Alcohol is the second consumable and addictive substance I have used over a long period which I have quit in a tactical way. The other is nicotine. This might sound glib, but I found quitting smoking to be fairly stress free. Once I finished the pack of Nicorette gum that I bought way back in 2012, I have never once considered polluting my lungs with tobacco fumes. Refraining from drinking has been more an adventure of the perilous, confronting yet rewarding kind; and one I want to write about.
Judging from the title of this blog, the reader might have concluded that this blog entry will devolve into an avalanche of anecdotes about self abuse, self loathing, and self abasement. I have nary an intention of going over anything resembling that, though I will admit I have experienced alcohol related nadirs throughout my life. I just don’t want to go over them here as I don’t feel comfortable doing so.
Regardless of that, I have absorbed a bevy of information, knowledge and wisdom of both the minute and profound varieties from the day I got sober on October 24th, 2018. One thing I have learned, but which will not be served up among the six things I’ll subsequently detail, is that we as humans should abandon all hope for a better past. While acceptance of the events that have led up to the moment you live in is important, you can’t be permanently intoxicated in memories of yesterday. Yes, they are important to learn from. But constantly ruminating, regretting, reliving, romanticizing, reviling and reminiscing over what has and might have been is self indulgent self flagellation mistaken for intuition and insight. These days, I mostly prefer to focus on what I’ve gained from 2 years of sobriety, and have consequently provided these insights in the list provided below.
Nonetheless, before we go through said list, I need to clarify four things.
〇 I am not claiming moral superiority over anyone because I’ve decided not to drink any more, and nor should anyone claim moral superiority over me for my decision to not drink. My choices are my own as your choices are yours. Readers are free to take on board what I write, or dismiss it out of hand as complete bollocks.
〇 I am not a guru. I am flawed. I have my strengths. I also have my shortcomings. If you want to quit drinking and are looking for answers, please remember that what I am about to say isn’t infallible nor is it gospel. I despise woo-centric, ‘Ten Things You Need to Know’ Buzzfeed type, faux journalistic effluvia that is so much mental masturbation for the bored and incurious. What I say applies to my experiences alone, but if it has the added bonus of helping others then I say great. But please remember that whatever you choose to do with your own life has to suit your own circumstances.
〇 The reason I wrote this is to curate my own thoughts on this matter. The likelihood of no one reading it, reading it and not giving a shit, or reading it and violently disagreeing will not be an ongoing driver of my existential praxis.
〇 This article shouldn’t be taken as me saying that I will never drink again. I don’t commit to abstain for any longer than the end of today. That’s the only, yet conversely most effective, road I can take
With that out of the way, here are the six main things I have learnt during two years of sobriety:
- I needed to find a why to find my how: When wanting to give up anything, the first thing most people confront is how they will do so. Cold turkey? Progressive weaning? Supplementary medication? Therapy? For me my motivation was more important than my methodology. Once the former was established, the latter fell into place. I went cold turkey*.
Before my current 2 years of sobriety, I had a full month off the grog to help me prepare for a full marathon due to my then poison of choice, beer, being basically composed of empty calories, a cause of muscle inflammation, a cause of dehydration in the person serving as it’s temporary receptacle, and detrimental to waking up for early morning weekday training sessions. After completing the marathon, I had an occasional tipple during my subsequent recovery week (which I retrospectively found out led to a lingering bout of tendonitis), but my passion for running was superseding my need to drink in the evenings for the reasons previously outlined.
When I took baby steps towards getting sober, the first step I needed to take was to find something in my life I was passionate about that was impacted by my drinking. As I valued the former over the latter in this case, I had found a why that naturally dovetailed into my how. It gave me motivation to stop. With that motivation, my earnestness to quit drinking increased.
2. Drinking no longer added joie de vivre: Joie de vivre is a French expression. It is sometimes used in English to denote a cheerful enjoyment of life; an exultation of spirit (and not one of the alcoholic variety). It was a good benchmark for me to use when I started my journey sans alcohol.
I recently had an exchange with a friend on my 40th birthday that I feel is emblematic of certain mainstream ideas about quitting drinking; ones that hint that doing so is some involuntary sacrifice, surrender of joy or punishment imposed upon non-drinkers. After the usual exchange of well wishes, it was stated that me drinking a bottle of champagne would be a good way to celebrate my milestone. When I said that I was nearly two years sober and had no intention of doing so, the focus of the conversation turned to whether I at least was having a meal in a nice restaurant to mark the occasion (I was for the record). While no malice was intended by my opposite number, the tone of what was being said implied that refraining from libations was some type of self flagellatory deprivation. This in turn reminded me of the exact date I decided to get sober: October 24th, 2018.
It was the night of the state election in my home state of Victoria, and like any other center left social democratic voter, I was overjoyed to see that the Dan Andrews Labor government was heading towards a commanding victory. I was convinced that a celebration was in order while I watched the results flow in. Hence, I stopped in at my local Family Mart convenience store to pick up supplies consisting of three beers, two cans of chu hai and a jar of One Cup Ozeki sake; a popular drink among downtrodden Japanese salarymen commuting home from work on late night trains, but in actuality one better suited for removing the coating off brass door knobs.
Big surprise. It didn’t make the night any better. I just had dimmed my memories of it, and I proceeded to get the same dull headache I always got when I drank One Cup Ozeki. The result would have been no different had I wolfishly inhaled a magnum of champagne on my 40th. I’m not sure why this episode resonated more than others, but the epiphany that percolated from it was the kickstart for my current sober streak.
My premise of a celebration being compatible with the idea of one person drinking alone may make some raise an eyebrow for a variety of legitimate reasons. Conversely, neutral observers might also posit that I may have enjoyed the night better if I were with friends. However, I’ve found that going to social gatherings with my wits fully intact has also been a welcome bonus borne of abstaining. I am more confident when approaching people, and it’s not the fake bravado I masqueraded to the world when I was younger and full of ink. I also believe the relationships I have forged since my sobriety date are more meaningful as at least one party involved has been fully present, and I am more eloquent as a conversationalist. For me, joie de vivre has increased since I sobered up, and thus I am justified in my decision to quit.
3. The acronym for SOBER: I can’t claim credit for coming up with this, but the acronym of SOBER should be ‘Son of a Bitch, Everything’s Real!’
While alcohol is considered as adding joie de vivre by some, it can also be considered as an escape hatch by others. You’ve had a busy day at work? An argument with your spouse, relative, friend or colleague? Your favorite sports team has just lost badly? You are bored and with nothing to do? Your dog, cat or kid has shat on the rug? So often our first reaction is to deaden our anxiety with discomfort by taking Soma to put us to sleep, and it was an option that I took often. The post 70’s Anglophone West has seen many swallowing the view that experiencing unease of any form is somehow a personal failing or unfashionable. In many cases leaning on this crutch is subliminally encouraged by the media and advertising cabals that dictate our cultural milieu.
In the early days of sobriety, and without my liquid parachute handy, my processing of emotions became a trek into parts unfamiliar. The depressant marinating my brain had been taken off the menu. A panoply of discomforts including anxiety, unease, fear, self doubt, anger, sadness, depression, hate, regret, jealousy and so many more emotions were felt with an at times potentially overwhelming acuity. However, after 6 months, I also noticed that the concepts of joy, compassion, love, humor, camaraderie, consideration and admiration of others, aspiration, human engagement, self confidence and optimism made a roaring comeback into my psychological makeup.
Sobriety forces one to be present through it all, and I am now present. There has been discomfort that has been confronting. However, I am able to better digest what has been included on my tab for any given day.
4. Placing one foot in front of the other: In addition to the emotional maelstrom that I was plunged into, I also had to plough through the morass of two particular physiological side effects.
△ When quitting drinking, one’s brain and central nervous system will initially struggle to adapt without alcohol. The depressant marinating one’s brain I mentioned early will have a side effect of creating an artificial homeostasis thermostat set permanently to soporific, sluggish and subdued. As a result, one’s body then overcompensates by readjusting the levels of neurotransmitters it secretes to make sure that one is at a functioning energy level. Take that away suddenly, and you will have all the stimulation present caused by an excess of neurotransmitters with none of the come down from drink. Picture an elevator that has come loose from it’s cables and falling in perpetuity. That’s one way I can describe it. Another way is that I felt like I was consistently attached to a set of power mains for about about a week; my body tingling intensely caused by the disconnection from my former lifestyle.
△ Secondly, my metabolism struggled to adapt to the fact that I was no longer taking in the same amount of sugar found in wine, mixed drinks or even beer that I did when I was drinking regularly. Even to this day, I still have occasional and wicked sugar cravings, which triggers me to sometimes wolf down large bags of potato chips and bottles of cola. While it’s not good for my cholesterol or waist line, the chance of me making an ass out of myself, waking up with a hangover, or doing something dangerous (though I believe George W. Bush did nearly die choking on a pretzel) are nil.
Alas, coming down from these side effects does have a prescribed timeline attached to it and that has to be reconciled with. There is no magic pill to cure the habits of years or decades. When living through abstinence’s physically deleterious effects, or considering the reality of calling time on alcohol for a month, year, decade or a lifetime, it isn’t uncommon to lose sight of the forest for the trees and to quit in frustration at the perceived insurmountability of what lies ahead.
I believe that marathon training is analogous to getting sober. Like the latter challenge, being able to run 42 kilometers is a long term, challenging and intimidating pursuit. There is no magic pill to make one magically float from the start to the finish line. There will be days when one doesn’t want to get out of bed to run six kilometers in one degree cold or 80% humidity. There will be days when one feels they are the reincarnation of Roger Bannister, and wants to increase their training load to extreme levels. There will be times when one is convinced that getting over that hill just over the horizon is nigh on impossible.
Like sobriety, your goal is to make sure one never gets too far ahead of themselves. Stay in the now, get the next training session done regardless of whether you kick ass or want to lie down for an hour afterward, get through the next kilometer even if your legs feel like treacle or steel springs, stick to the goals you set yourself, live in THIS moment. Applying this mindset to sobriety breaks the entire process into a set of smaller tasks that aren’t nearly as intimidating when they are approached as a whole.
5. Who I am not and what I actually love to do: I mentioned in item number three that the confidence I projected to the world was more false bravado when I was drinking regularly. I have heard of and seen many people use alcohol as a mask to show what they think is an idealized version of themselves to the world. As alcohol lowers inhibitions, it can allow this. As alcohol also impairs perception, whether you are succeeding in doing so is an entirely different proposition.
With getting pissed for the purposes of making people think I was a wit, raconteur par excellence and as charismatic as two George Clooney’s candlelight f***ing in a Tuscan villa no longer an option, a lot of that fakery was discarded like a snake shedding it’s skin. I, to my surprise and unexpected delight, discovered that I can be awkward at times. That I can be childish occasionally and that’s OK. That I prefer listening rather than talking although I can do both. That I am OK with being vulnerable and emotive. That being a ‘real Aussie bloke’ is not in my nature, and not something I want to aspire to anyway. That I need not be a permanent victim, and I am worth looking after and being cared for. And that I actually hate going to dark, noisy bars and clubs where I can barely hear anyone speak and most in attendance are preening like uncoordinated and neurologically impaired peacocks.
Much to my delight, I’ve found that my productivity has increased. I’ve run three full and five half marathons. I’ve completed several short courses. I’ve gotten much more involved in more social activism. But the thing I am most proud of is rediscovering my love of books. When I was a kid, I loved to read. Being called a nerd for doing so discouraged me from pursuing this during my later teenage years. When I got to be of legal age to purchase fermented drinks, not being able to efficiently retain the information I’d read put a total kybosh on this hobby. Now that I am always lucid of an evening, I do my best to read for a good hour before I go to bed.
6. Accountability, community and the company I keep is key: I’m sure there have been people who have quit drinking and not told a soul of their rationale for doing so, nor discussed hardships associated with what they are attempting to achieve. If they have done that, I say well done.
However, having my wife as well as a few close relatives and friends to keep me on the straight and narrow has been crucial. Time spent alone can lead one down paths best not ventured down when embarking on this voyage. Community means different things to different people, but I mostly found that a couple of internet message boards as well as the people listed above have been enough to keep me on course. I must emphasize though that if these people and resources weren’t available, then my metaphorical expedition would meet an end akin to Burke and Wills. Community’s importance shouldn’t be discounted for a second. If those people are reading this, and they know who they are, I’d like to take this moment to extend my most sincere thanks to them.
There is always a fear upon the newly sober, and an annoyance among lifetime teetotalers, that we will be judged for not throwing one or two back at social gatherings. I’ve found that people are generally accepting of our resolve not to. In Japan, the country I currently live in and the only place where I have heard of ‘drinking’ being referred to as a ‘hobby’, I am occasionally greeted with quizzical and bemused expressions when I say I don’t drink by both locals as well as expats. When confronted with this, I remind myself that those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter. If the only thing keeping a relationship going is for us to ingest a mood altering intoxicant so we can stand each other for more than 30 minutes, then it was always built on sand. Also being present can also allow you to see both the light and dark, the ying and yang in people when a head full of cobwebs might not have allowed you to.
How Peter FitzSimons quit sugar and alcohol and became a better husband: Sydney Morning Herald November 18, 2016
This Naked Mind by Annie Grace
The Recovery Elevator Podcast
* Only go cold turkey if it’s medically safe to do so. Some are not in a position to just stop immediately and can do themselves some real damage if they try. Please speak to your GP before taking this step.