I was having a BBQ at my house last weekend when I noticed one of my friends drinking a beer.
Pretty normal except for the fact that, one year previously he had sworn off alcohol and was adamant that he would never return to drinking.
He said he had always had problems with alcohol and had decided to quit before he lost everything.
And he was serious.
He had been to AA before for several months, heard the stories of others and genuinely believed that his problems with alcohol were so bad that he could end up losing his family, friends, life or wind up in prison (in fact, he'd already been locked up and charged before for drunkenness).
I went to talk to him about it ... I was concerned that he had fallen off the wagon, that this represented a potentially huge step backwards and that he was putting himself and his family in danger.
What I learned about his experience made me rethink my entire stance on how best to tackle problematic drinking. With his permission, I am going to share his story (anonymously). I'll call him Craig.
MATT: HOW DID YOU STOP DRINKING SO EASILY WITHOUT HELP?
CRAIG: I was ready. I had had a really big night out and was with my kids at the park the following day feeling absolutely terrible. Both mentally and physically. I felt sick, but I also felt like a bad parent, a bad person. I just never wanted to have another hangover again while I still had young kids. Although I had been a very big, daily drinker when we had our first child 4 years ago, I'd cut down significantly to the point where I was drinking a few times a week in lesser amounts, so that made the decision to stop altogether much simpler. I don't think I could have gone straight from where I was 4 years ago to complete abstinence.
M: SO DID YOU SLIP UP AT ALL DURING THE YEAR THAT YOU STOPPED?
C: Nope. I kept track of the days and never broke my streak.
M: WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO STOP DRINKING FOR SO LONG? WHAT EFFECT DID IT HAVE ON YOU?
C: Well, as I said I had already cut down significantly, so I didn't notice it on a daily basis. I spend a lot of time with my kids so that made it easier I think. The times I noticed it the most were in social situations where I always felt very dry and bored and boring. My energy in social situations was very low. I started exercising more so my energy levels generally were pretty good, but I found it really hard to get along with people and be happy and cheerful at a party. Luckily most of the social events I attend are preschool birthday parties so that makes things easier. Around day 200 I found that all started to change. I was able to raise my energy level quite naturally to match the situation I was in, then let it drop back to normal afterwards. That felt really good. But it took a long time to get to that point.
M: IF THINGS WERE GOOD, WHY WOULD YOU POSSIBLY WANT TO START DRINKING AGAIN AT ALL? ISN'T THAT A HUGE RISK?
C: That is certainly what I'd been told. When you go to AA or you go to the doctor and you say you have a problem with alcohol there's a questionnaire that sort of acts as a diagnosis. The terminology is very "disease" related, but the conventional wisdom doesn't really say much about the mechanics of the disease, only that it's permanent and the only cure is abstinence. The stereotype of the recovering alcoholic who has one sip of alcohol and ends up going on a huge bender is often reinforced and rarely challenged. But I'd been reading quite a few articles that suggested that many so called "alcoholics" were able to reintroduce alcohol without returning to destructive patterns and I was curious to see if that were true.
M: WHAT ... SO THIS WAS AN EXPERIMENT??
C: Ha ha; I suppose. I felt as though I had made a lot of positive changes in my life that would reduce my propensity towards problem drinking, and having managed to stop for a year with no slip ups made me confident that I could control myself. My first experiment was going out to a fancy dinner with my wife when we would have the chance to sleep in with no kids around the following morning ... just in case. I bought a 200ml thing of scotch and had a scotch on ice at the hotel before dinner, then had a set menu with matched wines. I was pretty cautious so I was really sipping very slowly. It was a completely different experience to every other time I have drunk alcohol. I got a little buzz and felt like that for a couple of hours, then stopped and went to bed. I didn't even finish the scotch when we got back to the hotel.
M: HOW DOES THAT COMPARE WITH YOUR EXPERIENCES IN THE PAST?
C: It was like night and day. Firstly I would have bought a full bottle of whisky. As a heavy drinker I was so price conscious that the thought of buying a little bottle was totally out of the question. You pay way more per mL when you buy a little container, the incentives really are towards buying in bulk. I think alcohol retailers are well aware that this increases consumption and demand for their product. Having not had any alcohol for a whole year, I was much less concerned about getting value for money. Secondly, and possibly related to that, I would typically have drunk way more quickly before I left the hotel, knowing that the price of drinks at the restaurant would be so much higher in comparison. I would have tried to get tanked quickly by doing a couple of warm up shots. My behaviour in the past was really driven by this fear of running out of alcohol, so it was all about making sure I got the most drunk for the money that I had.
M: SO YOU FEEL AS THOUGH THERE IS A GOOD WAY TO CONSUME ALCOHOL?
C: Yep, not only that, I feel as though what people were telling me was a completely incurable disease was in fact just a bad habit. Basically I learned to drink in a way that produces terrible results. I started drinking heavily when I was 16, completely unsupervised. I had never really drunk alcohol before that. I think I'd had alcohol twice before in my life and had never been introduced to it by my parents or told how and how not to drink by anyone. The culture among my friends was just about getting the most drunk you could for the least amount of money. This continued throughout my 20s. As a heavy drinker your tolerance for alcohol increases. You have to drink more and more to get the same amount of “drunk”, so the considerations of price and these damaging patterns of consumption just get worse and worse. So do the hangovers! Until that night out with my wife recently I can't remember the last time I drank alcohol without feeling it in the morning. Maybe I never had. Not drinking for a full year had completely reset my tolerance level. Now I can get a bit relaxed from a couple beers or a glass of wine and that's sufficient.
M: SO HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN SINCE YOU REINTRODUCED ALCOHOL?
C: It's been 2 months since I first drank again and I've drunk twice in that time. Is still 14 months since my last hangover though. I no longer think about how long it's been since I last drank alcohol, the important number is how long it's been since my last hangover. I used to equate drinking with binge drinking, because that was the only way I drank. Even after I'd cut down, a quiet night was still a 6 pack and I'd feel atrocious afterwards. I feel like I've got a bit more respect for the substance now. I don't feel like getting trashed for the sake of it.
M: DO YOU FEEL AS THOUGH YOU COULD HAVE AVOIDED THESE PROBLEMS IN THE FIRST PLACE?
C: Absolutely. I don't think there is any reason that someone has to go through what I went through in order to learn how to use alcohol responsibly. I had always assumed that when it came to my own kids I would go for total abstinence, and zero tolerance of alcohol in the house. I'm rethinking that position, though. I think that if my parents had showed me early on how to have a small amount of alcohol every now and then and what that felt like, and how to control it, I would have been better equipped to deal with it as an adult. From where we are today in society I'd say there are probably a lot of adults that don't fully understand how to use alcohol responsibly.
We hear a lot about abstinence being the only real, effective way to manage alcohol dependency, and there’s no doubt it works for many people. The discussion above, however, has compelled me to re-think this idea, and consider that maybe there are other alternatives that can exist alongside abstinence as part of a suite of maintenance strategies.
What if alcohol treatment could also include resetting tolerances and establishing new and better habits? What if we began practicing harm reduction more, and educating people on how to consume drugs and alcohol safely, acting as coaches or mentors?
I have a feeling that's where we'll be 50 years from now.
I first wrote this article about 18 months ago and held off on publishing it because 2 months wasn’t really that long to have reintroduced drinking and I wanted to wait and check in with “Craig” further down the line. I’m glad to say he has reported that alcohol use has remained in check and the experiment has thus far been a success. He still hasn’t had a hangover, and at the time of publishing this article that makes a total of about 32 months without a hangover for Craig.