Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Joe Weber.
Hi my name is Joe, and . . . I run a fashion blog.
All in unison now: “Hi Joe!”
What’d you think I was gonna say?
Along with running a fashion blog, I also spent much of 2016, 2017, and 2018 making and breaking promises to myself in terms of drinking. I knew I was drinking too much. Sure, I was still physically fit, still happily married, still employed. But all the beer, wine, and whiskey were starting to take their toll. Things were NOT heading in the right direction — I was getting a bit pudgy, I was constantly hungover, and I was always down in the dumps. Drinking or trying not to drink was a BIG part of my life. And I wanted, desperately, for alcohol to be a small and insignificant part.
I read a lot of books. I tried counseling (three different therapists). I tried a lot of different methods, programs, and even prescriptions. It all seemed pretty heavy and complicated. Yet the thing that ended up working for me was The Alcohol Experiment, which is a free, simple, mindfulness and science-based spin on the booze-free “Dry January” trend that so many seem to try after the traditional, alcohol-soaked holiday season. (Full disclosure: I have no official relationship with The Alcohol Experiment or its founders, other than being a happy, non-paying customer. Again, it’s free.)
So what does “working for me” mean? I haven’t had any alcohol since the end of 2018. It’s been over a year. (Not that I’m counting, because I don’t believe in that method. It gives too much power to the thing I want to be insignificant.) I used to be a serious craft beer, small batch whiskey, and fancy wine fan. I was probably downing 25-45 drinks a week. James Bond. Don Draper. And me. That’s how much I was drinking. Now? “Disinterested” is probably the best word to describe my relationship (or lack thereof) with alcoholic beverages. And I’m incredibly grateful that it all happened. Because I learned a lot along the way.
I wouldn’t recommend developing a drinking problem in an attempt at some sort of weird, higher level of self-education. I dodged a lot of bullets, and I respectfully acknowledge and legitimately sympathize with those who have been impacted by the very real trauma intoxication can contribute to and/or outright cause. Yet I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that struggling with Alcohol Use Disorder, for me, literally led me to a higher level of consciousness. Really. I mean it. Look, I’m still a moron, but much less so than I used to be.
The knowledge I gained by tackling a big, self-destructive problem with ideas based in biology, sociology, and psychology are lessons I won’t soon forget. I’ve already applied them to countless other areas of my life, and perhaps you can do the same whether you’re questioning your drinking, or, you don’t drink at all. Here’s a bit of what I learned.
Wanting and Liking Are Not Always the Same Thing
This blew my mind, and once I grasped this concept, it made so much sense. Sure you can crave things you like. That’s often part of the formula. But you can also crave things you DON’T like. Yes, really. Just stay with me here.
Some of us crave alcohol even though we hate how it makes us feel and what it does to us. Some of us crave being a victim, even though we hate sounding like a whiner (my hand is raised). Some of us crave being around a person who is absolutely horrible for our mental and/or physical well-being. The difference, dear reader, is in the brain chemicals. Blame dopamine. Dopamine is often misunderstood as a “happy” chemical. That’s not quite true. It can be a precursor to happiness, but it’s actually the desire chemical. The wanting chemical. And it’s incredibly powerful. Powerful enough that we can be trained by others, or, by our own subconscious, to want things we don’t truly like. Like eating tons of candy. Or gambling. Or constantly checking social media. Or shopping. All, perhaps, things we never actually really consciously enjoy in the moment, and even worse, leave us feeling like crap long afterwards. They’re net losses. We KNOW they’re net losses. We don’t even enjoy them in the moment anymore, let alone long-term. Yet that feeling of desire is still there.
Dopamine is the chemical behind those cravings. Sadly, it just flat out doesn’t know the difference, nor does it care if you actually like the thing you’re craving. Oxytocin and serotonin — the actual pleasure chemicals — are what you’re after. But dopamine? It’s a powerful force. For better and/or for worse.
Your Mind is Easily Hacked — By Others and Yourself
We generally have two methods of cognition. Let’s call them “front brain” and “back brain.” Back brain is the efficient autopilot. It’s the “how.” Back brain is how we can breathe, chew, and blink without thinking about the complicated physical processes needed to do so. Back brain is also how we can drive to work, safely, and not remember the trip once we got there.
Front brain is about mindful exploration. It’s the “why.” It’s possibly what sets our species apart from the rest of the flora and fauna. Yet we spend WAY more time with back brain than front brain. And that’s good! Otherwise we’d never leave the house. There’d just be too much noise. But back brain can easily be hacked. And before you know it, group-think (we’re pack animals), effective marketing, and/or bad luck has you engaging in a habit that’s bringing you down. The GOOD news is that with some practice, you can engage front brain leading up to and during these habits, and you can hack that habit loop. Once that happens, you literally start to change the physical structure of your brain. It’s called neuroplasticity. It’s proven science. And the fact that I no longer want to rip through a bottle of Jameson on Friday (and Saturday!) night while rotting in front of Netflix makes me living proof. Not only do I not want to do that with my time anymore, I find the idea exhaustingly boring. The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s indifference. And yes, I still love a good TV show or football game. I just don’t get wasted in the process and watch TV for four hours at a stretch.
Journaling Is the Key to Changing Your Brain
Writing strengthens and builds new connections between back brain and front brain. The more you do that, the easier it is to see when back brain is taking over despite your best intentions. Remember learning as a kid about the three main ways people learn? Some people learn best by seeing. Some are auditory, and learn best by hearing concepts. Then there are those who learn best by doing the thing. They physically need to figure it out.
Writing combines all three.
You see the words as you write them down. You hear the sentences in your head as you scribble away. You’re doing by way of activating the language into a concrete form, with pen to paper. THIS is where the friggin’ magic happens. We absorb WAY more information if we’re writing it down while learning, as opposed to just watching it happen. Or hearing a lecture. This is where all the light bulbs go off and we learn so much more about ourselves. So even if you’ve never fancied yourself a writer before, and you want to explore a habit or change something about yourself? Write. Write. Write. It makes everything so much easier.
Thoughts and Feelings Are Way Less Permanent Than You Think
When I would have a craving for alcohol, I would picture that thought as embodied and “articulated” by a spoiled tween. A 12-year-old boy or girl in their overly decorated, messy room, who desperately wants a new video game (seasonal craft beer), or the hottest pair of shoes (expensive whiskey), or tickets to a pop concert (fancy bottle of red wine), and feels sure that if he or she doesn’t get it, “I’ll just DIE!!!!” Sure. That’s nice kid. Oh you’ll die one day all right. But this momentary lack of what you’re craving ain’t the thing that’ll kill you.
And y’know what? Just like the tantrum-throwing tween, if you give a thought or a feeling a little space, it has a tendency to cool off.
The thoughts and emotions we all experience are, by and large, nowhere near as long-lasting as we think they’ll be. Oftentimes it’s comical how quickly a frustration, a snap of anger, or a blip of sadness can pass. More than a few times I have gone to bed feeling so worthless that I figured dying in my sleep would probably be the best outcome for all affected by my miserable existence. (Don’t worry, I’ve told my doctor and my partner and those three counselors all about these feelings. I’ve worked and continue to work on them.) Would I wake up the next day feeling that crushing despondency? Sometimes. But more often than not, upon waking up, I’d feel . . . okay. Not great. But functional. Which, relative to the thoughts and feelings from the night before, was a massive shift.
Stuff happens. Life is pain. But if you allow yourself to give it time, you will often move forward faster than you could have ever anticipated. Not only is this okay, this is good.
I Am Way Less Special Than I Had Thought — And That’s AWESOME
There is great power in realizing that you’re not some hyper-unique creature with totally distinct thoughts and unsolvable problems. Once you accept that you’re basically one of a zillion apes drooling their way around an insignificant rock orbiting an unremarkable flaming gas orb, so many solutions open up to you. You feel less alone. There is hope. Because this has all been done before. People who are 99.99% JUST LIKE YOU (again, you’re not as special as you thought) have already solved these problems. All you have to do now is find and execute the solution. The path has already been blazed, paved, and lighted. You do not need to create a new one. It’s there. You just have to find it.
Humans Are Super Possessive of What “Defines” Us — Even If That Stuff Is Bad
So many people are afraid to stop drinking because they identify as a drinker. So many overweight folks have identified as “big” for so long, that they can’t imagine not being so. So many sad, grumpy guys (Hi! Me too!) continue to be sad and grumpy in part because they’ve always been a misanthrope. Even if it’s literally killing us physically and emotionally, it is incredibly difficult to part with a part of ourselves. ANY part of ourselves. We can HATE that person. We can want desperately to NOT BE that person. You think I honestly LIKED being a grumpy unhappy drunk guy? It’s the worst! I’M THE WORST. Yet the unknown and/or the possibility of forming a new, more positive identity can appear so impossible it’s terrifying.
I’m here to tell you that once you start to let go, it’s really not that scary. Uncomfortable, yes, sometimes. Easy, no. A negative identity isn’t better than no identity, and while you may have to tread water for a time, eventually you’ll be able to swim towards shore, and develop a sense of self that’s built on things you’re actually proud of, rather than lowest-common-denominator defaults.
Society Labels and Treats Addictions Vastly Differently Based on the Substance — And That Can Be Counterproductive
The stark contrast between how people with Alcohol Use Disorder are treated compared to those with dependencies on other easily accessible and addictive substances (like nicotine or sugar) is absurd. The moralizing and shame around alcohol could, perhaps, actually be exacerbating the problem. People are often too scared to pursue early assistance in working on their drinking out of fear of judgement. Can you blame them? No one wants to be known as a drunk, a wino, an alky. Yet we celebrate and actively incentivize people who acknowledge sugar or nicotine addictions, while providing them with a variety of proactive, healthy solutions. We don’t label them as morally deficient. We don’t default to sticking people struggling with sugar or nicotine consumption in the basement of a church or community center and tell them that this is how they’ll be spending much of the rest of their lives. And medically speaking, there is no such thing as an alcoholic. The DSM-5 uses the term Alcohol Use Disorder, which is not black and white. There are various shades of gray. You don’t need to hit “rock bottom” to get help. You don’t need to keep the problem a secret. You don’t need to feel constant shame and feel isolated. You don’t need to feel like you’ll always have to carry this weight with you for the rest of your life. You’re a functioning biological creature who became addicted to an addictive substance that’s celebrated and marketed ad nauseum by society at large. Congratulations! You’re normal!
Nobody Cares Nearly As Much As You Think
“But won’t other people think I’m weird if I don’t drink? Will they think I’m a goody-two-shoes? A self-righteous killjoy?” Maybe. But I’ve found that those types are bores. So they’re not worth your time anyway. The GOOD news is that the vast majority of people don’t give a rat’s rear-end if you drink or not, if you order a salad or fries, or if your suit fits and your shoes are shined. They don’t care. We’re all wrapped up in our own little worlds that most people don’t even notice. You could walk into a fancy cocktail lounge in a gorilla suit, order a club soda with lime, and no one would notice you or your drink. And if they DO notice? I’ve actually experienced quite a lot of envy from them. Genuinely not wanting a drink is a bit of a superpower. That, and I get funnier and more handsome the drunker they get. Ta-da.
This ability to question yourself and change your mindset is applicable to more than you’d think.
Junk food. Social media. Television. Outrage. Grudges. Are these things doing me any good? What if I thought about how I feel during and after these activities, just a little bit, and then weighed the benefits of simply NOT engaging with them, against the costs of continuing my habits? It’s literally effortless. All I have to do is NOT. Just like drinking. I gained so much by not drinking anymore (lost weight, gained muscle, better sleep, less mood swings, happier overall, more creative, better at my job, etc.). Might there also be big-time benefits to simply NOT engaging with these other, habitual indulgences and emotional states? You bet there are. After alcohol, I started applying these ideas to tortilla chips. Do I REALLY like eating tortilla chips, mindlessly, over the sink when I get home from the end of a frustrating day at work? Turns out I didn’t, once I allowed myself to consider that possibility. Even my wife noticed: “Hey, this bag of chips has been in the pantry for, like, a month. When did you stop eating chips?” I dunno. It just . . . happened, after I actually thought about it for once, instead of just mindlessly diving into the bag.
It sounds really weird to say, but having a drinking problem might be one of the best things that ever happened to me. I learned an immense amount about the human condition. I learned about society. I learned about my own unique perspective, as well as about how not unique at all I happen to be. I learned about beliefs and thoughts and big picture stuff and small picture stuff. None of which, I think I can safely say, I would have learned otherwise.
I don’t think about drinking much anymore. But the knowledge I acquired and the methods I used to change how I view alcohol have given me a template I have gone back to time and time again, no matter the problem.
Of which alcohol, thankfully, is no longer one.
Joe Weber is the Director and Editor of www.Dappered.com where affordable style is the one and only focus. He believes that living right, living well, and looking good doesn’t mean you should go broke in the process.
Also, check out our podcast that we did with a doctor about the downsides of drinking alcohol: To Drink or Not to DrinkTags: Vices