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Becoming a “mindful drinker” changed my life

The controversial term may be new, but the goal is the same: Drink less. And I do.

Illustration of a man’s face fragmented in vertical lines. Nicole Rifkin for Vox

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Alcohol isn’t really all that good for you. It certainly wasn’t always good for me. Though I used to joke that without it I wouldn’t have a job, friends, or a hobby, I now teetotal most of the week and drink cocktails, whiskey, and wine infrequently.

Everything about that goes against the way I make my living as a spirits and cocktail expert, author, and bar owner. I don’t think everything we do has to be “good for you.” Neither should everything we do lead us down a fiery path of ruination. Lately, I’m more than content with a few fingers of bourbon followed by a drink without alcohol. And, when I indulge, it’s still with the guardrails on.

These days, my approach may actually be in vogue. We’re steeped in discussions of sober curiosity, soberishness, and hip sobriety, terminology that all spears the same fish: Drink less. This is spawning both a philosophical movement whose adherents have holidays (Dry January and Sober October) and is creating an industry through sober influencers; nonalcoholic beer, wine, and “spirits”; dry bars; dry events; and sophisticated cocktails without alcohol. Let’s call it mindful drinking.

“Mindful drinking is a nice catchall term for anyone who might be thinking about their drinking in some way,” argues Laura Willoughby, co-author of How to Be a Mindful Drinker: Cut Down, Stop for a Bit, or Quit. “They either don’t drink for religious reasons, they’re not drinking because they’re pregnant, they’re cutting down, they never drank very much, they’ve never drunk, … any of those things.”

Willoughby doesn’t drink, but Jussi Tolvi, with whom she co-founded Club Soda in the UK, is a moderate mindful drinker. Both fit within the model. Willoughby describes the term mindful drinking in the way the LGBTQ movement uses “queer”: as an umbrella term for a range of sexual orientations and gender identities. “I don’t see changing your drinking as linear, I don’t see it as binary,” says Willoughby.

The movement may be controversial, in that it differs from the most widely accepted model of sobriety. It also overlaps with the wellness industry that is a $4.2 trillion market worldwide. But not everyone conforms to that model and, well, I want to be well, wellness aside. There are plenty of people who don’t drink for a variety of reasons, and many of us who question our relationship with alcohol might not need to join a group in a church basement or phone a friend when we’re out on the town. For those of us in the gray areas, mindful drinking might be just what we need.

I thought about drinking long before I took a single sip. My father is a diagnosed alcoholic and is in recovery. He left my family when I was a toddler. I still have flashes of us wrestling on the floor, roughhousing. Afterward, he’d hoist me on his shoulders, this giant, invincible man. I remember little more from that time, maybe purposely, except the afternoons I waited hours for him to pick me up for the weekend. He’d call and say he was on his way, but he wasn’t coming.

As a young teen, I abhorred drinking, pledging to be sober for life — a reaction to my father, to be sure. But that changed as I got older. I discovered drinking at parties in high school, and when the party was over, I’d ride around the block with my friends looking for low-lit cul-de-sacs where we’d drink more, smoke pot, and do psychedelics. For some people, drinking and drugs were a way to relax and even achieve a higher consciousness. For me, they were a way to obliterate it.

It wasn’t long before I found people who felt the same as me. They were restaurant workers, a band of misfits united by the construction of our outer layer: a brick wall of alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs, sprinkled with casual sex and a complete disregard for propriety. I also found my career, one that I’m proud of despite whatever latent psychological forces shaped it.

By then I had split drinking into two extremes: Drink with abandon or don’t drink at all. The former followed me into my career, which seemed to dictate that I spend many intemperate weeks drinking, professionally and recreationally; and the latter, which sprang up from time to time and hung over my head from my days as a youth keenly aware of the ravages of alcohol.

I drank or didn’t drink. There was no middle ground.

I would later be diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. The statistical correlation between bipolar II disorder and alcohol abuse is high, and I lived it. Drinking was a way to make it through the mood swings, impulsivity, risk-taking, and racing thoughts, all of which were sheathed in the appearance of a high-functioning individual. Through drunkenness, I convinced myself that I was well, even happy, that my charms outweighed my faults when my faults were on egregious display. The next morning told a different story.

Nicole Rifkin for Vox

I can’t remember all the dumb things I did drunk, but I remember one night inventing a game called “Shakespeare Throw a Chair.” The object of the game was to say a Shakespeare quote and then launch the chair across the room in the back of my bar. My business partner sat me down the following week and said, “About this Shakespeare thing ...” I recoiled. In the light of day, the game was embarrassingly stupid. And perhaps that was one of my more innocent drunken ribaldries.

When I woke up the day after a drinking bout, I felt a constant and abiding shame. Had I said something dumb? Had I done something I should regret? There were times I texted people to ask what happened. There were other times I just stuck my toe in with a text reading, “Good times.” But they weren’t always good times, and often I was terrified of my friends’ possible responses. Perhaps that compounded my need to drink, explaining why one drunken night was likely followed by another. (You can see the flawed logic in that pursuit.) I would sometimes be drunk for the stretch of a week.

Hangovers became a certainty. I needed a care pack: ibuprofen, Gatorade, and ramen. When you’re stocking hangover remedies for the inevitable, not the probable, is without a doubt when you should admit that drinking has become a problem. Imagine breaking your toe every morning and stocking up on stick splints and medical tape. Instead, you’re breaking your brain. The gray matter between my ears would suffer the same fate as the chairs launched to exclamations of Hamlet: “To be or not to be — swing, crack — that is the question!”

It wasn’t just my brain I broke. The silly games were one thing, but alcohol would be the abettor of my worst instincts, enabling me to scorch my life before bedfall. I remember chasing a friend around town at night. We drank heavily and went back to the place she was staying, where we were locked out. I don’t even remember how we got in but, when we did, I removed my clothes and tried to climb in her bed. She demurred, possibly something about us being near-blackout drunk. I pulled up my pants, left stumbling, and returned early in the morning to my home, where my pregnant girlfriend had been waiting up all night. I lied about what had happened. I lied about my phone being dead. I lied about everything. But, most importantly, I lied about who I was. I wasn’t a free-spirited man about town; I was an unscrupulous lothario and a wretch.

It eventually all caught up with me after my son was born, and I started to add up the pluses and minuses of alcohol in my life. I realized the red column had become greater than the black. It would take a little more time and convincing, but I finally checked myself into a recovery program that addressed both my mental health and substance use.

The mindful drinking “trend,” make no mistake, is a more expansive model than Alcoholics Anonymous and other abstention programs where it’s all or nothing. While there is no specific definition of alcoholism in AA, its members agree that alcoholism is generally “a physical compulsion, coupled with a mental obsession” and that treatment is not based on willpower alone or creating periods of abstinence. The AA literature spells out this mindset: “We always wound up, sooner or later … getting drunk when we not only wanted to stay sober, but had every rational incentive for staying sober.” In this framework, you either are or you aren’t afflicted by the disease, and the cure is to cease drinking completely. Given this, some sober people are uncomfortable with “curiosity,” downplaying the seriousness of excessive drinking.

But even AA admits that the 12-step program is not the only approach. A spokesperson for AA told the New York Times: “There are lots of different options for getting sober. AA is not trying to convince anyone that AA is the only way to stay sober, we have just found a way that works for us that we share with others.” New approaches to sobriety don’t necessarily replace those programs for people who have committed to abstention, but they offer an alternative for people who believe they fit outside of the traditional model.

Laura Silverman, founder of Booze Free in DC and The Sobriety Collective, a digital hub for sober creatives to socialize, says that “[AA] is good for some people because they need that reminder to physically and psychologically keep them away from dying. For many people, it is a life-and-death thing.” But for her, “I was tired of saying I’m an alcoholic, because I didn’t feel like one,” says Silverman. “I just knew I couldn’t drink safely.” She remains sober but acknowledges the many shades in between abuse and abstention.

“Nowadays, the modern recovering person can pick and choose from a wide variety of things and build their own ‘recovery menu,’ if you will,” according to Silverman. “At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide what your recovery looks like, and it’s up to no one else to make a judgment that [if] you’re in AA you can’t be in Smart [Recovery], [if] you’re in Smart [Recovery] you can’t be in AA, or you can’t have a therapist, you can’t take medication for your mental health condition. You get to decide what your recovery looks like.”

Whether you’re the person who drinks too much on dates or the hardened alcohol abuser who has set your life ablaze, there’s a spectrum, joined by a need. I needed alcohol. Whether that made me an alcoholic or simply driven by my mental illness, the outcomes are the same: I would die, kill someone, or set a detonator to all my relationships — maybe the hat trick and achieve all three. But without addressing the cause of my drinking, there was little hope of a happy ending. I had to change my pace.

Nicole Rifkin for Vox

At first, I was uneasy. How would I explain to people that the very thing I evangelized was also my kryptonite? Like Silverman, I didn’t feel like an alcoholic, but I had a problem. I sat down with my business partners and told them I would not be spending as much time at the bars at night. They seemed to understand.

Through therapy and prescription medication, I addressed a lot of what had motivated my drinking sprees. Eventually, I would start drinking again. But it left me in a bind: How would I combine my love of drinking with my need to regulate it? I admit this just isn’t possible for most, but it seemed achievable in my case. I had addressed the psychic forces that polarized drinking for me, lost a taste for the chaos and destruction of my past, and grew in resolve.

In the backdrop of my recovery was the mindful drinking movement. It seemed like the whole country (and many others) was publicly discussing what it means to drink too much, and new strategies were emerging to address the gray areas. The movement didn’t just give me a convenient label, it offered me another perspective for my recovery, a perspective similar to Chef Dan Barber’s approach to cutting down on meat: Alcohol is no longer the center of my experiences just as much as meat isn’t at the center of all of his plates. It’s more of a side dish or flavoring, and one that I can take or leave.

For me, that means being aware of my intentions at that moment, excising the need. But I haven’t shut alcohol out altogether, because of my vocation and because I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with drinking alcohol. I like drinking culture, and I’m delighted by the new world of no-alcohol cocktails and “spirits.” As a former bartender, it feels like learning a new language where the grammar is remarkably familiar.

What that means is that I can still go out at night and have complex adult drinks. And, honestly, most of the time they don’t have a drop of alcohol in them. I can be at the bars I created and that inspired me, and enjoy the nightlife without plunging myself into the abyss. I can replace negative experiences with positive ones.

I don’t think banning or swearing off alcohol works for everyone. Alcohol may not be good for you, but it can be a force for good. A couple of drinks have preceded some of my most meaningful moments. It may be the ritual itself, but alcohol has a way of fostering connections. Its rewards rival its dangers, which I believe is what makes alcohol so ubiquitous in human history — at least my history. You must adapt to your own circumstances. And, if amid trying to figure it all out, you find yourself lost, stop. There’s absolutely not one reason why you should be compelled to drink.

It’s not always easy. The pressure still abounds. When I’m not drinking, I just politely decline. And where the decline is declined, I say I’m driving, or I say something about antibiotics or surgery, or I drop the shot in a water glass when they’re not looking. It’s a silly thing, really. Why wouldn’t we trust a grown person to say what they do and don’t want? Hopefully, the mindful drinking movement will provide the best excuse of all: I don’t want to, and that’s my choice.

There will be no shortage of critics. But this article isn’t for them. No, I wrote this essay for you. We might have different reasons why we’ve questioned our drinking, but it rests on the same premise.

And perhaps you need to hear this: Alcohol isn’t really all that good for you. I don’t mean that solely as an indicator of certain diseases. I mean, literally, it’s just not good for some of us. But it can be good for most people, and it can even be good for some people where it wasn’t before. That choice isn’t mine to make; it’s yours. Ask yourself: Why do I drink? And if the answer is because you need to drink, then I hope this helps save you some anguish.

Derek Brown is an expert on spirits and cocktails who is based in Washington, DC. He owns the 2017 “Best American Cocktail Bar” from the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, Columbia Room, and is the author of Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World.

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