All or Nothing?

By some small miracle, I managed to wend my way through the shitshow that was 2020 without consuming a single drop of alcohol. It was a conscious choice, and one that I adjusted to astonishingly quickly, surprising no one more than myself.

When 2021 rolled around, however, I found myself wrestling with whether I should continue on being alcohol free, or have the occasional drink? Facing this choice, weirdly, was impacting my peace of mind more than going through 2020 (of all years) without alcohol. The prospect of having my “first drink” after more than a year of abstinence loomed large in my consciousness, turning it a much bigger deal than it actually was. Better to get it over with, I thought, than have that first drink loaded with “meaning” or “consequence” — I could still, I reasoned, go back to being alcohol free just as easily as I did the first time around.

And so, on holidays after our Christmas lockdown, I had a glass of wine. I didn’t feel the need for a second glass; in fact, I didn’t have another glass at all until some weeks later.

But then, more recently, I found myself slipping back into old habits. Having one drink on a Friday evening was followed by three glasses of wine on a Saturday night.

And so, I’ve stopped again. Point blank — because I’ve discovered that’s the best way for me to do it.

Ironically, the next Divine Quality from the Bhagavad Gita I am looking into is self-restraint, which relates specifically to physical self-restraint. I am aware the timing, given my alcohol dilemma, could not be more perfect: for me, drinking is one of the only things in my life that seems to require an all or nothing approach, and it’s probably good for me to review my relationship with alcohol through that lens.

Gretchen Rubin, after conducting extensive research into habit formation, happiness and a bunch of other interesting things, has written at length about Abstainers and Moderators — you can read more about her insights here. Simply put, some people need to give things up completely to achieve their goals, while others are able to pursue their goals while indulging moderately.

You see, most of the time I am a classic Moderator: I’m really good at savouring things and exercising deliberate self-restraint. I can buy a block of chocolate and eat it piece by piece over several weeks. I can curb my intake of all sorts of things: sugar, caffeine, wheat, whatever. I have even been known to deliberately slow my (usually breakneck) reading pace to make a book I am loving last longer. At home and at work I live by the mantra of “do what you have to do, then do what you want to do”, and as a result I get a lot done. Admittedly, sometimes there is not as much “doing what I want to do” as I would like, but after many years of being rigorously self-restrained and self-disciplined in both these spheres, I am also learning to include and prioritise self-care in my routine.

When it comes to alcohol, however, I have discovered my situation is quite different. Drinking seems to be the only thing I am unable to moderate with the degree of self-restraint I would like (and believe me, coming from a long line of drama queens and control freaks, that is a big admission). Don’t get me wrong: I don’t drink myself into oblivion; I haven’t been drunk in a long time. In fact, the vast majority of the time I don’t drink at all. But after being alcohol free for a year, I am now able to see — very clearly — what was much more hazy before: that drinking inhibits the ability of my usually vigilant inner Moderator to do its job. And when my inner Moderator is unable to perform at its peak, I find it works best for me to bring out the Big Gun: the Abstainer.

Knowing yourself, said Aristotle, centuries ago, is the beginning of wisdom.

I’m grateful I now know myself well enough to understand that in most things, it is easy for me to find and walk the middle ground, to be a Moderator. I am also glad to have discovered that alcohol is the one thing that undermines my ability to exercise self-restraint, and that my best approach with drinking is to be an Abstainer.

I have also realised I no longer need to ask myself why it is that I can successfully moderate my behaviour in almost every way, but I don’t feel like I can when I drink? I no longer need to feel shame or embarrassment that my inner Moderator gets sabotaged by alcohol — because that’s what drinking does: it removes our inhibitions. And knowing this, I can choose to approach drinking differently.

Knowing yourself takes time than we’d like to admit, coupled with a willingess to observe ourselves keenly and confront what we see — even if sometimes we’d prefer not to. But I suspect no matter how unpleasant it is to stare those hard truths in the face, it’s always worth doing in the end.