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. Beej says:

    Good Morning Islanders,

    Way to go Sandy. Nothing I can say you don’t already know. A 3 year run is impressive! You know it’s in there. If AA helped you with such a long run, might be worth another shot. Island strength and mojo to you.

    SEG – Glad you like fun with numbers too. 9/10 to two years! Really looking forward to seeing you get started on number 3, but I know you’re not the type to get ahead of yourself.

    Congrats on the new house Matthew. A new house for a new you… PERFECT! Hope the old one sells easily.

    I love the “seeing the world in color” analogy Sunshine. I wish I knew if I was seeing the colors. You didn’t by chance just go see “The Giver” did you?

    Well, younger bro surrendered himself to the court yesterday and indeed is in jail. We won’t know anymore until he’s sentenced… just being held on a prob violation right now. I spoke with my parents last night and they’re really crushed by it… emotionally drained. At least they know he’s safe though, off the street and physically barricaded from the demon. Behind all the frustration, you could really sense the relief.

    As my mother tells it, taking him to his apartment to gather his stuff wasn’t pretty. The roommates were pretty agitated and various people are “looking for him.” Envisioning my 65 yo, disabled mother mixed up in all that isn’t pleasant. It’s a rough neighborhood. I guess he’d sold most everything he owned, right down to the crockpot.

    Thank God we’re alcoholics.

    Beej, D 284

  2. SEG says:

    Sandy – Breath the air of sobriety. It will relax the soul. Maybe walking back down the steps to some
    AA meeting might help again. For me it takes all of it. Prayer, Exercise, AA, The Island, Calling other
    alcoholics each day, Reading, Walks, Sharing my temptations with my spouse, outreach work at an addiction shelter, etc. No person has the corner on the sobriety market, but I do like to say we need a highly diversified sobriety portfolio. Just not drinking is a rough road. Of course you know all of these things already.

  3. Sunshine says:

    I was just thinking about how hard it is sometimes to let go of the past, especially if that was the only thing at the time that made you happy.

    The instant gratification that alcohol supplies makes us happy for a moment. And for us, it then just gets out of control.

    beej-So sorry about your brother and it must be so hard for your parents. Take care.

    Sandy-Way to go on Day 4. I know it is hard to not look back. Keep adding up the days and the future will look brighter.

    Matthew-New house, new life. I am happy for you.

    Yes, we are a diverse group here when it comes to sobriety. Whatever it takes, just don’t take that first sip.

    Take care all.

  4. JohnB says:

    Beej – sorry that you mother and family are going through such rough times. As you said he is safe where he is and perhaps this will help him get back on track…we all deserve a chance :)

    Surrounded by drinking the last couple of days, it’s a little antagonizing (without people trying to be so overtly). Shrug, it’s no big really, it’s not the “not drinking” it’s the “not able to be like others”…but I am not and we are not and that’s that so move on lol

    Keep plugging along all…hey SEG, Sunshine, Sherry all my island breatheren and peeps…good to see you back on track Matt

    From the Canadian Rockies!!

  5. Annie says:

    Hey all, Day 13 here. I am lucky that hubby is doing this with me, it really does help. We talked last night and he said this is the longest he’s been without drinking since he was about 17 – 40 years.

    And yet, he says it’s not bothering him. I asked him if he is finding it tough, and he said no, not really. He said, “It crosses my mind around 4pm but that’s just habit. If I do something else, it’s easy.”

    Wow. He, who drinks regularly, can take it or leave it.

    Me, on the other hand, agonises over each glass, have even gone so far as to pour the wine into a measuring jug to make sure I don’t go one sip over my allotted amount. In what way might that be even remotely enjoyable? What is the point?

    It is easier to abstain than to moderate, for me. I’ve said that before, I know.

    Beej, my heart really goes out to you and your mum. And your brother, you know? I once watched a doco about drugs, can’t recall the name of it, but they talked about how hard drugs such as heroin had been legalised someplace -albeit administered carefully (Belgium? Sweden? I can’t recall).Anyhow what they discovered was not that the nation turned into rampant drug addicts, and in fact legalising drugs reduced crime.

    It went on to make the point, imagine if alcohol was illegal. How many of us would be in prison? It seems absurd, but a drug is a drug – alcohol included.

    I’m waffling a bit because I haven’t had my current substance – coffee!

    Sandy, I am in awe of you and what you’ve achieved with your sobriety. I truly mean that.

    Take care everyone

  6. Beej says:

    I’m with SEG on that one JohnB. Being around it for days at a time can be trying. I totally get the “not like everyone else” feeling too. I get to the point where I really do feel normal and you wonder if you finally are. I guess that’s the trap.

    It’s interesting to ponder and can be mildly annoying/tempting. I’ll tell you one thing though, when I think of the prospect of dealing with that little tug on occasion and pushing my cart back to the end of the line… dealing with the real cravings, the sleepless nights, the itchy ankles and hands – we’ve never had it so good.

    Annie – they can take my booze, even my cigarettes, but you’ll have to pry my coffee from my cold, dead hands!

  7. Dusty says:

    Beej, sorry about what you are going through with your brother. My little brother has been sober for decades, but he has struggled with serious depression and has been suicidal at times. It’s so hard to be the sibling in that situation. I wish I could make it right for him! I do admire his staying sober, though, it has been a great model for me.

    Sandy, thinking of you and wishing you strength.

    We dropped off our oldest at college 4 days ago. Missing him like mad. I decided not to lay my whole downer of a drinking thing on him when he was so excited about school and his future. There’s time for that later.

    Hoping for a peaceful and sober day for you all.

    Day 38

  8. mattie says:

    Evening Island.

    Day 10 for me. Needed to get a head of steam going. Getting lot’s of sleep and recovering physically thus far. Mentally got a ways to go, but I’m taking it one day at a time.

    Beej-Sorry to hear about your brother.

    Hope all is well with everyone.

    i will not drink today

  9. SEG says:

    Mattie – That is the highlight of my day seeing you post 10 days.

  10. Julie says:

    Reading the posts brings back great memories of my island hut. I left my belongings in case I goof up and have to move back. So far so good. In two days I’ll be sober 8 months!!! Tomorrow at 10 a.m. We visit my husband’s doctor for the results of his bone marrow test. We’ll then know his treatment plan and what our future will look like. I’m scared and hopeful. Please my fellow islanders think good thoughts for us. This is more trying than my MS. I’m used to the ups and downs of my life, but he’s my strength. Love and miss you all. Just checking in to let you all know how grateful I am for the gift you gave me that changed my life.

  11. Matthew says:

    day 3 down and out! it feels so good to be sober, its like a fog has lifted and sun is shinny in on my soul.

  12. JohnB says:

    Thoughts are with you Julie…hugs

  13. mattie says:

    Morning Island.

    Thanks SEG. Good seeing you as always.
    Julie-Thoughts with you and your husband.

    Cool morning and some coffee for me.

    i will not drink today

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