On Not Drinking Alcohol and Truth-telling
Deep Fix №19
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I used to lie about why I do not drink. At work happy hours, I’d order a seltzer, and when the dreaded question “Al, you’re not drinking?” inevitably came, I was quick to say that I couldn’t because I was on antibiotics. That I was Not Feeling Well. Other times, I was taking a break for my Health. Like digging into Hermione’s magic bag, I had a never-ending supply of bullshit excuses to draw upon.
I’ll never forget the time my party-rocking colleague, a middle-aged man who himself was surely an alcoholic, ignored my disclaimer at happy hour and buoyantly handed me a Moscow mule. We were in a dark bar, a quick stroll away from our office in San Francisco’s Financial District. Instead of having the courage to say, “no thanks, dude,” I reluctantly accepted it, with my insides doing the type of twisting somersaults that made Simone Biles retire early.
At that time, I was about five months into my recovery, going to A.A. meetings during my lunch breaks, and just starting to fumble out of the wake of my addiction.
I was committed to my healing during those wide-eyed days, but I had no idea how to be sober in a work environment.
For a moment in that bar, I stared at the drink like I was peering into Dante’s 9th Circle of Hell, wondering whether they sipped from dented copper jars in my father’s family homeland in Russia. I knew I couldn’t drink the mule. I wasn’t going to drink it. But I was far too skittish and weak-kneed to say why.
So! I took a big swig of the mule, filling my mouth with as much vodka and ginger beer as I could take without swallowing, and ran to the bathroom. There I spit out the contents into the barroom toilet.
Slick one, Al.
If navigating work without booze was as hard as running a contrived Tough Mudder, entering the dating scene sans sauce was like racing the Badwater—the 100-mile ultra-marathon in the middle of the Mojave Desert. After nearly a decade in a long-term relationship and a lifetime of drunkenness, I had to teach myself how to meet women, IRL, outside the comfort of a bar.
Should I just tell these potential lovers upfront that I don’t drink, and get it out of the way? I certainly wouldn’t tell them about all my hefty baggage or that I was, technically and according to the State of California, still married. Dating apps had just started to introduce preferences where you could select a cute, little “no drinking” icon on your profile. That would have made my life easier. But I was the same man who used to love smoking hash joints while sippin’ on whiskey—it didn’t feel right lead with an “I’m sober!” badge that I was still struggling to pin to my lapel. I preferred to hide the Truth.
On those early dates, I did whatever I could to avoid the drinking question for as long as possible. I’d suggest coffee and a stroll, which, unsurprisingly, went a long way towards labeling me as a “thoughtful” guy who wasn’t just interested in the mundanity—meeting at a wine bar after work.
I had several first dates at the kava bar. Kava is a non-alcoholic, non-addictive drink indigenous to Indonesia. It slightly numbs your mouth and has a relaxing effect. Some folks in Old School recovery circles would say drinking kava is a relapse. Still, I was a fan of the whole emerging non-alcoholic and health elixir phenomenon, and my recovery has always swum in a bit of a psychedelic grey area free from dogma. I was quick to seize any alternative to meeting at a pub.
What I will say about the experience, however, is that while undoubtedly mild in effect, if you hang out at the kava bar long enough, you’ll notice the same folks there every day. How they chug at 8 p.m. for happy hour, slamming their drinks while yelling “Bula!” How many of them step outside to smoke weed or cigs and come back inside with glazed eyes and loose hands quick to rub shoulders. How the whole experience looks a lot like hanging out at a … bar.
It took me a long time to arrive at a place where I was comfortable and confident enough to skip the Non-Alcoholic Wellness Trend of the Day and simply own my abstinence.
Sober or not, addiction is an internal war waged against the Self. I also don’t shame myself for the many white lies I told early on. Today I understand that anytime I don’t lead with the Truth, I risk repeating the same energetic pattern of Unworthiness that led to my addiction. How, like Dr. Anna Lembke of Stanford’s Addiction clinic says, each time we tell the Truth, we strengthen our prefrontal cortical circuits, bolstering the connection to the limbic system and the reward brain—essentially conducting the opposite neurochemistry that happens in active addiction.
But back then, I had more pressing issues than worrying about the intricacies of my neuroactivity. Healing is never a linear process.
So much of my recovery is Unlearning the way of life I was taught as a man growing up in an East Coast suburban monoculture. God damn, I was a frat-tastic bro in my younger days. Part of me still is. Another part misses the blissful simplicity of it all, knowing the veil cannot be lowered from here, that it hurts to wake up. So many of my closest friends no longer drink after going through their trials and tribulations. I lost a few on the way, too. They are dead, no longer suffering or concerned with adjusting themselves to a broken, intoxicating culture.
I don’t drink. I don’t know if I ever will. What I know for sure is that I won’t be today.
But I’m also not one of these sobriety hawks who claims the thought never crosses their mind, or that a life free from harmful substances is Black and White. I’m a fucking human, and I’m the same human who used to slam shots of Patrón with Paul Pierce and his entourage in Las Vegas. So, when I’m at the beach and see someone order a margarita, I sometimes think, that’d be nice, right? Maybe I could have just one?
The difference now is that I’m not attached to the thought. I have many other ideas far more ridiculous than wanting to sip on a drink. Trust me. The notion bears no burden on my spirit. And shit, I beat myself up for overeating coconut rice these days. I can’t even imagine how I’d handle a hangover. My life is enormously better without alcohol’s headache. If only people knew the fearlessness, freedom, and swagger that can come without drinking.
Countless folks tell me they want to quit boozing. Even business bloggers, “creators” who write each week about remote work and freelancing and topics that I now find mostly boring, are dedicating essays to how they’re no longer drinking. (I’m sure they might feel the same exhaustion towards all the addiction-related content I’ve been called to write lately ;-)
Not drinking is properly en vogue. It’s become a virtue signal, a wellness commodity to be claimed. A bio-hack to optimize productivity. For the most part, this is all neat, and I welcome everyone who’s sober-curious to the Real Party. Our culture is far too reliant on alcohol.
But recovery is not wellness.
Wellness is an industry. It has little to do with fundamental human well-being. Its retreats, trends, and booze-free, probiotic drinks can be “lifestyle design” tested for just enough time to post a clever social media column about how transformed you feel after rebalancing your gut biome.
Recovery, on the other hand, is a heroic reclaiming of life. Its wisdom is neither cheap nor meant to be packaged into marketing initiatives. Its knowledge is hard-won. Its grace, earned.
Recovery is the original red pill: radically remembering to come back to yourself while rejecting a society built around soul-numbing distraction. The change is so profound, the wounding so deep, we often want to hide it. The process is messy; the return never complete.
It’s practicing telling the Truth, even if, at first, it’s onerous and comes out as a lie.
💊 Dialogue on High-functioning Addiction. We meet next Wednesday to dialogue about: In what ways do I have "high-functioning" addictive or compulsive tendencies? How can I live in a more intentional way? How can I help others do the same? Click here to register.
🫀Discord. I know I said it was the last call last week, but thoughtful folks keep trickling into our digital campfire. If you’re interested in our dialogues, book clubs, or want to introduce yourself to our tribe, click here.
🖖 I Contain Multitudes. Stacy Selby pens a brilliant essay on the evolution of personal identity and how one can lose themselves scrolling the “infinite ribbon” of the internet. Stacy is a recovering addict/alcoholic/bulimic, trauma survivor, former firefighter (a “hotshot”), and non-binary person. Their writing has pearls of hard-won wisdom—sign-up here.
🕯 The Losses We Grow Into. Master storyteller and comedian Kevin Kling blew me away on this heart-wrangling episode of the On Being podcast with Krista Tippet.
🎧 DJ oLo Presents: September 2021. All of my favorite music from this month.
Thanks for reading Deep Fix.
Until next time …
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