February 1, 2023 By Shea Coakley
My Toxic Relationship
I don’t talk about my relationship with alcohol much publically. That’s not to say I don’t want to. I’m more than happy to talk about it when someone asks — especially if I get the impression the person is asking for help. My rationale for writing this post is to respond to the sheer amount of outreach I’ve received in the last couple of months from friends telling me they are looking to cut back or cut out drinking entirely. When someone reaches out, especially someone I wouldn’t have thought would, I can’t help but reflect on the people out there who are searching for the same answers, but aren’t asking the same questions. Ultimately, I hope to show that you don’t have to hit some kind of tragic rock bottom in order to decide alcohol just isn’t working for you anymore.
My relationship with alcohol started when I was around 13 years old. I grew up in a coastal town in New England where we wore the taste of alcohol on our sleeves — literally, we had shirts at our general store that said “Marshfield: A drinking town with a fishing problem.” In my young, impressional mind, alcohol and social life seemed inextricably linked. It wasn’t until I went off the college that I realized we started early. I found out it was weird to be buying with a fake ID throughout high school or finding an older brother/cousin/friend that could set us up with a bunch of 30 racks for our weekend romp. From an early age, alcohol became the symbol of stress reduction, relaxation and socialization.
I was honestly nervous when I first started drinking. I remember being at a party and pouring alcohol down the drain in the bathroom just to “keep up” with the older kids. It didn’t take long for the chemical to start doing its thing. I could easily justify it too, I was class president, a sports captain, took honors classes and sat on the student council. I was annoyingly “well adjusted” and involved. My favorite thing, above all else, was to go out on Friday nights, play drinking games, socialize with friends and chase women.
This same routine kept going through college and it all felt painfully normal. Seemingly everyone around me was doing the same thing I had been doing since highschool. I grew up watching movies like “Animal House”, and I tried to fulfill my picture of college: frat house toga party or beer pong at the 11am football tailgate. Hunter S. Thompson said that “When the going gets weird, the weird get pro”. And, given my high school practice, I was able to find myself at the center of the wreckless world of American college life.
Things Started to Change…
Things started to feel different when I got into “the real world”. Over the years, some of my friends started “putting the toys away” and maybe having a glass of wine or two with dinner and calling it a night. I wasn’t so keen on breaking up with my first love and I found a lot of people that felt the same way. ‘Work hard play hard’ has become one of my least favorite expressions, but that was the way I was living in my 20s. The weekend started on Thursday night and ended Monday morning. Trust me, I was working my ass off, but also counting down the hours until the weekend where I could drink like a fish and let go of my worries for a bit.
Relationships with alcohol (or any substance, really) can be a lonely, fickle romance. When you are in the middle of this world it feels like everyone drinks like you drink. You don’t realize this isn’t the case until your wake-up ‘moment’ which we all experience in different ways. Despite what advertising and pop culture would like us to believe, the real stats are as follows: One-third of American adults do not drink at all. Another one-third of Americans drink less than 1 drink per week. In my way of thinking, that essentially means that ⅔ of the population doesn’t really drink.
I’m not going to spend a ton of time talking about my sad little story of the events that forced me to take a hard look at my relationship with alcohol. What I will say is that there were many nights and mornings full of regret, shame and just feeling terrible. I can tell you that having my kids fundamentally shifted what is important to me in life. I got sick of taking risks for something that wasn’t producing a ton of rewards. “I didn’t always get into trouble when I drank, but whenever I got into trouble I had been drinking.”
People always assume that someone who doesn’t drink had one specific moment that made them change their mind. It’s often called “rock bottom”. The truth is that many people that quit have many rock bottoms of varying degrees. An even larger group just decides one day that alcohol isn’t serving them. Alcohol is a super personal thing and, as such, everyone’s journey is different. It doesn’t require a near-death experience or a catastrophic loss to realize alcohol isn’t serving you.
The Big Breakup
For me, the decision to quit drinking is less about avoiding big tragic consequences and more about how I feel on a mundane Tuesday morning. Fun fact, it takes the brain about 30 days to fully recover from a heavy night of drinking (anything over a couple of drinks). That means that if you are a person who has one night of heavy drinking a month, your body is NEVER fully recovered. Let that sit for a bit. There are a number of reasons for this including sleep deprivation, brain chemical regulation like serotonin and dopamine, digestive issues, blood sugar regulation, etc. Practically speaking, you can’t ever get your mental and physical health under control if you are heavily drinking once a month.
So, I chose to finally break up with booze. It was a shitty relationship and the math wasn’t adding up anymore. I would often trade 2 hours of fun for 24 hours of misery or, at the very least, uncomfort. It was a bad business deal and one I finally wanted to stop making. I can’t make the promise I’ll never consume alcohol again and I can’t say that I’m an expert on anything other than my own story. I have, however, learned some things along the way. Hopefully, they can be helpful to someone.
What’s Going to Change?
If you are trying to control your drinking, your drinking is out of control.
When I was drinking, I put a lot of mental energy into controlling my consumption levels. It was always this unwinnable game of trying to find the right “zone” of being buzzed but not drunk. I would make rules about my consumption. Only drink on weekends. Never have more than 3 drinks in a 24 hour period. Only beer and wine. I broke all the rules. So, if you do feel like your drinking is out of control, the best thing to do is make some rules for yourself. If you consistently break them, you know you have a real problem.
You can’t compare what it is like to not drink for a weekend or a month to what it is like to be sober from alcohol long term.
People often talk about taking a break, like Dry January or Sober October. I think this is a great idea and it can help you judge where you are in your relationship with alcohol. That being said, it takes months for you to really feel what it is like to be sober. If you quit drinking for a month and hated it, I don’t think this is proof that life is better with booze. It simply means the good stuff hasn’t kicked in yet. Try a year and then see what happens. The harder it is to picture yourself not drinking for a year, the more likely it is you should do it.
Your social life can change drastically.
At first, social life can be painfully awkward. It feels like playing a baseball game without a mitt. Personally, I can’t think of a social occasion that I didn’t have alcohol at. Weddings. Funerals. Dinners. Backyard BBQs. Football games. I had never even practiced the idea of socializing without it. So, I’m not going to lie. It sucks at first. But, something weird happens. At some point the fun starts to come back and then it passes where your baseline was. Things become more interesting when you aren’t looking at the world through foggy goggles. Social connections and activities seem more genuine and meaningful.
Your interests change.
When I was drinking, my interests centered around activities that allowed me to have a drink in my hand. Now, I’ve found ways to truly enjoy my old activities without being buzzed. What’s actually more interesting is that your brain looks for other ways to entertain and relax itself. I used to love going to a bar and grabbing a few drinks with friends. Now I’m into reading, meditation, cooking, golf, painting, dinners with my wife, advising and starting new businesses, cold plunges, movies, comedy shows, taking hikes, and playing with my kids. I don’t think you would have ever found 24-year-old Shea with a paintbrush in his hand on Friday night while listening to a podcast. Drinking is the same thing over and over again. I’ve seen the movie a million times and I know how it ends. Other activities are endless and ever-expanding.
Your friends might change.
People always ask me how this is going to impact their friendships. After all, culturally we live in a society that “meets for a beer” or “has a few drinks in the backyard”. The harsh truth is that you may lose some friends. For one, some people just can’t handle being around someone who isn’t drinking, they view it as a personal assault on what they do. It often holds a mirror up to people that drink more than they should and you’ll catch the brunt of that anger. Additionally, some of your bar stool friends will simply become less interesting. All that said, the real ones will stick around. Your true friends don’t care about what substances you consume or do not consume. My dearest friends are still my go-to’s and they couldn’t be happier for me and my decision. Most of the people I’ve lost touch with were friendships centered on a common love for drinking and nothing else. It’s just the cost of doing business.
Don’t be worried, though, you’ll also gain new friends. I’ve found a circle of buddies that do not drink and have all kinds of interests in common. I’ve even gotten closer to friends that I’ve had for a while that don’t drink or drink very little. I have one friend that I was always in awe of. He would order one drink if we went out and it was basically a prop. He never overconsumed and he usually left early. Come to find out, we love doing things together during the day. Who knew?
Stating the obvious. It’s much healthier.
This fact comes to life in ways you wouldn’t think. Obviously, excess alcohol can be bad on the liver and brain. It’s extra calories that we don’t need. The real benefit of not drinking is the amount you can do in replacement of the booze. So, instead of going to sit at a bar and watch college football, you might opt in for rock climbing. Instead of waking up Sunday morning with a splitting headache, you might hit an early gym or sauna. Alcohol gives you a sense of the “fuck its” when it comes to other things we are putting into your body, including late night foods. It’s a double win when you stop, since you are removing the alcohol but also adding in all kinds of healthy and mindful activities.
And sleep. Oh! The sleep. There is a portion of our sleep cycle that accounts for most of our recovery. In a normal night’s sleep, humans get about 4 hours of it. After 1 or 2 drinks, that number decreases to less than an hour. After 3 plus drinks? That number can be five to 10 minutes. So, basically, you are passed out but you aren’t sleeping. When you stop drinking your sleep slowly starts to become higher quality and, as a result, you feel a million times better during the day.
Your mental health will completely change… for the better.
I’ve had a nice subtle hint of an anxiety disorder since I was in my late teens. It doesn’t manifest itself in normal ways (social anxiety, fear of public speaking, agoraphobia, etc). My anxiety sneaks up on me for no apparent reason and almost feels like someone spiked my blood with a hint of adrenaline. It can be anywhere from mildly annoying to crippling.
Ever since quitting alcohol, this is all but gone. We think alcohol helps calm our anxiety when really it’s just stealing some of our calm from the next day. Alcohol also stops you from having the courage to make it through stressful situations. Once you lose the crutch, you start getting reps at handling situations without booze and you get better and better at it.
The tricky thing is that alcohol is very good at its job, short-term. If you are feeling a little uneasy or anxious, one or two drinks can stop that almost immediately. I’ve found that you have to pull the lens back a bit to realize the true gift/curse of alcohol. Over the course of a month or a year, anxiety is way lower without the booze. Hands down.
Alcohol can make you selfish. Sobriety can make you a better person.
For me, booze made me completely self-absorbed. Whether it was while drinking or the hangover morning after, I spent my time selfishly trying to make myself feel better. These days, it’s less about my own selfish interests and more about what I can do for other people. It’s a more lasting sense of happiness and less of a chase for short-term pleasure. Pleasure isn’t happiness, it’s just dopamine. All dopamine wants is more dopamine. Without alcohol, I can be there for my loved ones and be fully present and available.
Now that your mind isn’t cluttered, you can think about the big stuff.
I’ve always been a spiritual person. I’m deeply interested in religion, philosophy and the great debates of our time. For whatever reason, alcohol acted as sort of a blocker for me to really dig into these things. I find I now have more time to think about how I can connect more deeply to my version of god/spirit/nature/energy. I can be sharp enough to try and sort out why we are all here and what this whole thing means. I might not ever understand the full picture on this side of incarnation, but the pursuit is thrilling enough. I’m a transformed atheist that believes there is a higher order and purpose to all this. When I find out what it is, I’ll get back to yah.
I’d like to set the record straight on something. I have no personal vendetta against alcohol. I certainly do not judge anyone who drinks and I know it can be a great outlet, for some. Frankly, I don’t regret a lot of the years that I drank. They were fun and a lot of it had no downside. I’m simply sharing the perspective of someone that had a good relationship with alcohol that turned a corner at some point along the way.
It’s incredibly personal and scary for me to share this publicly. The reason I feel so compelled to do so is that I get at least one call a month, sometimes multiple calls, with friends or connections looking to “cut back” or quit drinking. I felt it necessary to voice where I’m at with it and say that if you are starting to feel like you are in a one-sided relationship with alcohol, I understand. I’ve been there and it can be a lot better if you have the guts to give quitting a try. I’ve met a lot of people that stopped drinking and I have yet to meet a single one that regretted the decision.
So that’s it, my alcohol breakup story. Whether you’re a friend, family, or someone who stumbled upon this little tale, I appreciate you taking the time to read through my story. I know this can be a difficult topic, but if you resonate with this in any way, shape, or form, reach out to me. I am always happy to chop it up. Sometimes it’s just good to know you aren’t alone.