28: Can alcohol be used like a tool?
Facing the return to “normal” post pandemic and post diagnosis
As I approach the end of my fourth month of not drinking alcohol, the omicron variant appears to be waning, mask mandates are rapidly falling, and people generally seem to be more comfortable doing things like meeting friends for dinner. But, I find myself hesitant. I’ve written before about how fond I’ve grown of my pandemic routine (which involves going to bed and getting up at bizarrely early hours), but my hesitancy now I think is about more than breaking my routine. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how easy it has been for me to not drink for the past four months, but (other than holiday dinners with the family) I haven’t really “tested” this new lifestyle yet around other people. I was never exclusively a social drinker (I drank plenty by myself), but for most of my adult life socialization has always involved drinking.
In recent years, the drinking I’ve done when socializing hasn’t felt problematic. It has all been about the aspects of alcohol that I’ve most appreciated: drinking high quality wine and spirits, in moderate amounts, and appreciating the nuances of the flavors, the way it stimulates many of the body’s senses, and the ease and enjoyment that it brings to social interactions. Anticipating good friends coming over, opening a bottle of nice wine, and enjoying it together, was very much something to look forward to. Anticipating friends coming over (even the same friends) and not opening a bottle of nice wine, feels less appealing, less something to look forward to, and more like an obligation to get through.
To be clear, the friends I’m thinking of are by no means heavy drinkers, and hanging out with them was never a heavy drinking affair. Usually, I’m the one who would be drinking more than the others. Nobody would be encouraging me to drink, nobody would be modeling heavy drinking for me. I would be the one getting the bottle to refill the glasses and realizing that mine was the only one that needed to be refilled (which didn’t stop me from helping myself).
An evening with friends now, where they were drinking and I was not, would not be particularly awkward. Nobody would be getting drunk - nobody would even be getting noticeably tipsy. People would just be slowly sipping a glass of wine or beer while we talked, got caught up on what’s been happening in one another's lives, and shared our mutual fears about the state of our society and the world we live in. The fact that my beer was from Athletic Brewing or that the contents of my wine glass were actually a vinegar shrub, probably wouldn’t even be noticed by anyone. And yet, thinking about the exact same evening that I used to so happily anticipate, I now feel a sense of empty ambivalence.
Why is that? It’s the same people. My friends. I like these people. I enjoy talking to them. Don’t I? Is it that I enjoy talking to them if I’m getting tipsy? Or is it that what I really enjoy is the alcohol, not the companionship? Am I looking forward to the wine more than the company? Or is it something different - more like a fear of facing the evening without the alcohol to relax me? Is alcohol required for me to truly enjoy a social evening (regardless of whether or not anyone else is drinking)?
I’ve always had these questions in the back of my mind, and I’ve always been self conscious about the way I’ve used alcohol. But since my autism diagnosis, the questions have taken on a new dimension. I’ve realized that because of how I interpret other people and different social situations, that I probably have, in fact, depended on alcohol as a tool to help me successfully engage with other humans. I didn’t consciously think of it that way, but I think that’s what I was doing. On the one hand, using alcohol as a drug in this way seems akin to using an SSRI medication to treat depression or anxiety - a healthy and reasonable option. But, when the “medication” is addictive, readily available in larger than recommended doses, and quite harmful, it doesn’t seem like such a good idea.
It made me think of a quote I heard recently from Michael Pollan, in conversation with Katherine May: “I found it fascinating and kind of shocking that what many of us now regard as normal, everyday consciousness is actually a form of consciousness that has been altered by our daily ingestion of caffeine… The self I recognize[d], the skin I felt comfortable in, was someone who had had a cup of coffee and a couple cups of tea over the course of the day, and that the texture of consciousness had been inflected by that.”1 Here Pollan is reflecting on his experience of abstaining from caffeine for three months as part of his work writing about mind altering substances.
If I think about the way I use caffeine in my life (and the way the vast majority of humans do and have used caffeine for thousands of years), could I use alcohol in a similar way? I know alcohol is bad for me, and I know that my inclination is to have more than I should, but perhaps using alcohol in moderation to facilitate social interaction is a healthy thing to do. Perhaps it is more healthy to have social interaction with alcohol than to avoid social interaction and abstain. Of course, whenever I present myself with a choice of two opposing alternatives, I have to step back and remind myself that it’s probably a false choice - there must be other options to explore.
One of the biggest hurdles I hear alcoholics talk about when they share their stories, is coming to a place of true peace with ones’ self that makes it possible to go into any situation - even situations that involve alcohol, such as meeting friends at a bar - and be completely comfortable not drinking and not feeling tempted to drink. For people who go to Alcoholics Anonymous, overcoming this hurdle usually involves accepting a “higher power”, which is something people interpret in different ways. What strikes me about this, and what appeals to me, is that it’s not about avoiding the places and situations that would tempt one to drink, or where one used to drink, it’s about reaching a point of acceptance and comfort with yourself (and your spirituality) that you can enjoy all aspects of life without using alcohol.
Reaching true self acceptance is indeed a challenge. My autism diagnosis helps me understand why in a new way, and offers me more insight on the journey. It’s tempting to use alcohol as a tool to help me in any given situation or moment, but I know that in doing so I would only be avoiding the challenge of self acceptance, not making progress towards it.
As I follow this line of thought, it leads me to the conclusion that I shouldn’t drink alcohol - doing so is simply a way for me to hide from self acceptance - to encourage me to “mask” - in order to facilitate social interactions. But, if I go back to thinking about all the ways that people use substances to make aspects of life more tolerable, more meaningful, or just to have fun, and how this is a normal part of human existence (which Michael Pollan talks about), it makes me wonder if there is another frame to look through or another way to approach the question.
I could imagine two different pathways to explore. One would involve alcohol and one would not. That part is a binary choice - either I never drink alcohol, or I sometimes do. The part that isn’t binary for me is how much I drink. I can (usually) limit my consumption of alcohol to no more than two drinks at a time, for example (whereas many alcoholics say that it’s either all or nothing - they can’t drink in moderation).
If I follow the drinking path I can once again enjoy (and look forward to) the things about alcohol that I like: the craft of it, the culture surrounding it, the celebratory occasions that are marked with it, the nuances of it, the simple fun of tasting it and appreciating its nature. And, of course, the way it enables me to spend time with other people in a more relaxed, and frankly more friendly and enjoyable way (more enjoyable for them as well as for me!). Life seems preciously short on enjoyable things - it would be fun to have this one accessible to me.
But, of course, this path would also involve the aspect of alcohol that I don’t like: the way I crave it, and think about it, when I’m not having it; the way I wish I could have more when I know I’ve had enough; the knowledge I carry that it is unhealthy and counter to the more mindful way I want to live my life; the guilt I know I’ll feel the next morning when I remember that I drank the night before, even if it was just a little, and even if I don’t feel any ill effects. And, perhaps most daunting, the seemingly inevitable times that my desire to extend and expand the feeling that having a little alcohol gives me, will overpower my self discipline and I’ll have way, way too much.
The drinking path will give me the feeling that I’ll carry in my heart the day after one of those nights, when I am too weak and sick to get out of bed and shower, much less exercise and go to work; when I can’t remember exactly how I got home (or back to the hotel room); when someone might tell me something I did the night before that I have no recollection of. Those mornings were never common for me, but I had my share. The night during a work event in Europe, when I stumbled through cobblestone streets at 3:00AM, barely able to stand, got lost, and somehow managed to reorient myself and find my hotel after miles of walking. The night in Costa Rica when I had so much Cacique that I started yelling at my companions to drink more shots, and when a friend walked me back to our host family while I apparently smashed my fist into the closed metal gates of the store fronts and shouted incoherently. That night out with my brother in law that started with wine, middled with beer, and ended with flights of rum, when I tried to convince him we should walk the three miles home, through objectively unsafe parts of town, at god knows what time in the morning, because wouldn’t it be nice to get some fresh air. And all those other nights that I can no longer remember but that I know are back there, hidden somewhere in my past. I don’t want another one of those nights.
If I follow the non-drinking path, I feel physically good all the time, I never wake up feeling guilty, I don’t think much about alcohol (except when doing thought experiments like this one), and (at least in theory) I have hours added to the day when I can think clearly and engage in meaningful activities (even if it’s just sitting and thinking).
The challenge with the non-drinking path is that it has two paths in itself - one that involves finding the ability to fully engage with (and enjoy, and look forward to) time with other people, and one that involves looking inward, embracing time spent alone and with my family, reading, writing, mediating, all the while avoiding situations that would normally involve having a glass or two of wine. I may be setting up another false choice here, but I’m not so sure. Summoning the ability to be so comfortable in my own skin that I not only can endure, but that I actually desire and look forward to, visiting the social arena, is no small thing.
The question I find myself asking is whether I will have some kind of breakthrough, like I hear people describe in AA meetings, or if I find that I need to use alcohol as a kind of medication that enables me to fully engage with the aspects of communal life that I would otherwise avoid. And if I do decide to use alcohol in this way, can I avoid those situations where I might be tempted to have more than I need? I could go in circles on these questions forever. For now, abstaining feels like the right thing to do, and I’m curious how I’ll react as the world continues its march back toward pre-pandemic norms.
The full podcast and transcript of this conversation can be found here: https://onbeing.org/programs/michael-pollan-and-katherine-may-the-future-of-hope-4/#transcript