I took a monthlong “vacation” from alcohol recently and am writing about it. I haven’t spoken to experts yet to help me frame my experience, but I’m working on it. What follows are my initial thoughts.
Maybe you’re like me. You like beer and wine. Sometimes you really like them. And you wonder, is this a problem?
Not a Drinking Problem, I think, but perhaps a little-d, little-p drinking problem.
And that’s why I gave up booze (for the most part, qualifier to come) for the month of September.
Some friends asked why when I declined a beverage. It’s not that complicated. Basically, I felt the need to reign in a habit that had gotten away from me—especially on weeknights, when there was no specific benefit. I was knocking down a couple beers because they were in the fridge. It was a poor excuse. And at 2 and sometimes 3 beers on a weeknight, I was padding my diet with 300-500 calories daily. It added up to a roughly-6,000-calorie anchor on my metabolism every month.
And like a lot of men from a lot of families, there is a thread of substance abuse, mostly alcohol, that runs through my family tree. It seems to become more pronounced as the men age. As I’ve gotten older, I find myself aware of it, intent to not ignore it.
So with reasons both immediate and long-term nagging me, I decided it was time to check and make sure that those couple beers a night were serving me—and not the other way around.
The first couple nights following Labor Day were weird, but I soon settled into a routine, substituting green tea or sparkling lemon water for the beer and occasional wine while watching TV, talking with my family or a friend, or tapping away at a keyboard. I thought weekends would be difficult, but they weren’t really, though I did break with my intentions twice—both times for wine tastings at previously-scheduled social events. Each time I drank about one full glass of wine.
So here were my takeaways from this 30-day experiment:
1. I slept better. I knew this from a slew of studies, and from my own experiences when reviewing an activity tracker from Jawbone, but the month proved it again: alcohol, even a comparatively small amount, messes with my sleep. It tends to wake me in the early morning and keep me from sleeping deeply again till just before dawn. It doesn’t seem like much of a disruption, but once I was aware of it, I could feel it in the morning and see it in my tracker’s overnight report.
2. I didn’t feel better. Maybe my expectations were too high. I thought that I’d feel an increase in energy and generally function better. That didn’t happen, which was disappointing. On the other hand, it confirmed that my drinking wasn’t a real impediment to my health. And it did make me sharper at both ends of the day: I woke up feeling ready to go (credit #1 above), and it kept me sharper later at night, so I was able to get more reading and writing and thinking done in the hour-plus before bedtime. Bonus!
3. I gained weight (at first). This shocked me. I expected that jettisoning 6,000 calories over the course of a month would have me swimming in my pants. No such luck. In fact, after two weeks, I had GAINED 3 pounds! I assume I compensated in much the same way people often stop at Starbucks as a reward for a trip to the gym. I am not a snacker, so I must have eaten just a little bit more at meals—and I do think my body craved sugar to replace the alcohol and that I found it in pretty subtle ways. The good thing is once I noticed it, I was able to adjust and ended the month back at 186 pounds.
4. I thought about drinking pretty much every day. It wasn’t an overbearing compulsion or an urge, but it was a consistent daily feature, a tug on my consciousness, and it made me think about the nature of habit. In their book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir talk about “tunneling,” which they write is what the mind does when confronted with scarcity.
An example: As World War II ended, the US Army sent psychologists into German POW camps where Americans had been held. The US soldiers had basically been starved toward the end of the war when there wasn’t enough food for German soldiers and their captives. The psychologists were shocked by the level to which food dominated the American POWs’ thoughts and even their behavior. They could do very little except think about food, and it affected their ability to think about anything else. They were also willing to do almost anything to get food.
Beyond this example, many people are captives to their own reactions to scarcity. Tunneling and cravings are powerful roadblocks for people in all sorts of paths to recovery.
For me, the thoughts were most prevalent on weekends, in the late morning and early afternoon, when I had a little free time and tasks that didn’t require a lot of concentration. I thought about what kind of beer I’d like, or I would swallow and be reminded of the feelings of a beer in the back of my throat, of a bottle in my hand. What’s weird is that I didn’t have these thoughts at night, only in the day, and I never came close to acting upon them except for the already-mentioned wine tastings.
That said, I was surprised by the persistence of these cravings; I thought they’d subside by the end of the second week or so, but that wasn’t true.
The other surprising thought, though, was an equally stubborn one that settled in during the third week—that I should continue this for another month. Honestly, I’m not sure what I’ll do this weekend (editor’s note: abstinence thwarted; five beers total over three days.)
5. I have never been so hydrated. Between tea, water, fizzy water, coffee, and soda (my true guilty pleasure), I drank way more fluids than I did previously. I spent roughly one-third of the month, zipper down, dick in hand, peeing into one basin or another, including one overnight trip to the bathroom each night on average. That might have some effect on my weight as I often felt like a large, slightly distended, pink balloon.
5. It brought me closer to my wife. I didn’t ask her to join me in this little experiment, but she did, on weeknights. I know some people who have done similar experiments say one of the negatives was the loss of “happy hour” time to survey the day or the week. We didn’t experience that; talking over tea worked just fine. And not being quite as dulled at bedtime had other benefits.
So, all in all, it was a positive. I’m committed to maintaining the weeknight ban and holding myself to two beers on (most) weekend nights.
Mostly, I am pleased that a habit that I felt was developing a life of its own feels firmly back in check. I know it can be managed.
Next up: sugar. In particular, soda. I have at times in the last few years really cut back and gone weeks without it, but I’m back to a daily drinker, though probably not what, according to Michael Moss’ eye-opening Salt Sugar Fat, the folks at Coca-Cola calls “a heavy user.” That said, my younger brother has diabetes, my dad had all sorts of health issues that cut his life short, and I could probably do much better at corralling my intake. I think I’ll aim for post-Thanksgiving to the holidays. Some people think that’s crazy, but if I can avoid junk during the junkiest time of the year, I should be poised for a great 2015. Right? Right?!?
I am very interested in others’ reactions and their own experiences.