I've got a monkey on my back, and it goes by the name of Alcohol. At 30 years old, I have established a cozy relationship with this substance, spanning at least 15 years of my life. These are years riddled with moments of many casual drinks, and for better or worse, a handful of nights punctuated with complete debaucherery. For me, it seems, alcohol is a given feature of my social life on any given night or party.
Is this good? The 20 year-old me would think so. These days, I'm not so sure anymore.
Now, I can't really deny the feeling of camaraderie and connection generated from grabbing a drink with a buddy, or toasting friends and family during the holidays. These are important moments in life, and alcohol seems to supply these events with some weight, meaning, and momentum. And the art of craft brewing and distilling is something beautiful in its own right, a careful process that requires the selection of quality ingredients, focus, finesse, and patience to ensure a batch comes out "just right". This kind of care takes love and dedication. I admire what's demanded in the process of creating it.
Yes, there are positive aspects to liquor and its consumption. The magic it can wield in lubricating our social situations is undeniable. But I still don't know why I choose to drink at the frequency and volume that I do, though. Often, it seems that I am acting purely out of habit, an unconscious comfort-seeking action, driven by a desire to simply blend in and bring some familiarity to the situation.
Why do I drink alcohol at all? This is another question I have asked myself numerous times this year, and I repeatedly struggle to come up with good, clear reasons and justifications. Generating weak justifications and half-truths is pretty easy though. In this way, I am surprisingly adept.
Now, questioning my relationship with alcohol hasn't come blindly out of thin air. I have had my suspicions for a while, but the tipping point came when I decided to train for a marathon this year. I have been finding that even occasional drinks here and there notably impedes my progress and the effectiveness of my training. Every single time. This has prompted me to ask another hard question: If alcohol is having a noticeable and unwanted effect in just this one area of my life, what kind of effect is it having on the others? I've comfortably avoided this question for a long time, because I think I know what the answer looks like, and it doesn't look great.
After sitting down to examine it line by line, I have - at least for myself - decided that any time I choose to drink alcohol, I must recognize that it is an asymmetrical tradeoff of my time and my money in exchange for a small dose of temporary pleasure. Unfortunately, it comes with a platter of unwanted side effects. It is a deal that is not in my favour.
Even on the best night out, I lose more than I gain. The benefits I reap from drinking are tiny and fleeting in comparison with the true cost, and these costs to my health wealth, and my relationships start compounding when I lay them out over a long enough timeline.
Alcohol is supposed to enhance my life, I'm told. It might, but lets get real for second: alcohol is a volatile substance.
Alcohol is a poison.
I'm not trying to be sensational here, I just want to call a spade a spade. Marketers, purveyors and even your friends want you to understand and believe that choosing to drink makes you fun, charming, and the life of any scene. It might actually play out that way, but lets not lose sight of the fact that alcohol is a mood altering chemical, a depressant, and a known neurotoxin. Take enough of it in one sitting, and it impairs motor function, speech, and general cognition. In other words, it slows me down, makes me clumsy, and weakens my ability to make choices that are in my best interest, at least from the perspective of physiological wellbeing.
I can't comprehend how many times I've reached for something beige and deep fried at the end of the night, fired up a cigar, or hacked back a succession of cigarettes before calling it a night. It feels good in the moment, but when taking the the Big Picture into account, I can't avoid the fact that all of this behaviour is largely self-defeating.
Here is a sketch of just some of the costs I could identify. The costs of choosing to drink alcohol include:
- Time Cost - A night out can take 2-8 hours of your time per event. Maybe more. If you are a busy person, these can be expensive hours.
- Time Cost - A hangover can keep you laying around or relatively ineffective for another 8-48 hours. Let that sink in for a moment.
- Cash Cost - Liquor is expensive to buy (at least here in Canada). I've also found that pairing alcohol with a meal generally doubles (or triples) any restaurant tab versus sticking to water.
- Social Cost - On any given day, 700 000 people receive alcoholism and alcohol abuse treatment in the United States alone. That is a lot of people.
- Cash Cost -$100/week directly spent on alcohol is $5200 per year. That is a lot of money. The cost is actually higher when you consider the associated expenses and the eventual health care issues it will create for you.
So are there are some real costs to consuming this stuff, but of course, it's not quite that black and white. Maybe you want to let loose a little, throw caution to the wind and just have a good time. I get it. There is a certain satisfaction that comes from being cavalier for night. Maybe your best friend is getting married, you landed a major contract, or your team just launched its next big project. Cool. Time to truly celebrate, wine glass or beer bottle in hand. That's absolutely fine. Being able to choose what we want in life is what helps us obtain a sense of freedom, agency, and cultivate the feeling that we are in charge of our lives. We can make our own decisions, right?
Yes we can. When alcohol is involved, though, we're well served to recognize its dark side.
Alcohol can make us self destructive
After thinking about it and canvassing my close friends for their thoughts, here is a common list of decisions we tend to make while under the influence of alcohol.
- Order and consume more drinks than we initially intended.
- Choose to stay out longer and later than we intended.
- Eat more (deep fried/beige/nutritionally void) food than we intended.
- Say mean things to others.
- Say things we don't mean.
- Lie and tell half-truths.
- Drive while intoxicated.
- Argue with others.
- Assault others.
- Behave out of character.
- Act inappropriately.
- Cause property damage.
- Cause emotional damage.
- Vaporize large sums of cash in a single night.
The common ground of these choices is that they are functionally depletive. They directly undermine our health, our relationships, our wallets, and our integrity. And when we inevitably crawl out of the ditch the next morning - or rise from the scorched-earth ashes of last night's party scene - We know it, we feel it, and we downplay and repeat it.
All of our choices come with consequences
If I look at my own life, I can see the impacts of drinking alcohol show up in the immediate hours after, and they can also insidiously show up as ripple effects later in my life. A sampling of them include:
- Shame and self loathing
- The Beer Belly
- General sickness and malaise
- Compromised immune system health
- Extended hangovers
- The mild panic of "what did I do last night?"
- Broken or damaged relationships
Some of the long term consequences we set ourselves up for include:
- Brain damage
- Sclerosis of the liver
- Alcoholic fatty liver disease
- Korsakoff's Syndrome
- Potential for premature death
Thankfully, I haven't had to deal with any long term issues, at least far as I can tell.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but I think if you ask people if any of these outcomes are desirable, the typical response would be a confident "no".
So what now?
This isn't exactly riveting or welcome news, I know, but let me bring it all home. Am I suggesting that we all put down our bottles, wine glasses and tumblers forever?
Not at all. The truth is that I have no clear answer to offer here. How alcohol ultimately exists in my life (and in yours) is a very personal choice, filled with plenty grey areas and nuances. However, I do believe that in our collective dialogue about alcohol, partying, and social drinking, we are constantly looking away from a lot of the harsh realities this stuff creates for us as individuals. Facing up to facts can be uncomfortable, but deep down, I think we know the beer ads are not being honest with us.
Until recently, I have been choosing to drink from an uninformed, unintentional state of mind. In other words, for most of my adult life I think I have been way too casual about casual drinking. And when I've gone off the rails and caused pain and hurt to others, I have been way too quick let myself off the hook without consequence or accept much of any personal responsibility. "I was drunk. I wasn't being myself." Come on, that's bullshit, a complete cop out, and emotionally immature.
When I choose to drink I must also choose to own the outcome.
Is drinking alcohol something akin to playing with fire? Maybe. Is drinking limiting my full potential as a human being? If the goal is peak potential, then yes. If nothing else, it quickly empties my wallet and decreases my vitality.
But there's a twist. Even with all of this in mind, I still expect I will fix myself a drink or two in the future. I'm not ready to renounce alcohol forever. It appears a bit hypocritical, but going forward, there's a footnote. The difference is that now when I choose to pour myself a cold one, I will also choose to recognize the raw bargain I am making for myself when I choose to "just have a beer". Trying to fool myself into thinking that one or two drinks is "harmless" won't work anymore.
From now on, I'm just going to be clearer on what I am actually getting myself into when it comes to alcohol, and I think that's a really good place to start from.