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On Drinking Less in the Most Stressful Year Imaginable

I couldn't remember the last time I had tasted alcohol.
IMAGE Wil Stewart on Unsplash
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If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that things can change permanently—and somewhat paradoxically with the times.

At the very beginning of the Great Quarantine, I, like most sane people, was feeling stressed out, anxious, and more than a little uncertain about the future. On the first day of lockdown, at around three in the afternoon, I went to my liquor cart, poured myself three fingers of Japanese whisky, and started calling all of my closest friends. Then I poured another. And another. And another.

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By bedtime I had chattered to everyone in my favorites list and ripped through a bottle of Hibiki 21. For a brief, shining couple of hours I felt pretty good. This wouldn’t be so bad. Naturally, the next morning I rolled out of bed feeling like someone had tap danced on my head wearing golf cleats. Never again. I swore to myself. Never again.

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Yeah, no. For the next four months, as the world began to unravel in new and exciting ways, my drinking throttled up. I experimented with making craft cocktails using seasonal ingredients. I took pulls from a 40-year-old scotch that I usually reserve for Big Life Events.

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I slammed wines from around the world—Argentina! Burgundy! Texas Hill country!—at dinner. Then, when my favorite local bars (Like Esquire's 2018 Best Bars in America winner True Laurel) started selling to-go cocktails, I was first in line to pick up a pack of pre-batched martinis. Every night was either a new opportunity to learn more about booze or support local businesses that I knew were struggling.

You may have read about how drinking skyrocketed during the pandemic. I had my own anecdotal evidence that I was hitting the bottle more. I wasn’t sure of the actual hard numbers, though, so I reached out to Dr. George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “It appears that sales at off-premise alcohol outlets (grocery stores and liquor stores) increased by around 65 percent in March before declining to roughly 16 percent above normal in August,” he told me over email.

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But he also added, “Taking into account the decline in consumption at bars and restaurants during the pandemic, it appears that total alcohol sales in the U.S. probably increased around five to 10 percent in March and declined to pre-pandemic levels in May.”

In March, we were all likely stress-drinking at home. And in an interesting insight into human behavior, when we got used to this new reality, around May, we went back to our boozing levels from before.

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Not me, though. I was still knocking back double my usual intake until about a month ago, when suddenly I just started to drink less. Thankfully, I’m not haunted by the specter of alcoholism that has plagued the men in my family for generations, so I just tapered off slowly without giving it much thought. At first it manifested as skipping my 5 p.m. cocktail. I woke up the next day feeling a little less sleepy, a little more clear, and decided that I wouldn’t drink again the next night. Suddenly I was going two, three, eight days dry until, finally, I couldn't remember the last time I had tasted alcohol.

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I suspect two major life events sparked this. The first was my wife became pregnant with our first child, which meant I no longer had someone to share a cocktail or bottle of merlot. The other was, like many men my age (39!), I’m doing the most cliched, obnoxious thing possible and training for a triathlon. As such, I’m getting up early and running or swimming or biking. And while a quick dip in the chilly San Francisco Bay is a pretty decent way to sober yourself up, it’s a lot more pleasant to jump in when your head isn’t pounding.

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Then there’s the social aspect. Pre-lockdown, most of my interactions with friends or colleagues typically revolved around cocktails. Want a source to talk? Buy them a drink. Want to let your friends vent about a tyrannical boss? Buy them a drink. Want to hear a PR flak pitch you a half-baked idea? Have them buy you a drink. But suddenly, the foundation of my entire social experience vanished literally overnight.

“This pandemic has put the spotlight on drinking,” says Ruby Warrington, author of Sober Curious and the upcoming Sober Curious Reset. “The way we operate, the way we interact with one another. A lot of people are realizing: I am much more attached to this behavior than I probably wanted to acknowledge.”

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So, with no one asking to grab an IPA after work and no reason to whip up an Old Fashioned at home, I started to notice all the classic effects of alcohol reduction. I slept better and woke up feeling fresh. It was easier to concentrate. Physically, I not only clocked an uptick in energy, but also more definition in my abs than I had seen in years

Suddenly I was going two, three, eight days dry until, finally, I couldn't remember the last time I had tasted alcohol.

There was something else. Something harder to articulate. I was just better at doing things. Writing, which usually has me pulling out my hair and screaming into a pillow, became a lot easier, with words pouring out effortlessly at times. I was more patient, too. When someone cut me off in traffic, instead of my normal combination of honking and screaming, I just shrugged it off.

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For those who want to explore sobriety, there are almost countless resources online. Facebook has multiple groups like Hip Sobriety that help everyone from recovering addicts to the newly sober-curious. "I’d recommend reading The Naked Mind by Annie Grace," says Warrington. "And The Biology of Desire by Marc David Lewis if you want a really brainy book."

In the Before Times, there was also the rise of bars that served up nothing but alcohol-free drinks. Mostly confined to New York, one such spot, Listen Bar, began as a pop-up in Brooklyn and now hosts virtual parties and online classes on making ABV-free cocktails. “I didn’t start Listen Bar to go on an anti-alcohol crusade and take us back to Prohibition,” says founder Lorelei Bandrovschi. I did it because there just aren’t many options where you can have the social experience without the alcohol.”

A big part of my job used to involve flying. Last year I clocked hundreds of thousands of miles in air travel, commuting from my home in San Francisco to the Esquire offices in New York and also hitting places like Spain, Vietnam, and Hong Kong. My body clock was almost constantly obliterated. At the beginning of this year, I was staring down the barrel of an even more brutal travel schedule, and dreading it. The idea of being crammed into an aluminum tube and hurtling through the sky—even on the way to some decidedly awesome places like Monaco and Singapore—made me physically ill. Now, I’m not sure when I’ll be getting on a plane again. Do I miss traveling? Yes. But even when it's safe, I won’t go back to non-stop globetrotting. I’ll be more focused with my movements. Ten international trips a year? Eh, how about three.

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I think that’s where my relationship with alcohol is: reduced and more deliberate. Will I give up drinking entirely? Nah. But if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that things can change permanently, and that’s not always a bad thing. There is no more “getting back to normal.” So, I’m treating drinking less like a habit. Maybe I’ll have a beer after I complete that triathlon. Or I’ll sip a glass of champagne with my best friend to celebrate his first Emmy win.” There’s a small taste of Pappy Van Winkle I’ve been secreting away for years that I’ll probably share with the people closest to me when my son is born in February. Whatever the case may be, the next time I raise my glass for a toast, it’ll feel just a little bit more special.

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This story originally appeared on Esquire.comMinor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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Daniel Dumas
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