The Good Drinker: How I Learned to Love Drinking Less
London: Profile Books, 2022
See also: British TV & Cutting Down on Booze
Alcohol is a two-edged sword. On the one hand it makes life fun and turns strangers into intimate friends in the course of an evening; on the other, it makes a person dysfunctional. Very dysfunctional. Productive time is lost, relationships are damaged, and health is harmed.
I cannot say that I’ve “struggled” with alcohol in the truest sense. I’ve never been arrested for drunk driving, and I’ve had no serious relationship trouble from drinking. All of my drinking has been in an appropriate time and place — but one drink inevitably would lead to another. I’d wind up accidently drunk when I really wanted a light buzz. I also found that when the time came up when I’d be free to drink, I looked a bit too much forward to it.
My moment of truth came when I’d been day drinking after mowing the lawn and I was good and drunk before a social event when I didn’t mean to be in such a state. After getting a British TV streaming service, I became engrossed in a series of shows that described poverty-stricken English alcoholics and I realized I was on the same path that they were taking and might end up in the same pathetic place.
Through British TV streaming channels I discovered Adrian Chiles. Chiles is an ordinary Englishman who has made his living presenting sports and other news on TV, as well as writing columns about being an ordinary Englishman. Adrian Chiles also likes to drink. After getting fired from a TV show, he was able to get a BBC documentary about drinking produced called Drinkers Like Me. During that documentary, Chiles realized that he was putting way too much away and he decided to make a change.
The documentary isn’t about alcoholics hitting rock bottom; it’s about high-functioning drinkers. These drinkers are consuming well above the recommended limit of 14 units of alcohol per week. In the documentary, Chiles makes the case to be a moderating drinker. The goal of a moderating drinker is to enjoy every drink and not drink one drop past that level.
Chiles became a fan of alcohol at a family party when he was 13 years old. He drank a glass of hard cider and felt warm all over. Later, he went on an exchange program in Germany and was partnered with a kid with whom he had no common interests. The exchange program ended with a big lager which turned the dour event around. Chiles’ first real binge, which led to him vomiting in a friend’s house, was a turning point for Chiles. It was like crossing a threshold into adulthood.
Looking back on it, Chiles believes that he fully enjoyed nearly every drink until he got into his 30s. There are 3,652 days in a decade, and he doubts that he didn’t drink for even 100 of them during his 30s. Nonetheless, at the time he didn’t think alcohol was a problem. His workday ended at 1 PM and he didn’t find it unreasonable to start drinking then. He’d even take his young girls to the pub. When he mentioned all of this to his doctor, his doctor said nothing. In retrospect, though, Chiles felt he was dependent upon alcohol at this time. He figures that he didn’t enjoy 30% of what he drank.
Adrian Chiles is a practicing Catholic. During Lent he often abstained from drinking, and he found the sobriety refreshing. Then one day a friend of his said she found the world a beige place without alcohol. Chiles found this appalling, even though after Lent he’d go back to his old ways. Then Chiles ended up having hemorrhoids and went to the doctor to get the problem fixed. His doctor said they were due to excessive straining when using the toilet. Drinking makes one dehydrated and that leads to constipation.
This was the first time that a general practitioner had really brought home to Chiles the fact that he might be drinking too much. The hemorrhoids were but one symptom of Chiles’s drinking habits. The other symptoms were hypertension, heartburn, and anxiety and depression. Chiles realizes that some doctors haven’t been recommending cutting down on alcohol to their patients as much as they should have. He jokes that an alcoholic is a person who drinks more than their doctor. He advises:
- Doctors admit that they drink to their patients.
- Doctors should encourage patients to admit exactly how much they drink.
- Doctors should remind patients that an alcoholic might not be a guy passed out in an alleyway or sleeping on a bench.
- Emphasize that the safe level of drinking is 14 units per week.
- They should also remind successful middle-aged professionals that the biggest drinkers are in their demographic group. It is highly probable that their habits will lead to health problems and full-blown alcoholism.
I’ve personally found that unhelpful doctors are an issue across the Pond. When I first admitted to a doctor that I felt I might be drinking too much, he asked me how many cases of beer I went through a week. But I didn’t buy beer by the case; I purchased the good stuff from the high-end alcohol section in the supermarket. Thus, the case was closed in the examination room. While I was cleared for alcoholism, it didn’t feel right to me. I left the clinic feeling uncertain.
That sort of situation is part of the problem, and this issue flows into Chiles’ criticism of Alcoholics Anonymous. The idea of alcoholism as a disease leads problem drinkers to think they are in the clear because they don’t have it. A problem drinker who goes to an AA meeting can see that there are those much worse off and feel that he himself doesn’t have a problem. It’s like watching a TV show about hoarders and not feeling that the clutter in one’s own house is bad.
When Chiles was in his 40s, his career climbed to a great height. He was on several television shows. Just as he reached the top, he went through a divorce and was then fired from a morning talk show. His drinking went out of control afterwards. He figures he only enjoyed 60% of what he put away. This is when he started to figure out how to be a moderate drinker.
A professional gambler showed him the trick to winning at the races. It turns out that trick applied to managing alcohol consumption as well. The gambler only bet on a horse he was sure would win, and that meant not betting very often. Chiles then found that one drink was really all he needed to get the euphoria from alcohol without its terrible effects. Cutting back worked, and every drink he took was fully enjoyed. When he started to get hangovers again after light drinking, he knew that his tolerance was lessening and that he was on a successful path to being a moderate drinker.
Personally, I’ve decided to quit drinking entirely. I was a moderate drinker, but felt that booze was still in control of my life. I remember the exact drink which made me a problem drinker: An older fellow who missed the Vietnam War and regretted it bought me a beer at a bar in Denver just after I’d returned from a deployment. After that one drink — a Bud Light — my drinking got out of hand by my own standards. Several years ago, I recognized this and started to make changes. My goal was to eliminate even the desire to drink.
There were many false starts. I’d get high-quality whiskey from a family member and would feel compelled to drink it, although I then regretfully needed to throw away the piece of paper showing three months of tally marks indicating drink-free days. In the end, though, this was an excuse to drink, not a reason to do so.
What I found was the following:
- No doctor will really help you quit drinking. They have no worthwhile advice. You need to go elsewhere to find techniques that help a person quit.
- Get rid of the paper with the tally marks. Use an app, and then be totally honest with yourself when you record your drinks in it. You will get a good grasp of what your drinking pattern is. Plus, an app will show you which days you don’t drink. It is rewarding to see the drink-free days pile up.
- Determine what triggers one’s drinking. I found that slow afternoons, such as a long summer weekend, tended to get me drinking. I resolved not to allow myself to become bored on summer afternoons. I also tended to drink wine while cooking a complex dinner, so I made sure there was no wine around when I did it. I also made sure I had a cool, non-alcoholic drink available right after I mowed the lawn.
- All the gimmicks to avoid drinking, like tapping your wrist and saying a prayer when tempted, work. Chiles describes another helpful one: If tempted by a big, cool glass of pilsner, think about what that glass will look like after you’ve drunk it. The temptation will dissipate. The temptation to drink dissipated for me when I heard someone pour a glass of white wine. (White wine sounds different from red when poured and I can tell the difference without looking.) I immediately felt my body prepare for a wave of heartburn. I’d spread out times between drinking so much that the association with pouring wine and ill effects from drinking were cemented into my brain.
- Have a goal of some sort to help keep you sober. I discovered that once my oldest child started to drive, it became a bad idea to drink at all. There were too many panicked phone calls that went something like this:
Kid: Dad, the car won’t start.
Me: You turned the car off while it was still in drive. Move it to park, and it will start.
Should I have been drunk, such problems won’t get fixed. Not drinking got much easier after that epiphany.
I lost friends after I stopped drinking. Part of my quitting process was to stop “liking” social media posts in which a pal had a glass of whatever at a party, or who’d home-brewed a batch of ale and was proud of it. I got “unfriended” by more than one person after I started doing this. Perhaps this is unfair, but I need to take care of myself in my own way. What sort of friend keeps track of “likes,” anyway?
I’ve also fielded snide comments from social drinkers, but I figured out witty responses that kept everything light. It’s easy to come up with the right phrase if you practice it beforehand and you are sober while the other fellow is buzzed. The various phrases that I use are all self-directed. I don’t ever insult the other fellow. They are usually a variation on a theme to the effect that one drink will send me out of control and it will be bad for the others. I once told a fellow at a bar where I was meeting professional colleagues alongside my boss that if I had that drink with the umbrella in it, I’d end up vomiting on his shoes. It was delivered with perfect comedic timing, and was perfectly tied in to an earlier conversation about shoes, so it got the group chuckling.
I’ve even figured out where to stand at a party, when the drinks start getting poured from the keg or flaming punch bowl, so that I’m not the first guy offered a drink and thus need to reject the offer in front of everyone.
Since I quit, I feel much better. I sleep better and probably lost 20 pounds with little effort. The most important reason why I quit was the aforementioned parenting responsibility after the young ones started driving. The second is that my people are under threat of genocide. One cannot turn the Great Replacement around while drunk.
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