I used to go to happy hour every night when I worked in Midtown Manhattan. Over a few years, I had put on a good amount of weight and I’d stopped practicing music and reading as much as I used to. I also stopped exercising because if I didn’t have time to practice or read, I certainly didn’t have time to exercise.
On a Wednesday, I was in a bar in Midtown, at Happy Hour, waiting for a coworker who I barely knew, but who was available for drinks. I was about to order my first beer when he texted me to say that he’d gotten stuck on a project and had to cancel.
To my surprise, I was relieved when he cancelled on me. This was the first time I had invited someone out just because I wanted to have someone to drink with. I guess the nightly happy hours had worn out all of my other colleagues and friends, and I was trying to find new ones.
Sitting in that Midtown Bar, I imagined the logical conclusion of choosing friends based on who was a good drinking buddy. I’d start to select my friends based on their availability for happy hour, and who’s always available for a drink? People for whom ‘availability for drinking’ is a priority. Was this my priority? I didn’t think so, but a quick look around would indicate otherwise. I was in a darkened bar at 5pm on a Wednesday about to order my first of what would likely be several drinks. Even if I didn’t think that drinking was a priority, I was certainly behaving as if it were. It was the first thing I did once I’d fulfilled my professional obligations almost every single day. I drank passionately, the way I used to play music.
So that was rock bottom for me, being flaked on by a passing acquaintance. I know the phrase “rock bottom” conjures images of jail, or the hospital, or being left by one’s family, but rock bottom is just the place where you decide (or are forced) to turn around. It’s different for everybody. I was lucky. My rock bottom could have been much lower.
Sitting in that bar in Midtown, realizing that drinking had become a top priority in my life by accident. I decided I’d just stop doing it and see what happened. My addiction to alcohol is more social than physiological so this was not as difficult a decision for me as it is for some people.
The next day I didn’t go out for “thirsty Thursday” (the catchy, alliterative euphemism for “getting wasted on a weekday”). On Thursday evening at 5 O’clock, I went home. It was still light out when I reached my apartment. I had nothing to do… so I picked up a guitar and started practicing.
On Friday, I went out with friends as usual but I ordered soft drinks. Nobody noticed. I had fun and the next morning, I got up around the same time I normally would on a Saturday but I felt great! I decided to go for a run in the park. I used to run often but in recent years there seemed to be no time.
You can see where this story is going. I got in shape, my life improved etc… The point is not that “I quit drinking and you can too.” We don’t all need to be teetotalers. The point is that I’d drifted off of the course that I’d imagined for myself and it took me a while to notice.
When I detected the deviation, I made a crucial decision that made my long established habits untenable.
This decision caused me a moment of friction and has yielded, so far, about 13 years of positive results. I didn’t touch a drink for two years and in that time, I created a life where alcohol was a bit player, not a star. At present, I enjoy a drink from time to time but drinking alcohol still doesn’t occupy a central role in my life.
The key thing I learned, and this seems painfully obvious in retrospect, is that drinking takes time. It took up the time in my life that’s now devoted to exercise, practice and reading. When I freed up this time, I was able to get in shape and become proficient enough at my instrument to become a professional. This may seem like a sacrifice, but looking back on it, drinking was the sacrifice.
It takes the same amount of time to go to the gym, read and practice an art form as it takes to go to happy hour, get drunk, and recover. I was spending most of my free time damaging myself, or recovering from damage I’d inflicted. There’s nothing wrong with Happy Hour, but there are only so many hours in a lifetime. Spend them deliberately.