For 8 years I never went longer than 2 weeks without a drink. Once I realized this, I decided it was time to step back and examine my relationship with alcohol.
Drinking always seemed like the norm. My parents drank most nights, my friends and I started drinking in high school (it quickly became what we did every weekend), and when I went away to college, I entered an even stronger drinking culture. It was shameful to miss one of the 4–5 nights a week where it was normal to go out. Even now after I’ve graduated and moved out, the weekends are always all hands-on deck for drinking.
When I reflect back on drinking 3–4 nights a week for years I’m disgusted. But, in the moment, I saw nothing wrong with it. All those years I really enjoyed drinking.
I never had a problem with alcohol. I was hungover a lot and said some stupid thing after too many drinks, but the short-term consequences never meandering into long-term issues. In other words, everything was going well in my life. I had nothing to complain about.
Then I started to question my relationship with alcohol. I wasn’t enjoying drinking like I used to, and once I thought more about why I was drinking I enjoyed it less. For many reasons, drinking became a source of stress in my life.
First was the health implications of my drinking. I am certainly not a world-class athlete, but I exercise almost every day and meticulously track my performance and fitness.
For two years I’ve been wearing a Whoop strap, which measures sleep, recovery, and strain. Whoop has taught me a lot, but one of the most important takeaways has been the negative effects of alcohol. Drinking ruins my sleep, makes it harder to recover, and some nights of drinking place the same cardiovascular strain on my heart as a 5-mile run even though I’m just sitting around.
I always knew drinking wasn’t healthy but seeing my resting heart rate increase by 20bpm or noticing my heart rate reaching 145bpm while I’m sleeping makes it hard to ignore the negative effects.
Despite constantly asking myself the question, I couldn't figure out why I was drinking. Some nights I would have too much to drink while watching tv by myself. Other nights, it was out with friends. Even when I only had 1–2 drinks, I still found myself wallowing in hungover self-pity searching for a reason to justify my choice.
I was confused. I loved drinking, but I couldn’t enjoy it because I felt so ashamed the next day. And when I didn’t drink, I felt just as bad because I was missing out on spending time with my friends. I was trapped in an endless lose-lose scenario.
All of this tension culminated in September and I started to consider Sober October. But cutting out alcohol for 30 days was a daunting task no matter how much stress and anxiety it was causing me.
Even though I knew it would do a ton of good, there were immediate roadblocks. In the month of October, I was attending a wedding, visiting my girlfriend, and going to the beach with my closest friends from college.
With everything going on I decided I would try the experiment a different month. I thought about November, but I wanted to enjoy Thanksgiving (more importantly Thanksgiving eve), then December had Christmas and New Year’s, etc.
I kept bargaining with myself on what the best sober month would be so I could limit how much I was missing out on. After lots of time comparing events and agonizing over the decision, I decided if I couldn’t have fun with my family or friends while I was sober, then I had bigger problems to worry about.
Sober October was a go.
After 30 days of sobriety and lots of reflection, I learned a lot. Writing this has helped me clarify my own thoughts and I hope sharing it will help others avoid the same traps I fell into.
While sober I became hyper-aware of my cravings for alcohol. Without the option to drink, I had the perfect environment to finally uncover how my mind was operating instead of grabbing a beer and moving on.
It wasn’t long before I discovered there were insidious patterns of thinking lurking in my subconscious that were driving my decision making.
At the beginning of my experiment, some friends were coming over on a Friday night. A weird thought occurred to me as everyone was on their way over…
What are we going to do when they get here?
We had already eaten dinner, there were no board games in sight and there wasn’t even a football game on TV. I was perplexed for a few minutes until it hit me that the activity scheduled for the evening was drinking.
Spending time with other people without having something to do (especially people you don’t know that well) can be super awkward. There is nothing to break the ice or take attention off yourself. This kind of intense social interaction is usually reserved for only our closest friends and family.
Drinking is something to do while spending time with friends because hanging with friends and just staring at each other is weird. When you’re gathering with a group of people there’s almost always an activity planned to make the night flow a little smoother.
Drinking is the path of least resistance for many people. It’s almost universally accepted and requires little to no effort.
I wasn’t looking forward to being the only sober one when my friends arrived that night, but once I started chatting the night flew by. I had a blast hanging out all night and although I was really craving a drink at the beginning of the night, by the time everyone left I had forgotten all about it.
For years the only thing I did when hanging out with friends was drink. As time progressed, I started to get drinking and spending time with friends confused.
Every weekend I thought I was getting excited to drink because I liked drinking, but I was just excited to see my friends. I built a Pavlovian association between drinking and seeing friends. It was so strong I didn’t even think about plans for the weekend anymore. It had become a part of my routine to automatically start drinking on Friday evening. Once I identified the association, I was one step closer to a better relationship with booze.
When I wasn’t drinking I always made an effort to look like I was. Whether that meant water in a solo cup or covering the logo on my seltzer can, I tried my best not to make a big deal out of being sober.
I didn’t want anyone asking me why I wasn’t drinking because I didn’t necessarily have an answer yet. Being human, I also wanted to fit in with the people around me.
Before this experiment, I never had to think about fitting in. If it was Friday or Saturday night I was always drinking and so were all the people around me. There was never a question or a consideration, I just did what everyone else was doing.
But when I was sober, I worried that I was going to stick out like a sore thumb on the weekends. All my plans are centered around drinking, so I was ready to be cross-examined by everyone I talked to.
I always felt uncomfortable if I was the only person not drinking. It felt like all the eyes were on me and everyone had a problem with me.
While that may be true in a frat house, I learned the scrutiny and discomfort I expected was all manufactured in my own head. Hardly anyone noticed I wasn’t drinking because they were just as worried about fitting in as I was.
I always thought other people were concerned with what I was doing and noticed how much I had been drinking. I thought people would nod in admiration each time they saw me grab another drink.
Turns out no one cares what the hell I was doing because they were all just as self-conscious as I was.
I used to feel a constant pressure to keep up and prove myself to other people by drinking more than they were. I was positive they were keeping track of how much I was drinking and somehow using that information to assess me as a person.
All it took was one night without drinking to realize this couldn't have been farther from the truth. Especially in larger groups, I was one of many and no one was paying attention to anything I was doing.
All this time I was drinking too much because of social pressure from other people that I created in my own head.
After realizing no one cared how much I was drinking, I have been able to drink at my own pace and enjoy myself more than I ever did before.
Sound familiar? I’m sure if you didn’t say this when you were a kid then one of your friends did.
It’s rare something good happens once thinking like this arises. Unfortunately, this mentality has followed us into adulthood and lives in our subconscious to torture us unknowingly.
For some reason, our brain doesn't think bad things are bad when other people are doing them. That’s where mob mentality comes from, but this type of thinking operates on a smaller scale too.
All it takes is one other person doing something “bad” to justify it in someone else's brain. Moms like to ask kids “Would you jump off a bridge if Billy told you to?” The answer is always no, but I can guarantee they’d be much more likely to jump if Billy did first.
When I went away for a weekend with my friends from college, this mindset reared its ugly head and I found another harmful pattern of thinking I had internalized.
We always had a heavy drinking culture in school and when my friends found out I was shooting for a dry weekend they were outraged and immediately tried to change my mind.
They were really bummed and they began to plead with me. As I stuck to my guns and they kept drinking, their pleading devolved into crude jokes and flat-out bullying.
This caught me off guard. Up until this point, all my friends had been supportive of what I was doing, but I was so close to the end of the month that I really wanted to cut the experiment a few days short. I almost gave in to the torment, but I held out for the rest of the weekend.
I thought about the way my friends acted for weeks and started to feel guilty as I remembered all the times I ridiculed others the same way. After lots of thought, I came back to the “If you do it, I’ll do it mentality”.
It was clear to me this rationalization in the brain was great at convincing people to start drinking. Before this experiment, all it took to break my will and join in was the sound of a can cracking open.
I realized it was also the reason my friends and I were so harsh when someone wasn’t drinking. We all knew drinking was inherently “bad”. When we encountered someone who was sober, we were forced to question our own decisions and felt guilty for making the “bad” choice.
In an effort to try and feel better about ourselves, our subconscious brains were bullying people into drinking so we didn’t feel guilty about our own choices anymore. Our brain thinks if “everyone is doing it” then it must be okay so we try and recruit as many people to join in as we can.
Understanding this fallacy has made it easier to be around people who are trying to recruit me to drink because I understand the way their brain is working. It has also helped me to avoid pressuring other people and keeping my mouth shut when I feel the urge to give someone a hard time for sticking to water.
After a month of sobriety and lots of time to reflect on what I learned, it was time to put everything into practice. My first night drinking again was great. I tasted a bunch of different whiskeys, I had a nice dinner with my girlfriend and then I ended the night by drinking way too much.
I was pissed. I sacrificed a month and went through a lot of trouble to be right back where I started.
Even though I learned a lot about why I was drinking and uncovered the backward reasoning that led me astray, I still fell back into the same patterns. I was drinking without thinking again.
I vowed the next time I drank would be different and I got the chance to test myself again the following week when I was visiting my parents at home.
I had 3 or 4 drinks and really wanted another. In the back of my mind, I knew I didn’t need to drink more, but all I could think about was the next drink. My Mom hopped up to grab another glass of wine and asked me if I wanted one.
Before my brain even processed the question my mouth was starting to say yes. Luckily, there was a pause and I thought back to the weekend before. The yes turned into a prolonged “ummmmmmm” until I finally said I was going to hold off for now.
I gave myself a chance to think if I really needed anything more to drink. After the rational thought from the back of my mind surfaced, I decided I was done drinking for the night.
I finally enjoyed a few drinks without feeling guilty or shameful and woke up the next day without feeling like I was hit by a train. That was a huge win.
The key to finally achieving what always alluded me was mindfulness.
Mindfulness = Time of Stimulus-Time of Reaction
The longer time between stimulus and reaction, the better off you are. This pause is where I learned to consciously make decisions rather than let my subconscious take the wheel.
When I started drinking again all the same triggers and flawed thought patterns were still there, but the split-second pause before I followed my impulse gave me time to think and make a conscious choice before impulsively drinking like I used to.
I didn’t set out to develop this mindfulness, but it unlocked the self-control I needed to enjoy alcohol without teetering over the edge. It allows me to take a step back and tune out the devil on my shoulder (even when the alcohol gives him a megaphone) and think back to the lessons I learned when I was sober to make better decisions.
Thanks for reading!
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