Going Dry: Reflections of a Beer Geek on 40 Days Without Alcohol

“I gave up alcohol for Lent.”  

So what, right?  In my Catholic family, growing up in a largely Catholic neighborhood, the annual Lenten observance was a ritual about which we were post-modernly blasé.  Pick something you enjoy, and give it up for forty days and forty nights.  Some of the more progressive folks decided to put a positive spin on it and instead encouraged others to do something noble: volunteer at a soup kitchen, do more chores around the house, some other wholesome activity.  But we just went the self-denial route. 

Years later, I’m not what you’d call a religious person, but I still dig the notion of self-denial and delayed gratification, maybe because it seems to be increasingly rare in our on-demand world.   Lent gives me a good excuse to exercise that particular idiosyncrasy, and instead of looking self-absorbed, I’m just honoring tradition!  Win, win. 

The Fast

A few years back, I gave up drinking beer for Lent.  Now, this is important because I’m what you’d call a dedicated, committed (maybe even fetishistic) beer geek.  Given the choice of alcoholic beverages, I’ll choose good beer every time.  I brew beer.  I’m a certified, active, Grand Master beer judge.  I write about beer and brewing.  I’ve consulted for breweries.  I have a four-by-six-foot throw rug from a brewery hanging on the wall in my living room and three beer taps coming out of the wall in my in-home brewpub.  I apparently also have an extremely tolerant spouse, since she doesn’t even drink beer (though ironically she is, in her own right, an award-winning brewster).  So giving up beer was kind of a big deal – but not really.  It ended up being a good excuse to re-engage with wine, cider, mead, gin, and whiskey – all of which I’d neglected in my single-minded pursuit of beer as a hobby (though as an aside, when does a hobby become something else?).  Lent came and went, I celebrated my return to beer, and I reflected on my renewed appreciation for the other fermented beverages out there.

This year was going to be different.  This year I was going to consume nothing but beer and water for Lent.  I was going monastic!  Wouldn’t that be a remarkable experience?  I’d heard of a couple of other people who had done it safely, so surely it wouldn’t present any health complications…

Except that it absolutely could.  I read some medical research and commentary that gave me sufficient pause to reconsider, and though I had started down one path I found myself heading right back down it in the opposite direction: I was going to “go dry” for Lent.  Not just “no beer,” but no alcohol at all.  I was expecting some health benefits – maybe a few lost pounds, and a few lost headaches – and I liked the anticipatory glee I’d get out of looking forward to that first beer after the fast.  What would it be?  How good would it taste?

What I got instead was a mixed bag, and not at all the one I expected.  

The Good

Let me tell you one thing I hate and didn’t miss at all when I stopped drinking for Lent: hangovers.  Truth be told, they’re only modestly intense and fairly rare for me anyway, but it was nice to know that I’d always be up for our six-mile walk to the coffee shop.  I think what surprised me the most was how much effort I’d been putting into managing and mitigating a hangover when it appeared – which has to be substantial, since the absence of it seemed like such a luxury.

Then there was the increased productivity.  All of a sudden every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evening (and some Thursdays – a homebrew club meeting night once or twice a month) was back on the table as a time to get things done once my wife headed off to bed.  I didn’t have to rush through grading quizzes before heading out on Friday evening, knowing I could do them when we got home.  I could do some wood staining in the workshop on a Saturday night and cut a day out of some carpentry projects.  All of a sudden I had more time, which is what we all claim to want, right?

Another advantage was that for every pint of bitter I didn’t drink, I saved myself about 200 calories.  Bonus.  And let’s not forget that I was no longer at risk of the conversation my wife dreads when I’m a little tipsy and in the passenger seat on the way home: “Hey, hon!  We should totally stop for pizza at Rocco’s!  We’re going to drive right past!!!   Pleeeeeeeeaze???”  Nope.  I breezed right past Rocco’s and a dozen other calorie traps (delicious, delicious calorie traps) en route back to the house. 

Yes, there’s no doubt that there were some definite upsides to the dry life.

But it wasn’t all a (dry) day at the beach.

The Bad

What became clear almost immediately was that I was in for some social loss as a result of my little experiment.  One of alcohol’s almost-immediate effects is a reduction in inhibitions.  By definition, then, someone abstaining from alcohol is going to be more-inhibited than they ordinarily would be in the same situation – and I’ve already got a reputation for being fairly withdrawn and/or aloof and/or haughty (depending who you ask and how much they like me), so this was potentially problematic.  Also (and this is going to sound bad, but…) I’m a bit of an introvert, and I use alcohol as a tool to make social events more palatable and myself more open.  Psychologists note that this – when not paired with alcoholism or other compulsive or addictive tendencies – is not uncommon or necessarily unhealthy.  In fact, introverts’ own risk-averse mentalities will often keep them from over-indulging relative to the non-introverts in the room, despite using alcohol as a social lubricant.  I had now lost that crutch.  This wasn’t all bad, though – my odds of saying something stupid to someone I like were greatly reduced as well.  

Continuing in the “social loss” vein, I ended up looking like a bit of a homebody.  I never realized how many invitations I get to beer-related events until I gave up alcohol for Lent.  Two or three per week, with another half dozen “overheard” on social media (as in, “Hey, heading down to Bistro on Bridge for the new Hill Farmstead Pilsner release!”).  This would be tough for any beer hobbyist, but beer is a quasi-professional activity for me.  I can always opt out of these events (or just go and not drink, but people act very strangely when you do – more on that in a minute), but I hadn’t realized the extent to which I’d been feathering my social life with these alcohol-centric activities.  Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did.

Then there’s the loss of alcohol as a reward.  How often have you said or thought something like, “This has been a rough week – can’t wait to hit happy hour on the way home and celebrate the weekend!”?  It isn’t the only reward, but it’s certainly a common one.  And now I didn’t have it as an option.  Strangely, that provoked an odd feeling of loss.  How would I reward myself now?  Which leads us to…

Calories.  Remember how I was psyched that I wasn’t drinking my calories during this period?  Yeah – I was just eating them instead.  When you know you’re not going to be drinking, you tell yourself that you’re now free to order the bacon cheese fries instead of the sweet potato fries.  I used a calorie-tracking app and found that I wasn’t actually consuming all that many fewer calories, and some days even more.  Sure, I wasn’t getting my late-night pizza slice from Rocco’s – but I also wasn’t falling asleep on the couch after eating only half of it.  All of a sudden I had an extra couple of hours every weekend night, and while I was scoring exams or making notes for an upcoming blog post I was also eating chips or grabbing a piece of dark chocolate. 

Long term – if I had decided to give up alcohol permanently – I’m confident I could have worked around these negatives, though.  I’d have found other social coping crutches, and limited my late-night Ghirardelli indulgences.  There were other aspects of this, though, that would never have gone away.  Those are the things I’m referring to as…

The Ugly

There are some wonky, wanton, and weird things that come along with global sobriety. 

Maybe the worst is, perhaps poetically, dealing with drunk people.  This was part of a generalized impatience with those that were operating sub-optimally as a result of alcohol consumption.  They talked too loud.  It took them too long to tell a story.  They’d take forever to reach a logical and simple conclusion or solution.  There’s an apparent reason that people drink in groups: if only one or a few of them did, the others would rapidly tire of them.  But if we all do it, then everyone’s on an equally impaired playing field – and you can get them to say things that they wouldn’t ordinarily (for better or worse).  And this is all before we get to the mawkish, drawling “I love you, man” stage that so many seem to hit with remarkable ease and regularity.  It’s almost enough to drive you to drink.  Except when you can’t.  Then it’s enough to make you long for your couch and Netflix account and peace and quiet.

That’s a petty concern, though.  Much more significant was the loss of the social rituals that revolve around alcohol.  Picture any celebration and you probably envision someone popping open a bottle of champagne, even when the group typically drinks nothing more exotic than Sam Adams.  You’re left as a partial participant in every toast and well-wish.  You don’t get to experience the shared reflective glow that everyone else gets when sampling that aged rum that Todd & Margot brought back from their trip to Bermuda.  And obviously you’re like a eunuch at an orgy for every wine sampling party, beer dinner, scotch tasting, and other alcohol-motivated event in society.  Now, that’s not to say that you’re a pariah, or that you can’t find alternate means of participation, but you (or, at least, I) feel like a second-class citizen.  There’s a feeling that you’re just playacting while everyone else is really experiencing it.  That turned out to be really, really hard, and it was what I dwelled on more than anything else in this entire endeavor. 

One other thing: thank God I’m a man.  If I’d been a woman, I have absolutely no doubt that every time I indicated that I wasn’t drinking I’d have gotten something between a knowing look and a leaping exclamation indicating that I was obviously pregnant (or looking to become so).  In point of fact, I was asked on multiple occasions whether I was trying to get pregnant (and one of those, citing a study on the impact of alcohol consumption on male fertility, wasn’t even joking).  And as if that wildly personal intrusion isn’t enough, when you respond with “No, just not drinking,” some people look at you like you’re a wet rag, out to ruin their good time.  This is another manifestation of that social element of alcohol – your decision to teetotal is (in their view, anyway) a silent rebuke or criticism.  If we’re all indulging, then we’re all OK.  But your dryness is a form of reproach in their eyes – or at the very least you’re potentially going to bring down the party.  That odd, ugly stigma was perhaps in my own mind, but it certainly didn’t feel that way, and I’ve heard from others who have found the same – “Go on, Karen, just have one glass of wine!”  What’s it to you if Karen doesn’t have a glass of wine?

Last – and this is personal, though hardly unique or idiosyncratic – going dry has an impact on your social identity.  To many, including old friends and family that have lots of other things to choose from, I’m a “beer guy.”  People ask me about new breweries.  They ask if I’ve had some odd beer they’ve heard about.  They forward me articles about beer festivals in the area.  Nothing makes you realize the extent of that kind of penetration into your life and relationships like going off of it for a while.  A little of this "interaction gap" was made up by talking about not drinking, but not much, and it's not nearly as fun a conversation.  There was more “ugly” in this experience than I had expected.  I expected inconvenience.  I expected a slight feeling of being left out when I couldn’t go to that beer release at the pub.  I definitely anticipated some health benefits that didn’t patently materialize.  But I didn’t expect the kind of social misfiring and stigma that I observed, and it left me feeling extremely sympathetic for those who, for whatever reasons, engage in total sobriety.  They might feel left out or marginalized by a society that has a highly-involved relationship with alcohol.

Lessons Learned

I’ll be honest: when this all started, I wasn’t looking to learn anything from it.  I was in it for a few pounds of weight loss heading into a marathon training cycle and the delayed gratification of opening and enjoying that first post-fast beer (incidentally, it ended up being a Hopback Amber from Troegs Brewing Company in Hershey, PA).  I did, though, take some (hopefully) valuable lessons from it.

Alcohol is a major time suck.  Not the time spent consuming it, per se, but the productive time lost when “under the influence” and dealing with the consequences of it.  You might spend three hours at the bar watching a game, but you’ll lose the rest of that night’s activities, the extra time spent sleeping off your buzz, and the time lost in underperformance while hungover.  What’s ironic is that the universal complaint I hear from stressed people is that they’re short on time, and often when they’re stressed they have a drink to relax, thereby costing them even more time.  It’s a self-defeating, vicious cycle.

I also realized how much I lean on alcohol to adapt to social discomfort.  That hardly makes me unique, but what I learned was that I was still doing it even when it wasn’t necessary.  Some of the social events we went to in this period were with people I’m already quite comfortable with, and I enjoyed those events (generally) as much as I would have even if I’d had two beers while engaging in them.  And yet if I hadn’t been mid-Dry-Lent I’d have absolutely had a drink “to relax.”  Even if we allow for the anxiety-reducing benefits of alcohol in that scenario, that wasn’t what I was doing.  This wasn’t coping, or adaptation, or mitigation – it was habit, which makes it a relatively short hop, skip, and jump from addiction. 

None of this is to say that I’m planning on permanently abstaining from alcohol from now on.  Far from it, in fact.  The appreciation I gained of the ritualistic aspects of drinking is both beneficial and fascinating to me.  I also still love what alcohol adds to the culinary experience.  If I’m being totally honest, I also really enjoy the sense of ease and release that alcohol gives me and which I find hard to activate without it (meditation, perhaps?).  But I’m absolutely going to be more conscious of what I’m drinking, when, and (most importantly) why, from now on.  Physical and material costs aside, like anything else that we do as humans there’s a specific benefit to being an active and alert participant in one’s own life.  I want the benefits and I want to minimize the costs.  I want to keep enjoying what I enjoy about alcohol while I avoid using it as a cheap (and unnecessary) fix.

Maybe next year I’ll do yoga for forty days instead...  

Keep it simple.

JJW

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