Default Zero Drinking
How I learned to love sobriety through a (slightly) flexible alternative to moderation.
I gave up drinking in August 2018. There’s an abundance of articles on quitting booze, written by brave souls who’ve overcome addiction; this post is a little different in that I didn’t have a dependent or addictive relationship with alcohol but decided to give it up anyway.
I will explain why I did it, how I did it, what I discovered, and the many benefits it’s brought me since then. On the way, I’ll cover my experiences of different drinking cultures around the world, some of the health risks of alcohol, alcohol-as-a-drug, tips and tricks for cutting it out, dealing with social situations, and why “moderation’’ isn’t a very useful concept.
Finally, I’ll set out the case for “default zero” drinking as an alternative to moderation. What I mean by default zero is that I don’t drink at all unless I have an exceptional reason to do so (such as my birthday or a wedding): I never have more than one drink and I never get drunk. It’s an alternative to “never ever’’ that allows me to enjoy a drink once in a blue moon.
It’s not you, it’s me
Rather like a doomed relationship- where you wake up one day, look at the pillow opposite and no longer feel a connection- I reached a point with alcohol where I no longer knew why I drank.
Sure, it was enjoyable in the moment, but so are lots of things. Did my drinking boil down to pure hedonism? I decided to find out: to see if I’d miss it, and why.
But first, let’s rewind a bit so you can see how I got there.
In my university years, drinking- or more accurately- getting drunk- laid a pathway towards unlimited possibilities for social interaction: boundaries dissolved, like slipping into an alternate, fuzzy reality where I could say and do things I’d normally be too reserved to say and do. Alcohol was a portal to authenticity: or so it seemed, just as it had seemed like a portal into adulthood during those “holding pattern’’ years of my mid-teens.
Looking back on it now, I struggle to understand why making things fuzzier would provide an enhancement of social engagement, but more on this later. I have no regrets: chiefly because I formed some great friendships at university: drunken antics can make for hilarious stories, which we still laugh about.
Drinking in Japan and Malaysia
Like all relationships, my relationship with booze evolved. After university I spent nearly seven years in Asia: first in Japan, then in Malaysia.
In Japan I noted strong parallels between Japanese and British (drinking) cultures. As island nations, social cohesion depends on extreme politeness and strict separation of one’s “inner” thoughts and outward demeanour. The Japanese have words for this:
“Honne” (inner voice) 本音
“Tatemae” (outward appearance; facade) 建前
As in Britain, successful functioning in Japanese society depends on your ability to speak diplomatically most of the time and to read deeply between the lines.
And like the Brits, the Japanese like to let off steam by drinking at weekends. The rules relax after work, and they can speak quite freely: honne can come out to play. However, there’s an understanding that once the night is over, things revert to tatemae-normality.
Many aspects of Japanese culture are extremely well refined/defined, and drinking culture is no exception. Even though many people drink to excess (Japanese people lack an enzyme that helps them process alcohol, which means they get drunk a lot faster than Westerners), I don’t recall ever seeing any acts of drunken aggression. The boundaries are generous, but not unlimited.
By contrast, of course, British cities at the weekend are binge-drinking battlegrounds. I remember being sucker punched one Saturday night in Nottingham for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or “looking at someone the wrong way” (I don’t remember; I was drunk) and the statistics from the NHS on alcohol-related deaths, illnesses, injuries and accidents make for astonishing reading (more on this below).
In Malaysia the drinking culture is skewed along racial/cultural/religious lines. Malaysia is a multi-cultural society, and the Malay Muslim majority- at least, the strictly religiously observant ones- don’t drink: indeed, it’s illegal for them to do so. However, non-observant Malays do sometimes drink, as do other ethnic/religious groups such as Malaysian Chinese and Malaysian Indians.
Apart from discovering that hangovers in tropical heat are particularly heinous, one interesting takeaway from a cultural point of view was that the (Muslim) Malays who drink, do so as a matter of conscious choice: forbidden by law and culture, they chose to do so anyway, rather than by cultural default, as in the UK or Japan: though this intentionality may be partially explicable by the power of prohibition to provoke disobedience.
Drinking in Spain
I eventually moved back to Europe- to Spain, where attitudes to drinking are different again. Drinking is very often accompanied with food; in some parts of the country you’re even served a little tapa every time you order a drink. Binge drinking isn’t really a thing; Spanish people drink to have fun, not to get wasted. And again, in all the years I spent there, I never saw a single incident of drunken violence committed by locals.
To sum up, my time abroad showed me that different cultures drink in different ways, and that there were viable, attractive alternatives to the “default” drinking behaviours I’d inherited at home. By the time I eventually returned to the UK, I found British drinking culture didn’t appeal to or suit me any more so I saw no reason to revert to it. Indeed, I experienced a kind of reverse-drinking-culture-shock.
However, I still found the idea of not drinking at all weird, or boring, and whenever I stopped for a while, I was quite happy to get started again, because I enjoyed it. Yet I still couldn’t know whether an alcohol free life would suit me better, because I’d never given it a proper chance.
Seeds of doubt were sowing in my mind, and I wanted to do some research. Here are some of the most interesting things I discovered.
Alcohol is toxic to most of the body’s systems and the body works very hard to expel it. Alcohol plays havoc with your brain, heart, stomach and liver, can damage your DNA, and is a major risk factor in several types of cancer, as well as heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Alcohol is the leading risk factor for death of males aged 15–59.
According to Professor David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London:
I’m no monk. If alcohol was awesome, I’d happily shoulder the risk to my health in return for the payoff. I engage in plenty of risky activities in my life- but they all belong there and I don’t want to live without them. I’m a natural risk-taker: I believe life is there to be enjoyed and that involves a good dose of risk. I compete in judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and have recently visited a conflict zone. But risk without adequate, justified reward is pretty pointless.
I recently came across a NHS report outlining the impact of alcohol on the health service, and society in general. It makes for shocking reading.
Here are some gems for 2016/17 (the most recent period covered in the report):
- 100,000 hospital admissions were “wholly attributable’’ to alcohol, with over 330,000 partly attributable
- Of these admissions, almost a quarter were due to cancer
- Over 70,000 were due to unintentional injuries
Imagine if these numbers were associated with terrorism or crime. There would be uproar.
If we consider “broad measure’’ stats, the number of hospital admissions where the primary reason for admission or a secondary diagnosis was linked to alcohol rises to 1.1 million.
There were 5,507 alcohol specific deaths during the same period, and 9,000 people were killed in road accidents where at least one driver was over the drink-drive limit. 9,000 people: that’s about three times the number of people killed on 9/11.
Even when you consider that close to 60% of the UK population drinks alcohol, I find these numbers absolutely staggering. That a legal substance causes so much pain and suffering is mind-boggling.
As we all know, alcohol is also linked to violence, though the links are complex and not always causal.
“brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using”.
In fact, according to the British Government’s own reasoning on the legality (or otherwise) of recreational drugs- which ranks them from Class A to C according to their level of harm on the individual and on society, alcohol- if discovered today- would almost certainly be illegal, and it would probably be “Class A’’. The only reason it isn’t is that it’s “grandfathered” into our society: so deeply woven into culture that it’s unthinkable to be without it. And as Prohibition in the United States showed, banning alcohol would not likely go down well!
A Category Mistake
Exploring the idea of alcohol-as-a-drug a bit further:
Human beings have been getting high- on one substance or another- for thousands of years. Animals seek out highs as well. Elephants get drunk on the fermenting fruit of the Marula tree and jaguars in the Amazon are known to nibble on the hallucenogenic Yage Vine (more examples here).
Various cultures have ritualised, celebrated or condemned the consumption of alcohol or other substances for cultural, religious, health or moral reasons, with legal “classifications” for different substances usually depending on their perceived level of harm to the individual and to society.
Curiously, alcohol is celebrated in British society in spite of it causing jaw-dropping levels of harm. So it makes total sense to see it as a drug- like any other- which just so happens to be legal in spite of the harms it causes.
Again, I do not mean to come across as judgemental or prescriptive here and I am not a prohibitionist. Many people love alcohol and I totally understand why, as I used to love it too. Indeed I think that, generally speaking, people should be able to do what they want with their bodies, as long as they not harming anyone else and are informed of the risks. It’s questionable whether the general population is adequately informed of the risks of alcohol consumption.
So to present alcohol- a legal drug- as somehow morally superior- or safer (or even outright “safe”!) compared to most other recreational drugs is completely nonsensical on the basis of the evidence.
To praise alcohol on the one hand and to condemn other substances which cause less or equal harm is therefore contradictory at best and outright hypocritical at worst. Alcohol is a drug; to call it anything else is to make what philosophers would refer to as a “category mistake”. Once we acknowledge it as a drug, we can make more sensible choices about whether to use it, how, and to rein in excessive consumption. I certainly don’t see any reason why we should drink by default- it should always be a matter of informed choice and much of the information out there is misleading.
To be clear: there’s nothing inherently good or bad about alcohol and I’m not passing judgement either way. It’s just a molecule at the end of the day. Nor am I saying that the harms it causes aren’t worth it for the benefits or enjoyment of society as a whole: perhaps they are, but that’s a separate question. My point is about getting clear on why we do what we do, and if, as individuals, it actually makes sense on balance.
The light bulb moment
My eventual breakup with alcohol came after a slow and steady decline in my drinking habits, driven by multiple factors. I had started competing in judo again after a long break, and as an athlete in my late thirties I was interested in various ways I could enhance my performance. I’d been doing intermittent fasting and seen great results, and also shifted to a plant based diet. I’d reached a point where I’d generally just have one or two beers maybe once a week- perhaps the odd cocktail- and after spending a fantastic and generally booze-free summer in Berlin, it was natural to take a serious look at the role alcohol played in my life and ask myself why I drank.
I couldn’t come up with a good answer.
At best, I had “surface level” answers: “because I like it” was my best answer, and “because it’s awkward if I don’t” was probably the least satisfactory.
Going a little deeper, it appeared to me that drinking was a net loss: maybe I benefited in the short term from the fuzzy warmth of booze, but it was having an unseen impact on my health, a small but significant impact on my wallet, and I usually felt pretty rough, if not outright hung over, after a night out.
More generally, alcohol didn’t really enhance anything: indeed it made most things worse.
Surely for alcohol to remain in my life, it had to demonstrate a sizeable net benefit, even if that was measured only in pleasure terms. In other words, the benefit had to clearly outweigh the costs.
So I decided to try an experiment and see if I could come up with more solid answer: to try an alcohol-free life on for size and see if I actually liked it better, or if it felt like a genuine loss.
It’s worth pointing out here that I’d done “dry January” and other stints of sobriety in the past- for example, during heavy training for judo competitions. I’d always found them quite difficult, mostly because I wasn’t sure what else to do when everyone else was drinking. Also, that kind of abstinence takes on the form of a challenge, which, if completed successfully, is usually rewarded with a drink: thank God that’s over! The focus is on holding out, like a form of penance- and predicated on the assumption that it is unpleasant.
This time, the sobriety was driven by constructive principles: exploration of alternative ways of being and living, and the desire to do things because I really want or need to, and not because it’s momentarily pleasant, or because society expects it, or out of habit. My time abroad had shown me that alcohol doesn’t need to be embedded in one’s culture- so I didn’t see why it needed to be embedded in my life, unless I decided it should be. I saw two possible outcomes: either I’d know that I wanted/ needed alcohol in my life and re-embrace it with new-found fervour, or I’d be liberated from a needless cost to my wellbeing and my wallet.
For this experiment to be valid, though, I needed to go beyond “dry January’’ and become a non-drinker.
How I Did It: Cold Turkey
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear argues that behavioural changes linked to a change in your self narrative- your story about who you are, are more likely to stick than stories about who you are trying to be.
“I’m trying to quit drinking”
refers to an attempted action: you may or may not stick to it. And that’s the story you’re telling yourself and others. Your narrative is that of an ongoing struggle between what is and what may (or may not) become.
Compare this to:
“I don’t drink”
This statement is far more powerful: it’s a fact about who and how you are*. So it made the most sense to me to go cold turkey: Tom-the-drinker ended, and Tom-the-non-drinker began. Rather than occupying some ambiguous half-way house I wanted to fully commit to this new way of being.
When I first started, it felt a little strange; like trying on someone else’s shoes. But with frequent repetition of the “I don’t drink’’ mantra, backed up with action, it gradually became normal. It’s a bit like “fake it till you make it”- I remember years ago when I was trying to break into photography, I’d tell everyone I met that I was a photographer, in spite of suffering from imposter syndrome and having to rely on a day job. Nevertheless, with time, the words were reinforced with action and the “photographer” label felt like- and became- who I was.
(*I could say “I’m teetotal” but I don’t actually like this word and it has all kinds of weird connotations, so I don’t use it! Another point is that I wanted to be able to make the conscious, intentional choice to have the odd drink, but only once I could be sure that any decision to do so was coming from within, and not simply obeying convention or habit. Alternatively and to follow Atomic Habits more precisely, I could say, “I’m not a drinker’’, but this could be interpreted as, “I’m not a heavy drinker”, so requires some explanation: “I don’t drink” is a powerful statement about who I am, and unambiguous).
Dealing with social situations
The first big test- as it were- of sobriety was a friend’s 40th birthday party in Croatia. A bunch of us went out there for 4 days of pretty constant partying in the sun.
So I partied. I had a great time. Great conversations. New friends.
Every morning, I woke up fresh as a daisy and ready to go again.
And I remember the whole thing.
Much to my (pleasant) surprise, it wasn’t so challenging at all: I just replaced the default beer with something else: juice; mocktail, or even just water.
To be more specific: the key was to replace the first default action (to grab a beer) with something else: “start as you mean to go on,” as the saying goes. Once that first drink was out of the way, it was quite easy to carry on in that vein. The same applies to toasts: in general, nobody cares if you do it with juice. Just be sure to avoid shots!
Buoyed by the achievement in Croatia, I returned home with increased confidence and- importantly- a bag of awesome memories that weren’t clouded by booze.
I imagined how it would have been if I had been drinking- would it have been better? Had I missed out? I didn’t think so, so I decided to plough on with the experiment.
As alcohol is a “social lubricant”; it lowers inhibitions, making you feel more at ease and more able to break the ice. Without alcohol, I had to bring more of myself to the social game: I figured that if I was able to strike up a conversation in everyday life when I was sober, I could do it when I was out partying too. So rather than using alcohol to feel more at ease, I decided to use the window of opportunity provided by sobriety to be more at ease.
It’s also been pointed out to me by a friend that the first 15–20 minutes of many social gatherings feel a bit awkward anyway- with or without alcohol, so I began to wonder if in some ways alcohol is given more credit than it’s due for greasing the wheels of interaction. Correlation does not imply causation, as the old saying goes.
I still go out for “drinks” with friends. Most of them drink alcohol. I don’t. It’s not a problem.
Of course, nobody should have any say in whether I drink if it’s not “problem” drinking: it’s up to me, right? But weirdly, it is one area of life where some people feel qualified and entitled to comment; perhaps because it’s so deeply embedded in our culture. If you opt out, some people find it a little disconcerting.
However, I’ve encountered fewer objections to not drinking than I expected. By and large people either don’t notice that I’m not drinking, or they just acknowledge it and move on.
Admittedly this is probably made easier by the fact that I don’t belong to any social groups (any more) consisting of heavy drinkers. In the tech industry, there are lots of boozy events- but they are events rather than gatherings of friends. Peer pressure certainly isn’t an issue for me in the way it might be for some. And I think I probably would have encountered a lot more of that had I made this decision when I was younger.
More interesting or significant were the occasional defensive or borderline reactions I’ve encountered when I explain my position.
Here are a few, and my responses (not all of which I actually verbalised!):
“You don’t drink any more? At all?” [cue weird look] (Me: “Nope”)
“Well, I drink in moderation so it’s not a problem for me’’ (Cue me thinking: ““Moderation” is a hopelessly ambiguous expression and I don’t remember asking you about your own alcohol intake”)
“I think alcohol is safe/ safe in moderation” (More on “moderation” a bit later)
“I drink because I enjoy it” (Me: “well good for you”)
“I’ve tried dry January and I found it really hard” (Me: “probably because Dry January is more of a challenge rather than a principle-based decision: the aim is to get through it, not to change your life”)
Someone even described my decision as “sanctimonious”, but, again and at the risk of labouring the point: I’m not passing any moral judgement here: it’s a matter of personal choice. Indeed if I were to take any kind of moral stance on drinking, it’s that drinking should be a choice, not a social obligation, which seems blindingly obvious, not sanctimonious. In my mind there’s nothing holy about drinking, but there’s nothing holy about not drinking, either.
By far the most important step in shrugging off these comments was to observe that they tended to relate to the speakers’ own drinking habits, rather than my own: it’s worth pointing out that all of these points were made by people who drink several times a week, which makes me wonder if there might be some dependency there, if not outright addiction.
But overall, in most cases, people around me just accept it and it’s far less of an issue than I’d expected it to be.
“Moderation” is kinda meaningless
A common drinking-related phrase that falls apart under any serious scrutiny is “moderation”.
Most people have an intuitive sense of moderation: drinking within your limits, and without dependency or addiction, or excessive frequency.
The problem with this is that it means different things to different people, and if there is a degree of dependency/addiction, the subject is likely to give themselves more ‘‘breathing room” to excuse or justify their behaviour.
If moderation means different things to different people, then it isn’t a very useful guide, especially if it is open to abuse.
To draw a quick parallel with exercise: “moderate’’ exercise is a very different proposition to an elite athlete than it is to an 80 year old with arthritic joints. This isn’t an entirely facetious analogy: if you drink a lot, and often, you will build up a tolerance to alcohol, just as an athlete develops endurance, albeit by different mechanisms.
I went looking for some definitions of moderation to see if I could shed more light on the matter.
Addiction Blog defines moderation as “light, responsible drinking suited to the occasion. It never causes you or anyone else problems.”
“Suited to the occasion” is subjective, as is the idea of a “problem”, of course: and many problem drinkers are in denial. Indeed Alcoholics Anonymous’ First Step to Recovery is to admit you have a problem!
Other sources define moderate drinking as “no more than two drinks per day for men, and one per day for women”. This strikes me as really odd: if you’re drinking every day, is that really moderation in any meaningful sense?
Before I quit drinking, I had about two, maybe three drinks a week. I might call that “moderation”. But someone who has two or three drinks a day might also call that “moderation”, even though it’s over 5 times as much. Do both patterns count as moderation?
Perhaps a more enlightened approach to moderate drinking is so-called ‘“mindful” moderate drinking, as outlined here in an article by Michael Ascher and Arnold Washton. They define it as follows:
“Mindful moderate drinking, as contrasted with thoughtless habitual drinking (which we often describe as “auto-pilot” drinking), means being fully conscious of your drinking in real time being mindful of how each drink is affecting your mood, behavior, thoughts, and body.”
The NHS has this, which doesn’t attempt to define “moderation’’, but rather, sets a 14 unit/week limit to minimise (not eliminate) risk, whilst cautioning that “the risk to your health is increased by drinking any amount of alcohol on a regular basis’’ (my emphasis).
So in summary, moderation doesn’t actually boil down to anything more than self-determined moderation: a heavy drinker’s idea of moderation could put someone else in a coma.
Another common myth is that drinking in moderation is good for you. Take a look at this, from Drug Science:
“There is a common misconception that alcohol, ‘in moderation’, has proven health benefits. In fact, most of the total number of deaths and diseases caused by alcohol happen to people in the large majority of the population who are ‘moderate’ drinkers, not in the minority who are heavy drinkers. No-one should justify their alcohol consumption with the belief that they are benefiting their health.”
One acquaintance of mine proudly declared- in an apparent attempt to demonstrate his self-moderating ability- that he’d had two nights that week where he hadn’t had a drink. Which means five nights in the week of drinking. I didn’t say anything, but if that is moderation, then moderation can easily blur into dependency- at least psychologically- if not outright addiction.
How things have changed
One year on, here are the key things I’ve noticed, and which have changed since I ditched alcohol:
Firstly, my default behaviours have changed: drinking is ritualistically embedded into society and one of the first things I noticed is how automatic drinking behaviour is: in socialising, dating, celebrations, and events:
You go for dinner, you drink.
You meet friends, you drink.
You finish work on Friday, you drink.
You go on a date, you drink.
And so on.
Once I’d stopped drinking, I actually couldn’t really understand why there has to be this automatic link between key events and imbibing booze. And my experience of throwing myself into them and also emerging with a totally clear head actually seemed better than it did with alcohol. This is partly because I found I had to be more “present” than I did if I relied on alcohol to prop me up.
This felt very empowering at first, and now I don’t even really think about it that much, but sometimes I have flashes of insight that underscore the importance of this decision for me personally.
I was at an event a few weeks ago. A friend of mine had brought some DJs together for a new club night and I wanted to go along and support it, although I had to be up quite early the next day. I got there early and there wasn’t much to do or many people to talk to, but there was some music playing, so I just hit the dance floor. There’s no way I would have done this previously; I’d have been way too self-conscious. Ditching the mask that alcohol provides has allowed me to feel more comfortable in my own skin and to be more authentic.
In terms of how I feel physically/mentally, I love being able to recall everything that happens when I go out, and to wake up the next day feeling- at worst- a bit tired. I certainly don’t miss hangovers and I don’t find myself feeling that bringing them back would be a worthwhile tradeoff.
I can’t attribute this fully to alcohol, but I’ve become leaner (also due to intermittent fasting) and I never have to miss training because of a rough night out, which is great.
Whilst I have no regrets about drinking in the past, it’s now difficult for me to imagine going back.
My New Approach: Default Zero Drinking
I am not ideologically opposed to having a drink, and I have had the odd drink in the last year and a half. I had a glass of champagne at New Year, for example. But it was a very intentional act and it felt good: I was doing it as a matter of choice, rather than out of a sense of expectation or ritual or because it’s “just what I do”. And I was totally OK with leaving it at one drink because I prefer the life I have now to the one in which alcohol plays a significant role. It’s like an old friend that I still see from time to time but don’t keep in regular contact with. And, to be honest, I wouldn’t be all that bothered if I never had a drink again. It was fun while it lasted, but I prefer this new way of being.
This is “default zero” drinking: the usual number of drinks I have on any given occasion is zero, and the bar for me to even consider having a drink is very high. Once in a blue moon. My birthday or a wedding, perhaps. I might have a sip of a good wine. But I never have more than one drink and I never get drunk.
This kind of drinking makes drinking special again: I appreciate it, but I respect my well being more.
In case you’re thinking that having a drink once in a blue moon undermines the argument I’ve been making, again, default zero drinking is not an ideology: it’s about informed personal choice, and the recognition that a life without alcohol, for me, is a net positive.
So if you’ve also been thinking about “breaking up” with alcohol- even if for a while- I believe you will have no regrets. Even if you go back to drinking with renewed enthusiasm, at least you’ll have a better understanding of why you do it. Cheers!