quitting alcohol was based on the fear of missing out. It took me a long time to realize how much that fear cost in my life. I have now gained something more important: Peace.