Ginger Man, Boston, MA

Does it make any sense to compare “life with alcohol” to “life without alcohol”?

That’s surely the comparison you’d make if you’re thinking about drinking less or quitting. But is it the right comparison?

Stories abound where someone quits drinking – they try “life without alcohol,” and discover that they feel so much better than they used to feel. Reflecting on the before-and-after, they vow they’ll never add alcohol back into their life. I sometimes wish that were my story.

I’ve subtracted alcohol from my life many times over the years. And I’ve stayed “on the wagon” for months at a time, without much struggle. But I never had that moment of revelation where life seemed so much better than before.

I always saved a lot of money and felt like I had more time, that’s true. I probably slept better. But the difference was never quite the “Aha!” that other people talk about. 

Recently it dawned on me that I’ve been making the wrong comparison. That’s because when I drink, I’m looking for alcohol to assist me in specific ways – to fill certain roles in my life, to perform certain functions or services. When I consider “life minus alcohol,” I’m considering life without all of those needs being filled. I’m taking something away and leaving a hole there, and of course life is not going to feel great with a hole, even when the side-effects and harmful aspects of that missing thing are now gone themselves.

To do the comparison right – to fully reevaluate my relationship with alcohol – I’d have to go beyond abstaining. I have to find new ways of filling the roles that alcohol was playing in my life. Once I had replaced alcohol, finding new ways to obtain the same services that alcohol was providing, I could compare this new life with the old drinking life.

If I was thinking about quitting TV, I could throw my TV out the window and see how I felt. But I might not feel great unless I replaced the TV with radio, or replaced the TV with reading, or replaced the TV with going to a live theater performance once a week, or some combination of all three. So to make a decision about keeping TV in my life, I shouldn’t compare “TV” versus “no TV.” I should compare “TV” versus “radio, reading, and live theater instead of TV.” 

What does that mean for alcohol? What are all the things I’d need to do instead of alcohol, to fill the roles it plays? To answer that, I’d first need to understand what those roles are.

So here’s a list of roles that I’d like filled, needs that I’d like satisfied, services that I’d like performed:

  • I’d like a way of achieving rapid physical relaxation when I’m feeling tense and tight.

  • I’d like a reward I can give myself to celebrate achievements and commemorate special occasions. 

  • I’d like a pick-me-up I can use to brighten my mood and create a celebratory feel when everything seems dark and upsetting – a tonic that makes things feel “OK” when they otherwise don’t.

  • I’d like a boredom reliever – something I can reliably enjoy doing when I can’t figure out what to do. Something that helps me feel different when I’m tired of feeling the same old way. Something that “shakes things up” and creates a sense of variety when there is none.

  • I’d like a harshness reducer – something that helps me ease up when I’m feeling highly critical of myself and others and the situations we find ourselves in.

  • I’d like a source of fun destinations to visit, places to spend time where people are relaxed and in a good mood and it’s easy to “chill” and enjoy being there for hours.

  • I’d like a location enhancer – something that helps me pass the time in a particular place and feel like I’m having a significant experience there. Something that can convert a drab place into a fun one.

  • I’d like a mental relaxant. Something that helps me stop worrying, enjoy the moment, and feel less inhibited. A catalyst for presence and spontaneity

  • I’d like a social lubricant – something that helps to calm social discomfort, whether it be anxiety, impatience, or frustration.

  • I’d like something that facilitates bonding and shared experience.

  • I’d like a source of satisfying, anchoring ritual in my life. 1

  • I’d like a source of compelling sensory experiences, a source of interesting flavors and aromas with nuances that can be compared. If these flavors and aromas are attached to history, geography, and culture, even better.

  • I’d like something that gives me a second wind when I’m working on a really difficult project. Something that helps me “get through” and keep going.

  • I’d like something that sends me on an experiential journey, where I’m looking forward to how I’m going to feel in the moments ahead.

So what would I need to add to my life to accomplish these same things, to obtain these same services, without using alcohol? It’s fun to answer this question as if the sky were the limit. For example, if I were to seek physical relaxation without ever using alcohol, how would I do it? If there were no financial or time constraints, I’d get a massage every day. I’d hire a personal trainer to help me give my body the level of daily workout that it really needs and wants. Along with my trainer, I’d have a yoga instructor. I’d meditate every day. I’d take two long walks every day. I’d avoid sitting in a chair for more than an hour at a time. I’d do a mountain hike or a forest walk every weekend. I’d make sure to have a regular sleep schedule. Maybe I’d take a dance class.

Is there some reduced form of this that’s actually practical? Yes, but it would take organization, planning, and investment. In many cases I’m looking to alcohol to compensate for a lack of planning. Alcohol makes it easy to get what I want when I want it. It’s the equivalent of ordering physical relaxation or social lubrication or boredom relief on Amazon, at the spur of the moment. Indeed, it resembles Amazon in that it’s effective, convenient, quick-acting, widely available, and socially acceptable. Except alcohol does not present itself as a corporate behemoth – it’s branded as my favorite local up-and-coming independent microbrewery that I’m happy to support. 

The more we order from Amazon, the harder it gets to even know how to find stuff elsewhere. And we don’t feel immediately rewarded when we stop ordering from Amazon. The same goes for drinking. The more we turn to alcohol to “order” the feelings and experiences we want, the less energy we invest in the infrastructure to satisfy our needs in other ways, and the harder it gets to even know how do that. We can quit, but we might not feel immediately rewarded. The reward comes when we replace alcohol with other things. Doing that starts with knowing what we functions we want to replace.

My personal goal in writing this essay is not to quit, but to drink more mindfully, which means drinking less. The idea is to not see “less” as a sacrifice. It’s not about forgoing something I enjoy. It’s about adding “more” of other things I enjoy. To reduce my need for alcohol, what are the rewarding things I already have in my life that I can do more of? What are the new things I can add to my life that I never added before, because alcohol was taking that space? ■

  1. This is a footnote. ↩︎

Comments ༄