My name is Tom and I’m not an alcoholic.
Picture the scene…
It’s late, you’re tucked deep into an East Berlin bar with an old friend. The walls, bare and industrial, speak of deep conversation, of exploration of humanity and history. The candlelight suggest intimate conversations of art, of philosophy, of human connection.
It’s a moment where work, when pressures slip away and, once again, you can rub spirit to spirit with another human and just talk and talk in licentious splendour.
Remove alcohol and you wouldn’t even be there in the first place. The conversations over a beer, the truths shared and the languid eyes replaced instead by an early morning. Perhaps a jog? Read the paper? Some work?
Or join them but ask for a cup of tea. Yeah right. Deep in the old DDR, where fellow humans once risked lives to be with one another and you want a what? Just a tea? You mean to say that you would sit here – whilst others open up – and you’d have a tea? Come on, just have one beer. Enjoy yourself. Relax. What’s wrong?
…and so goes so many evenings. The insidious creep.
Alcohol has been with us for millennia. The beer soaked saw-dusted floor of a medieval tavern, a wine-filled Roman amphitheater or the whiskeys in a western tavern.
The pulling up of stools that has for generations symbolized winding down, catching up and setting the world to rights. There’s to be no more of the day’s rushing. Or a dinner party amongst friends with oodles of red wine, music and laughter. Our sex lives would likely have been less interesting if it weren’t for this elixir. Alcohol opens doors and experiences.
These are a few of my favourite things.
Plus its all OK, because I’m not an alcoholic. The odd blow out here and there, but mostly in moderation. Sure, in the run up to Christmas, with parties and catch ups, this can be a daily occurrence. But tis the season. It wouldn’t be quite right to have mince pies, mistletoe and tinsel without a glass here and a glass there.
I don’t quite know where this all started for me. Until the age of 22 or so, I didn’t like the taste of alcohol and I’d only been drunk a handful of times. The almost paralytic drunk first time, when aged 14 with freshly minted livers, we’d not known that half a bottle of vodka isn’t wise… to drinking behind bike sheds or in bushes in the rain simply because it was forbidden, and forbidden things were infinitely enticing.
Alcohol has become such a prevalent feature of my, of all of our, lives that I don’t think we question it any more. If we discovered it for the first time – this moreish liquid that can wreck families, make your head thump, but the night before loosen inhibitions in amazing ways – perhaps we’d treat it with some respect. Yet I’ve seen captains of industry acting like 4 year olds as if that’s to be expected… funny almost – “God we were wrecked last night, wasn’t it awesome, I think although I can’t quite remember”. It’s such a fixed part of our lives, so normalised do we even see if for what it is?
Alcohol is sophisticated. Wines crafted over centuries. Generations of love poured into a single taste. As you sip you instantly experience the many lives of dedication to that one flavour. The blood of that artisan and sometimes even Christ, all in one. To ignore it would be like wandering through the Louvre blindfolded.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to gain some perspective and objectivity. Around last Christmas I mostly didn’t drink for 6 months. This year I’ve had patches on, patches off. I’ve been to weddings, gigs and festivals, perhaps the nexus of the non-alcoholic person’s blow outs, and remained sober.
Here’s what I’ve noticed. Though please remember – I love fun, naughtiness and adulescence. These are not conclusions I necessarily wanted to come to:
Moderation can be much harder than not drinking at all. Once you’ve had a pint, the second is so much easier to justify when coupled with the dopamine release. It would be so wonderful to have one, indulge and then stop but, for me at least, this is harder than not drinking at all. That makes me sound like an alcoholic, but I’m not.
Overall, I’m way healthier when I don’t drink. I sleep, on average, a half to an hour less each night if I haven’t been drinking for a few days and my quality of sleep is way better too. As a result, or perhaps in addition, my brain works better. I also feel I have much more energy during the day. I get more done and seem to have more time. For someone that has battled tiredness, this alone is a pretty compelling reason to abandon drinking altogether. I just feel better. I’m less prone to mood swings and low ebbs. I feel together, stronger and more emotionally powerful. There’s a mental and emotional sagginess that accompanies drinking that you only notice when you start to put some distance between yourself and the sauce.
Its very possible to have a good time, perhaps even a better time, completely sober. In fact, while alcohol gives the impression of opening people up – downed defenses decrease and tongues loosened – I’ve noticed that true connection, empathy and sensitivity actually decreases. In extreme, when people are properly drunk they, quite literally, turn into toddlers. Witnessing the scenes of normally erudite, intelligent, considerate people when inebriated is hilarious when involved but tinged with a moronic sadness when viewed from a sober perspective. I’m sure you’ve witnessed a ‘hilarious’ moment as seen by a drunken crew, that from the outside seems pathetic. That’s before that tears, fights, anger and the hormonal surges that often accompany.
Late nights don’t happen nearly as frequently. When drunk, evenings spill into the night and we roll into bed late. When sober, it’s harder to ignore pressing eyelids and the kebab, or rolling on somewhere else is much less appealing. As such you gain mornings but lose parts of the day when exciting things can happen.
Most people recognise all of this, at least semi-consciously. Tell them you’ve not drunk in a while and the reaction is usually along the lines of, “Yeah, I should too”. “Hangovers are just getting worse and worse”. Normally followed by a “But”. I haven’t even covered the horrors of the bad hangover… it’s not pretty, as evidenced:
Couple the above reasons with macro studies and the evidence becomes more damming. A Harvard study, conducted over 75 years – the largest longitudinal study in history, found that alcohol was the main cause of divorce, depression and mental disabilities. Sure, the study cites alcoholism but please don’t tell me that just because you limit your intake you suffer none of the consequences. I’m pretty confident that moderate intake results in moderate effects. Oh, and alcohol alongside cigarettes, contribute to premature/early deaths.
The slightly less scientific James Altucher points out that firstly, alcohol is a depressant, so why tempt it. It’s also a poison and damages the immune system. He concludes that he’s no puritan, just the opposite. But that he simply wants to live a long life with high quality in his later years. Fair enough.
There’s no doubt of alcohol’s damage when you visit places like coastal Kenya or backwater towns in the US, Australia etc. The cost of alcohol’s influence on our collective health systems is extraordinary. They say that 12% of the total health expenditure is for alcohol-related causes. That’s before absenteeism, and things like psychological problems if the Harvard study’s results are true – they claim 57% of divorces are due to alcohol. Woah.
So where does this leave us? Are we all living in an alco-hell? It seems pretty damming. I have a couple of friends who don’t drink. They seem more energetic, quicker to laugh, brighter. Yet some who gave up for powerful reasons, two of whom are therapists, have decided to drink a bit again after a long time without. Perhaps it’s just not possible. Perhaps the benefits of loosening up, talking, company and conviviality are so potently beneficial that we should all just enjoy ourselves.
Yet my experiments seem to lead to the same place – to giving up. The evidence seems, particularly powerful as I write it out, to be overwhelmingly in support of the abstainer. Yet that cut off feels overly restrictive. It doesn’t allow for spontaneity and fun. It’s an admission that alcohol is more powerful than I am. Surely, I’m in control of it, rather than the other way around. Yet again, writing it down it would seem that perhaps we’re not as in control as we think we are.
Plus I’m lucky, I don’t put on weight and I’m not an alcoholic and my family hasn’t been overly affected by alcohol. Those would be slam-dunk reasons for eternal sobriety.
So, where does this leave me? Tonight I’m heading out… again… into the Berlin night with a different friend.
But I think I’m on a clear path to severely limiting my intake permanently, if not stopping forever. I don’t have a problem, yet even that is a problem. If I can find the balance and have a glass or two a week without any of the negatives, I shall continue. But if the precariousness continues – this inability to walk the tightrope, I’ll give up. It’s just not worth it for now, even without the longer term health benefits. The damage that it does to our life is so huge, albeit insidiously so that it’s truly not worth it… even close to worth it when examined.
My name is SimpleTom, is society an alcoholic?
– What alcohol really does to your brain “Alcohol tricks you into thinking that it’s actually making your feel great. The effect is that you keep drinking to get more dopamine release, but at the same time you’re altering other brain chemicals that are enhancing feelings of depression.”