July 3rd, 2021: Greetings from Taiwan! I launched my freelance skills course this week and it’s better than I expected. I hope it can help some people.
This week’s essay is focused on alcohol and my experiences cutting it out of my life twice. I hope it helps some people. Let me know what you think.
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#1 On Alcohol
I stopped drinking for the second time when I moved to Taiwan. I never planned to quit. It just happened. I went to night markets instead of bars, met my now wife who doesn’t really drink, and slowly the desire disappeared.
I found this fascinating. The first time I quit drinking I was recovering from a health challenge with Lyme disease and as I started to recover and be more social, spent more than a year worrying about what people might think about me. I developed stories, excuses, and ways of making others feel comfortable.
The biggest what if I think about is what if I didn’t drink in my twenties? Was that even possible? Would I even have had the same friends?
American Parties & Party Schools
I had not spent a single moment thinking about alcohol until I saw that Budweiser announced it would give people “free beer” if the US met the vaccination goal of 70% of adults with one shot before July 4th. It looks like the US will come up a bit short, but they’re still going to give out the reward (after all, it was a marketing gimmick for people to sign up for their app).
If there is one thing that Americans rally around, it’s beer. Budweiser spent decades pairing its brand with the idea of America itself.
Another thing they paired their brands with was the extroverted ideal. The outgoing person at the center of the party. Drinking was fun. It was upbeat and positive. When I started college, this was mostly what I experienced. It was a ton of fun to be able to drink, party, and hang out with friends.
My school, UConn, was famous for its parties. Here is an excerpt from 1998:
An annual party weekend at the University of Connecticut culminated in a riot early Sunday as students pelted police with rocks and beer bottles and set a car on fire with a flaming couch.
More than 2,000 drunken revelers watched as students flipped a car and threw a flaming couch on it, prompting police to disperse the crowd with pepper spray. No injuries were reported.
``It was insane,″ said J.P. Rizzitelli, a senior. ``Everyone was just going out to destroy stuff. It was like a war zone.″
By the time I started school in 2003, it was a bit calmer, but I definitely still attended parties of thousands of people in a parking lot, standing around drinking. Only in Connecticut, I guess.
Those parties eventually died down. The reason? Camera phones. After winning a national championship in men’s basketball my freshman year there were more fires and car-flipping and many of the pictures made their way to people’s public Webshots accounts. The police downloaded those pictures and sought out information on the people in the pictures. We were at the end of the pre-internet era.
The crazy parties died down but the heavy drinking didn’t. Almost everyone, men and women, drank often and a lot. I had a couple of friends that didn’t really drink but they were almost always pressured to join in or at minimum asked “why aren’t you drinking?” They had special parties for people that didn’t drink but don’t think I ever went to any of them.
What If We Run Out?
Having enough beer for the weekend was always a concern in Connecticut where I grew up. “Package stores” as we called them were closed on Sunday so it was always important that you build extra inventory on Sunday.
This attitude of “what if we run out?” was even more powerful as I started college. In those first few months when none of us were legally allowed to buy alcohol and the distribution network was not as built out, overstocking was of utmost importance. Quickly almost every dorm room was filled with an abundance of Bacardi O.
I went to a large public university where drinking and partying is one of the main things you orient your schedule around. Bars embraced this, offering crazy deals like 50 cent pitcher nights, nickel beer nights, and dollar Tequila shots. They packed the bars and made up the money on expensive shots that people would inevitably buy when drunk.
All of this was a ton of fun and I’m lucky that I was a happy, pleasant drunk, but this kind of partying never really stopped. Almost everyone I was friends with and I carried this behavior into the cities we moved to after graduation, through our twenties, and for some of us, into our thirties.
I told myself that I didn’t have a problem because I never drank during the week but I think I probably partied and got drunk at least 1 day per weekend every 98% of the weekends of my twenties.
Until I got sick.
“Women won’t take you seriously if you don’t drink.”
The first time I stopped drinking was when I was 27 and dealing with Lyme disease. It took me a few years to recover and when I started being more social I found myself extremely self-conscious about my decision to not drink. I was always self-aware, preparing responses to the question, “why aren’t you drinking?”
It wasn’t that I was some drunk, it was that living in Boston and New York, to choose a drink and to drink a lot is the default choice. As I’ve written about default choices a lot here, the questions often only come when you are opting off the default path.
For a time, “health issues,” worked as a vague but eventually my health got better and the real reason became that I wanted to see if I could live without drinking. One of the areas where I was most self-conscious was dating. I moved to New York City and many people told me “women won’t take you seriously if you don’t drink.” The truth is that they were also right.
When I mentioned I didn’t drink, several people quickly said, great chatting with you but not interested. On one date, I had an argument with someone, trying to convince her that deciding not to drink is not that. Alas, she is not my wife. Over time I got used to being the sober one at the party and asking people out for coffee instead of alcohol but it’s still a little crazy to reflect back on how much turmoil and insecurity I felt about deciding not to drink.
I’ve noticed a shift among a lot of the young people I have talked to around alcohol. It seems as if people are waking up to the fact that casual binge-drinking culture isn’t helpful for living a full life and it might be a symptom of deeper problems.
Misery Taxes & TGIF
When I look back on my twenties, I don’t regret much about where I worked, who I spent time with, or how I spent my time but I do regret how much of it centered around drinking and how much of it centered around a weekly rhythm of working during the week and drinking on the weekend.
How much of that drinking was because it was fun and how much of it was because it had become a necessary part of my work life? And how many years did I remain a bit blind to the deeper questions I needed to ask because of this endless loop?
Last year Thomas Bevin coined the term, “misery tax”:
If you don’t like the job you work or the life you are living you will spend more of your disposable income either during work hours or immediately afterwards on things to cheer you up. On things to keep you going and to keep you functioning in the job. This is the Misery Tax.
It wasn’t so much that alcohol was cheering me up so much as it was the fun thing to look forward to. As a fun drunk who had other friends who were fun drunks, it was easy to say “I need a drink” and assume everything was okay. For some people, it’s not the drinking, but the expensive meals. These things have a funny way of sneaking into your life and tricking you into thinking it’s the whole point of why you work. That’s what I find so interesting about the misery tax. It never seemed like a tax, it was just what you did to keep yourself going.
I think for many people this endless cycle of drinking, going to fancy restaurants, or buying nice stuff can be a convenient way to fit in with everyone else while using them as a way to avoid asking yourself what life you might really want to live without all those shiny things you keep coming back to.
“Thank god it’s Friday!” is a self-fulfilling prophecy once you pair it with something that gives you a bit of pleasure. For ten years, alcohol and partying with friends was the carrot at the end of the week that kept me going through the motions.
Culture & Alcohol
I had no intention to stop drinking but when I moved from Boston to Taiwan but as I started to experience the different culture, I also made friends who didn’t work regular schedules like fitness trainers, English teachers, and entrepreneurs. These people didn’t center their schedules around going to the bar on weekends as much as my friends back in New York and Boston did. There was no rhythm to get lost in.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great essay about drinking back in 2010.1 He argued that we don’t have the right mental model for what alcohol does to us. Instead of lowering our inhibitions, what it does instead is narrow our focus:
Myopia theory changes how we understand drunkenness. Disinhibition suggests that the drinker is increasingly insensitive to his environment—that he is in the grip of an autonomous physiological process. Myopia theory, on the contrary, says that the drinker is, in some respects, increasingly sensitive to his environment: he is at the mercy of whatever is in front of him.
He looked at similar groups of Italians and Irish in New Haven and found that the Irish had alcohol problems at much higher rates. The reason? They had a completely different cultural relationship with it. Italians tended to be more passive about their drinking and it rarely snowballed into a worse problem.
In Taiwan, when you hang out with friends, you eat. And then you eat more. You wander night markets instead of sitting in bars. At restaurants, if you want alcohol you get up and serve yourself. Most places only have one option. While you can find plenty of places to drink, it’s not the default for Angie and me. I rarely think about it.
Giving Up Booze Isn’t That Simple
I don’t care if you don’t drink. I love and appreciate good beer. New England IPAs are some of the best beers I’ve ever tasted. I just don’t care if I ever have another.
When I got sick, the value of a single day with “normal” energy became all I wanted. As I’ve discovered things like writing and creating and the value of having energy while traveling and being self-employed, I’m very unwilling to spend any time being hungover or feeling a bit down because of alcohol.
It’s fascinating how culture, work, and place can change our relationship with something like alcohol. In college, I drank a lot but I think the overall party environment was something that was fun and additive to my life. I made a ton of friends. However, in my twenties, and as I got older, drinking became something else. Sometimes it was a great part of special events but for a lot of weeks, it was just part of my weekly workweek rhythym.
When I think about my twenties and early thirties, I have the following questions:
If I hadn’t drank so regularly, could I have stayed in my career as long as I did?
If I wasn’t socializing as I did would I have gotten depressed?
Would that have led me to discover things that I loved doing a bit earlier?
Right now if you don’t drink in the US you are looked at with skepticism and for many people, it may actually lead to a short-term decline in your happiness. I know when I stopped drinking in New York I desperately looked for new groups to hang out with and found it hard. I would meet up with friends who were day drinking and become a bit sad as the conversation got sloppy and realizing I didn’t want to be there.
I eventually started drinking again and it made things easier. It also coincided with a huge spark in creativity and energy towards many of the things that led towards this self-employed life. This is the thing about drinking in America. It’s often more than just a drink. It’s a symbol of friendship or proof that you are part of the group. It’s so central to the rhythm of most people’s lives, it’s easier to just have a drink with friends than to ever attempt to give it up completely.
I hope that this shifts.
Moving across the world and living in different countries while also working in a completely different way has changed my mind about so much. So many of the things I thought I needed or preferred disappeared when the context changed.
If you want to quit drinking, doing it in the US might be hard. But hopefully, this short essay inspires a few people to want to grab coffee, tea, or go for a walk when I return to the US later this year…😁
Thanks For Reading
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