The Unifying Theory of Alcohol
A few months ago, a friend came to London from New York. We met at the Unbound office in Islington and walked down to Cannon Street station to get the train home. We caught up as we walked through the city. At one point, we took a small detour so I could show him the recently revealed resting place of William Blake.
During our walk, as we navigated through the cars, people drinking pints who had spilled out onto the streets, and occasional angry cyclists swerving to avoid them, he turned to me and said, “What’s the occasion?” I was a bit confused. “What do you mean?”
He pointed to a crowd of office workers with pint glasses on the pavement behind us. “All these people on the street drinking.”
“Oh!” I chuckled. And then I really started to laugh—slightly nervous from a mixture of pride and shame. “It’s just a Thursday after work. This is what it’s like in London.”
He was momentarily amazed, but then recounted stories of British and Irish people he hung out with in the U.S. and their seemingly constant desire to drink.
“Do Americans not drink like this?” I asked. “Some, but not like this.” He gestured to a new group of office workers outside another pub. “There are so many pubs!”
I had my first drink at 14. It was a half bottle of Merrydown Cider at a disco in a village hall. I hadn’t intended to drink, but I still remember the feeling of liberation and the hysterical laughter that followed. It calmed my teenage nerves and anxiety. From then on, having a good time with friends and alcohol was a given. The method of avoiding stress was evident among my family and my friends’ families. Any kind of gathering involved drink of some kind — not excessively, but ritually. A “ritual” is defined as “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.” This was ours.
Booze was part of who I am and where I came from. It’s not something I’ve ever considered a choice. Whether it was drinks after work or drinks to celebrate something or drinks to cope with a crisis or drinks because I was bored or drinks because, well, I can’t remember why. “Drink” and “fun” have always been synonyms.
Compared to waking up hungover, waking up with a spring in your step becomes incredibly addictive. You wake up every morning and feel good.
I am 43, and apart from giving up booze for six months when my wife was pregnant, I have spent 29 years regularly ingesting alcohol. Which is a depressant. There are only six months of my adult life when I have not been regularly ingesting a depressant.
In those 29 years, I have gotten drunk—beyond the point of enjoying myself, to the point when I start talking a little too bluntly, freely expressing opinions I don’t hold while sober—at least once a week, simply because everyone else around me was drinking that much too. I have walked a path of morning grouchiness my entire adult life without really being aware that it was something I was choosing to do.
I have also never been an adult without some kind of mental health issue. I’ve suffered mild to serious depression and anxiety. One year in my early twenties, agoraphobia left me stuck in my flat. I wondered if there was a link between alcohol and my perpetual anxiety.
InAugust, I gave up drinking entirely for three months. I tried to be conscious of how not drinking made me feel. Giving up booze turned out to be incredibly easy once I stopped thinking of it as denying myself something and instead thought of it as deciding not to regularly ingest a depressant. Above all, not drinking was a relief.
Compared to waking up hungover, waking up with a spring in your step becomes incredibly addictive. You wake up every morning and feel good. Even when I hadn’t slept because our baby kept me up all night, I still felt okay. As it turns out, I can cope with not sleeping because of a baby. What I can’t cope with is having a hangover and a baby.
I had more money. I lost weight. There is a kind of lightness to living when you’re not regularly ingesting a depressant. I know it sounds obvious, but I’d never thought of it this way. It was such a change for me that the thought of having a drink began to feel a bit silly—pointless even. Absolutely not worth the hassle.
Despite all this positivity, not drinking also felt like a kind of betrayal. A betrayal of a huge part of my identity and an unspoken criticism of those I love and the life I had lived so far. By not drinking, I sensed I was making those around me uncomfortable. I could see the disappointment in their faces when I told them I was off booze. They briefly smiled, shrugged, and carried on slugging their beer before checking if I was “sure” I didn’t want to join them.
In my social circles, drinking seems to be about saying, “It’s nice to see you, and I’m in a good mood, and there are lots of things worrying me at the moment that drinking allows me to briefly forget. Please don’t ruin it for me.”
Asa result, I came up with what I call “The Unifying Theory of Alcohol.” It’s very simple, though it required a shift in perspective that changed my behavior. This theory has led to me being able to drink in moderation out of choice, rather than as an act of self-denial.
Until the Unifying Theory, I used to feel I either had to be drinking or not drinking. There was nothing in between. And apart from the few times I have stopped completely, the tendency has always been toward drinking—a lot. I couldn’t just have one or two drinks. There was no moderation. It was all or nothing.
Now, I’ve reset my perspective. I work from the position that I don’t drink regularly, but occasionally. If I go into a pub and they have my favorite beer on tap, I have a few pints. If they don’t, I don’t drink. It’s that simple.
In my experience, you can tell it’s “just a beer” if you can easily take it or leave it.
This shift in perspective came about when I finally recognized why I drink alcohol. For me, alcohol was anchored in a behavioral pattern of reward or consolation; that’s the role booze has always played in my life. Casually drinking alcohol can be great fun, but for me, I’ve realized it’s completely useless as a weight-bearing exercise. By that I mean it can’t cope with carrying any kind of burden. If you’re drinking as a compensation or as a reward, it collapses under the weight of this expectation and can make you feel awful.You either behave badly and feel shame and regret in the morning, or you wake up with the feeling of gloom you were trying to drown out amplified instead.
If I want a drink because I’ve had a hard day and deserve a drink, or if something bad has happened and I want a drink to escape from it, then I don’t drink. Ever. That is my rule. I can only have a beer that is just a beer—because it tastes nice. I don’t tie anything else to it.
In my experience, you can tell it’s “just a beer” if you can easily take it or leave it. If you’re not bothered either way, then have it. If you know you’re tying more to it than just that, then don’t have it. This approach is why I rarely drink anymore. I start to think about one beer becoming three and how I will feel in the morning, and I quickly decide it’s not worth it. It’s a path that has led me to be able to drink in moderation. Either no drinks or no more than two drinks has now become my norm.
Of course, those around me still have to come to terms with my decision not to drink. For some, it seems that my choice draws attention to their own relationship with alcohol. But, if they ask, I explain that how booze fits in my life now is no judgment of them. It’s just my choice. After all, if I’m out drinking orange juice in a pub with you then I must really want to be there, spending time and talking with you. Because you know I’m not there for the booze.
This is an extended piece about an idea included in my latest book, The Surfboard.
The next in the Unifying Theory… series: The Unifying Theory of Work