Last spring or thereabouts, I read Mike Doughty’s The Book of Drugs. Doughty is one of my favorite rock guys and no dumb cluck, and he put together a very readable memoir of a reasonably common type: the struggles of a guy in the entertainment industry to escape the travails and humiliations of drug and alcohol addiction.
One minor theme of the Book of Drugs is that, although nobody (outside of the tobacco and gambling industries) is “pro-addiction” per se, people in general tend to throw a lot of stumbling blocks in the way of those who are trying to clean themselves up. I thought that was kind of interesting, and wanted to learn more. So, as a kind of experiment in kitchen social science, I decided to stop drinking.
To be absolutely clear: I am not a recovering alcoholic, and I certainly am not claiming to have gone through a similar ordeal. In the pre-experiment phase, I was your basic American adult, drinking socially and on very occasional evenings in, enjoying alcohol a little more than most people both because I’m a complete lightweight and because I am the very opposite of a mean drunk. I’m the sentimental, affectionate, in-love-with-the-world kind of drunk. I am also a self-limiting drunk, in that after a few drinks I start losing track of my glass or bottle and forgetting to continue with the drinking.
The interesting thing is that – despite alcohol being a trivial part of my lifestyle – my decision to “stop drinking” has been surprisingly difficult. The first hurdle came at social gatherings with friends. They offered alcohol – beer, wine – as good hosts will. And when offered something, I realized, it is a little rude to decline, or to ask for an alternative. Often, the declining needs, or seems to need, an explanation: “I’m not drinking anymore” or “I don’t drink alcohol.” With friends who have known me for a while, that led either to overt follow-up questions (“Since when?” “Seriously?” “Why the hell not?”) or to puzzled looks of concern which might has well have been overt questions, since in fairness they demanded some sort of reassuring answer. And the point here of course is not that my friends tried to bully or coerce me into drinking alcohol against my own wishes; of course they didn’t. The point is that in ordinary circumstances, it required more expenditure of social energy to not drink than it would have to just go with the flow, to drink.
My in-laws took Mrs.5000 and me on a cruise to the Canadian Maritimes after I was, um, a few months clean, and once again – with these entirely respectable, temperate folks – not drinking was difficult. My parents-in-law – so little interested in spirits that my father-in-law for while entertained the ludicrous notion that I was a “wine expert” – are in the common habit of marking a special occasion with a glass or a bottle. Since sharing of wine is a communal thing, though, it loses all luster if someone bows out. So, in sticking to my decision not to drink, I had to single myself out and see a look of disappointment, maybe even of hurt, in my father-in-law’s face. Every night. On a cruise ship, where there are scores of people around whose entire job is to sell you alcoholic beverages. Having read Doughty’s book, we recognized a coded message advertising an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on board every day, and could well imagine that someone in recovery would need a daily meeting, bad, in that environment.
One has read that spouses and partners are often the greatest obstacle facing recovering alcoholics. Although Mrs.5000 would be entirely supportive if I were in real recovery, she knows that I’m not, and because of that she has provided an interesting simulation of the unsupportive spouse. She sees my not-drinking, reasonably enough, as a passing whim, and has been heard to say things like “do you want to order wine, or are you still not drinking?” or “are you going to make an exception for Thanksgiving?” (If this sounds harsh, I should mention that when I stopped drinking I sent mixed signals about the duration and totality of the fast.) Even in my laboratory experience, these kind of remarks have felt just a little bit undercutting, and I can’t help but think that in real life they must feel completely disempowering.
The upshot? I’ve found that when people say that there are social forces that make it hard for someone to stop drinking, they’re damned right. It’s hard to decline alcohol without being marked out as a prig or a letdown, sometimes by one’s self but often, quite openly, by others. (And by the way, to any number of people at whom, in my life, I have rolled my eyes at their silly tee-totaling: sorry, guys!)
The question going forward is, of course, whether to make the experiment permanent. On one hand, who needs the calories, or the expense? But on the other hand, is there any particular point in my not going with the flow, not joining the circle of people who are more or less ceremonially sharing the goblet? Or for that matter, in not getting pleasantly trashed on an occasional holiday? I don’t know. I feel not-drinking gradually shifting from experiment to habit. I feel myself trying on the idea that I am Someone Who Doesn’t Drink. But at this moment, I’m still Schroedinger’s drinking buddy with the box unopened. One of these days the lid will come off, and only then will I be revealed either as a non-drinker, or as somebody who once went a long time without taking a drink.