In August 2013 I woke up terrified in the middle of the night on a couch in Montreal.
A dark room tilted and spun on a lopsided axis. The hard futon on which I’d sprawled earlier in the night threatened to dump me into the abyss between its edge and the coffee table. My mouth tasted foul.
I lurched upright. The universe punished me with a spear of pain from the back of my neck down to my right thigh, stiffening and immobilizing that side of my body.
But danger rumbled in my guts. So I clung to furniture and tried to navigate my friend’s unfamiliar apartment. My hands pawed at the wall then found a doorknob and a light switch. Fluorescent light beat on my retinas. Linoleum tile. I squinted, peered around for the toilet. A rushing noise in my ears grew louder.
And then it was too late.
Discounting some bad choices in high school, I’ve never been a heavy drinker. That day in Montreal was no exception, though it remains the one time that I remember vomiting. It was the end of summer break after my sophomore year of college. I visited a friend in the French-Canadian city, and we made the rounds of a few local breweries. A sip here and there just added up faster than I’d imagined.
For years, this was my go-to alcohol is freaking poison anecdote. I’d bet most adult readers have a similar one (or several): that time you drank way too much. These incidents can be funny, and hopefully they’re rare enough not to be a problem in your life. They teach us to drink in moderation. Their lesson is that a couple glasses at a time is a responsible choice, as long as you don’t go overboard.
Years passed before I realised binge drinking wasn’t my real problem with alcohol. The real problem was all the ways it messed up my body and life while I was being careful.
Asked how many alcoholic drinks they’d consumed in the last week, the bottom 60% of Americans reported an average of less than one. The bottom 30% drank none at all.
But the top 40% of Americans imbibed anywhere from two up to many dozens of glasses in just one week. The top 10% averaged a whopping 73.85. (You can read more about those numbers at The Washington Post.)
For five years or so, I drank about two or three drinks in a week — sometimes a bit more, sometimes a lot less. That put me near the sixtieth percentile. In other words, I drank a bit more than average, but was well within the normal range.
Maybe once a week I’d have a beer in the evening with my roommate after class or work. Another downed at a Tuesday bar trivia night, then maybe another if I went out on a weekend.
With just one or two exceptions in half a decade, I never drank more than I intended or woke up feeling ill. So I considered myself a light, responsible drinker, and never connected any health or personal problems to the liquid drug.
Now let me tell you what happened when I stopped drinking.
It happened by accident. I graduated college and moved into an apartment of non-drinkers, ran low on cash and switched to ordering club sodas at bars, and started dating someone who didn’t drink at all. All the little cues that had prompted me to drink drifted away, and months passed before I noticed.
But in the meantime, my life improved. My chronic insomnia became easier to manage. I had more energy, spent less time watching TV and more time reading, writing, and exercising. When I went out (to the same bars and shows) I felt more present and took home better memories of the evenings. And while I sometimes craved beer or liquor, I never missed the experience of drinking.
In short: I became a healthier, happier person without even noticing that I’d given anything up.
Now, my body is neither a temple nor a controlled experiment. I can’t prove that giving up alcohol changed my life, and I certainly don’t know that it will change yours. But my experience tracks with the best available science on drinking, which tells us that even in small quantities alcohol can make you less healthy and less happy.
Even though booze can knock you out, alcohol consumption correlates strongly with severe insomnia. And it can lower sleep quality in healthy sleepers as well, making them more tired during the day. Drinking is associated with a higher risk of weight gain and obesity, and it makes you more likely to contract illnesses like hypertension, mouth cancer, pancreatitis, and liver cirrhosis. That’s true whether you’re an alcoholic or a “light drinker.” And alcohol doesn’t just make you more likely to get sick. It measurably increases your risk of dying early for any reason.
There are some (often over-hyped) studies that suggest health benefits to small amounts of alcohol consumption. The most notable of these are a series of papers that suggest minor cardiovascular benefits to very small amounts of alcohol, particularly red wine. Let’s set aside for the moment more recent research that casts doubt on those studies’ conclusions. Instead, we’ll focus on this fact: Most regular drinkers far outstrip the small quantities that might offer benefits, and even researchers sympathetic to the idea write that we all need to cool it with the booze.
But maybe you’re a live fast, die young, enjoy it while you can type? You should know that even light drinking correlates with unhappiness and life dissatisfaction in college students. And across age groups, people tend to drink when they’re stressed. We can try to shortcut our way to happy lives with booze, but it probably won’t work (except perhaps for those among us who are elderly women, but that’s a topic for another day).
All these ill effects of our favourite toxin add up to enormous, painful problems for individuals, families, and society at large. These are problems we’d clearly be better off without.
That’s not to say quitting is easy. I haven’t been perfect in abstaining from alcohol. After going cold-turkey for the last eight months of 2015, I’ve had a few drinks in 2016. And let me tell you: There’s nothing like stripping away your chemical tolerances to reveal how nasty these drinks really are. I’m a reasonably healthy 80kg, 24-year-old. But even a small glass of Heineken calls up echoes of that night in Montreal: dizziness, headaches, and a sleepless night.
Because alcohol is poison. And we should all stop putting it in our bodies.
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