It’s been more than five months since my last drink, and I feel good!
I hate to disappoint you, but my last sip of alcohol was not part of a nightmarish bender. It was, in fact, quite prosaic: a bottle of San Miguel, perhaps preceded by one other bottle at most, consumed on Malapascua Island in Cebu – a pretty good place for drinking, as far as that goes. Nothing interesting happened, good or bad, as a consequence of my consumption of that solitary beer. If anything, the sheer blandness of that experience is probably what finally inspired me to stop drinking.
My drinking habit is something that formed gradually and imperceptibly. For years I wasn’t terribly interested in alcohol, partly due to my parents’ brilliant efforts to deglamourize it by offering me and my brother little sips of wine over family dinners at home, starting at quite a young age. It worked quite well, I think, until I moved 11,000 kilometres from home, and negative habits gradually began to take root.
Once I was on my own, I began to sporadically experiment with more excessive forms of drinking. Manila’s infinite quantities of nightlife, along with the overall Filipino fondness for drinking, provide ample opportunities to drink to the point of regret. But although I’ve been plenty drunk plenty of times since, it didn’t take me long to realize the limited appeal of heavy drinking. Inhibitions have long since ceased to be a major problem for me – if anything, the problem is that I tend to be too much myself – so being drunk never offered many advantages other than making boring people seem like more interesting company. On the other hand, the disadvantage of feeling absolutely terrible afterward was pretty hard to miss. Even the social advantages tended to be rather one-sided, given the fact that I am, based on my experience, quite socially objectionable when I’ve had a few too many. And the alienation I experienced caused me to get frustrated and behave more badly, leading to some experiences too awful to describe in any sort of detail. As the sad, lonely, regrettable experiences with drunkenness began to pile up, the disadvantages of heavy drinking became quite hard to miss. And although I’ve still had to re-learn that lesson from time to time, with all the subsequent occasions I’ve hoped against all odds that heavy drinking would help me cut loose, give me a night to remember, etc., it almost always led only to more reminders of why limiting myself to a couple of beers was a very good idea.
By comparison, I had many more happy memories of being mildly buzzed, sipping a beer or two in good company. And the temptation to find oneself perpetually buzzed is far greater in the Philippines, a place where restaurants and bars often offer few alternatives outside of soft drinks and alcohol: good luck getting a cup of peppermint tea at your average scuzzy bar-and-grill in Manila. A beer could too easily become one’s fallback option, being less sickeningly sweet and a bit more grown-up than a Coca-Cola, and often for virtually the same price – and with the ability to mellow you out, no less. And of course, it’s always beer weather here!
As I began to become “that guy” – the foreign male in the Philippines, sitting around on a hot weekday afternoon with a beer in his hand – I remained quite oblivious to the warning signs. Like many people, I imagined an alcoholic as someone who drank to the point of vomiting, passing out, showing up at work encrusted in their own vomit, and so forth. But of course, if the definition of an alcoholic were so narrow, there would be no such thing as a functioning alcoholic. I suppose it’s more practical to define an addiction as a harmful habit where the harm eventually ends up exceeding any possible benefits, in terms of social lubrication, improved mood, and so forth.
The mellowness became quite addictive in its own right. Eventually, though, I realized that there were drug-free ways to produce a constant feeling of mellowness. As I began to delve more deeply into Buddhism and search for inner sources of equanimity, I better appreciated our inherent capacity to produce stillness within ourselves through sheer mental self-discipline. Unfortunately, I still constantly find myself neglecting my meditation and Buddhist readings, which invariably leaves me grouchy and irritable, but at least I’ve had some brief glimpses into how much serenity we can produce within ourselves without having to resort to drugs to quiet the babbling of our inner voices. (I suppose the fact that I manage to constantly neglect a habit with such immense and obvious benefits serves as a powerful testament to how much “stickier” bad habits are than good ones.)
With habitual light drinking having some clear benefits, without the obvious disadvantages of drinking-til-you-puke, I needed a wakeup call to bring my attention to the downsides of very slowly pumping myself full of poison. At the risk of confessing to less than noble (and certainly not very Buddhist) motivations, I have to admit that the tipping point came when I began to notice some premature cracks forming in my prized baby face, which was no longer looking quite so babyish. (I wouldn’t be the first person to squander a generous genetic inheritance, and I certainly won’t be the last.) Whether this was actually due to habitual drinking, the powerful Philippine sun, or just the human body’s intriguing tendency to destroy itself, it made me realize that the decisions I made had long-term consequences for myself and my body. And with my drinking habit having become so joyless as a result of my partaking of it too often, it didn’t take much to make me stop after that.
I was, at least, gladdened by how easy it was to stop drinking. I experienced no withdrawal symptoms, and realized that my addiction had been nothing more than a deeply ingrained habit. A few months later, everything clicked when I read a book called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The book wasn’t terribly good, as it rambled from one topic to another, wildly overreaching and attempting to include many things that could barely be considered habits at all. But it did feature one salient point: that almost all “addictive” substances are not, in fact, physically addictive. Even nicotine, which we consider an extremely difficult habit to kick, is only addictive for as long as it remains in the bloodstream: just over a hundred hours. Sheer force of habit is what actually causes the smoker to attend so fastidiously to their smoking habit for years on end.
Now, five months later, I am enjoying a life free from artificial highs and crashing lows. I feel good, and look a bit fresher and more baby-ish. However, the most obvious disadvantages of this new post-alcohol regime have been social. I have to constantly brush off my neighbours’ invitations for shots, knowing that I would look quite awkward sitting there with a can of Coke, in addition to the fact that I’d probably be bored to tears without help from liquid entertainment. Not drinking has made it impossible to escape how few people I find genuinely interesting. It’s also generally harder to go out and socialize in Manila when I don’t want to waste my health on soft drinks or waste my money on ludicrously overpriced coffee at Starbucks. Unfortunately, women are visibly unimpressed when our dates include a steaming cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. All things considered, it’s hard to deny that life without alcohol has became more complicated, but as disadvantages go, being forced to know yourself and know exactly what you really want isn’t a bad one.
If I’m serious about filling the modest-sized gap that has been left in my life by the absence of alcohol, I need to get serious about redoubling my meditation habit in the new year. As I can no longer find easy comfort in the alluring buzz of alcohol and the meaningless camaraderie that comes with it, I need to look deeper inside myself for sources of strength and equanimity. But I’m also quite confident that it’s a journey worth taking – let’s just see if I can get up off my lazy ass and take that first step.