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. Sherry says:

    Wow JM “When the urge is on us, how many times have we ignored the needs of others to fulfill it?” That really struck home. I often stop myself from thinking that very thing because of the shame I feel. The times I stayed in at relatives to drink with them rather than take my kids to the park, the time my young daughter was underwater at the lake and we didn’t notice cause we were drinking with the “adults” (thankfully she was still trying to walk underwater when hubby pulled her out). All the wasted Sunday’s. Needed that kick in the pants.

    Patricia. You sound really good. I’m with you sober sister!

    SteveUK. A very healthy conversation. What great support for each other. A food addiction is tough cause you can’t quit food. Sending strength to you both. Hope all is well in the UK after the quake.

    Megan. Can you tell me a little about keeping our side of the street clean in AA if you have the time. I get the gist of it, but if there’s a little more I think it would be helpful

    River. So sorry about your furry family member. Hope you are ok.

    Day 4 morning

  2. Fred says:

    JM/Steve UK – I believe you are on to something about pattern recognition. Most heavy drinking follows a pattern. I turned down a party tonight because I knew I would drink heavily if I went. Plus I don’t even like the people. Honestly I now resent people who pressure me to drink. My good friend told me I’m rude for not partaking in libations recently. I can’t win.


  3. Mermaid says:

    Good sunny Friday morning islanders!

    Patterns and habits are so hard to break. It’s my son’s 25th birthday on Sunday and instead of dinner I’m hosting lunch party. Followed by kayaking for the gang. They are a group of very healthy young people but they do know how to drink too. Setting us all up for going out on water will keep this party sober. We are all in agreement on no drinking before paddling. What they do after is not my business but at least I won’t be tempted as there will be no booze at my place.

    RR- I’m so sorry you had to say goodbye to your beloved puppy. It’s the hardest part of pet ownership. Big hugs to you.

    Sober weekend to all, enjoy the clarity and time and energy you have without alcohol in your system.


  4. SEG says:

    Sherry – I don’t want to steal Megan’s thunder, but at AA the energy is do not be a victim, focus on your own stuff (your side of the street), we all have enough junk that we are best to work on that. Even when wronged the real question is what do we do with our response, not what is wrong with that person we have no control over. Often if we focus on our shortcomings, it gives others room to breath and work more quickly through there stuff as it is not clouded by our pointing out the wrong. Sort of the Jesus idea of taking the log out of our eye and not the speck out of anothers.

    More at peace these days over work options, not knowing. Sometimes that can go away, so tomorrow who knows. Beginning to see that if this works out for the promotion, my viewpoint and balance will be greater since the first one fell through. Less hyped up to some degree. We had a great back deck party with two dear families last night. One person got toasty, but others were solid, and I had my decaf coffee with no regrets.

    Peace Island


  5. Patricia says:

    Hi all
    It’s the end of Day 3. Big battle with insomnia last night but that’s to be expected. Looking forward actually to this weekend, I think I will get some much needed rest.


  6. johan says:

    Patricia – well earned 3 days! Hang tough!!!

    Fred – What is difference between a good friend, and a good drinking buddy?

    Mermaid – good plan!

    Sherry – we have all put a our AV friend ahead of most other people or event so don’t feel bad. Being present in our lives and never letting stuff like that happen again is the goal now! Good job on getting to day 4, eyes ahead!

    SteveUK – great discussion with your wife! Same problem, different ‘medicine’, although I will say if it’s good food an eating disorder won’t hurt you like booze will. I suspect that over eating and brussel sprouts are rarely used in the same sentence. Conversation and understanding is hard, you crossed that with her so that is awesome.

    JM – great post!

  7. SEG says:

    Steve – We had a food addiction person in our AA group for awhile. A lot trickier addiction as Sherry said because you have to eat. There also is far fewer support groups than for alcohol. Can you imagine if drinking was necessary for survival?

    Well team SEG is sure ready for our next chapter. Gladly it should be coming soon. A week or so away from clarity. Boy howdy will that feel good. I feel like a finalist for a beauty pagent. They keep taking commercial breaks before they announce the winner.

    Dry 926/74.

  8. Jeanne1 says:

    Well Hello…
    Gosh time goes flying by. I am almost 5 months sober. Ironically I don’t want to drink, but my life is tough. And lets face it navigating thru life for a while with out alcohol when it was such a big part… and knowing I don’t want to go back. I am sitting in my study feeling awkward around all my family and extended family. I have not got my sense of humor back. I am watching everyone just hovering around waiting for that magic moment when the drinking begins.
    Watching my husband , like you johan, take on the new role of trouble. Yet when I am alone, or “safe”. I am happy and just delighted to be sober.
    RR so sorry about your pup… I just feel sad when anyone looses a furry friend.. It hurts. Hug out to you
    Holly your right, Not one thing missing
    Fred you sound like your in a corner,,,, get it.
    Seg I get frustrated hearing about your job situation. I don’t know how you do it.
    Sherry nice to see you. Yoga is a good thing.
    Min always good to see you.
    Mermaid you are living the dream… I wish I felt a lot more comfy on water….
    Steve UK sounds like your clearing the air
    Go Patricia…..
    So in conclusion navigating my life without alcohol in a plan of action I must stick to daily, thinking days ahead on some things….that my trigger a relapse. It’s really hard but worth it….. So much more time and things to do other than hang out and drink…..
    Can’t wait until I see what the next 5 months bring me.

  9. johan says:

    Jeanne – I definitely get the happy when alone thing.
    Btw, I suspect they want the drinking to begin because they are terrified of a stronger you, and would rather you be the person who makes their drinking ‘not as bad’. More than likely they can’t comprehend a life without alcohol and ironically think you weak because you ‘had to quit’. We of all people know crossing over to the sober path is anything but weak! They will be disappointed, and you will get your sense of humor back!!
    Being sober you have this edge on drinking people; you know something they don’t; something you can never explain because they don’t want to hear it. Just like we didn’t.
    ‘I am the role of trouble’? – I hope my family doesn’t figure that out.. ;-)

    Sitting at the cottage with the pellet stove pumping out heat, frost on Friday night as we ease into summer? Cleaning stuff up so it can get to market.
    Hang tough everyone!

  10. Megan says:

    Sherry, nice job on 4 days. AA has many sayings, at first I was irritated by them but now sometimes the little phrases people say at meetings are just helpful reminders as to why we don’t drink. “Keep your side of the street clean” can have a few meanings., the main one being focus on yourself and making yourself a better person. It’s really easy to nitpick at my husbands shoes in the middle of the floor but I should focus on my big pile of mail I need to go through, etc. It’s easy to blame others for our problems, or be angry at others who have hurt us, but try to focus on how we can make ourselves better, being of service to someone or helping a family member, etc, or posting here so you may touch someone else’s life and help them to stop drinking. Sometimes, when we just focus on our own “stuff” the shoes in the middle of the room take care of themselves, or other things do amazingly get better!

    Fred, don’t worry about what others think or if they are angry. They are not in the same place as you. They probably are just wanting you there because you’re a good friend. I had to say no many times when first getting sober.

    SEG , hopefully the job thing will come through. My current new position is one I did not think I would be doing at this stage in my career but change is good, right?

    Mermaid, your plan sounds good. It does get old when everything revolves around booze.

    Laying a bit low this weekend as I have a crappy spring cold. Haven’t been sick in a year, though so can’t complain too much.
    Trying to stay in touch with island friends! Happy Memorial Day everyone!

  11. SEG says:

    Jeanne 1 – Great going. Proud of your progress. There is a lot of life in your posting.

    Megan – Change can be good. Still not sure we want this job promotion. The change and pay would be fabulous. The time away from home would not. Just believing God has a plan and it will be revealed at the proper time.

    Well 3 more days before that interview. Hardly any work between now and then, so really just trying to stay sane. Exercise, pray, be with family.

    It is raining like crazy this way. Not sure how we will get it done, but morning run planned.

    Sober 927/73

  12. Megan says:

    Jeanne1, great job on adding up that time! You are doing great. The sense of humor will come back. The first few months we are so focused on not drinking , and our nerves are so raw, that its hard to do it all.

    JM, well said on we need to look at what we are escaping from when we decide to not be sober. For many of us it’s fear. Fear of failing, fear of facing the real deal, etc

    Carry on friends:)

  13. Megan says:

    Patricia, the sleep thing does get easier too, after about 2 weeks I think for me it was. I had to make sure I was exercising and getting fresh air . That always helps. And I do resort to melatonin now and then. Good luck. Megan

  14. River Rat says:

    Thanks for all the well wishes. Yes, that was tough watching our pooch go. Appreciate your support.

    Went to a sweat today, good for the spirit. Have lots to say but have to wait till tomorrow Still work to do this evening!

  15. Patricia says:

    Good Evening

    End of Day 5. Not much to say, just came home from a neighborhood party. It was nice not drinking and just observing. No one seemed to notice, except I felt like they should because boy did I keep myself busy, helping the hostess, watching all the kids…inside outside all over the place. . I was a busy bee. Typically, I would be sitting in one place many drinks in with a few of my neighbors.

    Thanks Megan for the time frame on the insomnia. I am trying to walk every morning to get fresh air and walk out any anxiety that builds up. I do feel rather raw. Kinda like a zombie right now but I think it’s because I am still so tired. I hope you feel better soon.

    Good luck. Wednesday will be here before you know it. Have a good run tomorrow.

    Sherry, we are still doing this together. Defeating the AV!

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