Joseph Gelfer found that when he became a teetotaler, he became genuinely free to be who he wanted to be.
I used to enjoy alcohol, a lot. I was never one for moderation. I knew it was not really sustainable health-wise, but found it very difficult to imagine a life without booze: giving up right now rather than some hypothetical point in the future felt a bit like moving to Mars. From the age of 18 I had a maximum of five days off in a row without alcohol and this occurrence required being half way up the Himalayas. I managed to wind down the consumption in my early thirties to three days off, four days on, but four days on when you’re not so great at moderation is still not so good. I loved booze, but also resented being somewhat beholden to it, which for someone with delusions of superhuman grandeur felt like a significant compromise to my sense of self.
I found arguments about health, relationships and wasted money uncompelling as a path to giving up: not even having children and wanting to be better for them made a difference. Ultimately, for me, the path away from alcohol was a thinking exercise, which has lead me to believe that most problematic relationships with substances of any kind are not physical, rather existential.
The Lightbulb Moment
I came to this realization during a time when I was feeling rather sorry for myself. In particular, I had allowed myself to resent my domestic circumstances of being married with children and a mortgage. I felt that I should really be out doing wild and interesting things: instead of being at home watching TV I should be deep in the Amazon guzzling psychedelic brews with shamans. Then I started to unpack the constituent parts of that desire and concluded that what I really wanted was not something exotic, rather something extreme. I wanted to get out of my mind, which actually meant wanting to get out of my status quo consciousness.
I then asked myself, what was the most extreme thing I could do as a person that had been drinking alcohol for every week of his adult life? The answer, of course, is extreme sobriety. I framed this as the ultimate shift in consciousness: this was a trip from which you did not come down or return home; this was a trip that kept going forever.
On the evening of 6 December 2009 I sat with a glass of cheap red wine and decided that the next day was the beginning of the New Order. The first week was something of a challenge, inasmuch as it felt like a clock-watching exercise, chalking up days which were all populated with analysis of the exercise and the viability of its longevity. By the second week I was in unchartered territory (remember the previous five day record?) and this brought a certain amount of renewed energy. In the third week a tangible sense of grief set in. I knew by this point that there was indeed life after booze, but it didn’t look very appealing. I felt that the drinking me had died, and this brought with it a feeling of significant loss. The question then became: was it worth it?
I won’t lie to you, this sense of grief lasted for months. Whenever it was one of my historical on-days (Thursday-Sunday) I would think wistfully of the old times; whenever I walked by a bar and saw people enjoying themselves I had a pang of envy. But slowly that sense of grief began to recede. At some point I realized I was going for a day or more without the idea of alcohol even crossing my mind. And then some breakthrough moments occurred.
One of the things I used to enjoy about alcohol was that it felt like coming home. Whether in a foreign city or in my front room, having a drink brought a certain sense of union, a bit like Neo seeing the code. But once the recalibration phase had completed I began to get those moments of union quite randomly: on the train to work, strolling down the high street, sitting in a cafe. Indeed, one day it occurred to me that both qualitatively and quantitatively I was experiencing a greater sense of union than ever before.
One of the things that happens when you don’t drink is that everyone demands to know why when you turn down alcohol past 6pm. It’s possible to dance around the subject with excuses such as “I’m driving” or “just having a week off.” But I like to gently confront people with the truth stating with a smile, “I don’t drink: I’m not so good at moderation.” I initially thought this would make people feel uncomfortable, but it usually does the opposite. I have lost count of the amount of times people have launched into a story about their own troubles with moderation. I then usually tell them about the “thinking exercise” that brought us to the conversation at hand, and that is the only excuse they need to identify the existential issue that is causing those troubles.
In short, most people are drinking because they are petrified of being alone with their dreams and anxieties, as confronting both would often require a radical change in perspective and lifestyle. Indeed, it’s easy to become rather conspiratorial about all this and to start thinking that the reason why alcohol is so ubiquitous in society (a fact that becomes even more explicit after recalibration) is precisely so that people stay away from this realization, as addressing it usually requires unhooking oneself from many of the things that keep mainstream society operating in the way that it does. Indeed, I find that being teetotal can easily be framed as a significant countercultural gesture.
I therefore find it paradoxical when I see people consuming alcohol (and drugs) in the cause of freedom because I am left with the suspicion that such consumption is doing precisely the opposite. Do not hear me say here that people should stop consuming alcohol or taking drugs, but I would urge everyone to have a serious think about the true nature of freedom within the context of such consumption, and the many different shades of conformity and regulation.
photo: _bubby_ / flickr