Sober for seven years now!!!

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I forget what was the first sobriety anniversary I marked on this blog, but I’ve been doing it at least two or three years now. This time it passed almost without me noticing it. I didn’t even have the alcohol dreams that commonly manifest themselves around this time (dreams where I drink alcohol–it’s a sober person thing).

Yay for me! I am very very happy to not be drinking (or using drugs). I don’t feel any particular difficulty maintaining my sobriety nowadays, but I know it’s the kind of thing that can fall away pretty easily. I ordered a soda water and lime at a party recently and the bartender was like, “Why aren’t you drinking?” I immediately knew he was asking whether or not I was sober, so I was like, “Sober seven years.” He told me that he was trying to get back on the wagon. He’d been sober for years, but then he got drunk one time and it all fell away.

That’s how it happens. You get drunk once, and you say it’s just that once (or maybe you lie to yourself and say you can control it now). Then it slowly slips out of control, and you know it’s out of control, but because you’ve been sober before, you now have this illusory feeling of mastery. When you tell yourself “I can quit whenever I want” you actually believe it, because you’ve done it. But “whenever” always turns out to be next week or next month or right after this deadline or that trip. It’s a shitshow, and I want none of it!

It’s amazing that it’s only been seven years. I mean, that’s actually kind of a long time, but I also feel like I was reborn when I stopped drinking. Everything good in my life has its roots in that decision, and I think the last seven years (24 to 31) have been far richer and more full of growth than were the seven years (17 to 24) that preceded them.

Here’s to another seven years, I hope!

Is it actually a good idea to have recovering alcoholics in positions of power?

Leo_McGarryI’ve been rewatching season one of The West Wing, and in that show there’s a plotline where some political opponents of the President try to embarrass his Chief of Staff, Leo, by revealing that Leo spent time, seven years ago, in treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. And in the show, this is treated like a completely cynical and absurd move, because we know Leo! He’s so wise and caring and responsible! Obviously no one could ever doubt that the world is a better place with Leo in charge!

However, I’m not sure it is an absurd objection. First of all, before someone goes off all half-cocked on me, please note that I’m a recovering alcoholic myself (with five years of sobriety), and that I’m not proposing that anyone in real life be fired from their job (also, firing someone for their recovery status would be, under the ADA, an illegal act).

But you have to wonder…Leo is in a position of immense responsibility, where he needs to exercise sound judgment every day. He’s also in a position that entails lots of stress and lots of temptation. Most people have an awful day here or there. But when a recovering alcoholic has an awful day, there is a non-zero chance that he will start drinking. And if he starts drinking, then there’s a very good chance that the next few months (or years, or decades) of his life are going to be filled with dropped responsibilities, unsound judgment, poor mental acuity, mood swings, heart problems, criminal behavior, lying, panic, depression, rage, etc.

So I have to say that alcoholism, even when you’re in recovery, seems like a definite downside for a person. In most cases, though, the downside is ameliorated because if a person starts drinking, their performance tends to tail off pretty quickly, and they can be fired relatively easily. In Leo’s case, though, you have to wonder. He’s basically a shadow president (a Dick Cheney figure). How long would it take to fire him? How much damage would he do in the meantime?

I think what’s scary about this thought experiment, though, is that every person runs this sort of risk every single day. I mean, for most people, it’s not alcoholism, but it’s something. Anyone can have a nervous breakdown or a psychotic episode or a period of depression. Anyone can have a stroke or early-onset Alzheimer’s or just a gradual decrease of mental abilities. Anyone can become arrogant and detached and really full of themselves. Anyone can become nervous and withdrawn and fearful. Basically, past performance is never a guarantee. Anyone’s abilities can fail them at any time.

We pretend like there are two states in life: “healthiness” and “disaster”. And we pretend that, barring disasters, we can expect such and such a span of health.

But when we shove disaster aside in that little phrase, ‘barring disaster’, we ignore that…well…disaster will come. It’s unavoidable. It’s like, i remember a conversation I once had with a young Silicon Valley guy. He was talking about how he exercised and didn’t smoke or drink and he ate kale and did everything perfectly and, as such, he could expect to live to be 100.

So (ignoring whether that number is sound on an actuarial level or not), I said, “Yeah, but you could get hit by a bus tomorrow? Or some free radical could shoot through one of your cells and flip it over into a cancer cell.”

And he was like, “Oh yeah, I meant barring all that stuff.”

Which is fine, I guess, and I knew what he meant. But that is the stuff. That’s the stuff that happens. We pretend like death and disease only come to those who ‘deserve’ them. We pretend like only alcoholics suffer breakdowns and terrible mood swings. We pretend that only smokers get cancer. And, more insidiously, the moment someone falls ill, we re-label them. They’re not like us. They’re disabled people. We’re not disabled. We’re healthy. We know, intellectually, that there is no moral difference between us and them, but just being able to think of it in those terms–as two very separate camps–is comforting, because it ignores how easy it is to cross from one into the other.

On this day, I give thanks to my past self for deciding, five years ago, to quit drinking

5-years-soberMost things in life don’t live up to the hype. But, for me at least, quitting drinking did. Everything good in my life flows from that moment. After I quit drinking, I almost immediately became much more serious about my writing. In the first year after quitting, I finished my first novel. In the second, I finished my second (and so on). I was able to make plans for the future. I was able to learn how to make and sustain friendships in an organized fashion. I was even able to start having romantic relationships (yeah, I know, I’m like the only alcoholic who never got laid…it’s so annoying).

I had a whole other post written here and it contained scattered musings on recovery, but I think today isn’t the day for that. Today is the day for me to say that I feel profoundly grateful to that person, five years ago, who decided to stop.

I really have no idea why he did it. As the years pass, it seems more and more crazy to me that he—on the basis of remarkably little information regarding what would happen—actually decided to quit doing something that was such an integral part of his life. I mean, at the time, I remember feeling afraid for my life. But that’s all I had: fear. I had no positive vision for the future. I didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t know what I’d become. In fact, my worry was the opposite. I worried that I’d change so much that I wouldn’t be myself anymore, and I was only able to quit after I’d reassured myself that that wouldn’t happen.

Which it did, of course! I’ve changed so much that it’s absurd. People routinely describe me using the antonyms of words that they would’ve used eight years ago. They’ll say, “Oh, Rahul is so organized. He’s so dependable. He’s so good at talking to people,” where they once might’ve said “Rahul is disorganized, unreliable, and anti-social.” It’s weird that I’m now particularly accomplished in the same areas where I was once particularly bad.

You know, I always used to think recovering alcoholics were being ridiculous when they said, “My worst day sober is better than my best day of drinking,” but I don’t anymore. In fact, to me that seems like an almost banal thing to say.

Obviously my best sober day is better than my best day of drinking. Because even on my best day of drinking—my euphoric, most productive and social moment—my life was still a mess!

And it was that person: myself at what was literally one of my loneliest and most depressed and disorganized points, who had to face one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make. Isn’t that crazy? The points in life which we require the most determination and confidence are always the times when we have the least to spare.

Anyway, I’m really glad that I no longer have to face problems like, “Should I keep drinking or should I stop?” And the reason I’m free of these conundrums is because my past self solved them for me. So, umm, that’s pretty awesome. And it’s a gift that I reap every day.

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I’d define a compulsion as an act which your brain chemistry compelled you to do, but then did not reward you for

You get it? Because dopamine makes you, like, want stuff...
You get it? Because dopamine makes you, like, want stuff…

Still pondering The Willpower Instinct. For me, the most revelatory chapter was the one on how when we want something, we assume it’ll make us happy (or at least bring us pleasure), even though that’s often not the case. In this chapter, the author explains that dopamine is the brain chemical that mediates how much we want something, however it has nothing to do with how much we enjoy it. Thus, when we do things, we’re trying to stimulate the release of dopamine in our brain…but that release does not correspond to a feeling of pleasure. The only subjective emotion that we experience is a cessation of wanting.

Now, I sort of already knew that, but I had mostly heard about it in the context of smoking cigarettes. I know from personal experience that the magnitude of the compulsion to smoke is in no way mirrored by the pleasure that a cigarette brings. I wanted to smoke much more than I actually enjoyed the act of smoking.

However, dopamine is also the culprit in lots of compulsive behaviors. For instance, internet browsing–the compulsion to click on another link or open another tab or go to another webpage or check your email one more time–is all based on this desire: this implicit promise that if we do these things, then there’s a chance of pleasure. But, actually, the compulsion is far greater than the desire. The maximum joy I’m going to get from reading an article on the web is much less than the need that I feel to go and find one to click on.

There’s also a corollary to this, which is that some things bring us pleasure but only carry a very weak desire. For instance, now that I’ve started regularly exercising, I can finally attest: exercising does make you happy. It’s a remarkably good and robust feeling. I know that after I exercise I’m going to feel much better–oftentimes for a good 3-6 hours–than I did before it. Nonetheless, I still feel very little desire to exercise.

It’s just a quirk of our neurochemistry. Possibly there’s something evolutionary involved here. Maybe our brain gains some evolutionary advantage tofromrewarding us for exertion, but little evolutionary advantage from encouraging us to engage in unnecessary exertion? I don’t know.

But this information has had pretty profound implications for my world view. You see, I had always more-or-less seen life as a trade-off between momentary pleasure and attaining lasting goals (like being productive and maintaining my health). I think this comes from drinking. For me, drinking heavily was really fun. When I stopped drinking, I lost that pleasure. And this is a pretty classic framework that influences lots of human beings: the idea that life is a choice between sense-pleasure and a deeper, more spiritual sense of joy.

But I think I was ignoring the fact that lots of things aren’t really like drinking. I do (or did) so many things that don’t really bring me much pleasure. Watching the day’s seventh episode of Law and Order isn’t pleasurable. Browsing the internet for three hours isn’t pleasurable. Checking my email twenty times a day isn’t pleasurable. Buying a gadget isn’t really pleasurable (or, actually, browsing for new gadgets is pleasurable…actually spending money on them is not that pleasurable).

But I was constrained by my worldview. I assumed that because I wanted to do these things, then there must be some value in them.

Now I feel very liberated.

This has mainly made itself clear to me in my attitude while I am reading. Normally, when I am reading, I feel a constant desire to interrupt myself and look something up on Wikipedia or check my email or see what happened on Facebook. And I not-infrequently give in to these desires. When I do, I assume (in some unconscious way) that Facebook was just more interesting to me than the book was.

But that’s not true at all. Reading is actually far more pleasurable than browsing the internet, but it doesn’t carry a strong compulsion in the way that Facebook does. I think that’s because reading isn’t fast and colorful and unpredictable. Anyway, now I’ve learned to recognize that compulsion for what it is and to tell myself, “No. The Facebook actually isn’t a more pleasurable activity than reading Our Mutual Friend.”

And that feels really good. The world makes much more sense now.

I am now four years sober.

The four year chip that I would've gotten, if I went to AA meetings
The four year chip that I would’ve gotten, if I went to AA meetings

Over the weekend, I hit the fourth anniversary of the day that I stopped drinking. I am now four years sober! Woooooooooooooo!

It is pretty weird to me that I don’t drink. I know lots of people who do. And I spend a lot of time with them while they’re drinking. But I still don’t do it. It’s, like, this major decision that I made and that I now stick to unswervingly regardless of circumstances. I wonder if this is what it feels like to be a Christian?

I guess we all gain new identities along the way. Like, I am also a queer person (still equally weird to me, by the way). And a Democrat (sort of). And an atheist (sort of). And a science fiction writer (sort of). All things that I, in some sense, chose to espouse.

I remember four years ago, when I first quit drinking, I was really worried that I was going to become a different person. And I convinced myself that wasn’t going to happen. And, in some sense, it didn’t: I still feel pretty much the same.

But it also did.

People view me in a completely different way now. They think of me as a self-motivated, responsible person. Recently, some friends of mine in my grad program called me “a morning person.” That is so laughable to me. Yes, nowadays I wake up at 7 AM*, but no one who knew me for the first 25 years of my life would’ve ever said that I was an early riser. I made a conscious choice to start getting up at the same time every day.

Before I stopped drinking, I wasn’t a very organized or self-directed person. The slight obsessiveness that now characterizes my life is something that arose almost entirely within the last four years.

 

Anyway, I am happy to report that the year passed without significant temptations, and that I have almost no desire to drink.

I recently spoke to a former classmate who also quit drinking awhile back, and he told me that he felt like former alcoholics can’t really recover unless they work on the reason why they drank and sort out all that emotional stuff. I am not sure that I agree. I think that if you have a certain sort of brain chemistry, the reason for drinking is obvious: it feels really, really, really good.

In general, the vagueness and patchiness of the human memory is a pretty good thing. I distinctly remember how being drunk often felt extremely amazing on a physical and emotional level, and how it made life seem glamorous and beautiful. But although I can recall that I felt like that, I can’t resurrect the feeling itself.

But I am pretty sure that if I started drinking again, I’d immediately become aware of exactly how good it felt, and it would become much more difficult to justify not drinking.

That’s why I don’t drink at all. Not because drinking is some irrational compulsion that would destroy my life, but because it is a completely rational compulsion that would destroy my life. If the point of life is to feel really, really good (and a fairly good case can be made that it is), then, for some people, drinking heavily makes a lot of sense.

But since I can’t really remember that feeling, drinking seems like complete madness. I don’t have the room in my life to be out of control for even a single night, much less for days or weeks at a time.

 

*How absurd is it that 7 AM passes for early rising in the world of graduate school?

Whenever I start enjoying life, I start to become really afraid of death

Life___and_death_by_Redjuice1For my obligatory Thanksgiving post, I will just say that right now I am very thankful to be alive. It is an exquisite pleasure to be able to be able to set goals, make progress towards them, and generally feel the slow extension of my mastery over a greater and greater portion of both my life and the world around me. I feel very little anxiety. The future will be full of challenges, because I am setting out to do challenging things, and I expect that horrible things will happen to me, but I’ll get over them, eventually. And even if I don’t, the worst thing that can happen is that I’ll die.

I cannot pretend, though, that I feel no anxiety over death. Normally, the fact of death is not something that particularly bothers me. But whenever I get into a very high-functioning state, a little anxiety does start to creep in: I feel that soothsayer whispering in my ear, “This is all going to end, someday…”

For me, that day is almost unimaginably far away. I’ve slowly come to terms with the fact that–according to actuarial tables–I have at least fifty more years of life left. Since, for the last ten years, I’ve more-or-less believed that I wouldn’t live past 50, this is a startling expansion of life. I’ve even started saving for my retirement!

However, I know that it’s coming almost faster than I can bear. One thing about doing so much daily logging is that you see how quickly time passes. I look at my spreadsheet and think, “Oh god, has it really been two whole weeks since that night when I ate 3500 calories?” Something happened during those days, but in that moment, the time is elided–it feels like nothing happened at all. And I know that’s at least a little bit like what I’ll feel like in 50 years. I’ll try to remember what’s happened between then and now and I won’t be able to think of anything at all. And then I’ll die.

The analogue, for me, is all the time that I’ve frittered away over the past fifteen years. When I was drinking, I used to say, “I have no regrets. I’ve always done exactly what I wanted to do.”

And that was true, at the time. But now I have regrets. Right now, every day of my life is, on an experiential level, much better than it was when I was between the ages of 12 and 23. In the past four years, I’ve had more fun and learned more and experienced more and achieved more than in all the rest of my life that came before that time. When I was in grade school, I tried to stretch one day’s worth of experience and make it last a week: I’d replay video games and re-read books and live inside my mind and never venture outside my comfort zone. And when I went to college, I did new things, but they were the wrong things: they were fun things, but they weren’t things that stayed with you. Most of my college experiences literally made no impression on me–they were wiped clean the day after they happened. It’s only in the last four years that I’ve really learned what it means to be alive.

And it’s not about material circumstances. It’s not about having friends or free time or selling stories. I remember even during my first year of sobriety, when I was at work for ten hours a day and I’d come home to my parents’ h and struggle to stay awake as I did my obligatory 2 hours of reading and 2 hours of writing. And I’d go to sleep at midnight and then lay awake, unable to sleep, for six hours, and then, when the alarm went off, I’d simply lay motionless and stare at the ceiling in hopeless frustration–how could anyone possibly expect me to do something after only three hours of sleep! My arm used to ache with the tension from all the smoking and caffeine. And I barely knew anyone in the city and wasn’t sure how to meet people, so I’d go weeks without seeing or speaking to anyone.

I can’t say that I made very much progress during that year. Like, whoah, at this point in 2010, I still living in my parents’ house in DC, I was still smoking, still overweight, had never completed a novel, didn’t know how to talk to people, had only published three stories at professional rates, and was generally kind of anxious and hapless.

But that was a year when I was, for real, doing everything that I could possibly do.

That is not a year that I regret. It’s not a year that I’d take back.

I can’t say the same about the ten years before it, though. Some people set out at age 14 with the same spirit of wonderment and determination that I had at age 23. And those people get to experience nine more years of life than I ever will! And those nine years are ones where you have huge quantities of free time, substantial disposable income, and are at the peak of both your physical beauty and your ability to learn!

I do mourn for the loss of those nine years. If I’d been able to really use them, then today I’d be a far richer person.

Obviously, I’m not dead yet. I’m still a young person. I have plenty of vitality left in me. And some would say that many people go their whole lives without discovering how to live (although I’d question whether that’s really true–it’s unbelievable to me that a person could stay in a rut for decades at a time).

But I only bring up the nine lost years because thinking about them carries some of the same anxiety as thinking about death. The fact is, they’re gone. And it’s pretty meaningless for me to say that I wish I’d lived them. Even if I had, they’d still be gone. Although something of those years would’ve stayed with me, the bulk of them would’ve evaporated, just like most years do. Even if I’d lived those years, I’d still be here, now, doing something. The regret just comes from feeling like there could’ve been more–feeling like I had something and I wasted it. Similarly, fear of death is about all of life’s possibilities that I won’t ever get to realize: all the experiences I’ll never have, people I’ll never meet, historical figures that I’ll never get to assassinate using my time-travel machine.

In some ways, though, that’s a positive feeling. Because there’ve been plenty of times in my life when I felt that everything was the same, that there was nothing new to learn, that life was meaningless. For me, the fear of death is a reminder that I value my life.

A conversation I have had several times in the last week (Baltimore is kind of a small town)

When you stop going to AA meetings, it can be a little awkward. Because then you feel compelled to have the following conversation:

Speaker What is said What is meant
Me: “Hey, how’s it going?” “Look, I’m not ashamed to come up and talk to you. That’s because I haven’t started drinking.”
Him: “Oh, what’s up? How’ve you been?” “Have you started drinking again?”
Me: “Oh, doing pretty good. Been in DC a lot.” “The reason I haven’t been going to meetings is because I haven’t been around! Not because I’ve been drinking!”
Him: “Great. Hope you’ve been having a good time…” “…a good time drinking!”
Me: “Welp, I’ll see you again soon.” “No, dude. I definitely have not been drinking.”
Him: “Yeah, you too. Hey, it was good to see you. Stay in touch.” “…call me when you want to stop drinking!”

Why is there a spiritual side to becoming sober?

I am not a huge Alcoholics Anonymous person. Before getting sober, I went to maybe a dozen meetings and always found them to be a bit of a letdown. People in meetings are fairly friendly and inviting, but it’s still a social scene. They’re mostly there to talk to people they know, and it’s up to the newcomer to break in and make himself known…which is not exactly easy if you’re still within the throes of alcoholism (with all its attendance angst, depression, and social anxiety).

Barack-Obama-12782369-2-402
My Higher Power

After I quit drinking, I made the conscious decision to not go to any more meetings. I didn’t go to my first meeting as a sober person until my 1 year anniversary, and I never worked the program or got a sponsor or anything.

However, I’ve recently started attending meetings here in Baltimore! Not as any kind of desperate lunge for help, but more just because I felt like it’d be good to get out there, get involved in the sober community, etc. And it’s been pretty fun. Now that I’ve spent three years learning how to socialize, it’s really no problem to interact with a roomful of people with whom I have what’s actually a fairly strong connection.

For me, and for most people, the main sticking point with AA is its religiosity. It really is a program whose basis is asking “a Higher Power” to come down and cure your alcoholism. I mean, yeah, you can choose whatever you want as your Higher Power, but it’s pretty clear (if you look into the AA doctrine) that that’s a middle step. Eventually, you’re supposed to realize that your Higher Power is some kind of omnipotent, all-loving God.

When I was first getting sober, I used to joke that my Higher Power was Barack Obama. It made sense to me. Barack Obama is the most powerful being in the known universe. And I’m pretty sure that if he could do anything about it, he’d try to help me get sober.

But all joking aside, I do understand why AA is a spiritual program. Although there is a practical aspect to quitting drinking*, there’s also something spiritual about quitting drinking. Almost unwittingly, sobriety involves a reordering of your moral and ethical priorities.

AA is full of truisms. And one of the truisms is, “Your best thinking is what got you here” (i.e. don’t think, just follow the program). And there’s something to that. I lived life in a very straightforward manner: I wanted to be happy. And when I found something that made me happy, I used it until it almost destroyed my life.

But the happiness that it gave me was a real thing. It’s hard to overstate how euphoric I could sometimes be when I was drinking. Like, drinking made me as happy as any triumph in sober life–selling stories, getting into Hopkins, getting an agent–has ever made me. And it was an effortless happiness that I could get week after week!

That’s a pretty crazy thing to turn your back on. And when you do something like that, you’re saying–whether you realize it or not–that the physical emotion that we call happiness–is not the most important thing in your life.

Which leaves kind of a void. What is the most important thing in my life?

I can’t really say….

…but it’s definitely not God.

*The main practical aspect of quitting drinking is just the knowledge–strange and unintuitive as it may seem–that if you take even one drink you’re probably going to end up spiraling into full-blown relapse. There’s probably some science for why this is, but I think it’s just because alcoholism is a fairly strong compulsion that you mainly beat down through pure desperation. You’re so scared of the consequences that you’re able to resist the craving to drink and, over time, the craving decreases. However, the brain remembers what it was like to be addicted. If you take even one drink, the craving comes back at near its original strength, but, since your desperation has also waned, you’re not quite as able to fight it. The counterintuitive part of this is that it’s really hard to remember what it was like to need to drink once you don’t need to anymore. Once you’re in control, it’s hard to believe that anything could take that control away. However, I have no doubt that if I took a few drinks, I’d be out of control in no time.

I do not believe that introversion is a real personality trait

The number of people who will tell you they are introverts is astonishing. You can talk to the most dynamic, engaging person in the world–someone with thousands of friends, who goes to parties every night–and he’ll tell you, “Oh, I actually find it hard to talk to people. And I usually prefer to be alone. I’m kind of an introvert.”

The truth is, everyone sometimes finds it hard to talk to people and everyone sometimes wants to be alone. The charmer who hops effortlessly from party to party is a myth: even within the maelstrom, there is awkwardness and loneliness.

When you read online about introversion and extroversion, it will focus on “energy.” Interacting with people imparts energy to introverts and drains energy from extroverts. But, in my life, there’s pretty much no activity that gives me energy. I wake up with a certain amount of it. Then I run down throughout the day until I finally fall asleep. All activity costs effort. Some things cost less than others (TV costs less than reading; going hungry costs more than eating), but nothing happens automatically.

If I didn’t do things just because they “drained energy” from me, then I would never do anything other than sleep.

That’s why the concept of introversion rang true to me for so long. I was like, “Wow, that dinner party really wore me out. I never want to talk to anyone again.” Because the truth was that social interaction did drain me more than most activities. The problem was that I never figured out why it was so draining.

It’s just like how some people find swimming really tiring…because they have a terrible technique that dissipates all their kinetic energy. If they had better form, swimming would become much less tiring (though it would never cease to require some effort, of course).

The reason I was drained by social interaction was because I was really bad at it.

I required huge amounts of alcohol to talk to strangers…so much alcohol that even though I met many people, I was never sure how it happened. And since social interaction was such a black box (input alcohol, output human connection), when I was sober, I was just as clueless as ever. Whenever I went to a party or gathering that was largely filled with people I didn’t know, I’d lurk on the fringes or disappear to smoke cigarettes by myself (I told myself I was “recharging”). And when I’d come home after a gathering, I’d feel so exhausted. I’d sit at home and tell myself that I disliked other people…that their conversation was so shallow and they were so plastic and what was the point of small talk anyway and that all I needed were a few close friends because who needs a horde of fake, surface-level acquaintances anyway?

If you’d asked me then, I’d probably have said that I was an introvert.

I mean, people make this distinction between people who are shy and who want to be social, and the “real” introverts. But I definitely thought I was one of the real ones. I enjoyed spending time by myself. To this day, I have no problem with not seeing another human being for a day and generally feel few pangs of acute loneliness when I am by myself. And being around people was very exhausting for me. I dreaded it, and I frequently cancelled or minimized my social engagements by telling myself, “Oh, I just need to be myself today.”

But then I stopped drinking, and, by and by, I made a very concerted effort to learn how to talk to people. I won’t say that I am a dynamo of wit and charm. In fact, part of the learning process involved letting go of this idea that social interaction involves holding forth and entertaining other people. But I do pretty well. I can sometimes talk to strangers (a thing that few people, every very charismatic people, are truly good at doing) and am pretty good at talking to casual acquaintances.

And, surprise, I enjoy social situations much more than I ever did before. I am much less likely to need to go off by myself to “recharge.” But nothing happened to my personality. I still feel pretty much the same inside. I just learned a few really simple things that smooth over social interactions and then I consciously practiced them until they became easier (though they’re still not quite second nature).

I was telling a friend about this, and she was like, “But some people just know how to do all these things. Some people just know how to start conversations and keep them going. Some people just know what to say…”

Well, yeah, but so what? It’s the same process as anything. A kid becomes a pro basketball player because when he was eight years old, he happened to be a little better than everyone on the team, so the coach gave him more playing time, which lead to him getting more practice, which led to him improving faster than everyone else, which lead to him becoming the star of the next team, and so on. A tiny initial difference in skills is translated, over twenty years, into a huge final difference.

The same is true with social skills. Kids who are just a bit friendlier in grade school acquire more friends, gain more confidence, practice their social skills more, etc, etc, until they turn into adults who are seen as “extroverted.”*

But social interaction isn’t supposed to come about as a result of good skills. It’s supposed to arise as a spontaneous connection: souls calling out to each other in sympathy. The result is that we essentialize social outcomes (“Oh, I find it hard to talk to people because I’m an introvert”) rather than looking at them as things we can improve (“Oh, I find it hard to talk to people because I never know what to say when there’s a lull in the conversation. Why don’t I just sit down right now and think of five things to say, so I’ll always have them ready…”)

I know that people will read this and say, “Oh, Rahul’s experience is not my experience. I’m a real introvert.” And that’s absolutely fine. Actually, it’s shockingly presumptuous for me to say that I don’t believe in peoples’ self-analysis of their own personality traits and desires.

And believe me, if you came up to me and said that you were an introvert, I would never disagree with you or ask you to change. So let’s take questions of identity and leave them to one side. People can continue to self-describe as introverts if they want to, and if they’re really satisfied with how they are, then that’s great. But when people come up to me and say, “Oh, I wish I was the kind of person who could talk to people easily” or “I wish I was the kind of person who could make lots of friends” then I’m like…well…you can be.

*Although if you talk to really charming people, you’d be surprised at how often they’ve put some amount of conscious study into developing their charm

I feel like a lot of people expect me to weigh in, somehow, on whether or not they should stop drinking

190512-186784-idunnoWhen meeting people, I don’t hide that I am three and a half years sober. I mean, I don’t bring it up apropos of nothing. But if someone asks me why I don’t drink, I see no reason to be coy or to make up a reason.

One common reaction to this, though, is that sometimes my interlocutor will say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve been really feeling like I should cut back.”

I don’t think I’ve ever told someone that they should quit drinking, and I hope that I never will. If anyone had ever told me that, I would have been highly offended, and it wouldn’t really have done any good. Furthermore, many extremely heavy drinkers seem to be none the worse for alcohol.

Whether or not a person should quit drinking is entirely up to them. My only thoughts on the subject are that, well, let me start by saying that some people are much heavier drinkers than others, okay. I’d say that if you’re a man who drinks more than five drinks in a night and more than fifteen in a week (or 3 and 10, if you’re a woman), then in most cultural contexts (within America), that’s some pretty heavy drinking.

So, if you’re a heavy drinker, and you are:

  • Depressed*
  • Anxious
  • Unproductive
  • Unmotivated
  • Lonely
  • Subject to chronic health problems

Then there is a very good chance that if you quit drinking, those problems will either disappear entirely or be substantially alleviated.

Quitting drinking is a big step, but it really need have no negative consequences on your life, beyond the loss of the pleasurable moods that’re associated with intoxication. I think a common fear, for people, is that without alcohol they will no longer be socially successful. For instance, I used to think that the only way I could socialize was with alcohol. However, once I quit drinking, I became much more socially adept and am now able to do things (like dance) that I used to have a hard time doing even when I was very drunk. There is nothing that a person can do while drunk that is not easier to do while sober. Even partying all night is much easier when you’re sober (and you feel much better the next day). The only thing is that sometimes the motivation to do certain things is missing when you’re not drunk. For instance, I have never, since I quit drinking, had the desire to smash random objects upon the pavement.

So yes, I have no advice on whether you should quit drinking. All I can say is that: a) quitting drinking has no concrete downsides (other than the loss of periodic chemical euphoria–which is, of course, a fairly considerable loss =); and b) if you are a heavy drinker, there is not inconsiderable chance that quitting drinking will solve many of your personal problems.

Now, oftentimes people wonder whether these positive effects can be achieved by cutting back. To that, I have no answer. As an intermediate stage in my journey towards sobriety, I realized that I really did not enjoy moderate drinking–I only enjoyed out-of-control drinking. Thus, I decided that for me it would either be sobriety or out-of-control drinking. Even now, I am never tempted by the thought of drinking “just one beer”. The temptation is always to drink a whole fifth of whiskey =)

*At some point, someone will always point out something like, “Alcohol is a depressant, so of course it makes you depressed.” No. Please never say this to me. Drugs are not depressants because they make you emotionally depressed; they’re depressants because they cause central nervous system depression–decreased rate of breathing; decreased heart rate; loss of consciousness. When well-meaning misuse medical terminology in this simplistic way, it allows heavy drinkers to tune them out. Yes, alcohol can make you emotionally depressed (anyone who’s been super hungover knows this), but so can plenty of drugs that are not CNS depressants (i.e. most stimulants–cocaine, molly, amphetamines, etc–can also make you emotionally depressed). And there are also plenty of depressants that do not cause emotional depression. For instance, antihistamines are CNS depressants, but emotional depression is not a common side effect of taking Benadryl.