A few months ago, I caught a whim to give up drinking for Lent. I had never given anything up for Lent before, but I was ridiculously hungover (again) from not drinking all that excessively (my liver is old). And it was Ash Wednesday. I had long felt that I drank just a little too much and used alcohol as a crutch (“the cure for introversion,” I’d call it), but my drinking was just one of a long list of self-improvement issues that I thought I’d get around to eventually. That Ash Wednesday, it became clear that I could do actually do something about it, so gave up drinking cold turkey for the six weeks through Good Friday.
With this spur-of-the-moment decision, I unexpectedly changed my life. Here’s what happened:
Going out for the sake of going out got a lot less interesting.
I spend a lot of time going to concerts, both for work and for fun, and it was my habit to head straight to the bar each time I went. During Lent, I had to give up my whiskey habit and use soda as my bar treat. Sober, I realized there were a lot of things about concerts I didn’t like. Standing around between openers isn’t exactly a thrill. Ignoring drunk people whose loud conversations distract from the show is a skill. Letting yourself be caught up in the moment isn’t an automatic when you’re sober. But being touched by music to the point when you’re sober bawling is worth the loss of buzz.
I got addicted to soda.
It’s really easy to replace one addiction with another. I wasn’t really drinking soda before Lent, but sobriety became an excuse to order it. First I was getting Diet Coke from bars, then I was ordering it with meals, then I was getting regular Coke on airplanes, then I was drinking Diet Pepsi at 8pm at my parents’ house. My excuse was that caffeine helped me do all the things I would have done while drinking — I once stayed at a dance party past 2am while sober because I was completely over-caffeinated — but soda became an end in of itself. That stuff is full of chemicals and it tastes really good. It’s meant to be addictive, y’all.
I realized I was afraid of boredom.
When I wasn’t drinking, I got even more addicted to constantly checking my phone. I was afraid of boredom, afraid I might not exist. Alcohol made downtime go by faster and helped me convince myself what I was doing was worthwhile. I was “socializing.” I was “getting in touch with myself.” I was “living life to the fullest.” If I was drinking, my thinking went, I wasn’t wasting my life. But really drinking was wasting my life — by numbing me to what was happening right in front of me.
But boredom made space for creative thinking.
There’s no room to come up with creative ideas if you’re constantly running around getting obliterated. You need boredom to be creative. For the first time in ages, I got an idea for a short story and I started writing it. Boredom serves a purpose in that it gives room for your brain to come up with ways to entertain itself.
I had to relearn how to socialize.
As an introvert, I had long used alcohol as a social lubricant. It squashed my inhibitions and made me more outgoing, less self-conscious. I liked myself better when I was drinking. Alcohol felt like an escape from the oppression of self-repression. What I discovered during my Lent of sobriety was that I didn’t need alcohol to have permission to be myself. I could be just as weird sober as I was drinking. I didn’t need alcohol to help me let go. I could choose that for myself. And that’s what real liberation is.
I became more in touch with myself.
I had blamed alcohol for every sickness and every lethargic day. The reality is that I actually need a lot more sleep than I thought. Some things that I thought were effects of being drunk were really just sleep deprivation — for instance, I sound like an idiot talking to cabbies at 2am regardless of whether or not I’ve been drinking. I began to feel the subtle differences between days when I had eaten healthily versus when I hadn’t, notice what foods gave me indigestion, notice what happened when I messed up my sleep schedule.
I had to face my reality.
I couldn’t numb negative feelings by drinking. I had to pay attention to what really made me happy and what made me sad. And rather than treat my sadness as a chronic condition, I started confronting it. What problems could I change rather than simply accept? I finally felt empowered to adjust my circumstances to make each day a little better than the last. Life stopped being something I had to find ways to cope with and became something that I could seize.
Now that Lent’s over, I am drinking again. But it’s missing the allure it once had. It no longer feels like a compulsion, and I’m no longer interested in getting drunk. Drinking might give you a temporary reprieve from reality, but life is much more interesting when you have control.
I still think margaritas are delicious though.