What’s the big deal about taking a break from alcohol? According to biblical lore, the prophet Moses retreated to a mountain for forty days and forty nights, without food or water, and returned with the Ten Commandments in hand.
In early 2014, I decided on forty days as the minimum time that I would stay completely sober, mostly as part of a weight loss effort. I had no plans to finish anything in that time so important as what Moses accomplished.
Nor did I intend to stop drinking forever. My success would be measured by how many pounds I would lose after six-and-a-half weeks of no cocktails with friends, no sips of wine, and no scotch or bourbon on the rocks after dinner. I hoped, for at least that period of time, I could forgo what has long been among my greatest pleasures.
I never expected to get where I am now, almost and a year-and-a-half later without a drink, having gotten through the year-end holidays and now entering my second “high season” in a resort town animated by alcohol no matter what the time of year.
For most of my adult life, I’ve been what’s called a “moderate” drinker, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines for men as up to two drinks on a single day. The government funded National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism sets the more generous limit of four drinks on a single day, and as many as 14 drinks per week, to still be called a moderate drinker.
For me, having no alcohol for more than a month challenged me to go the longest period of my adult life without a drink.
Like many, I was a teenager when I first drank to get drunk. Since then, my drinking activity has included occasional episodes of “heavy” drinking and, sometimes, forgetting. Those lowlights have grown fewer and farther apart as I age, but by the end of 2013 I felt myself increasingly slipping into a daily fog that I attributed at least in part to drinking. Chalk it up to me starting that year with a serious and temporarily debilitating disease, a difficult change in jobs, and the death of one of my closest friends.
Whatever. Heavy drinkers and those who are addicted to alcohol have no dearth of explanations for drinking to excess. There’s always a good reason to drink, or so it seems, and where I live, on the resort island of Nantucket, there are many opportunities.
In fact, our island is a drinker’s paradise. Combining year-round and seasonal establishments, Nantucket supports more than 70 eateries and nightspots, nearly all serving beer, wine and liquor. Fifteen stores sell spirits by the bottle. A half-dozen private clubs stock full bars for their members and guests. On most summer nights, thousands of glasses of alcohol are poured at galas, fundraisers, and at dozens of private celebrations, weddings and dinner parties.
That’s an awful lot of imbibing on our tiny island, even for a population that swells to near 60,000 on a busy summer weekend. Getting drunk here is easy.
In fact, in a recent report, Nantucket holds the dubious distinction of tying Martha’s Vineyard as where the most “excessive drinking” happens in Massachusetts, with 26% of adults engaging in it. In this definition, by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation from its “County Health Rankings,” excessive drinking means the percentage of adults who drink more than four or five drinks in one episode over thirty days, or who average more than one to two drinks per day.
However many drinks I was consuming in a day or a week—and despite how much better I feel now and how much healthier I am without it—I fondly recall the many times I’ve enjoyed both the palliative and celebratory affects of alcohol.
Of course, drinking memoirs, or narratives of “how this author stopped drinking,” are plentiful and have won acclaim for many writers in recent years. Favorable reviews from critics and readers alike have gone to Pete Hamill’s “A Drinking Life: A Memoir,” Caroline Knapp’s excellent “Drinking: A Love Story,” and Carrie Fischer’s brilliantly titled play and book “Wishful Drinking.”
As they did, I’ve had my personal payoffs and epiphanies from these months of being sober 24-7. I’ve learned that I like waking up without a hangover. I handle stress more easily, with fewer and milder emotional ups and downs. I’m more productive through longer workdays, with renewed strength and energy.
Counting calories and rigorous regular exercise account for much of the over 80 pounds I’ve shed, but my weight loss effort accelerated greatly after I cut out alcohol.
My latest medical checkup—the most recent was six months after I went cold turkey from daily meds to check my rising cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels—showed me within healthy ranges for my age. Significantly, my severely sagging testosterone, which had sunk to around 200, rebounded in one year by nearly four times, to a number high for my age. As my doctor characterized it, “You’ve managed to completely reverse male menopause.”
If only I could bottle and sell those outcomes. They’re not the Ten Commandments, but for most they make up a Holy Grail of good health, for which many would willingly spend thousands of dollars on supplements and advice to achieve.
For me, the prescription, in brief, has been to drink copious amounts of water, count calories and keep them lower than the daily metabolic need for my age and activity, and work out a minimum of eight to ten hours weekly. Otherwise, I eat a diet of commonly available foods, but with few refined flours or white starches, lots of high-fiber fruits and vegetables, lean protein, only natural sugar substitutes, and dark chocolate almost daily.
It’s really that simple and, for many, that hard.
My only financial costs have been my basic gym membership and a used bicycle. No surgery, no pricey food regimes, no consulting fees to nutritional gurus. In fact, I’ve pocketed substantial savings without buying booze and no longer buying drugs to lower my cholesterol and blood pressure. My latest cholesterol level overall was below 200, with good ratios; my blood pressure now hovers around 115/75, markedly lower than my previously usual 145/95 even with drugs.
Still, I miss drinking. I miss a cocktail at home after work, the shared buzz among partygoers, hanging out at a bar with friends and strangers over drinks. Of course, all of that can be done stone sober, which I’ve proven time and again in recent months.
I’m no twelve-stepper. I intend to drink again but maybe in a different, more moderate way. In fact, writing this has left me contemplating when, and if, I’ll again pick up that glass of wine or a cocktail.
[Photo credit: Gene Mahon]
Bill Ferrall is Executive Director of the Nantucket Arts Council.