The Sober Science: Sleep, Strength & Stamina
“Science is by its nature imperfect, but it is hugely important.” — John Oliver
I’m a firm believer in the scientific process, as it’s one of the best methods we have at arriving at “Truth” with a capital “T,” while simultaneously recognizing that new research and novel tools can advance, augment, and sometimes even undermine our existing understandings of the world.
It’s why I’m a vocal advocate of the integral work of our climate scientists. It’s why anti-vaxxers so thoroughly frustrate me. It’s why I don’t smoke cigarettes, don’t keep a gun in the home, and don’t think I’ll fall off the earth if I walk far enough.
Sometimes scientific findings can gnaw intrusively at something we may enjoy doing a great deal. For instance, not everyone was thrilled when we first tightened laws surrounding drinking and driving, as the practice had become quite commonplace, and it was certainly considered more convenient than leaving your car in an abandoned bar parking lot overnight.
Today, in my own classrooms, students’ jaws will drop and I’ll be met with incredulous glares, when I inquire whether we should create texting and driving laws that are as harsh as or even harsher than DUI laws. And yet study after study confirms: Texting and driving is more dangerous than drinking and driving. We simply prefer not to think of it this way, as texting is something with which many of us have grown up. But science has spoken, and it doesn’t care one way or another whether you’re better, worse, or think you’re better but are actually just as bad as others at doing both things at the same time.
I try to play devil’s advocate with my students and push back on their resistance to harsher texting and driving laws, and I do usually succeed in changing a small number of minds, or at least in getting a few to consider the issue more critically than they would otherwise.
And yet, even I must admit my own willful blindspot to science when it benefits me: Multiple, comprehensive studies now reveal alcohol to be the most dangerous drug on the planet, even more so than heroin, crack, and meth. And while the studies of course point to nuances that break down discrepancies between moderate uses of each drug (and for what it’s worth, doesn’t include Fentanyl), alcohol still doesn’t escape science’s highly-critical clutches. And with all factors considered, in many ways no other drug even comes close to alcohol, in terms of dangers to self and society combined.
So, what the hell am I to do with this damning verdict? After all, I’m a lover of science and its intricate processes, yet I’m also a lover of California varietals, homemade Sangria, Irish and Canadian whiskies, and vodka fermented from grape leaves.
If I sustained a lifetime of moderate or even low-consumption drinking, I may perhaps be able to reconcile these two loves. But what is a moderate drinker? I’m not being facetious with this question; I’m aware that science has given us estimates based on gender, weight, and genetics, but these are still only rough estimates in the vast scientific process. And increasing research is clearly demonstrating that any level of consumption, however small, of such a harmful drug is riskier than even the chance of heavy use.
Also, how do we classify millions of Americans who can imbibe heavy quantities of alcohol with great tolerance and not have work or interpersonal relationships significantly impaired?
I didn’t drink alcohol before my 18th birthday, and I didn’t drink it with any regularity until my 21st. For a short while I was your typical young drinker: slightly higher than normal weekend consumption and a penchant for cheaper, shittier beverages (mostly driven by financial necessity).
I began drinking heavily in graduate school. A tight-knit cohort of intelligent, thoughtful people made this easy: We were all drinking, we were all making smart driving decisions, we were all looking out for one another.
But the Ph.D. program I was enrolled in did not partner well with my generalized anxiety disorder. I soon began drinking every evening in order to numb sharp and frequent insecurities. When the university opened a pub, “evening” soon became a 4 pm after-class round (or two or three) with friends. My mind, racing from constantly reading thousands of pages of dense literary criticism and philosophical theory, while also operating in overdrive to keep up with my classmates, needed something daily to yank me down fast to a slower, more manageable pace. Not understanding how alcohol actually exacerbates anxiety, I simply added an antidepressant and regularly visited my psychiatrist, where I would, without fail, run into a different classmate in the waiting room each and every appointment.
What came first: The alcohol or the divorce?
Well, technically anxiety came first, by well over a decade. Anxiety seeped into every crevice of my first marriage, even before Chardonnay began to leak out of these same hollow entry points. Anxiety had turned an insecure kid with some unnecessary tummy and chin fat, into a walking skeleton before my 16th birthday.
But as my academic studies became increasingly esoteric and demanding, my brain began to believe that it required more substantial and potent reprieve. A cycle of fiery anxiety would be doused temporarily by alcohol, and re-fueled by the lingering fumes of withdrawal the following morning. This created a parallel cycle of miscommunication and a breakdown in intimacy that aided in super-charging the whole problem.
My first wife and I separated a few months after my 30th birthday, finally concluding a 7 year relationship. While I need to avoid being too hard on myself, and remember to pat myself on the back for the healthy things I did do to recover (travel, exercise, skydive, eat better), I can’t deny that my overall kinship with alcohol worsened. They say a divorce stirs up emotions similar to a death of a loved one, and alcohol again grabbed the reins and told my disoriented mind, “don’t worry, David, I got this. You just sit back and relax. Look, your favorite TV show is on. Let’s sink into the couch together and make it all better.”
More nights than I care to admit I blacked out and forgot what I had been watching. Fortunately, I never missed work.
My sleep patterns were just too horrible to remain asleep past 3 or 4 am. I guess that’s the silver lining of the sharp, double-edged sword.
Sober, my energy levels are through the roof. I have always been highly motivated to achieve things I deem important. I never received less than an A at UC Davis or UC Irvine. I won a top state award for my weekly column in the newspaper. I ran 10 miles a day, every day, for more than 20 years. I was professor of the year at a southern California college.
I don’t say these things to boast, as there are many things I struggle with (see: “Anxieties” with a capital “A” for starters). I mention them merely because I suspect they are what prevented so many people from seeing that I had a problem. Don’t get me wrong, there have been close friends and family members along the way who have raised the alarm (and thank you to each of them), but with sky-high alcohol tolerance and an assiduous disposition, my usual 120% could still pass for 100% in the workplace or in relationships.
I did not have a problem with alcohol, I long reasoned with myself, since I: a) did not drink in the mornings (excepting mimosas with friends, Bloody Mary’s at bachelor parties, and tailgating during football season); b) performed my job duties diligently; c) was consuming the same products as millions of other Americans and d) was adorned with recognitions and awards. I also enjoyed alcohol the “right” way, I frequently told myself: red wine on cloudy, autumn days, ice-cold whiskey in a dark, hardwood Irish pub. I ignored the fact that I was conflating “right” with “romanticized.”
And there is no doubt that we have as a society — hell as a planet — romanticized the most dangerous drug.
In my mid-30s, I began to more significantly feel the impacts of alcohol on my body, so more than a handful of times I took deliberate breaks from drinking. I never intended for any of these hiatuses to be permanent, and the lack of physical withdrawal symptoms (e.g., tremors, sweats, seizures) each occasion only reaffirmed that my drinking patterns were, in fact, some variant of normal. I personally knew alcoholics who had attempted rehab, and the hellish symptoms they recounted of their first few days of sobriety were nothing to which I could even relate.
(I would only much later learn that there was no reason to believe that I wouldn’t one day experience these same symptoms during “dry spells.” Increased tolerance + increased consumption + negative life experiences can take any person past the tipping point of alcohol — or any drug abuse and lead to alcoholism.)
As a result of my denial, whenever I returned to drinking — whether for a bachelor party, a milestone birthday of a friend, politeness to a host, or at the end of a self-imposed timeline — my tolerance and consumption also soon returned … and usually with a vengeance.
My drinking usually began at 5 pm on weekdays (earlier on weekends or during happy hours with colleagues), and consisted of no less than a bottle of wine every night. It was not difficult for me to consume two bottles of wine in an evening, or a bottle and several shots of whiskey if out with friends. While I realize my behavior changed when intoxicated, my tolerance was so high that I could typically keep up with the conversation. I could even participate in pub Trivia nights, and I could say witty things and connect with important mentors.
And everyone knew my “Pour Some Sugar On Me” at karaoke was ten times better when I was drunk.
Or maybe it was ten times better because we were all drunk?
I had my last sip of alcohol on July 4, 2019. Independence Day. One month ago today.
The difference this time is that this is not just a break. This is a conscious, permanent cessation. My affair with alcohol has run its course, and I made what is known as a “sudden sobriety” decision. This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: i.e., quitting cold turkey.
Some friends have inquired my motives behind quitting. Don’t get me wrong, all of my friends have been tremendously supportive of my decision, and I don’t blame anyone for the natural instinct for inquiry. After all, alcohol is the most sanctioned and condoned recreational drug out there, science be damned! It’s perfectly understandable to someone who has been able to sustain moderation up to this point in his life to ask why his drinking buddy has (seemingly) suddenly jumped on the wagon, reportedly for good. And again, most people only saw the surface of a problem, like spotting the tip of an iceberg and ignoring the colossal obstruction submerged underwater. Those who had a closer view to the problem didn’t realize the extent to which I increasingly wanted to quit.
Because here’s the truth: Alcohol dependence (or whatever I’m going to call it for the time being), did indeed rob me of the chance to live the very best version of my life. I achieved much despite such a toxic crutch, but I’m just now realizing how much I can achieve without the drug.
In the past 30 days, I have slept wonderfully almost every single night. I wake up refreshed and energized.
My gym routine, once sustained through sheer willpower alone, but now long dormant, is back on track. I run to clear my head and release endorphins. I lift light weights to feel physically stronger. I have lost ten pounds in one month.
My skin is clearer. My eyes are less baggy and my stomach is less bloated.
I no longer worry about the tipping point from that one glass of wine that ignites a light buzz that makes the whole world (music, and film, and friends) seem brighter, and the second, third, and fourth glasses that keep me pinned to my sofa, unable to do anything but refill until sleep comes to me, rather than I come to sleep.
I read more. I have picked back up my guitar. I have written 10,000 words in 31 days.
I did the math: I’ve saved at least $300 already.
I won’t lie: I share the same occasional but intense bouts of boredom, sadness, and irritability other suddenly sober people report experiencing. Surprisingly, these come most frequently when I’m at home, unwinding for the evening, rather than when I am out at alcohol-infused events with friends or family.
Incidentally, I still have a wonderful time socializing with my friends. I have thus far gone to a best friend’s birthday party, a friend’s farewell party, and a colleague’s dinner party. On each occasion alcohol was part of the festivities, and on each occasion I easily declined any offers. Not a single person pressured me. Many offered up ideas for delicious mocktails. I was surprised by the amount of fun I had each time sober. Merely thinking about how tired and groggy I would feel on the second glass was enough to keep the drinks at bay.
Perhaps, however, none of this should come as a surprise. The various stresses and anxieties I had been drinking to cope with I had actually fixed at multiple, various points along the way.
Having taught more than 300 classes, speaking in social settings is no longer anxiety-provoking — hell, it’s exciting. Having better learned to navigate romantic relationships through clearer communication and declaration of personal boundaries, I don’t need liquid courage for a date, be it the first or a 6-month anniversary dinner. Confidence in my profession has gone from nil to substantial, and rather than being fearful of all I still do not yet know, I am now excited to realize all of the opportunities left for learning.
Science says that alcohol is a drug, and a dangerous one at that. My body, for whatever reason, concurs with scientific consensus. And in the end, that’s all that matters.
Your relationship with alcohol is just that — yours. I truly hope it remains a happy one for you. At one point it was for me.
But if you ever find yourself in an abusive relationship, look for the exit signs.
Believe it or not, they’re everywhere.
For those looking to quit drinking (for whatever reasons), I highly recommend This Naked Mind by Annie Grace. I am usually skeptical of self-help books. I finished this one feeling tremendously motivated and high as a kite
… naturally high, that is.