Greg was not your typical drinker but he was questioning his relationship with alcohol. He found This Naked Mind and decided to embrace the Naked Life.
Not Your Typical Drinker
I came across a reference to your book, somewhat serendipitously, after I had gone about a week with no alcohol at a time when I was questioning my relationship with it. I’m not your typical drinker, both in terms of age and pattern of drinking behavior. I wanted to share my story with you, as I have learned so much from the stories of others. Even if my story is a bit tame in comparison to others, I suspect there are others who may be similarly a little less far along on the spectrum of unhealthy alcohol use who are questioning their behavior.
I am male and I think a bit older than your main demographic. My alcohol intake is more of a long-term, near nightly consumption. I have come to question it more on terms of general health rather than due to any dramatic consequences suffered. Among some circles my intake might have even been considered “moderate”. I have observed enough on my own to know otherwise. Having learned a lot from listening to the stories told on your podcasts and forum though, particularly impressive are the accounts of dating and blackouts. I really had no idea what women’s lives are like in that arena.
I am 49, male, and a physician. I drank some in high school, and went to a work hard/play hard college. Floundering my way through freshman year with no discipline regarding substance use, diet, exercise, or academics, I buckled down my second year and kept it that way. So my drinking experience beyond my freshman year in college would have been characterized as “normal” at the time. Through the lens of today it would be described as binge drinking. Study hard for a week for a big test or work hard for a week for a big paper. Then blow it out for a night or two on the weekend for the most part. After college I went to medical school, and it was the same but even more so. Study EXTREMELY hard all week, then drink heavily with classmates on the weekend. This was the norm.
The pattern changed some in the 6 years of my postgraduate training. There was not the dramatic on/off dichotomy of studying/drinking. The new pattern was on-call usually 1 in every 4 nights with very little or no sleep during stretches of up to 40 hours at a time. Punctuated by generally long days in the hospital between call nights. During that time the extremes of binge drinking tapered down. Replaced by more regular 2 beers or so a night when I wasn’t on call, with occasionally more heavy intake for a party. At no point during that time can I recall thinking that I needed to change my behavior. Aside from an occasional hangover I never really paid too much of a price.
I finished my training at age 35, and have been in clinical practice ever since. During this time, I generally have to take 1 night on call a week, and one weekend every 4-6 weeks. The sleep deprivation/work intensity during these times is nowhere near as severe as it was during my training. When I’m not on call I usually have had 2 or 3 beers a night. Never have I crossed the boundary of drinking while on call. One of the upsides of my work is that it has provided a structure to my life. There are recurring, clearly established boundaries when I simply can’t drink, and when working I always have to get up early and function at a high level. This has forced me to live with a certain amount of discipline that I probably would not have developed purely on my own.
Over time, it has become apparent to me that I never have 1 beer. Almost always 2, and occasionally 3. These are 6-8% ABV craft beers that are in such abundance here, sometimes 16 OZ cans or bombers. A few times a year, I have significantly more than that. Over the past 10-15 years I can think of several occasions when my wife and I have had an argument that was started by normal family stress. Fueled by alcohol, it went far past the limits of appropriateness. Twice I think we have flirted with the brink of considering whether we wanted to stay married to each other as a result.
Too numerous to count are the times I have awoken around 3 AM, tachycardic, anxious and irritable as my body processes the alcohol I ingested. Too numerous to count are the times I have said as a result that I need to moderate my drinking. That I would not have anything to drink that night. Too numerous to count are the times I had drank at the end of the day in complete disregard to my thoughts and plan from early that morning. This can’t be typical drinker behavior.
Objectively, I have nothing in life that I can point to as a trauma to blame this habitual alcohol intake on. I am in reasonably good physical and financial health. I have become aware of the amount of decision fatigue I experience in my work. The amount of data I must process, and the number and pace of decisions I make is a chronic stressor, and to some extent alcohol became the habitual antidote – the “off switch” at the end of the day. It simply became a habit, which after reading your book, I understand took on a life of its own. I generally could not see it as a “separate” entity which lived to beget itself, until I have had times without it when I could see more clearly.
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In 2015, I did not drink for about 6 months, from January to June. This was not something carried out according to some pre-specified plan. It was a spontaneous decision that occurred in the setting of a death of a close family member coupled with a severe stressor at work. With all of this stress, I decided one night not to have a drink, and I did the same the following night. I decided that I would take a break from alcohol, with no long term decision or goal. This came entirely from within, never was suggested to me by anyone else, and I never intended to quit. I just wanted to see what would happen.
After a week or two I felt like I would be giving something away by trading a period of time without alcohol for a drink, and this decision gained momentum. After about a month I noticed that I felt a little better in general. By 3 months I think I hit some sort of inflection point where there was an acceleration in my overall well being. My diet has never been terrible and my exercise habits have generally been good. Around that time I started noticing a cumulative effect of making more consistently good decisions about diet and exercise, and more consistently avoiding bad decisions. My mind and body were changing.
Never Felt Better
From 3-6 months into that time I felt as good as I can ever remember feeling, including high school or most of college. I was exercising regularly and doing 10-12 mile runs on beautiful outdoor trails once the days got longer in May and June. In June I decided on essentially the same whim that I had stopped drinking, that I would reintroduce alcohol into my life, with no prespecified goals or limits. So I did, and very quickly was back to my previous typical drinker behavior – 2 and sometimes 3 beers a night. And over about 12-18 months I regained the 12-15 lbs I had lost during that time, lost my fitness level, and a subtle fog moved back into my consciousness.
Since then, I have routinely forsaken alcohol each January, but the experience has been different because during those times I was exerting willpower to consciously deny myself something I wanted. That 6 month period in 2015 has stood out as a point of light in my life, and it has been increasingly on my mind to go back there. I think that time without alcohol opened the door not only to better physical health, but to a time of spiritual growth.
Back to the present – the past 16 months have seen increasing stress in my life. My oldest son has had progressively worsening behavioral and academic problems since, including recurrent toxic arguments with me and my wife, getting cited for possession of MJ, numerous law enforcement visits to my home, and a week-long psychiatric hospitalization this past February. In the process of working through this we have been in family counseling. (Although he has been the one to spend the most time with the counselor, I think it has been very useful for me and my wife). We were hit with another acute stressor at the end of May unrelated to him, and I found myself routinely having 3 beers a night more often than 2, and more on the weekends.
I decided to take a break from drinking again but at the end of the week had a trigger. We went to the bar/restaurant we usually go to on Sundays, and I had 3 beers. I was frustrated at giving in to this trigger, but quit again the following week. This time the decision was more firm, and I avoided several triggers over about a weeks’ time, with the idea of continuing to be alcohol free for an unspecified time frame. It was at about that time when I fortuitously found your book and podcasts.
This Feels Right
I don’t remember the exact date when I last had alcohol, but I think it was around 6 weeks ago now. Sometimes things happen at a point in your life when the timing is just right. The window is open for new ideas and change, and the ground is fertile. The stars just seem to line up right. This feels like one of those times. These times don’t come along that often, and I want to really value this opportunity.
What I’ve Learned
What has really resonated with me from your book and podcasts are the ideas about why moderation is so difficult. Why I repeatedly would do something at the end of the day that I had no intention of doing when I woke up that morning. I knew intuitively from my experience in the past, that it is ultimately easier just not to drink at all than to try and limit it. Your work has put into words and crystallized in my mind what I already knew, but couldn’t quite see or articulate so clearly. I have not been a raging alcoholic, nor have I experienced so many of the dramatic low points that so many of your podcast guests recount. I knew intuitively that I was not a typical drinker. My alcohol use was not healthy. I also knew intuitively that it had taken on a life and momentum of its own.
As long as I could have 2 or 3 beers a night everything would be alright. I knew there was something wrong with this. I did not have the vocabulary to understand or address it. Even as a physician, my understanding of alcohol use/abuse was fairly binary. Category 1 is alcoholics who belong in AA, category 2 is essentially everyone else. I knew I wasn’t in category 1, but what about category 2? I have come to learn that there is a vast gray area/slippery slope of unhealthy alcohol use where I certainly fit somewhere. If I look at the DSM-V questionnaire you reference, I would have to answer a solid “yes” to at least 2 or 3 questions, and a solid “maybe” to at least 2 or 3 more.
My story is not dramatic, and it is frankly pretty boring. But I would be willing to bet it is also pretty common. Your work, and the work of others like you, is so important. It opens the door to questioning alcohol use outside of the binary framework of alcoholics/everyone else.
You have articulated so nicely why I found moderation so difficult. Why making one decision not to drink, whether it’s for today or longer, is easier than making decisions about how much to drink.
When I gave up alcohol for 6 months in 2015, it was just an experiment with no particular goal. It gave me an important reference point. Even then, I would not have accepted the possibility of a life without alcohol. Now I look at the possibility of a life without alcohol as something that may actually be better than a life with it. It is quite possible that I might be giving up more to resume a life with alcohol than to continue a life without it. I still hesitate to say never, but just being open to the possibility (or even probability) is liberating.
Share Your Story
Thank you again for your work and your willingness to live openly in sharing the results of your work. Even if you were to accomplish nothing else in your life, you can sleep peacefully knowing that you have done something extraordinary in a life well lived. Even if you’re not a typical drinker I encourage you to share your story!