I expect some of my American friends may be feeling a wee bit delicate today. Turkey sandwiches can help with that.
The thought of never drinking again seems … boring. I like alcohol. I’ve had good times with beer in hand. When I decided to quit, I knew it wasn’t forever.
I chose to stop for a year.
I didn’t have a Problem or a problem but perhaps just a wee “problem.” For 30 years I’d been drinking at levels slightly on the bad side of moderate. However, I also had a fairly healthy diet and exercised a great deal, and those two things give you a partial “get of out jail free” card when it comes to some of the negative consequences from ethanol indulgence.
Alcohol wasn’t running me down, yet. Life was good. But I wanted it to be better. I figured that without alcohol, life had the potential to be great.
I have tried and failed to cut down many times. Any effort at reducing my alcohol intake has never lasted more than a few weeks. Stress drinking was not uncommon. I’ve been floor-licking drunk more times than I can remember.
I read stories of people doing the “year off” thing and my instant, visceral reaction was always “Fuck that.” But that changed, very quickly, on December 24th of last year.
My year is not quite up; I’m almost 10 months without a drop and certain I will not fail. In fact, I’ve been positive I would succeed from the moment I made the decision to take a year off. I considered it fait accompli. When the election results were coming in a couple of weeks ago and there was an open bottle of wine on the counter (my friend was over) I looked at it and said, “If ever there was an excuse to drink, this is it.” I even made a joke about it on Facebook. But I knew I’d never touch it.
So, day before Christmas … I was out for a run. It was nice out. I was having a good time. I was excited for the next day because everything was ready. All the food purchased. The presents wrapped. We had plenty of booze. I was looking forward to my annual Christmas day piss-up, where I cook for over a dozen family members and get royally fucked up in the process.
And it struck me that the anticipation of inebriation did not exactly reflect the true meaning of Christmas. This revelation made taking a year off alcohol seem like a good idea.
At the time I was researching how snap decisions and lightning strike, epiphanic moments can profoundly change a person’s path in an instant. I’d experienced such a life-changing epiphany a couple of decades previous, and interviewed some of the world’s leading behavior change experts on the subject for a book I’m working on (you can get a synopsis of the first two chapters of the book in this article).
It got me thinking I could apply some of what I’d learned to see if I could induce the experience and just up and quit drinking for a year. I also took inspiration from a recent interview I’d done with Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen who told me of his sudden decision to quit drinking.
The parts of the research I focused on to quit drinking are covered in this article. The piece delves into the brain science of how decision-making is emotion-based rather than achieved via careful, rational consideration. The human brain can only utilize so much information to reach determination – far less than what information we have access to – and so it is the emotional part of the brain that mulls over a few important bits of data then makes a judgement call that is largely based on how one feels about it.
That was my previous problem with trying to cut down: I’d always endeavored to rationalize my way into it, looking at pros and cons, using careful deliberation, mulling it over. And it never once worked.
So instead I examined how I felt about it.
Before exploring those feelings, I’d like to get a bit philosophical. In that same piece about brain science I also perused the writings of Plato, who in the fourth century B.C. wrote a “dialogue” entitled the Phaedrus. It’s about an actual person named Phaedrus who was known to have lengthy discussions with Socrates, of whom Plato was a student.
One such discussion was about the charioteer, a metaphor for rational vs. emotional drivers of behavior.
The charioteer, the one allegedly in charge of the direction of the chariot, represents a person’s more rational self; the guiding force based on intellect and reason but lacking in motivational force. However, there are two horses pulling the chariot. These horses represent emotion: one is the more positive aspect of a person’s passionate nature, and the other is the darker side, driven by baser appetites. The horses are what provide the power to go forward, and if they decide to run, the charioteer cannot hold them back.
For the first time I ditched the rational approach and instead analyzed the issue emotionally, looking at how I felt about quitting drinking for a year. Inside a mere moment I realized the answer was simple: It’s time.
I was ready.
There was a bit more to it. I was ready because I looked at the experience with positivity. As an adult, I’ve never lived sober. I didn’t know what it was like. This was an opportunity to discover a new way of living. I was focused – emotionally so – on the positive aspects of what lay ahead, rather than rationalizing quitting because of things like alcohol being a Class 1 carcinogen or that sometimes I act foolish when I’ve had too much.
Alas, there was push back from the other horse on the emotional-driver team.
My drive to become a better person (the good horse) was in conflict with my desire to lay in a bathtub filled with beer while scarfing a huge bag of Cheezies and watching HD porn (bad horse).
The two horses entered into a rapid negotiation process, because I had all that booze at home just waiting to be drunk. I’ll note that I was no longer running at this point. I’d slowed to a walk to think this over.
Sure, I could have made the snap decision to start my year off right then and there – people do things like that all the time and are often successful – but that didn’t seem right for me, especially since I didn’t have a Problem.
At first, I consider January 1 as my start date, then realized I had three big events that month that all practically required drinking. What I mean is, I was looking forward to drinking at these events. So there was further negotiation amongst horses. I would do my Christmas day piss up, barely drink on New Year’s, have my booze during those three events, but otherwise not drink at all in January as practice. Then, on Feb 1, I would go completely cold turkey for a minimum of one year.
The good horse looked at the bad horse and said, “Okay, we good?” The bad horse nodded and said, “Yeah. We good.”
The metaphorical door to this new, alcohol-free year lay open before me. It had been present since the first moment I realized taking a year off was a good idea, but it was now more crystalized, it beckoned. But I could still have turned away. I might have said, “Nah, I’m just gonna keep on drinking.” It would have been easy to ignore it; soon after, I would have forgotten the door ever appeared.
But I remembered the way I felt about the decision just moments before: It’s time. I became aware that the air surrounding me felt as though I was shrouded in fog, a metaphor for my current path. My life, with its regular imbibing and occasional over-drinking, was coated in a slightly noxious substance that no longer felt quite right. Ahead, through the door, there was clear, blue sky. The fog was known and, until very recently, comfortable. The clear sky was uncertain, but held promise. The fog had tendrils wrapped around me, holding me back from advancing forward. If I was going to make the leap, it wasn’t going to be effortless. It would take a force of will.
I knew if I made this move it wouldn’t be half-assed. It would be without looking back. It would be definitive. Despite the feeling of “it’s time” and that I was ready, I was frightened, because we fear the unknown. My desire for this dramatic change of path had to be stronger than my fear.
Desire. That was the key element. I had to want to do it. Really want to, not just walk the new path, but leave the old one behind. But how to make the desire for change overwhelming?
This is where it gets weird.
For me, it’s weird, and regular readers may consider it weird of me to write what I’m about to. In my piece “To Epiphany and Beyond” linked earlier I wrote about “embracing chaos.” When one seeks a life-changing epiphany, they must cease doing the same old, and try new things. From that article:
“Part of the approach involves introducing some chaos into your life. Because when you change the initial conditions, the brain begins to fire in different ways, increasing the possibility that the ‘solution’ will suddenly coalesce.”
I needed to do something I’d never done. Supertramp’s “Even in the quietest moments” was playing on my iPod. Roughly 90% of rock songs are about someone the writer used to bang, is currently banging, or hopes to bang. Another 5-7% involve Hobbits or Vikings.
Occasionally, however, lyricists compose something more philosophical, and it seemed to me Roger Hodgson was singing of his struggle to find communion with a higher power. Maybe. Like with everything, including the shape of the earth, there is internet debate on the subject. But whatever, because in that moment, that’s what the song spoke to me.
I was not raised in a religious home. I never attended church. I’ve never felt the touch of belief.
I don’t want to get sidetracked, and will write more on this another time, but suffice to say I’m not about to start attending church. Nevertheless, part of me wondered if seeking otherworldly assistance might not be a method of embracing chaos and changing my brain just a little.
I enjoy reading science fiction; it doesn’t mean I know jackshit about astrophysics. This is about a temporary personal hypothesis to achieve a goal, not scientific veracity.
I know there is something called “dark energy” that makes up approximately 68% of the universe. NASA has some ideas, but states “More is unknown than is known” about it. And so, for a moment I envisioned such energy as a kind of Star Wars like “Force” I could grasp onto and use to power myself forward.
For lack of a better word, I prayed to the universe to lend me strength. I speculated on the subatomic potentiality lurking in the deepness of space, waiting to be utilized if only the appropriate conduit for expression were available. I fantasized about opening a rift in the space-James continuum, reaching through to that energy source and, as Yoda said, “Let the Force flow.”
And suddenly, I was infused with power. Face flushed, arms and legs tingling, the cells of my body electrified.
Was it mystical or paranormal? I am most skeptical. I consider it more of an induced neuro-chemical cascade achieved via a form of self-hypnosis. A person can get just as strong an emotional sensation by watching the end of Marley & Me. It doesn’t mean a higher power was involved.
Regardless, the reality is it lit up my brain in a new way. Then, serendipity lent a hand in the choice of the next song.
Awash in a rush of happy hormones, I heard George Ezra asking me over and over what I was waiting for. At last, in possession of the power to move forward, I awakened to the reality that I was done waiting. The last piece fell into place and a snap decision was made. It was time to use the Force, Luke.
In that instant I approached the door, and stepped out of the fog and into a clear new day.
It was that abrupt mental movement forward that made the change real. My mind shifted in a split second from mere pondering to absolute certainty. Elation washed over me, and I began running again with renewed vigor.
The feeling of euphoria was not unexpected, as I wrote about this phenomenon in previously linked articles. It is called “dramatic relief” and is a parameter of the transtheoretical model of behavior change. It’s that sensation of great accomplishment or removal of worry when one experiences a monumental shift in thinking about doing something to taking action. It’s all about the anticipation of how this new and better path is going to improve their life.
Even though it would be five more weeks before I gave up the booze (my intake did drop by more than half during that time), that snap decision to do it was about taking real, effective action to control my drinking for the first time in my life, and it felt good. It felt right.
I mentioned control. At first, the year off was just about a year off, but I quickly came to realize this was a way to prove to myself that, when I was ready, I could drink again in a much more controlled manner. I realized I’d squeezed every bit of fun out of drunkenness I could, and don’t feel a desire to ever get blitzed again. I also realized the most fun I ever had with alcohol was when I had two drinks, maybe three. Just enough to make party James come out but not go off a slobbery cliff.
I don’t intend to drink on February 1, 2017. I’ve already decided to tack on a few extra months just to prove some kind of point, like, that I’m not anxious to start again. Perhaps I’ll wait for my birthday in June, then have a couple.
I do not intend to drink “moderately” when I start up again. This is about drinking lightly. I’ve had enough years of more than moderate. The plan moving forward is one or two, and perhaps occasionally three, only at social occasions where the majority of other people are also drinking. I don’t get out much, so it’s certain to be infrequent.
The fact that this year of abstinence has been so easy for me – it was made easy because of my use of emotion-based decision-making to provide the mental energy to persevere – gives me confidence that I won’t backslide. Also worth noting is that it seemed effortless because I have so many positive things in my life that don’t involve alcohol. As much as I enjoyed it, my life didn’t revolve around drinking. This tale is not meant to minimize the horror of alcohol addiction.
If you’re wondering, the benefits of not drinking have been both wonderful and unexpected. It has been an adventure of new experiences. But you’ll have to wait until February for that article.
UPDATE: Here is my post year of no drinking piece for the Chicago Tribune. Three months past the year being up, I’m still completely alcohol free.
Thanks for reading all the way to the end. Perhaps I can interest you in checking out my next book, titled The Holy Sh!t Moment, about the science behind the life-changing epiphany. Learn more about it here.
James S. Fell, MA, MBA, has bylines in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, the Guardian, TIME Magazine, and many other publications. His blog is read by millions of people and he is the author of two books: The Holy Sh!t Moment: How Lasting Change Can Happen in an Instant (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), and Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind (Random House Canada, 2014). Order them here.