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.

‘The nectar of the gods’, they said. Image credit distel2610 via Pixbay

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.

Closing time…

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.

My wife to be and I, driving through France. Image by the author

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.

12 Responses to “Giving up alcohol was a way bigger deal than I thought it would be”

  1. Good job on both the article and doing so well with giving up alcohol!

    It’s not often I read an article from top to bottom without scrolling between paragraphs, but I was able to here. The way you write is very engaging!

  2. Sam Widodo says:

    Nice article Kieran. I really like how you mix your personal story and the scientific reasons behind what you did. Congrats on being 6 weeks sober and happy birthday! (writing this on Friday)

  3. Great post and congratulations on getting yourself sober. Yes, it’s really easy to cave into peer pressure. Strange how certain addictions are seen as the culturally functional. Funnily enough, I did a post about alcohol as well. I really liked how you incorporated science into your own personal journey. This is how you’ve got me questioning my own drinking habits.

  4. Christopher Aitken says:

    Well done on making it through the six weeks. All the science can say whatever it likes about health and addiction etc but I imagine that peer pressure has to be the hardest thing to get over. Interesting observation that you started to crave cigarettes again too. You hadn’t been craving them previously?

  5. Kieran Christopherson says:

    Yeah I was also surprised by the smoking thing. Managed to resist maybe 85% of the time.

    Can’t win em all!

  6. Kieran Christopherson says:

    True that Ben!

  7. Benjamin Andrikopoulos says:

    Just like all things in life – everything in moderation!

    Cheers for the great article 🙂

  8. Jett Janetzki says:

    Nice post Kieran! Congrats on being 6 weeks sober.

    The smoking statement really surprised me! Who would have known (kinda sucks…)

    Thanks for sharing your experiences and best of luck continuing (?) to stay sober

  9. Kieran Christopherson says:

    The pressure is real!

  10. Kieran Christopherson says:

    Cigarettes aside, no real symptoms to write home about.

    I know Vox isn’t really THE most reputable thing in the world.
    But the truth is, alcohol is horrible and no amount of lobbying is going to change that fact. Nutrition is definitely a VERY frustrating field though.

    Thanks for the feedback!

  11. Aisyah says:

    Congrats on the sobriety! I’m glad it was a painless transition, without too many withdrawal symptoms (I hope!) 🙂

    The part about your friends being a pain in the ass about it made me laugh. It’s always interesting to think about how we’ve come to accept and even condone certain addictions through “fun” stereotypes/memes (e.g. the suburban wine mom/vodka aunt), while condemning other potentially less harmful substances, like marijuana.

    And thanks for linking to the Vox article! Nutrition has always been a field I find equal parts fascinating and mind-numbingly frustrating in how difficult it is to get definitive answers in research, even before industry lobbyists are thrown into the mix.

    Anyways yeah that was a ramble from me lol. Great post, as usual 🙂 I liked the almost conversational tone of it, and even with the broad range of things you wrote about, it flowed very naturally from one part to another.

  12. megany says:

    congrats on being 6 weeks sober! this is a great post, and I definitely know what you mean about the australian drinking culture; sometimes i feel the peer pressure also!