The difficulty of becoming sober in an alcohol-drenched society

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.


  1. maryb says

    I really don’t understand addiction but I understand it is terrible. I was always a light drinker and poor at holding my alcohol. Back in the day of cocktail parties, my go to was ask the bartender for a glass of ice water with a squeeze of lime. Nobody knew I didn’t have a vodka tonic and no pressure to drink.
    There are a lot of fancy non alcoholic drinks like a Shirley temple. So I don’t get his search for substitute for drinks. There are many and they are delicious. If it is the buzz he wants then it is the drug effect he wants and had best stay entirely away because that is his addiction. There is no way to have the drug effect safely for an addict. But many move through the cocktail environment satisfactorialy with non alcoholic drinks. Of course drunks are more distasteful if you are sober.

  2. Holms says

    And yet there are some people that think “just don’t drink” is useful advice to an addict. They may as well be saying “just don’t be sad” to a depressed person.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    “They may as well be saying “just don’t be sad” to a depressed person.”

    The difference is that in order to be sad, a depressed person doesn’t need to consciously make a decision to leave the house, locate a product, purchase it and consume it.

  4. Katydid says

    It’s equally as bad having a food sensitivity, or being caretaker to someone with a food sensitivity. That’s when you realize how much of society is based around food. One plus to the pandemic was that offices and schools didn’t have constant potlucks. People take it personally when someone chooses not to partake of something they made, even if it’s because eating that particular thing means that someone might die.

  5. mnb0 says

    “The taste just does not appeal to me”
    Well, yes, alcohol doesn’t have any taste by itself. I only consume three types of alcoholic drinks: beer (but far from all brands -- Pabst tastes like gutter water), port wine and rum cola. The taste of the rest doesn’t appeal to me either.

    “the European manufacturers are way ahead of the US in this area.”
    Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. When I drink beer I greatly prefer it with alcohol.
    At the other hand I think American beer overall not very good -- not even the brands imported from The Netherlands, like my Dutch favourite Grolsch.
    The best beer I ever drank was Czech beer on a terrace next to the Vltava. It was incredibly soft and smooth.

    “The body seems to insist on returning to the status quo.”
    That principle didn’t apply when I drank my first beer; I immediately enjoyed it. So I suspect I’m a potential addict, also because there are alcohol addicts in my family. To test myself I stay sober for 1 until 3 months now and then; my record is one and a half year (with the exception of one glass of ligueur at New Year’s Eve). I don’t want to end like Seabrook, at least until I’m old and tired of life.
    I never found it hard. Don’t buy alcohol and don’t visit pubs (the last time I visited one is more than 30 years ago anyway) is a pretty good start.

    @1 Maryb: “I really don’t understand addiction”
    I do. Sometimes I’m in a supermarket, look at bottles with alcohol and literally feel a physical urge. Thus far I’ve never given in, because my fear of getting addicted is even stronger. I think eg of an uncle of mine, who has ruined his marriage and lost his job due to his addiction (he recovered).

  6. mastmaker says

    I am a regular drinker (as in once or twice a week) but ABSOLUTELY hate the bar scene. The noise and socializing, and flirting are not for me. I prefer drinking in a quiet corner of a restaurant (or preferably) while with family. Well, mostly the latter, since it is cheaper!

  7. Ice Swimmer says

    I’ve been a non-drinker for a decade and a half. I quit alcohol because I have gout. I think not drinking alcohol is easier now than it was when I was younger and even students drink more moderately now than they used to then. Still, there are sometimes assholes who ask if I’ve had a religious awakening or something like that.

    I do miss the taste of booze every now and then, but not that much. I liked red wine, bitters, beer, pastis, whisk(e)y, brandy, black rum and coffee liqueur. Not really vodka. Of the various ersatz drinks, some are good or OK, but others not so much. Dealcoholized red wine is passable (though I’d like to have something less sugary), non-alcoholic beer I haven’t drunk, because that might cause problems with the gout.

    Adding a few dashes of Angostura bitters makes ginger ale (which isn’t alcoholic) a tasty, almost non-alcoholic drink (but quite sugary). My current favourite ersatz drink now is carbonated hop water. A local brewery here makes hop water out of amarillo and citra hops, it is slightly cloudy and yellowish and has a strong bitter taste (they also have a berry flavoured one which is a fake-tasting abomination). What’s nice about hop water is that it usually doesn’t contain sugar or salt, but the downside is that it tends to be costly.

  8. Ice Swimmer says

    BTW, I started thinking about the drink Bloody Mary (which is IMHO more like a cold tomato soup than a cocktail). There is a a non-alcoholic version of it (with no vodka). Are the alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions even distinguishable by taste? AFAIR the BMs I’ve drank didn’t have an appreciable alcohol taste.

  9. machintelligence says

    Non alcoholic Bloody Mary = Virgin Mary.
    Alternatively the Dracula Cocktail — It sure doesn’t taste like tomato juice!

  10. rockwhisperer says

    @ #3 sonofrogblake:
    Your framing of the choice to partake of an addictive substance is too simplistic. For someone strongly addicted to a substance, the conscious choice is to NOT go out and purchase the substance. Doing so is the default, ingrained behavior. Deep into it, going out for that bottle of whatever (or other substance) takes very, very little thinking. The brain below the conscious level says, this is what we MUST do, body, and the body responds on autopilot. The cognitive thinking that accompanies it, completely ignores that not doing this action is even an option. The hard work of escaping from the disorder comes in making the decision to NOT acquire and take the substance, and do it over, and over, and over again, until the brain rewires itself to function without the substance. All real support for people taking this journey consists of meds, therapy, support groups, coaches, etc. that assist in making the NOT choice repeatedly, making it consistently, defying the urgent demands from the subconscious brain.

    I’ve escaped, after years of trying, sober for almost a year now. I’m told there will always be urges, there will always be times when the brain whispers, “remember how good it tasted?” and so forth. It’s much easier to make the choice to ignore that now, but there will always been the periodic need to make that choice.

  11. lorn says

    Oh, please. This claim that you need to avoid alcohol or ‘fall off the wagon’ is BS. This is based upon the idea that people are powerless. People are never powerless. One can simply: Not drink. End of discussion. No need for any debate or conflict. No need for all the approach/avoidance drama. No need to avoid bars and parties. There is no temptation. You just: Don’t drink.

    I drank heavily for 16 years, from 16 to 32 years of age. At 32 I gave it up while working in two bars. I kept working in bars and didn’t lose any friends over alcohol. To this day I have alcohol in my house. Alcohol I don’t drink. Alcohol I feel no desire to drink. A shot. or two, of whiskey can be beneficial in a few rare situations. For other people.

    I used to drink. Boy could I drink. It worked for me for almost two decades. Then it no longer took me anywhere I wanted to go. So I stopped. I still lived and worked around drinkers and drunks. I was happy that alcohol worked for them. I wasn’t evangelical with my sobriety. If drinking was working for them it was all good. If and when they wanted to quit they were free to come talk to me. No big deal.

    I never saw any use for AA. Their approach seems to be to keep everyone weak and out of control and to substitute an addiction to the AA program for the addiction to alcohol. Seems to me to be training people to tread water instead of teaching them to swim enough for them to get out of the water. I’ve known people who ‘fell off the wagon’ after a decade of AA. Looked like a treadmill existence. No … but thanks.

    Now, older than 60, I still don’t drink. I also seldom think about drinking. I don’t think I’ve ever woke up desiring a drink. It took some time to learn alternative ways to spend my time. I developed a taste for sweets. Put on a few pounds. Got back into reading and walking. I just: Don’t drink.

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    lorn @12:

    One can simply: Not drink. End of discussion.

    Thanks for your personal history; boring and utterly useless. Fuck off. End of discussion.

  13. Silentbob says

    @ 12 lorn

    Yeah that has to be the most ignorant comment on addiction I have ever seen.
    Who knew all addicts have to do is stop being addicts? Brilliant.

  14. John Morales says

    Um, it’s silly to think that because lorn can, any given other can too.

    But (unless one disbelieves the claim) at least some people can.

    (Existence proof)

  15. Holms says

    #3, #12
    Yes, and a relative of mine stopped his decades long smoking habit cold turkey too. It remains that addiction is an illness, and you are blaming the addicts for being ill.

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