90 Days Off the Sauce
Will our protagonist go back to drinking? Read on to find out!
Sobriety seems to be having a moment. I don’t know if it has something to do with the turn of the calendar year, Andrew Huberman’s podcast episode about alcohol, or just a shift in the zeitgeist, but a lot of folks have decided to cut out booze, at least temporarily.
It turns out that people who quit drinking tend to be pretty vocal about it (clearly). Sobriety is starting to creep into that category that includes vegans and people who do CrossFit. You know the joke: How can you tell if someone is vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.
I’ve wondered why these particular groups are so loud. Maybe there’s an element of self-selection whereby annoying people gravitate toward veganism, CrossFit, or sobriety.
It’s possible that many people who don’t consume animal products, for their part, feel a sort of ideological responsibility. Once they arrive at the belief that eating meat is immoral, they feel the need to evangelize that belief. They become Meatless Missionaries.
When it comes to the CrossFitters, it could be that an endorphin-producing workout program that incorporates both competition and camaraderie is something that just really excites people. Going to the gym can become stale; CrossFit provides a possible remedy. Perhaps its devotees, all hopped up on endorphins and post-workout smoothies, feel physiologically inspired to tell the world.
The drinking thing is a bit different. Last Friday marked 90 days since I cut out alcohol, and I’ve come to understand why it is that people won’t shut up about this.
We live in the era of the superlative, so I generally try to avoid making bold claims. But it would be inaccurate to minimize or gloss over this: the changes I’ve experienced over the past three months have been nothing short of obnoxiously life-changing.
My decision to cut out alcohol came after I finally let my subconscious have its say.
For years, I found myself drawn to the personal accounts of those who had gotten sober and experienced profound shifts. I would click the links to their articles or buy their books without even realizing I was doing it. And yet, it was as if I were reading these stories as some sort of anthropological observer. I only allowed myself to find them interesting in a detached, impersonal sense, refusing to consciously entertain the possibility of a connection between the author’s experience and my own.
A little over 90 days ago, though, something clicked.
I didn’t grow up in a family of alcoholics, or even a family of drinkers, really. None of my immediate or distant relatives seemed to drink all that much. Alcohol was not a notable feature of my childhood.
And yet, growing up, I still internalized the belief that alcohol was as fundamental a part of human life as food or bad drivers. Many of us do; this isn’t a difficult belief to come by in America. An alien visiting this country, after observing the omnipresence of alcohol in our social fabric, would probably assume that it was as essential a nutrient as protein. Commercials, movies, books, billboards, restaurant menus, liquor cabinets, stadium concession stands, planes: everywhere you look, someone is advertising, holding, purchasing, stashing, or talking about a drink. We grow up with a clear message that alcohol is a fundamental part of adult life.
When you’re a kid, you spend a good chunk of your time trying to convince yourself and others that you are in fact an adult. Add in the fact that we’re told during adolescence that we are too young and immature to drink, and the magnetism to this mysterious substance becomes pretty much irresistible.
And so I drank.
I’d be lying if I said I thought the drinking I did growing up impacted me negatively. I look back with fondness, not regret, on the memories of sneaking my friend’s dad’s bottle of Stolichnaya in eighth grade, high school keg parties, and the four-year binge that is college. These were formative experiences, and I partially attribute that to the social lubricant of alcohol helping to smooth over the coarse awkwardness involved in growing up. For the most part, I had a hell of a good time.
But it’s also true that these experiences reinforced the belief that alcohol was a staple of human life, if for no reason other than that it was something everybody did. After college, the window dressing changed—we exchanged Natural Light for Stella Artois and fraternity houses for yuppie bars—but the ubiquity of alcohol remained. People drank.
Having lived thirty-one years of my life operating under this belief and assuming that all the negatives that increasingly came with drinking—hazy, regretful nights, brutal hangovers, a constant undercurrent of anxiety—were part and parcel of being human, it was something of a shock to start hearing about people who decided to simply opt out and then claimed to experience benefits that sounded like they were straight out of a pharmaceutical marketing pamphlet. You’re telling me you stopped doing something that everyone does and you now have tons of energy, are happier, and generally enjoy life? Yeah. Sure.
This knee-jerk skepticism didn’t keep me from clicking those links or buying those books, though. My antenna was up. Some part of me was clearly wondering whether drinking was still a worthwhile endeavor.
I wasn’t what most people would call an alcoholic. I rarely drank on weekdays, and I never drank alone. But when I did drink, I found it very difficult to press the Off button. The idea of having one or two drinks didn’t compute for me. Why waste a perfectly good buzz by letting it disappear when I could double down instead?
I also noticed that the older I got, the more alcohol seemed to interfere with the things I really cared about. It became comically routine: I would take one step forward during the week by making commendable progress with exercise, work, and personal projects, then I’d turn right around and march three steps in the other direction with a night or two of partying followed by a hangover that might run through Tuesday. It was like a game of Red Light Green Light, but with puking.
On some level I knew this might be problematic—or, at the very least, unhelpful—but there was so much inertia in my life behind drinking. My social life revolved around it. The idea of making weekend plans or going on a date without involving alcohol was incomprehensible. Regardless of how intriguing these stories of sobriety and redemption may have been, I had an arsenal of convenient reasons as to why it was unrealistic for me to be able to connect with the authors’ stories and seriously entertain the idea of making a change.
So when I found myself yet again picking up a book about sobriety—this time, The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober by Catherine Gray—I had no illusions of any action being taken. I figured I’d get a few chapters in and then tuck the book, along with the possibility of change, into a hidden corner outside of my awareness.
But for some reason, I kept reading.
I tore through that book in less than three days. I don’t know if it was the way the author presented her ideas, years of subconscious reasoning, or just the right timing, but a switch must have flipped. Before I had even finished the book, and with hardly any deliberation, I decided to give sobriety a shot.
At the outset of this experiment, I held two conflicting sets of expectations. I wasn’t sure which one was more likely to be accurate. A cynical part of me, close to the surface, figured I might feel a bit better physically but also bored and left out, like a kid forced to watch all the others having fun in the playground while he walks to his mom’s car.
A deeper part of me, though, was hoping—begging, actually—that I’d experience profound changes like the ones Gray described. Even though I was generally happy with my life on a conceptual level, I knew deep down that something about my day-to-day experience was not right. It didn’t seem normal or healthy to have a constant undercurrent of anxiety or feel emotionally flat and indifferent in the face of such an interesting life.
So, curious and confused, I cut out the booze. I initially had a grand and dramatic plan (I had many of these, for reasons we’ll come back to) to set the timeline at a full year, but a much smarter friend suggested I start with 90 days. It was the perfect amount of time: long enough to get a sufficient sample size, but short enough that it wouldn’t feel like a trap should I decide that this was a dumb idea.
I’ve noticed a phenomenon in my life of changes that occur ‘gradually, and then all at once’. The sobriety experiment turned out to be another example of this.
To be specific, there were two of these shifts that happened in parallel when I stopped drinking, each with their own unique contours and contributing factors.
The first shift was somatic. A couple of weeks into the experiment, I looked into the mirror and realized that a number of things had changed dramatically.
I looked…healthier. I don’t know how else to describe it. My eyes were brighter, my jawline was sharper, and it looked like I had gotten a face lift. I had noticeably more muscle tone, and I had dropped a fair amount of body fat. These aesthetic changes were accompanied by an increase in energy levels and overall productivity. All after two weeks!
It also occurred to me that that constant agitated, restless feeling of anxiety had completely disappeared. It had happened so subtly that I hadn’t noticed, but its absence was glaring. I even looked for it and tried to grasp at it to see if it was hiding just beneath the surface; there was nothing there. This blew my mind. Two weeks.
As jarring as it was to experience this firsthand, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Every single personal account I read described similar changes. It’s fairly simple science, it turns out: alcohol is by definition a poison, so as much fun as it is, we shouldn’t expect our bodies to respond positively to it.
The second shift I experienced is more complicated and difficult to untangle.
It started when I noticed that life seemed to have more texture and vibrance. Everyday experiences, things that had previously felt flat and unremarkable, started to carry an inherent significance. Day-to-day existence felt richer.
Around the same time, I also noticed a foreign feeling, one I had been chasing for years. I was scared to acknowledge it; it felt fragile and ephemeral, and prior experience told me it shouldn’t be there. But there was no mistaking it: I really, genuinely liked myself.
I thought about why all this might be, and it led me to an interesting discovery.
For a long time, I realized, I was experiencing much of life theoretically. That is, in any given situation, I knew the appropriate emotional response; my brain registered it on an intellectual level and even approximated a watered-down cerebral version of the emotion. But I didn’t feel it. The primal part of my brain that should have been flooding my body with feelings of joy or sorrow or fury simply refused to activate. Sometimes I would reach for the emotion, try to will my body into feeling it, but there was nothing there.
Here’s an example: someone I’m very close with lost their pet. I care deeply for this person and, having a pet myself, know how devastating it would be to go through that. When I heard the news, though, my internal response was hauntingly mechanical. I knew that this was an objectively sad thing. I knew that I should be compassionate and support this person in whatever way they needed. I even ‘felt’ the loss on a logical and practical level; I understood the difficulty and gravity of the event. But I didn’t feel sad. I didn’t feel anything.
What made this lack of feeling even worse is that I felt obligated to put on a sort of performance to demonstrate my empathy and understanding since I couldn’t access an authentic version of it. This sounds manipulative, but it came from a place of love; I wanted to be there for that person, and since I couldn’t truly empathize on an emotional level, I tried my best to make it seem like I did, for their sake. Still, it felt gross.
This is what I mean by experiencing life theoretically. It’s like watching a movie where the actors read all of their lines in a monotone. You’re able to follow the events that happen and understand where they fit into the story, but the events aren’t alive. They don’t carry any emotional weight or relative value. They’re incomplete.
It occurred to me that this was why I so frequently made grand decisions and dramatic changes in my life without much thought: I was desperate to inject some kind of emotional valence, be it positive or negative, into being. When one of these shake-ups didn’t have the (subconsciously) intended effect, I’d come up with a new one.
So it was quite confusing when, a few weeks into my experiment, I started to actually feel things. It was a bit disorienting at first; it had been years since I had fully felt an emotion. But it also felt like I had stumbled upon a sort of life force and was accessing a whole new dimension of lived experience, one that made me feel human again.
And I realized that this rediscovery of emotion and subsequent feeling of aliveness was directly related to my self-perception.
It became clear that there were ultimately two reasons why I didn’t like myself. The first was that the lack of emotional capacity and genuine empathy made me feel like a fraud, like I wasn’t a real participant in the world. I felt like a spectator watching everyone else play a really fun game that I wasn’t allowed to join, and I blamed myself for being relegated to the sidelines.
The second reason I didn’t like myself is that I didn’t trust myself. I didn’t trust my intuition, my taste, my judgment, my decision-making. It felt like I was missing some key ingredient in my core operating system, so I looked outwards for guidance and direction. I did this enough times that I felt like I had outsourced much of my life. This made genuine self-respect almost impossible.
What I came to realize is that the missing ingredient, the solution to both of these problems, was the ability to feel. Alcohol had become both a barrier to feeling emotion and a crutch upon which I relied as a result of it. Removing that barrier brought me back in touch with myself.
I thought back to the story I heard about the man who, as a result of damage to his frontal lobe, lost the ability to feel emotion. After the injury, the man became virtually incapable of making decisions, and his life completely fell apart. I dug up an article about the guy to refresh my memory. “[As a result of the inability to feel emotion,] he couldn’t make plans for a few hours in advance, let alone months or years. And it had led his life to ruin,” the article noted. The neuroscientist who studied this man came to believe that “the cold-bloodedness of [the man’s] reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options and made his decision-making landscape hopelessly flat.” His life’s compass had lost its emotional magnetism, rendering it unable to point in any meaningful direction.
It all made sense. Reading this story and reflecting on the past few years confirmed for me that the capacity for emotion is a central requirement for being able to effectively navigate the journey of life. It should have been no surprise that rediscovering my own capacity for emotion would make my life immeasurably better, because it brought me back in touch with myself. I began to trust, and in turn like, who I was again.
The first shift—the physical transformation—is easy to attribute to cutting out alcohol. When you feed your body garbage, it makes you feel like garbage. The results I experienced were profound, but the equation wasn’t complicated.
The second shift had more to it. It’s likely that the emotional, perceptual, and self-esteem-related issues I had weren’t really about alcohol itself. Like many people, I had a bunch of unresolved shit sitting under the surface that I had subconsciously decided to avoid. Drinking just happened to be the most convenient, effective, and socially acceptable way for me to do so. Many other vices would’ve done just as well.
The thing about unresolved shit is that avoiding it requires a blanket approach. You can’t choose to only avoid unpleasant emotions—you either feel them all or you don’t feel any of them. When you choose avoidance, by means of drinking or otherwise, you forgo your capacity to feel anything outside of a very narrow range of emotion. And as we’ve seen, that comes with some pretty serious consequences.
There are plenty of folks who have a healthy relationship with alcohol and are able to manage its downsides by moderating as needed. It’s unlikely that this is a function of luck. I suspect that these people have a strong sense of who they are and have confronted and integrated their formerly unresolved shit in order to develop a fundamental emotional maturity.
I had not developed these qualities in adulthood, which made it difficult for me to maintain this kind of healthy relationship. Without the core compass that emotion provides, I had to outsource my direction and identity, losing myself in the process. Drinking went from something I did for fun, to something that allowed me to have fun, to something that allowed me to be fun. Alcohol became a cheap surrogate for emotional maturity, stunting any real growth that should’ve been happening.
Cutting out drinking was so impactful because it eliminated my emotional crutch outright. I was forced to deal with life in all its complicated, unfiltered vibrance. Without being able to use drinking to escape my own head on a Friday night or experience on-demand relaxation during a difficult conversation, there was no choice but to deal with the raw emotion head-on and rely on myself to navigate whatever life was throwing at me. The funny thing about confronting hard things, it turns out, is that you end up developing a powerful sense of self-belief in the process.
As I reflect back, it seems so ridiculous, so reductive and simplistic, that not consuming a liquid could bring about the effects I had been endlessly chasing through every angle imaginable: achievement, money, fitness, sex, psychedelics, meditation, a new mobile phone provider.
It seems natural to feel the need to talk about this, to tell someone, “Holy shit. You know that thing most of us do every week? The thing around which we’ve structured much of our existence? I stopped doing it and my life seemed to magically get better.” I imagine that the others who talk about similar experiences with sobriety do so for the same reasons. Sure, we might all be annoying, but there’s also something to pay attention to here.
The complexity around my relationship with alcohol is a microcosm of our society’s. Drinking does many wonderful things for us. It brings us together, frees us from our inhibitions, and creates a special kind of memory. It can help us savor the present moment. It’s an electric experience that is often fun as hell.
But alcohol also causes a tremendous amount of damage. It is just as likely to ruin the relationships it helped create. It can make us reckless and stupid, and it often distances us from ourselves. It is, not infrequently, responsible for death.
So where does this leave us? Where does it leave me?
It’s true that there are negative effects specific to alcohol. The feeling of drunkenness is the result of being poisoned, and when we poison ourselves frequently enough, our bodies respond in kind. We become overweight, anxious, sluggish.
But it’s also true that our bodies are incredibly resilient and have a fundamental capacity for adapting to adversity. As with most things, moderate consumption of alcohol in and of itself is unlikely to kill us. When you consider the fact that social connection and the quality of our relationships improve health and wellbeing, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that moderate consumption could be a net positive.
Cutting out drinking was transformative for me not because of the alcohol-specific effects, but because drinking was the primary method I used to avoid confronting my shadows. It follows, then, that some of the most important work we can do is to identify which of the near-infinite avoidance mechanisms we may be using and then remove them in order to confront those shadows.
Ultimately, these vices and coping mechanisms are as much symptoms of our distress as they are causes. Whether or not they’re actively harmful is dependent on the place from which we seek them out. If we’re using alcohol—or gambling, sex, shopping, charity work, or any other activity—as a means to avoid or cope with an unresolved issue, it will affect us negatively, regardless of the nature of the activity itself. Conversely, when we engage in these activities from a place of emotional maturity and a strong sense of self, they’re less likely to become harmful because we are able to see our motivations for the activities and the effects they have on us more clearly.
This suggests that the solution is not to focus our attention on the activities themselves. Doing so misses the point, in the same way that restrictive diets and digital detoxes and productivity techniques miss the point: they do nothing to address the root causes that drove the issues with eating or technology or work in the first place. A better approach is to examine why we feel so compelled to continue doing something that isn’t serving us and then pull on that thread until we reach the level of the underlying issue. Often, as in my case, removing the harmful activity is essential to understanding and dealing with that underlying issue. Once we’ve achieved this clarity, we can make more informed decisions about what we should or should not keep in our lives.
Modern life is complicated, which has led us to believe that we are complicated. We aren’t, really. The parts of our brains that have been around the longest—the most fundamental parts of who we are—need the same things: security, love and belonging, self-esteem, creative expression, and fulfillment. All of the seemingly complex issues we face are downstream of one or more of these needs not being met. The complicated part is untangling the surface-level stuff in order to see and understand what’s going on with these deepest parts to get a sense of why we do what we do.
I’m now able to see my own relationship with alcohol more clearly. Many of the reasons I drank weren’t healthy, and continuing to do so without understanding this was hurting me in ways I didn’t realize. Possibly the most interesting and surprising thing about this experiment is how easy it’s been. It has felt shockingly natural to just not drink. This tells me that I was doing it for mostly the wrong reasons.
Going forward, the only rule I plan to abide by is to make decisions about drinking with eyes wide open. I now trust my ability to see my emotional state for what it is and recognize whether my desire to do something is coming from a place of need or hurt. I also trust my ability to ‘play the tape forward’ and weigh out the positives and negatives of each decision. So far, these exercises have continued to tell me that I still don’t particularly feel like drinking. If that changes, I’ll trust myself to make the right decision and, more importantly, to continue to have a strong foundation that will allow me to change course as needed.
So, maybe you should drink. Maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe you should do CrossFit or stop eating meat. Maybe you should (probably definitely) stop doing meth.
What you should definitely do, though, is take a candid look at your life in order to figure out why you do what you do. Once you can accurately answer that question, everything else tends to figure itself out.
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Wow, this is so thoughtful Alex and you really articulated so many things so well here from the surprising benefits of quitting to why there's this almost meme of sobriety on Twitter now. I found myself nodding when you highlighted some of the changes, I think I went through some similar ones but I wasn't that reflective when I quit and didn't notice it.
Great essay, super well written and gave me a lot to think about!
Adored this piece. Almost all of it resonated with me really deeply. This line in particular: “Without the core compass that emotion provides, I had to outsource my direction and identity, losing myself in the process. Drinking went from something I did for fun, to something that allowed me to have fun, to something that allowed me to be fun. Alcohol became a cheap surrogate for emotional maturity, stunting any real growth that should’ve been happening.”
Thank you for writing this and being so open. It’s an incredible and important experience that more people now have a chance to feel inspired by via you telling your story!! (And it helps you’re an incredible writer!)