by Brad Bollenbach

Lonely Drunk

There are better things in life than alcohol, but alcohol makes up for not having them.

– Terry Pratchett

My maternal grandparents were both alcoholics. It’s for this reason that I can’t remember my grandpa’s funeral: I was only four. This is also why my grandma has meticulously avoided alcohol for over 20 years. If there’s anything to the rumours about alcoholism being influenced by heredity, I’m probably tagged.

My own consumption patterns change. Sometimes I’ll go through periods of several months having three or four drinks, three to five times a week. Sometimes I’ll restrict my consumption to social occasions. For about five months starting last December, in my quest to master the art of talking to strangers, my social life became two full-time jobs. I was constantly going out to social events, clubs, bars, museum parties, and everything in between. Despite temptation, I rarely drank.

Last month, I quit drinking alcohol again. I’d like to tell you that it was a struggle. I’d like to pretend that it’s almost impossible to stay sober at a social occasion where everyone else is burping bubbles. I’d like to imagine myself as more determined and disciplined than all the rest, and that’s what pulled me through.

But the truth is that I’m ruthlessly normal. And if you want to end your relationship with alcohol, right here, right now, It’s Not That Hard.

I’m guessing that most people who choose to quit drinking are not alcoholics. My intent is to offer here an action plan that anyone can apply, whether you’re nursing an addiction or just want to enjoy the benefits of uninterrupted sobriety.

Why Stop Drinking?

The long-term effects of bad habits are rarely sufficient to motivate people to change their lives. The near-term benefits of giving up alcohol are much more useful and interesting anyway. Here are the changes I experienced:

  • Productive socializing. Talking to strangers is a great way to build character, but its benefits are greatly reduced when you’re drunk. The alcohol represses much of the social anxiety, which inhibits lasting change. But the only thing more terrifyingly fun than getting drunk and meeting a bunch of new people is staying sober and meeting a bunch of new people.
  • Avoid the McPilgrimage. Clearly, there’s a conspiracy between the fast food industry and the liquor industry. Free will collapses under the weight of insobriety and convenience. With enough alcohol in your system, even the most wretched burger joint becomes an irresistible sanctuary.
  • Reclaim lost time. Let’s say you have a few drinks around the house, three times a week, and that light touch of drunkenness costs you three hours of productive thinking each time. Within one year, you’ll have shaved about one full month off your life. That’s a lot of lost CPU time that could have been put towards reading a book, writing a speech, playing a sport, or even starting a business. And this doesn’t even count the time lost waiting for your brain to resolidify the morning after a night on the town.
  • Get rich quickly. You don’t have to party that hard to spend $100-$150/week or more on alcohol and related expenses. If you quit drinking today, you could reasonably expect to convert that choice into a bankroll for backpacking around the world in about six months.
  • Become an early riser. I’m currently readjusting my sleep schedule to wake up at 5:30 AM, seven days a week. Alcohol, and the lifestyle that often accompanies it, work against this process. Alcohol makes me feel tired when I want to feel energetic and awake. Ironically, it also increases wakefulness during sleep.

You can probably think of other instantly gratifying benefits to life beyond the bottle. The important thing is to actually have a reason that is important enough to you.

Make It Priority Number One

Giving up alcohol is one of the easiest and hardest changes you can make in your life.

It’s easy once you’ve established the right rules, configured your environment to support you, and set up useful boundaries of pain and pleasure to help direct you towards your goal. The hard parts are the social implications and fighting off the One Man Army that is your ego, with its barrage of self-limiting beliefs and drink requests.

Giving up alcohol must be made priority number one in your life. A partial commitment is a commitment to failure. Even if you already don’t drink that often, it will be tempting to break your own rules when your friends call you up and invite you out. You’ve got to be willing to prioritize this decision in every situation where it’s relevant, even when that means Just Saying No to pub night.

It’s Not a Big Deal

Ever notice how some people act as though the end of their relationship is the end of the world? It’s as if there’s no point in living if they can’t be with that person any longer. Yet other people come along and date that person who left them, eventually break up with them, and see it as hardly more than a blip on the radar.

You may feel that it’s pretty easy to give up drinking. Or you may feel that it’s an addiction with a stranglehold on your life. Either way, there is no inherent magnitude to this task. It’s as big or as small as you make it.

No matter how much you want to tell yourself how hard it is, nobody’s ever going to claim that learned helplessness was the secret to their success. The most effective way forward is to not only make quitting drinking a top priority, but to think, talk, and act like it can be done.

Become the Impartial Spectator

Whether you view it as a spiritual separation, or merely conceptual, we all have more than one self. There’s the “Mmmmm…beeeer…” self, and the impartial spectator that can detach from and observe this desire.

Let the latter voice be your authority. You’re allowed to want a drink as much as you’re allowed to choose not to have one. There’s tremendous power in observing your thoughts as a third party. The impartial spectator can feel the heat without getting burned.

When in doubt, let it be there. No matter how bad the storm seems, it will pass.

Commit to 30 Days

If you’ve never done it before, it can be hard to think of giving up drinking forever. It’s discouraging to commit to permanent change, only to back out a few days or weeks into it. Some people will face social friction and lifestyle changes for which they’re unprepared.

But life is a laboratory. It’s an adventure that takes shape through hypothesis and experimentation, and most decisions can be reverted. When it comes to making big changes like this, live before you leap. Promise yourself that you will commit to this 100%, but only for 30 days, and see how it goes.

This is exactly what I did last month. I promised myself that November would be alcohol-free, and it was. Truth be told, I had a few drinks on day 31. But I broke the negative pattern that was creeping up on me and gained back the energy to spend on more important activities. And I’ve repeatedly proven to myself that I can give up alcohol whenever I feel like, whenever it seems like the right thing to do.

Dump Your Existing Stash

Any goal that’s important to you is important enough to start on right now. My 30-day challenge to give up alcohol started at about 3:00 AM on a Saturday morning. I had just gotten back from a post-nightclub McPilgrimage with some friends. I had a great time. I met lots of people. I even ended up dating a girl I met that night.

But I was really annoyed by how much I’d poured into me that night, at succumbing to the resulting Big Mac temptation, and at how much I was going to regret the hangover. As soon as I got home, the challenge was on. I had one last beer in my fridge, which I ceremoniously poured down the kitchen sink.

If you’re serious about doing this, get rid of your alcohol. If you’ve got $300 worth of spirits in your cabinet and you’re not yet sure if you want to empty it all down the drain, only to change your mind in 30 days, then store it at a friend’s place during your probation period. Preferably a friend that doesn’t drink.

Advertise Your Decision

I told most of my friends about what I was doing. Not only only does this add accountability to your goal, it also drops the hint that if your friends are planning on going out and getting wasted, you’re probably not interested.

Of course, you don’t have to avoid social situations where you’ll be the only one not drinking. I’ve gone out stone sober many times–even on my own–and met loads of people. Once you get used to social skydiving, you no longer need alcohol’s permission to talk to strangers and have a good time. You can get to that place by either getting hammered out of your face, or by learning to just not care what other people think. Frankly, the latter is way more fun.

Fire Your Drinking Buddies

Alcohol may be so tightly integrated into your social life that it seems almost impossible to go an entire weekend without drinking. If the only thing you have in common with your friends is that you like the same lagers, you might want to consider finding new friends.

I’ve let go of people in my social circle before and I know it’s not easy–but that doesn’t make it unnecessary. This might be the hardest thing you do in choosing a life without alcohol. The key is to remember that friends are an abundant resource. Having a strong social circle is purely a function of the effort you invest into it. That includes choosing to associate only with people who are aligned with your purpose, while avoiding the energy vampires.

This is another benefit of a 30-day commitment. Instead of permanently downsizing your social life, you can choose to be busy only for the next few weeks. Observe how it affects you when you stop spending time with your beer buddies. Join a local user group for something you’re interested in to bring yourself into contact with people with whom you share more than just a bar tab.

Bribe Yourself

I haven’t used this specific technique for giving up alcohol, but I have used it with much success in bulldozing my way through a wall of social anxiety.

Associate massive pain to backing out. To create that pain, visit your nearest bank machine. Withdraw an amount of money that you’d feel uncomfortable losing. Give it to a friend you trust. Tell them that you get your money back if, and only if, you don’t have a drop of alcohol until your 30 days are up. You’ll be surprised at how even the most difficult tasks become doable when you associate massive pain to breaking your own rules. Money can be a great way to make it hurt. If you can think of an even better form of self-bribery, go for it.

The stronger you feel that alcohol is a part of your life, the more of these techniques you may want to apply. My most recent alcohol-free challenge didn’t require bribery or letting go of any friends. But I did find it extremely useful to limit the challenge to 30 days, to give myself permission to live the lifestyle before leaping to a permanent decision.

I also think that making this a top priority is key, no matter what your current consumption habits. It’s so easy to let yourself slip for just one night, and then feel guilty about breaching your own contract later on.

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  1. Jeanne1 says:

    Day 4….. Got home at 6 after leaving at 330 am.
    To old for that kind of day. Was going to take a nap and never fell asleep until 930. Just kept reading. Normally I would have wanted alcohol to make me sleep. But that was a fleeting thought.
    RR, Mermaid, Alice good to see you. I feel much better already at day 4. Just want to learn how to live again.
    Chips, Jail must be tough. My Dad was a homicide and narcotics detective… Dark side. Hard to deal with. Plus sounds like you had a rough start. Drinking won’t help you get to the bottom of it. It will just keep you there. So come on board.

  2. Steve UK says:

    Hi islanders.

    Great to see so many faces returning to these shores.

    I had a slip up on Friday night and succumbed to a couple of drinks..nothing major but it did interrupt my 20 days of straight sobriety.

    Rather than wake up on Saturday morning regretful I channelled all the positives and wellbeing from this latest commitment and got straight back on the horse. Those words from Hope saying ‘we have a choice’ resonated well with me.

    My mindset towards drinking is slowly changing..much the same way as it did in the 5 years it took to quit smoking. My last cigarette smoked was back in 2007.

    During those 5 years of giving up I would relapse periodically but each time I would enjoy it less, in time the feeling of freedom, freshness and good health completely overshadowed any short term buzz from the nicotine.

    More and more time is spent sober these days. Between 2005-2012 I reckon I managed 10 sober days a year. In the last 18 months I’ve spent over 14 months sober..each day sober provides a wonderful insight..each relapse provides its own kind of insight too.

    All of us have a massive battle here..With commitment, drive, determination and insight we will all win our battles..the future is a bright one if we want it.

    I will not drink today.


    Day 4

  3. River Rat says:

    Well said SteveUK, appreciate you getting right back to it. I’ve also improved so much over the years but am longing for more. Still not convinced that not drinking is going to bring the changes I’m looking for but I know it will improve my footing in all situations and make it more likely for me to achieve my goals.
    I can say this once again,
    STAY…sober today and yesterday!

  4. Beej says:

    Good Morning Islanders,

    Welcome back Dani. Yup, it was “one of those nights” that got a lot of us to make that first post. Good to have you back.

    Welcome to you as well Chips. Sounds like it’s been a tough path you’ve traveled so far. Very commendable for you to choose this path for you and yours. Why we drink… lol. Trust me, you’ll have plenty of time to ponder that. Try to focus on why you won’t today for right now.

    Mermaid is home! Welcome back M! Nice work on getting back on board before the full spiral. How was your sailing season otherwise?

    Welcome back to you Alice. Wow, a lot of people coming back. Sorry to hear about your father. It really is tough when we lose our routine and have dead space to fill with anxiety to boot. Hope you can get into a nice groove.

    Congrats on STAY RR! Steve, wonderful to hear that your mindset is changing. That’s always been the thing for me. The difference between not being able to drink and not wanting to anymore.

    Way to go Jeanne, starting to put together a nice string. How are you doing Annie?

    I’ve been having just crazy dreams. Not so much “drinking” dreams, but bizarre. I find myself sort of trapped in a crappy house with horrific (nearly demonic) roommates who almost systematically destroy important and symbolic parts of my life.. credit score, work suits, pets, revolver. In the dream, I’m baffled by their actions and can’t understand why it’s all happening and why I can’t extract myself… and then, like a movie, I flash back to being at a bar one night and doing a phucket.

    On the plus side, I finally won my first fight in a dream. Still haven’t managed to run away from anything dangerous though.. lol

    Beej, D 310

  5. johan says:

    Beej – maybe your dreams are an indication that your brain is rewiring itself and showing signs of life after bars. The circuits may still be a bit ‘off’…. ;-)

  6. Beej says:

    That’s what I’m hoping… rewiring!
    Sometimes I’d swear I can almost feel it happening.

  7. mattie says:

    Good morning island.

    Beej-thanks. Appreciate your support.
    SteveUK-Keep at it. Glad you’re back.
    Chips-Welcome! This is good place to be.
    Jeanne-Good job!
    Dani-Our cheerleader is back. Been wondering about you. Glad you’re back. It is a relief coming back to the island and sharing. Welcome back.

    Boy, i just have nothing to talk about unless it’s the weather or work. Little one has a fever. Let the sick season begin. woo!

    i will not drink today

  8. EmptyZ says:

    I posted a comment about a week ago but never had any indication if a moderator review it. How is one notified that they are able to post? Thank you.

  9. mattie says:

    EmptyZ-Looks like your posts are showing up now. Welcome aboard. This is great place to be. Hope you stay with us.

  10. Beej says:

    Welcome EmptyZ..

    So you’ve had few (1,500) false starts. No biggie. It’s your first time trying it here.

    Looking back, I see Patrick posted a day 1 a few days back as well. Come on back Pat. You’re cleared to land. Congrats on your decision.

    Stu York – one of your posts just appeared out of thin air back there too. 21 days! probably more like 26 now. Closing in on 30z’s bud!

  11. JM says:

    Hi all

    Nice to see some new ‘faces’ here. Hope you all stick around.

    It’s interesting as ever reading when people drift in and out from the shore here. I know I did a good few times, and a lot more before I found this site. Whenever I am tempted by a drink (and I walk past some of my old favourite bars when I come into the city to go to the office) I have to remind myself that whatever I think, a drink will inevitably, and I mean inevitably, lead to me where I was before I quit. It might take a month, a week or six months but the destination will always be the same. Once drinking has got out of control it is very unusual for people to re wire themselves. A beer or two might not seem like a big deal, but it is opening a door that should probably remain shut. If you can accept that picking up a drink at 6pm for a social chat with friends is exactly the same as stealing a slug of wine from the bottle when nobody is looking, then that goes a long way to keeping the urges away.

    I do think that the most important tool we all have is honesty. If you can be truthful to yourself about what alcohol means to you, then you won’t be swayed by the rose tinted view.

    Not sure why I feel I have to drop an opinion in here out of the blue, but here it is anyway!


  12. Mermaid says:

    Good morning islanders.
    To those of you not having pulled a longer stretch of sobriety before or in long time, welcome to this little piece of paradise island! You have hit a jackpot with these amamzing people who will accept and support each other and you so beautifully.

    Beej- I spend my entire summer on water. Ok, I worked as well but that is also done on water and around boats. Sailing, kayaking and few powerboat trips as well. Managed to do couple of motorbike trips in between. Fabulous summer!
    Did you get out sailing a lot? How’s wife-to-be on boat nowadays? I bet you are way more confident on your boat by now.

    Happy to be back.

  13. JohnB says:

    Spend a couple of days away and the place explodes!!! Wow great to see all you folks, checking in, fighting the good fight…

    All you new folks,I feel for you when you reach out and get stuck in moderation…you need an ear pretty much at that moment when you first post…anxiety ridden, sad, depressed.. All the new folks, welcome to the island! There are a lot of great people here with different but similar stories, all ready to lend support and listen!

    Returnee’s, I see you there RR, Mermaid …missed you guys, welcome back.

    So today I deliver my Sober Baby…snuck up on me haha…

    I returned to the island in early January a broken man…today I am less broken and I have many of my friends here to thank! My marriage was over, today it is renewed and full of love, I hated myself, I like myself now…

    All of this has stemmed from simply not drinking. It sounds sooo simple. The act, process etc…not simple, the premise, simple… DONT DRINK.

    Beej, SEG, Hope, RR, Sherry, Julie GW, min, dee, mattie, matthew, SteveUK…there from the early days…THANK YOU!!! You guys saved me…

    JohnA – I love your no bullshit approach to this all…early on you called it like you saw it and were bang on each time..that kind of honesty was critical to my early bit here…I owe you a lot.

    Onwards to a year…

    Peace All


  14. jeanne1 says:

    Well into day 4…… business is slow. husband wants to sell the boat. I want to drink it away…..So I just got back from a bike ride and turns out I just need a good cry….
    It still amazes me that I might even think of a drink….. AV…..hmmm
    Well as I’m thinking of it I recall this winter in the little world I live in 40 min from work. 2 people were killed by drunk drivers. Devastated this small community. On nephew was killed when auntie decided to get sloshed and drive him home. The other was a Christmas party. one women ran off the road in the snow bank and decided to walk home, while another couple leaving the same party wanted to drive someone home and ran her over. The didn’t even know it that’s how drunk they were…no one found her until the next morning..
    Guess that clears up any more thoughts of drinking for me.

  15. JohnB says:

    Excellent post btw JM…Truer words

  16. River Rat says:

    JM, I’m glad you were inspired to post what you did. Being honest regarding what booze means to me is what I have to do. Relating taking a drink at happy hour to sneaking a slug when others’ backs are turned is a powerful analogy to me as well. Thanks.

    Welcome EmptyZ, I’ll read back and try to find your moderated posts but in the meantime wanted to welcome you here.

    Thanks JohnB for the acknowledgements and the calls out to us. Sense your concern : D

    A little less anxiety today. Felt good going to gym last night; planning for that again today.

    Will check in later,

  17. Jeanne1 says:

    Wow so many posting. I made it home. No alcohol. finally decided if I am going to confront or not my husband about his spending I better be sober. Then I thought how bad I would ffeel if I did drink tomorrow. bit of a pity party. But I’m sober. Back in the am.

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