Drinking is a trade. Alcohol gives you a good experience one day, in exchange for a tax that you pay the next day. But if you’re able to practice moderation, you can avoid the steepest form of that tax. Pace yourself, limit your quantity, drink plenty of water, and you won’t pay with a hangover. You might really sleep OK, get up on time the next morning, and feel totally alright.

Drinking then seems like a worthwhile trade. You get so much enjoyment from it, and the tax is so small that you might forget you’re even paying it. “I can have what I want as long as I’m not too greedy, and everything’s going to be fine.”

But the tax is there. Maybe you’re not waking up with a raging headache, but your body is still in recovery, still dealing with what you drank yesterday. You might feel decent enough, but you’re not quite at peak.

As you get into a routine of making this trade – good times in exchange for a bearable tax – you might forget how it feels to wake up without yesterday’s alcohol dragging you down. The drag becomes so familiar that you can’t notice it anymore.

If you take a pause from drinking, you can be startled by a new experience: beginning the day with a clean slate, not having to recover from yesterday, not being burdened by alcohol’s lingering weight. And now it becomes clear that the tax you had stopped noticing – it was there and you were paying it.

To be free from that tax feels good. To start a new day as a new day — one that’s not saddled by the previous day’s consumption — feels good. It’s refreshing to wake up unencumbered — to begin moving forward, without first having to settle the bill. No smelly breath. No nagging question about how long your body is going to let you keep going on like this. Nothing to get out from under.

But this newfound freedom and lightness might not amount to a Eureka moment where your entire life seems indisputably improved. Getting out of bed on a cold, dark morning when you have stressful tasks waiting is still hard. Life is still full of trouble.

Drinking gave you so many moments of relaxation and abandon. It curated so many social experiences. It took you to so many fun destinations. It comforted you. It helped you forget about your problems. Now you’re on your own.

If you abstain long enough, you might stop appreciating your freedom from the alcohol tax, because you’ve gotten used to not paying it. The way it feels to wake up and not be recovering from yesterday’s drinking — that’s your new normal and it doesn’t seem so special anymore. Your problems haven’t gone away: they still come rushing to mind in the morning, no matter that you didn’t drink the night before.

When you end this hiatus you’ve taken, the experience of reconnecting with alcohol might stand out as amazingly wonderful. Again, the tax you pay the next day might seem very minor in comparison to what you gained: good times, relaxation, adventure, pleasure. Drinking might seem like a good deal again – it affords great experiences in exchange for a moderate, manageable cost. You can very easily slip back into your old habit, really believing you’re making a worthwhile trade.

What you’re not seeing is how that tax is going to accumulate over time. Maybe it’s small price to pay on any given morning, but what does it add up to when you’re paying it day after day over months and years? Eventually, you go into a kind of debt, and that debt has consequences that can seem mysterious, inexplicable, not easily traced to alcohol itself.

Maybe you’re feeling depressed? You can’t blame it squarely on alcohol. But perhaps it was alcohol that made you lazy enough in the mornings that you stopped going for brisk walks before breakfast like you otherwise would have done. Without exercise in the early mornings, you felt more physically restless sitting in a chair throughout the day, which led to more distractibility and procrastination, which made you stressed out, which made you desperate for a drink in the evenings, all while dragging your mood down.

Stop drinking again and the problem doesn’t go away immediately. Stop drinking and you don’t suddenly regain the exercise routine that would have helped you stay in balance – you’ve got to build that from scratch. Easier to drink.

Imagine someone knocked on your door and said “I’m offering a service. I’m going to entertain you, curate your social life, guide you to enjoyable venues, and be your way of relaxing and relieving stress, and you’re going to pay me $99.99 a week.”

Would you sign up for that service? What if you knew the fee was going to increase in time? What if you knew it was going to be hard to cancel? What if you knew the service provider was going to brainwash you to believe the fee was worthwhile, making it impossible for you to objectively reevaluate the deal? What if you knew the service was going to consume a huge amount of your time while presenting you with a limited set of options?

What if you knew that for all the relief and levity and fun you’d be getting from this service, there might be an inexplicable moment of anxiety thrown in, a bad mood that occurs for no apparent reason, a feeling of sluggishness that you’ll find hard to blame on anything specific, and a drag on your overall well-being that won’t be easy to identify or understand? ■

Comments ༄