When the binge becomes cringe
(Enormous disclaimer: I’m neither counselor, psychiatrist, nor 12-step program participant. I haven’t dealt with serious addiction. This is my experience, which may or may not be helpful to your personal situation.)
In 2013, I met a new drinking buddy.
I didn’t enjoy his company. He was obnoxious. He interrupted frequently when I was trying to enjoy my evening, or the game I was watching. He was annoyingly persistent, dropping truth bombs I didn’t want to hear.
But let’s back up a second.
I had a stereotypical Midwestern big college experience. At Michigan State, the weekend started on Thursday. And I was up for it. My partying never went beyond beer consumption, but there sure was a lot of it. And you know what? It was super fun, mostly. Except for the night someone stole my microwave. But that’s a story for another time.
When college was over, I packed up my stuff--and my beer binging habit.
It was a weekend thing--and not an every weekend thing--in my 20s and 30s. Hanging out on a college football Saturday, for example, I had no problem getting through seven or eight beers. Sometimes more.
This continued for 15 years.
But one fall day in 2013, I plopped down on the couch to watch a game. I cracked open what was probably my sixth beer.
That’s when I met my new drinking buddy.
From somewhere deep inside me, he rudely interrupted my evening with a simple question.
“What are you doing?”
What was I doing? Deluding myself.
First, let’s talk about the official definition of a drinking binge:
For men: five or more drinks over a two-hour period
For women: four or more drinks over a two-hour period
I’m reasonably certain this binging definition is sponsored by Budweiser. It’s a joke.
In my experience, anything over two drinks in an evening is a binge. The third drink leaves you legally impaired. And I know once I’ve had three, the slope gets more slippery.
Binge drinking into your 40s requires ignoring inconvenient details. It’s harder to keep bodily expansion in check. The recovery, that once arrived so easily, becomes an arduous bear crawl through cold mud.
Cutting down alcohol consumption is a fight on multiple fronts. It’s not just internal. Your friends do it, and we mimic the behavior of those around us. America’s advertising engine enthusiastically and incessantly supports it. To change a long-ingrained drinking habit is to walk into a stiff wind going up an icy hill. The elements conspire to work against you.
The big reset
Back to the question that first bubbled up that fall day: Just what was I doing, and why?
Hanging out, watching sports, trying to forget another corporate week filled with false urgencies and drummed up dramas.
My new drinking buddy pointed out the obvious: my escape wasn’t to a better place. It was to someplace lower, someplace darker. It created next-day friction that brought on the blues and anxieties, before sending me slogging into another week.
What followed was a long, slow process of self-examination. Progression and regression. Trial and error.
I was in a deeply ingrained behavior groove. It’s just what I did. And heavy drinkers tend to find each other socially, reinforcing the activity.
Over time, I whittled away at the beer habit. As the flow reduced to a trickle, and then to no beer at all, I realized beer made me feel like garbage. Even one beer makes me feel like a bloated, amorphous blob.
And mentally? I have no scientific basis to claim beer affected me differently than any other alcohol. But looking back, beer seemed to enhance negative emotions more than other forms of alcohol. Sadness, anger, anxiety--all more likely after a beer binge.
I still drink today. I have red wine with dinner most nights. I’ll have a drink when out with friends. Some experts say that’s still too much, that no amount is safe for either the brain or the body. But my binging days are behind me. I’m not more social when I drink excessively. I actually turn inward--a natural instinct accelerated by alcohol.
The ups and downs of going binge-free
Rainbows and unicorns will not appear to celebrate your healthier path. Changing ingrained habits is hard, even if you’re not addicted. I encountered plenty of challenges in making this change:
When you’re doing something different than the crowd, it can get lonely.
You may sometimes get left behind socially, especially if you moved in circles of heavier drinkers. They tend to move on once you’re no longer mirroring their habits.
People ask why you’re not drinking.
Even more absurd, if you do have a drink, some people will apply pressure to drink more. It seems insane that peer pressure to drink endures into middle age. But it does. High school never really ends.
If you’re an American football fan, the beer-bro culture is a giant black hole with the singular gravitational aim of pulling you into bad consumption habits. Anheuser-Busch InBev, for example, spent $230 million with the NFL in the 2019-2020 season. Signage, digital ads, TV, event sponsorships, radio--the “beer=fun” messaging is relentless.
On the other side of the challenges, the good things emerge:
You’ll feel better, both in the moment you would have over-imbibed, and the next day. You’ll have more money.
You’ll probably get leaner--it’s difficult to out-work a beer binging habit.
You’ll feel more centered and even.
You’ll understand who your real friends are, and who wanted someone to drink with.
You’ll sleep better.
If you’re male, your testosterone might improve.
Last call? Your call.
At this point, you might be thinking: “Screw you, man. YOLO. I’m good.”
Or, you might be like I was. The binge isn’t fun anymore. You’re sick of dragging down your hard work in the gym or on the trail. You’re sick of feeling off the next day. The fog. The headache. The inability to get traction in your day.
If that’s the case, you can reset things. You can make profound life changes, quickly or gradually. Some people won’t support you. But the best people in your life will.
I can’t tell you how to do it. It’s like working out. You have to find the system that works for you, and stick with it. Replace old habits with new ones. Set up rewards for your good behavior. If you’re not in an addiction situation, but merely a habitual one, applying basic psychology can be a tremendous help. Implement the incentive theory of motivation.
And here’s one other thing you can do: reach out to me. I don’t have things all figured out. But I recognized I wanted to change, and headed down another path. And I’m happy to talk about it.