Would beer mean anything to me now? Would I remember what the fuss had been about? My upcoming sip was about to reveal the answer.

Teetotaling had been an unshakeable choice for me since February 2020, the onset of the Covid pandemic. While other people endured isolation by drinking “quarantinis,” I was so terrified of getting sick that I couldn’t touch alcohol — what if it weakened my immunity? This abstinence lasted six months.

But now it was already August of 2020. My friends and I were gathered on a bright, sweaty afternoon in Marblehead, MA, lounging on a porch with a view of sailboats crisscrossing the tiny islands in Salem Sound. There were two six-packs of cold beer in an icebox and I had just opened the first can. We had survived the anxious, uncertain months prior and it didn’t look like we were going to die. We were finally together and ready to celebrate.

Beer didn’t seem important to me anymore. If I could live so easily without it, why had I ever needed it?

My first sip after all those dry months could have been a disappointment. Beer might have tasted bitter and its effects might have seemed unpleasant.

But the opposite happened. It was magic.

I could feel a sense of ease spread throughout my whole being.

This moment had many things working in its favor: the ocean view, the sun and seagulls, the company of friends after months of isolation. But alcohol blended these elements together in a way that heightened the experience indescribably.

In the past six months, I had done vigorous exercise. I had binge-watched Netflix. Laughed at comedy. Practiced pranayama. Gotten lost in music, and in cooking. Each was relaxing in its own way. But nothing had created the sense of sweet intoxication that I was feeling now — a kind of fluid relief that seemed to eclipse all others. It was primal.

I would have liked my first sip to prove that alcohol had nothing left to offer me and that I could ditch it for good. Instead, I gained evidence for the idea that alcohol was special. It was the key to a variety of experience that I simply couldn’t reach by other means. I hadn’t felt this dreamy and wonderful in a long, long time.

What happened next?

After fifteen minutes of bliss, the good feeling began to slip away, so I poured another beer to keep it going. That did the trick.

The next day, I wanted to feel that same magic again, so I had another beer. This time, the effect was blah. No repeat of the previous day’s revelation.

What happened after that?

I kept chasing the magic of that first sip. In the following weeks, beer showed its promise often enough that I stayed in pursuit. It was blah on one occasion, then blah again, but then totally amazing.

Soon enough, I was back in a routine of wanting and looking forward to beer every single day. How much was I actually drinking? Not enough to interfere with work or daily responsibilities. Not enough to leave me with raging hangovers. Not enough to stop me from waking up on time the next morning and going about my day. Not enough to be seen as a problem.

“Addiction” never seemed like the right word for my relationship with alcohol. Even “dependence” seems too strong and too clinical. The word that fits is “importance.” Whenever I allow alcohol into my life, it always becomes very important to me. And my first sip in August 2020 revealed the simple reason for that. The reason is that alcohol is magic. Anything possessing such magic is going to become important, more so than I want it to be.

What’s more important to me, fitness or alcohol? It can seem like they’re equally important. At different times in my life, I’ve had a daily yoga practice, and have been an avid hiker, all while adoring beer. I’ve even combined beer and exercise by walking five miles to a brewery and then back home — that’s a heavenly Saturday for me. One of my travel highlights was hiking Mount Untersberg in Austria and being greeted by a beer garden near the summit. Europe knows how to do this combination.

But in the end, fitness and alcohol can’t remain as comfortable peers. One of the two is going to win over the other. If I’m drinking every day, then alcohol is on the path to winning. Any rainy, dark evening is a test of this. When the weather is nasty and I’m tired, will I go out for a jog in my waterproof coat because I’m looking forward the high that exercise gives me? Or will I put on that same coat to rush to the store to make sure I get my beer and my buzz? Each occasion might work out differently, and sometimes I might really choose the jog, but over time a pattern becomes clear. Other things can be skipped. Beer is the thing I don’t skip. Beer is the thing I don’t compromise on. Beer is the thing whose importance is always respected.

As I write this, I’m on another hiatus from drinking. It started after I wrote my last essay about alcohol and got a fitness tracker. I feel just like I did in August 2020 before that special sip: beer doesn’t seem important at all because I’ve gone without it for quite a while and have done just fine.

But I’m not ready to say I’m quitting for good. So what’s the message I’d like to convey to my future self who will probably have a beer in the coming months and fall in love all over again?

You’re playing with magic. If you’re going to play with magic, you’ve got a question to answer: how will you control the magic? How will you stop this magic’s importance from growing and growing in your life?

That’s not a question about fluid ounces, so it applies even if your intake falls in the range of “moderate.” Regardless of what quantity you’re consuming, the question’s the same: how will you make sure you don’t value your beer so very, very much? How will you keep alcohol in a state of reduced significance? How will you make sure that you sometimes skimp on drinking, sometimes forget about it, sometimes absentmindedly neglect to procure your beverage because something else was more compelling?

How will you make sure that you occasionally choose not to go out drinking when the opportunity presents itself and your friends are game, or when the bottle is there and you’re all alone? How will you make sure that alcohol sometimes meets your indifference or whimsical disregard, not just your excitement, your hope, your persistence in always getting it? How will you make sure that when there’s a choice between drinking and being active, you more often choose activity, and when you’ve finished, you don’t look to alcohol as a reward?

How will you make sure that if you’re planning to drink, and you’ve been looking forward to it all day, but the plan gets disrupted at the last minute, you feel totally alright because other things matter more and alcohol isn’t that important? ■

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