I woke up on January 1st feeling like shit. I was bloated—well, stuffed, actually—from a heinous concoction of tequila, wine, vodka, sushi, vodka, pizza, beer, and pizza, in that order. Needless to say, my head was throbbing. All the more confirmation that I made the right decision a few days previously to start the year off sober. I don’t think I have ever gone more than a week without a drink in the last four years. (Could that be? I’m afraid so.) I wondered how it would feel to wake up completely refreshed on a consistent basis. I wondered how my body would look and feel, how my energy levels would be effected without the presence of this harmful chemical. I was moving towards pleasure, but also away from pain: I no longer wanted to accept the consequences of excessive drinking such as being hungover, spending hard-earned money on $14 cocktails in Manhattan, eating extra slices of pizza at 2AM, carelessly calling Ubers, and having my mood negatively affected. After what was essentially a month long celebration for the holidays, I was ready to go dry.
There was another aspect to my decision as well. Part of what makes me, me, is that I’m a sociologist who never was. I like to study human beings, culture, and society. I like to know why we do the things we do. Why do we use utensils? Why do we use toilet bowls? What are the reasons behind our actions? I like to examine the unexamined aspects of life. And so I thought of Dry January as a sociological experiment. I paid close attention to my physical body, thoughts, feelings, and energy levels with the absence of alcohol. I noticed the times I felt the urge to drink, and played with alternative options. I also paid attention to the drinking habits of others around me, and how I perceived those habits to impact them. Overall, I consider my experiment to be a success.
I made it through three complete weeks without a drop. I “survived” Friday and Saturday nights out, boozy Sunday brunches, mid-week Happy Hours, dinner dates, karaoke, and movie nights, all totally sobes. The event’s all started the same. I would head to wherever I was meeting people and have to repeat over and over my Dry January proclamation. That got old fast. Each time I braced myself for their reaction. Would they try to make me cave in? Would I get side-eyed or labelled Debbie Downer? None of these fears were met: nobody cared. There were no attempts to make me crack, no judgey eyes. They just got it. I guess that’s the difference between being a young adult and being a college student. In undergrad I would attempt little cleanses all the time, but was so weak by the time Thirsty Thursday came around. Everyone in college wants you to be their drinking buddy. Perhaps they want you to join in as validation for their own drinking habits. But it wasn’t like that this time. Maybe as twenty somethings we’re maturing. Or something like that.
The first week and half was the perhaps the “hardest,” because it felt awkward. I’d never been that person before. But Dry January has become a thing now. Everyone was accepting of my decision not to drink, because it’s now a socially recognized ritual. It’s not as if I was Forever Sober. I think that would be a different study altogether. After revealing to the group–at brunch, dinner, etc–that I wasn’t drinking, the first five minutes were a bit uncomfortable for me. Everyone cheers-ing with adult beverages, me lifting a glass of water. I watched with a smile plastered on my face as everyone tasted each other’s flavorful mimosas. But pretty soon that went away and I didn’t feel like the “other.” Most of the time I forgot that I was even sober. I was totally entwined with the energy of the group, laughing and getting caught up in it all. Authentically enjoying the fun, getting lost in the moment, without the aid of alcohol. The best part is that I was able to go about the rest of my day or night feeling great, feeling natural, and still able to be productive. And I saved a few hundred dollars for sure.
I successfully passed the first three weeks, but then on January 23, a little incident caused the whole thing to go down the drain: #SNOWZILLA. The blizzard on that Saturday was absolutely nuts. It was wild, thrilling, beautiful, and intense. After 2PM, cars weren’t allowed to be on the road, and subways were having major issues. I had just gotten to my friend Lucy’s apartment an hour before, along with a few others, so it looked like we were “stranded” there for the rest of the day. What are a bunch twenty somethings to do for twelve hours stuck in a Green Point apartment? We’re gonna drink! I’m committed to Dry January to an extent, but I’m not crazy. Mama’s gonna join in the fun. I have no ego about needing to finish it out to prove to myself or the world I can do it. We sipped on wine throughout the day, watching movies, playing board games, reenacting Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” music video… All in all, an occasion worthy of breaking my fast. But then I broke it again four days later. I had one glass of Chianti at dinner–it was my birthday! And then I REALLY broke it that Friday night as I rang in my 24th with a bunch of friends. But by that time it was January 29th and the month was basically over.
The best part of not drinking was reveling in being hangover-free. I loved waking up the next morning feeling great, smiling at memories made, the night I was clear-headed enough to remember. I so enjoyed being able to have the Saturday I wanted. My ideal Saturday is split in two: the first half of the day productive, the second half fun. I like to wake up at 7AM, go to the gym, the laundry mat, the grocery store, clean my apartment, have lunch, write from this time to this time, then meet so and so and enjoy a fun rest of the day and night. But if I’m living it up the night before, I’m often too drained and ambushed by the side effects of drinking to do anything more than order pizza and watch Transparent in bed for four hours. Excessive drinking causes me to experience negative thoughts and lonely next-day feelings.
We look to alcohol to cheer us up, escape the pain, but it’s in its DNA to bring us down. Alcohol is a depressant. By drinking, we are unconsciously setting the intention to be depressed. And likewise, caffeine is an anxiety-inducer. I tried to give up caffeine for the month, too, only indulging in green tea less than a handful of times. Being clean of alcohol and caffeine for most of the month, I became acutely aware of the effects of these chemicals on my body. Caffeine is used as an upper, a stimulant, but it increases your heart rate in a way that your body interprets as anxiety. The mind doesn’t know the difference between a heart palpitating because of nerves or because of coffee. I had to remind myself on two occasions when I wondered why I felt anxious, even though there was no reason to, that it was simply the chemical reaction triggering this physiological response. The mind-body connection is so real and so strong.
The lesson I learned is one I knew before I began: mod-er-a-tion. But I’m used to being an all or nothing guy. If I’m gonna go out, I’m gonna GO OUT! I don’t see the point in going to a nightclub and having one drink. What’s that going to do? If the point is to get funky, it’s gonna take a lot more than one. On the flip side, I can go completely sober and really enjoy that experience of it. You have to find the inbetween that works for you. I don’t want to be sober the rest of my life. I don’t need to be. Alcohol is an experience and it does have value. But the experience, for me, is only enjoyable in moderate, controlled amounts. I want to enjoy the occasional glass of Chianti, but not as a regular part of my life. If you have a glass of wine everytime you watch Jeopardy, you are creating and reinforcing that habit, that mental link between two separate stimuli. Neurons that fire together stay together. So at 7PM, when you turn on Jeopardy, you will instinctually go to pour a glass of wine, even if you weren’t thinking about it beforehand. That is how actions become habits and routines are formed. If you’re fine with it, great! I personally am working on eliminating habits that do not serve me. Alcohol and caffeine as a parts of the daily norm do not serve me. In Sarah Silverman’s wonderful memoir The Bedwetter, she writes: “Look, there’s not much useful to take away from this book – it’s largely stories of a woman who has spent her life peeing on herself. But there is one way I really believe I can help the world, and that is to encourage everyone, in all things, to Make It a Treat.” I read that book five years ago and that mantra “Make It A Treat” has stuck with me ever since.
I don’t believe in telling people how to live their lives. That isn’t what a life coach is supposed to do. I simply tell my story and hope it encourages others to implement changes that will produce the best results for them. With that said, I would definitely recommend trying sobriety on for size, just as an experiment. It’s so obvious and trite, but I noticed just how many people are escaping their pain via alcohol and drugs, and end up doubling that pain. You don’t realize that’s what’s happening when you’re caught up in the moment, but I got a clear look as an undercover sociologist. I’m wasn’t judging, just observing, and understanding. I get that you gotta do what you gotta do. If that means Fireball shots all night, go for it. There’s no right way to live life. No person’s path is better than another’s. But why not break the pattern you’ve fallen into and try an alternative approach to living, for just a little while? See what it feels like. See what life is like dry. That word “dry” sounds so dull. Plain. Flavorless. But I don’t think sobriety is flavorless at all. On the contrary, you’re seeing life through clearer eyes, sans beer goggles. The colors are more vivid, the senses are keener, and reality so much brighter. You’re experiencing the Now the way it was intended. For me, I want to exist right at the sweet spot, right in the middle. Not exclusively dry, nor soaking wet, but dabbling in dampness. Making It A Treat.