I haven’t drank alcohol in two years and it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. When I removed alcohol from my life’s equation, I cut out 95% of my life’s poorest decisions and worst habits. A quick disclaimer: this won’t be a sermon on sobriety or why drinking is good or bad in the absolute sense — instead, I’ll tell you a story.
How It Began
It all started two years ago right before I left my digital marketing job and I decided to go cold turkey from alcohol after realizing that drinking was the foundation on which every other vice in my life stood. It wouldn’t take more than a couple drinks down the ol’ gullet before it felt like a snowball of hedonistic impulses began tumbling down my life’s hill, its momentum gaining speed with every sip. I’d immediately start feeling like I was in lack and start craving for a secondary sensory input, then a tertiary sensual pleasure, and so on — Anyone got dip? Ya’ll want to smoke? Should I text her this late?
Now to be clear, I never had a major problem with drinking. I didn’t feel like I was addicted, I never blacked out (this is of course, RE: post-college), and I handled myself fairly well most nights out. I was a responsible, law-abiding citizen working a full-time job, moving up the corporate ladder. Just a normal dude having some drinks on the weekend, and maybe that would lead to varying degrees of intoxication ranging from “yeah, I’m feelin’ it” to “dude, I’m wasted.”
No big deal, right?
Looking back,it turns out that a small amount of alcohol played a much bigger role in my decision-making than I had thought at the time.
Like I said, it didn’t take much before my software unconsciously started craving other sensory inputs — and those first sips are where the problems started. Alcohol made all my cravings more prominent. It was only when I stopped drinking that I realized what a difference sobriety made.
What was the Result?
In short, my greatest misdeeds crumbled to the ground. I’m far from perfect in so many ways, but I can say with a high degree of confidence that ever since this decision, my poorest decisions and worst habits were cut from the root. All at once I stopped drinking, dipping, smoking, and sleeping with people I shouldn’t be sleeping with. It was a pretty dramatic life change and has served me well ever since in mind and body.
“Ah, can’t you have just one,” my friends would ask at first.
Sure, I could have just one, but one typically leads to two, two to three, and so on. Just a few sips and my mind loses its balance and self-discipline. There was just no guarantee for me how quickly that momentum of impulsive decision-making could build. As the frequency at which I turned down their generous and well-meaning offers increased over time, my friends began to understand what was going on and flat out stopped offering me drinks. Even if I was asked, there came a point where I didn’t have to think twice about saying no and that’s when sobriety became second nature.
Not only did my poorest habits fade away, other good things started happening too. I became more creative in my writing and I read more often. I stopped staying out late and started waking up earlier. Overall, my body felt better and my mind was thanking me for it.
But I want to bring the focus back to my poor decisions and bad habits… or rather, the elimination of them. I can’t stress this outcome enough, above whatever other benefits might have come. I mean, how often do you wake up after a night of drinking and think “man, I shouldn’t have done/said that to him/her/myself.” For me, it was often enough to consider cutting it out entirely and it saved me a ton of time dwelling in the past.
Why Do We Drink?
I was having a conversation the other day with some friends about alcohol and what struck me is that while one of us abstains and the other drinks, we came to agree that our choices are based upon the same fundamental idea — having control over the mind. Specifically, having more or less control over it.
The Untrained Mind is Chaos
Now stay with me here, because to better understand this subject of “having control over the mind”, we have to understand chaos vs. order, and for that we can turn to myth and psychology. Chaos vs. order is one of the oldest ideological concepts humans have woven into their mythology and story (in Greek mythology, Chaos [“Chasm”] was the first thing to exist, out of which came darkness). The concept is also foundational to many religions (in Christianity, in the beginning there was the word… and the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it; thus bringing order to the world), as well as a variety of spiritual teachings.
If we take an objective look at our mind, we can quickly see that the mind is mostly chaotic. Our thoughts are discursive and we jump from thought to thought, often in an irrational manner. It is our own mind that creates false realities and imposes suffering onto itself.
Given that the mind is chaos, pretty much everything we do in this life is to reduce that amount of chaos (psychologists like Mihlay in his book Flow, call this internal chaos psychic entropy). On the grand scale of humanity, we create entire societies to usher children into an otherwise strange and unmanageable world. We create belief systems to bring order to a universe filled with unknown mysteries. We make music and art and write and play sports, all with defined rules and guidelines that make their creation and execution an easier process. We stand on the shoulders of giants because without these systems (societies, governments, music, games) the world might very well be anarchy and dare I say… chaos.
Now, think for a second on much smaller, moment-to-moment scale. Here, our minds experience order through a variety of different ways. One of the main ways is just by listening to music. At its simplest definition, music is just ordered sound, and that’s the reason music is seriously everywhere — in the shops, showers, sedans, you name it. On our way to work, while we’re working, after we’re done working. Without it, we begin to feel uncomfortable. We’re trapped in silence.. with our own thoughts! And most people don’t want to spend time with their own thoughts (more chaos, remember?). When we have songs stuck in our heads, that’s because our mind has reached out from the chaos and found order in that moment.
Whew, okay, now back to alcohol. Both my drinker friend and I have the desire to bring order to the mind. We want freedom from it’s insane chatter and endless self-rumination. It’s just that we have different perspectives and utilize different tactics on howto accomplish that freedom.
One tactic (sobriety) requires work and the other tactic (drinking) requires leisure. One takes years to master and the other provides instant gratification. One of us wants to make choices and the other wants to let go of choice entirely. One of us is concerned with taking control and the other with losing control. Either way, both choices of sobriety and drinking result in subjective “freedom”.
I can see the appeal and the logic in his decision to drink to gain freedom from his mind, and understand it wholeheartedly because I’ve been there, but this tactic of drinking starts to become dangerous when one begins to consider if this method is actually solving your problems or perpetuating and reinforcing a regressive behavior.
Personal Bias, Disclosed:
While the practice of removing alcoholic intake from my life has remained consistent for two years, my reasoning for doing so has changed over time. This reasoning is bound to change again, probably to something much closer to “eh, that doesn’t really matter to me anymore. Who cares?” I will then be called a hypocrite for writing this piece in the first place. But for now, while I’m still in sobriety, my reasoning has evolved from simply wanting to make better decisions to also include the idea that alcohol is an anesthetic.
It’s a well-known fact that alcohol was given to patients awaiting surgery back in the day because it numbs sensations on the body. This is extremely important to consider since these bodily sensations are the foundation of our emotions (see science, interoception). It is also the anchor for vipassana mediation practice, a technique which focuses on scanning bodily sensations. Therefore, since alcohol numbs the body’s sensations (or the mind’s ability to feel into them, I’m not entirely sure which one is more accurate, but the principal idea remains the same), and the foundation of this meditation practice involves scanning those bodily sensations, a personal bias has been reinforced within my belief system in support of sobriety.
Could Pain Be Essential?
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with feeling pain, or feeling whatever unpleasant sensation it is that you’re feeling. Pain and discomfort are essential to our personal growth and motivation. Each spurs decision-making and movement towards what our mind and body think best for us (whether they are right or not is a whole different conversation). If we dive into alcohol, we’ll be momentarily avoiding and suppressing those feelings, those life situations that our bodies are trying to tell us needs changed. The most rewarding experiences we have in this life are typically the midst of pain (think writer’s block or wanting to quit in the midst of a marathon, research study, relationship), but when we emerge out of those experiences, we become a more complex being and we look back at that experience as being a memorable and worthwhile pursuit. So if w’ere escaping those uncomfortable feelings every weekend, we could very well be resisting what our bodies are trying to get us to actually experience and confront.
Perhaps my lifestyle will change one day. Perhaps I’ll slip back into a different spectrum of morality and open myself up to drinks a few times a year. But thus far, in each and every phase of my life since I’ve stopped drinking, I haven’t found a single benefit that alcohol could provide me that I haven’t found elsewhere by substituting other mental techniques or just flat out just standing around and trying my best to enjoy myself.
That was my story, but this comes down to you. Is drinking a foundational pillar for poor decisions and bad habits in your life? Why is it that you drink? Do you use it as a crutch? If so, what is it you are avoiding? Does drinking provide greater value to your life, body and mind than to a world lived without it? Have you tested both assumptions?
I don’t think anyone should “stand against” drinking. That’s just silly. Nearly all my family and best friends drink and they’re all great, loving people who I’d never want to change unless from of their own will and desire to do so. Let other people drink if they want to and wish them happiness in it. I’m not judging (I drank a ton in college), but that’s not even the point, because where I am today is a place that is neither better nor worse than the past, it’s simply different.
What Works for You?
What you should think about is you and what I should continue to think about is me. All I am saying is that supporting sobriety might be worth your consideration because it might just change your life. Now relax and drink in all the wondrous possibilities. Cheers to you my dear friend!
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Living a life of sobriety has helped me cultivate equanimity, a quality of mind that’s much more enduring than happiness.
From VOA Learning English, this is Science in the News. I’m Bob Doughty.
And I’m Kelly Jean Kelly. Drinking alcohol is a socially acceptable behavior in many parts of the world. Some medical experts say light drinking may even be good for your health, especially for the heart. But they say such health benefits should be compared to the many health risks connected with alcohol use. Today we report on some of the issues involving alcohol use.
Millions of people around the world have a glass of wine with dinner, drink a beer at a sporting event, or accept alcoholic drinks at a party.
The use of alcohol dates back more than 10,000 years. From then until now, alcohol has played an important part in human civilization. It is used in cultural and religious ceremonies, at social gatherings, and even for medical purposes.
Records of alcohol’s effects date back to ancient times. Alcohol has been called both a tonic and a poison. And medical experts continue to debate its value.
Alcohol is created through a process called fermentation. During this process, yeast is used to turn sugar into a simple molecule – ethanol, also called ethyl alcohol. Different kinds of sugar are used to make different alcoholic drinks. For example, the sugar from grapes is used to make wine. Sugar from grain is used to produce vodka and gin. And sugar from sugarcane or molasses can produce rum.
Alcohol affects every organ in the body. When alcohol enters the body, some of it goes immediately to the stomach and the bloodstream. The rest of it, about 80 percent, goes to the small intestine and is released into the bloodstream. Once alcohol enters the blood, it is pumped throughout the body by the heart.
The liver is responsible for detoxifying the alcohol and removing it from the blood. But, the liver can only process a small amount of alcohol at a time. The rest continues to move throughout the body. It mixes with the water in tissue. It also enters the central nervous system and the brain. Ethanol acts as a drug, affecting coordination, emotions and the ability to think.
There has been a large amount of research done on alcohol and its effects on human health. Much of the research has examined the harmful effects. But, some research suggests that having one to two drinks of alcohol a day may offer some health benefits.
Several large studies have shown that this type of moderate drinking may lower the risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, ischemic stroke and diabetes. Moderate drinking has also been linked to a reduced risk of death from heart attack and a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
A study last year suggested that drinking small amounts of red wine may help lower the risk of breast cancer in women. Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in California studied 36 women. Each woman drank a glass of red or white wine every day for almost a month. Researchers collected blood samples from the women two times a month to measure their hormone levels.
The next month the women who drank red wine were told to drink white wine instead. The white wine drinkers were told to drink red wine. The researchers found that the women who drank red wine had lower levels of the female hormone estrogen than the white wine drinkers. Estrogen levels are known to increase the growth of cancer cells in the body.
Glenn Braunstein helped to prepare a report on the study. He said red grapes have chemicals that are not found in white grapes. He said the findings suggest that these chemicals may help to lower the risk of breast cancer.
The report was published in the Journal of Women’s Health. Both Dr. Braunstein and study organizer Chrisandra Shufelt called for larger studies to measure the safety and effectiveness of red wine in reducing breast cancer risk. They said other recent studies suggested that even small amounts of alcohol may generally increase the risk of breast cancer in women.
Researchers at Harvard University carried out one such study. It found that women who drink four small glasses of wine a week increase their risk of breast cancer by 15 percent.
Many studies have examined the harmful effects of alcohol use on the body. Medical experts say the deciding issues are how much alcohol you drink, and how you drink it. For example, experts say having three drinks in one day is not the same as having one drink a day for three days.
Alicia Ann Kowalchuk serves as medical director for an alcohol and drug intervention program called InSight, at the Harris County Hospital District in Houston, Texas. She is also an assistant professor at the Baylor College of Medicine.
“We think of substance use issues along a continuum now, going all the way from abstinence, to healthy use, to misuse, to abuse and to dependency. Healthy use for adults -- that’s men under age sixty-five -- is no more than four drinks in a day and no more than fourteen drinks in a week. And for women of all ages, it’s no more than seven drinks in a week and no more than three drinks on a day.”
She says that to get the health benefits linked to alcohol, men and women should limit their drinking even more.
“Pretty much all the literature that I’ve seen really shows that when you go above about one drink on average per day for women and two drinks on average per day for men younger than sixty-five, you start negating all of those positive health benefits.”
Dr. Kowalchuk says staying within those limits is considered safe or non-hazardous drinking.
“For misuse you’re drinking above those limits, but you haven’t had a lot of consequences from your drinking. Once you get to abuse you start having consequences and despite the consequences you keep using. So that’s the hallmark of abuse, to continue using for at least a year despite having maybe a DUI (drinking under the influence), a health consequence, a work consequence or a family consequence.”
And, she says, alcohol dependency is further marked by a complete loss of control over alcohol use.
The Size of the Drink Matters
Kim Dennis is medical director at the Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center in Illinois. She notes another consideration when talking about alcohol limits.
“When we talk about an alcoholic beverage, we need to be very clear about what we’re talking about because many of my patients at Timberline Knolls would consider a thirty-two ounce glass of beer one alcoholic beverage. And when we talk about having one alcoholic beverage, we’re referring specifically to twelve ounces of beer, five ounces of wine or one and a half ounces of hard liquor.”
She says that whether drinking alcohol is a good choice for you will depend on several things.
“If a person has risk factors for developing alcoholism -- family members with alcoholism, difficult early life experiences, other addictive disorders - - the risk to benefit ratio of drinking alcohol for that person would be very, very high.”
Excessive alcohol use has been linked to chronic conditions like cirrhosis of the liver, pancreas disease and cardiovascular disease. It has also been linked to many forms of cancer, including cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, breast, colon and rectum.
The World Health Organization says the harmful use of alcohol results in 2,500,000 deaths each year. This number includes more than 300,000 people between the ages of 15 and 29. The WHO says alcohol use is the world’s third leading cause of disease, after childhood malnourishment and unsafe sex.
A recent survey suggests that more and more young people are getting the message when it comes to the dangers of alcohol use. The study found that three out of four American high school students say they do not drink alcohol.
Nearly 700 students were questioned. One reason teenagers said they chose not to drink is because underage drinking is illegal. They also noted the effect of alcohol on health and their performance in school as other reasons. In addition, more than half of the teens questioned said they would be less likely to be friends with, or go out with, someone who drinks underage.
The group Mothers Against Drunk Driving, known as MADD, reported the findings last month. MADD and the State Farm insurance company worked together to organize an event called Red Ribbon Week. The aim was to raise understanding about the dangers of drugs and alcohol among youth.
MADD says the survey shows that most students are making intelligent decisions when it comes to alcohol use. But it notes that about 4,700 Americans still die every year as a result of underage drinking.
This Science in the News was written by June Simms, who was also our producer. I’m Bob Doughty.
And I’m Kelly Jean Kelly. Join us again next week for more news about science on the Voice of America.
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