Giving up alcohol was a way bigger deal than I thought it would be
I just finished 6 weeks without drinking alcohol. That may not seem like much to some, but I’m Irish and I grew up in Frankston. I don’t say this to justify my improprieties by implicating particular social groups, but more so to loosely frame a historical perspective.
Dr Susan Flavin of Cambridge reported that 16th century Irish workers (historically, my family are potato growers) would drink 14 pints of beer daily, and Frankston has the highest rates of hospital admission for alcohol and drug abuse in Victoria. Now, I was very fortunate to have a wonderful childhood, but it’s safe to say that drinking has always been commonplace in my life.
So, why did I do it? I turn 30 on Friday, and prior to choosing to temporarily hang up the boots, I had spent three weeks in Italy drinking sangiovese with lunch everyday. The universe seemed to be setting the stage for a little breather.
The truth is, the experience was incredibly revealing, and there are a few key themes that I’m continuing to reflect on very deeply. Naturally, I’ve been doing some digging online to see if I can ground any of these insights in scientific research, so here are some things that I’ve found.
What does alcohol actually do to you?
A few days in, I happened upon an episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast in which he interviewed researcher Hamilton Morris. For those that are unfamiliar, his show Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia (currently on SBS) explores the socio-political history of ‘drugs’.
As noted in Rogan’s transcript, Hamilton hates alcohol:
Alcohol is a crazily flawed molecule; it’s terrible… it’s a very weak drug by weight. You’re consuming insane amounts in terms of the number of molecules … so all this acetaldehyde accumulates in your body and it has it directly toxic effect.
… So, basically it poisons you.
What happened when I stopped?
All of the predictable things. I slept better because natural cycles weren’t disrupted. Happiness and optimism were simple and accessible pleasures. I found it much easier to maintain proper diet and exercise regimes, and thus the notion of tracking my weight became basically non-existent in my life. It was great.
There were a couple of unexpected things.
The first was that I craved cigarettes, to a horrendous degree. I was a ‘smoker’ when I was younger, but have thankfully put that phase behind me. The relationship between drinking and smoking is well researched in neuroscience; Dr John Dani of the University of Pennsylvania has asserted that there is some interesting stuff going on with memory and dopamine regulators that make it easy for the two to go hand in hand. But elevated desire to smoke without drinking was weird.
Freud might put it down to the Death Drive, the unavoidable human compulsion to propel us towards the sweet release of death (brutal). This remains to be seen, but as someone who definitely spends a lot of time trying to keep destructive tendencies at arm’s length, maybe an easy trade of causing damage through smoking rather than drinking is conceivable from this perspective.
What is people’s deal?
The other thing was that people were kind of a pain in the ass about it. The peer pressure of the Australian drinking culture is a well researched and much written about issue, and rightly so because it’s a real life thing. The responses to my decision to stay sober for a while were chilling and frustrating.
“Why are you doing that?!”
“Ugh, well, Kieran isn’t drinking, so…”
“Come onnnnn, just have one beer with dinner”.
“I can’t wait until you’re fun again”.
The Sydney Morning Herald offer a brief insight into the underlying causes of this phenomenon, engaging social science perspectives to ground the ‘friends being bad friends’ thing in an explanation of our tribal genetic origins being expressed through entrenched social norms. It’s true; some people take a choice to stay sober as an affront to their own habits.
All of this aside, the implications of this little experiment will be profound and enduring. Gone are the days where an apple a day keeps the doctor away (the apple is a glass of wine). The science is shifting, and it’s looking more likely that it actually takes a lot less booze to do a lot more damage with regards to things like cancer, liver disease, high blood pressure, and mental health problems.
Most importantly, my soon to be wife told me that she had never seen my eyes so clear, my mood so even, and my heart so open. Science or not, that is all the reason I need to think about making a much longer lasting change. Maybe a 30th birthday, a new decade, is a good time to start fresh.