I am someone who does not drink alcohol and never have, except for the very, very rare wine or beer or champagne on some special occasion. The taste just does not appeal to me and it has been very easy to rebuff the attempts of many people who have tried to persuade me that I should drink because they think I am missing something pleasurable or because it is the socially acceptable thing to do.
While I do not miss drinking, I am well aware that there is a whole world out there that I am not a part of and that is bar life. I experience that only vicariously because it is a staple of films. Going by films, it seems to be common for people to spend a lot of time in bars and clubs where drinking throughout the evening is the norm. For people for whom that is a major part of their world, quitting drinking can be difficult because it is not just the alcoholic buzz that they miss but the particular form of social life that goes with it.
John Seabrook was an alcoholic who quit and he describes the difficulty of keeping away from that life. He describes his experience with trying to avoid the temptation of alcohol, which meant avoiding settings where drinking is rampant, not easy to do once one has got used to that life.
Abstinence turns out to mean a lot more than giving up alcohol. It means forgoing a whole range of social and professional activities that you associate with drinking, because the place, or the people, or the occasion—after-work drinks at six, say—can trigger a craving for alcohol, according to the same process that caused Pavlov’s dog to salivate in anticipation of food when it heard a buzzer associated with chow time.
So, no more interviews in bars. No bars at all. No dinner parties where adults are drinking, and no children’s parties, either—they make ideal day-drinking affairs. I could manage a meal in a restaurant, but if anyone proposed a toast I felt as if I were inviting bad luck to the table by raising my glass of water. No professional events involving alcohol, namely book parties, where you could once find me by the bar. Even watching sports on TV was a visual and auditory minefield of ads featuring foaming beer manes and streams of whiskey splashing on the rocks. Maintaining abstinence in an alcohol-soaked society can feel like serving a medieval sentence of banishment, and many heavy drinkers fear the cure more than the sickness.
Above all else, I missed the cocktail hour, the Waspy rite my parents observed every night, and one that I had inherited. Without that tradition, my day felt wounded.
In truth, I was never a big beer drinker. A 6 p.m. Martini or a seasonal whiskey-on-the-rocks, then wine with dinner: that was my nightly habit for decades, echoing my parents. But their ritual never changed, whereas mine shifted imperceptibly from a single cocktail to two, then three, and sometimes four, and that glass of red with dinner became a bottle and a half. Along the way, my drinking went from social to sneaky—from Falstaff to Iago.
How long do cravings last? The answers are as variable as the drinkers. An abstaining young person might master the urge to drink within a matter of months, but if you drank for forty years, as I did, the Pavlovian groove is deeper. After I’d gone three years without alcohol, my cravings seemed to have been extinguished, but I waited five years—the length of time that some cancer doctors use to declare a patient cured—before I tried to return to the rituals of social drinking, without the alcohol.
He was warned that for an alcoholic trying to be sober, being around alcohol was like playing Russian roulette with their sobriety and that people in recovery have a saying that “If you hang around the barbershop long enough, you’re going to get a haircut.”
He went on a search to find a non-alcoholic drink such as what are called ‘near beers’ that would give him a satisfactory buzz. He says that there is a growing market for these kinds of drinks, but that the European manufacturers are way ahead of the US in this area.. The technology for producing these faux alcohol is improving rapidly. It is shifting from heating the finished product to remove the alcohol (which tends to also cause the taste to deteriorate) to preventing the fermentation in the first place.
Seabrook describes the work of George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, who has been researching alcoholism.
Koob, who is seventy-four, has spent more than forty years studying alcohol abuse, and he sees his career as having two phases: a light side and a dark side. He began by trying to understand the “molecular cascade” of dopamine-triggering signals that alcohol sets off in the brain; back then, his assumption was that people drank to feel good. But, through the decades, he has come to realize that a lot of drinkers, especially people who have been exceeding recommended limits for years, are really attempting to ward off feelings of anxiety, depression, and tension—which can be the beginnings of alcohol withdrawal—by taking the next drink.
It is similar to caffeine withdrawal, where the need for the first cup of coffee in the morning or next cup is to ward off the withdrawal symptoms.
Overcoming any form of addiction is not easy. The body seems to insist on returning to the status quo.