Thoughts on “The Wagon”

Not this wagon, more's the pity.

Not this wagon, more’s the pity.

So March was an interesting month for me. I always have a big motivation hangover after Tiki Month in February, so this year I decided to lean into the curve and just go fully dry for the whole month… up until a family wedding at the very end. I’m not crazy.

Why do people take a temporary ride on The Wagon? Lots of reasons, I suppose. There is a custom called Dry January, which seems to have originated in the United Kingdom and has in recent years become a fund-raising event as well. A number of my Twitter friends and followers seem to give it a go each year as well. My reasons for trying it (albeit in March) were two-fold.

First, and most importantly, I wanted to make sure I could. My family has had its share of members who have suffered from problems controlling their drinking, from simple difficulty with portion control to full-blown alcoholism. I do not wish to go down any of those roads. In fact, one reason I like cocktails so much is that I firmly believe that one way to control the slippery slope of Just One More is to choose to drink things that are just enough of a pain in the ass to make that you think twice before each and every one. Thus, March was an on-going experiment in measuring how much difficulty I would have in not drinking, and how I felt during the effort.

What I expected to happen was much like what this British writer describes: cravings, dreams, cheating, and an altered social life in aid of succeeding. I was ready for all that, but I found that I had relatively little difficulty at all. First and foremost, I never felt like I just needed a drink. I never found myself reaching for something unconsciously. The number one most important thing I learned is that not only am I not overly dependent on alcohol, I really don’t feel dependent on it at all. I’m not saying I didn’t miss cocktails. I missed them often, but what I was fantasizing about was flavor. I’ve claimed for years that what I value in drinking is the culinary value, not the buzz. I was a little bit surprised, honestly, to discover that I haven’t been bullshitting. And keeping sober was easier than I expected in other ways too. Lots of wagoneers change their social habits in self-defense, just like smokers who avoid the things they used to smoke during while going cold turkey. While I didn’t go out as much during March, I still did go, still sat at the bars, even ate there (or didn’t). I wasn’t miserable, or even particularly tempted. I also deliberately did not encourage the PeguWife to get on the wagon with me. I sat beside her evenings while she had her glass of wine, and I did not feel jealous. I even made her cocktails. Testing a drink before serving has become a habit for me, and remembering not to do that may have been the hardest thing during the month.

I genuinely did not know how I’d handle the test, and I’m almost smug about how well I did. But I will never stop being careful on this front.

Second, my liver is not getting any younger, and I’d like to remain friends. The liver is designed to handle toxins like alcohol, that’s what it is there for. But there is no doubt that a relentless workout takes its toll over time. Years of alcohol consumption will inevitably leave scars on any liver. But there is some pretty solid science that demonstrates the liver’s amazing ability to regenerate itself, given a break. A month of teetotaling gives the body’s waste processing plant a chance for a lot of maintenance. Liver health will improve, in many cases rather dramatically. Major changes include reductions in organ hardness and liver fat deposits, both precursors of serious liver problems.

Other health benefits claimed on behalf of a month of sobriety are weight loss, lowered blood sugar, and a host of other lifestyle effects like better sleep, etc.

I didn’t do any clinical tests on myself, but I did take a careful inventory of how I felt and how my body treated me before, during, and after March. I have sleeping problems whether I am on the wagon or not, but they are different. Going to bed with a few drinks in me, I usually wake between two to four in the morning for a brisk half hour or so of wrestling with whatever haunts me currently. When I wasn’t drinking, I woke much less in the middle of the night, but I had a lot harder time actually getting to sleep in the first place. That was pretty much a wash. The big difference was how I felt in the mornings. Until I went dry, I didn’t realize how bleary I was feeling many mornings. I felt a lot better before lunch all of a sudden. The best part is, now that I’m back to regular drinking levels, I still feel better in the morning than before. Not as good as I felt when sober, but still markedly better. I will be interested to see if this keeps up over the next year, and if I can tell.

I also have lost a good bit of weight, but I doubt the sobriety had anything to do with that. I’ve been keeping to a low-carb diet since I put away all the Tiki Month syrups, etc. I’ve enjoyed nice, steady, noticeable weight loss the entire time, and going off the wagon has not changed that. But that’s another post. I will say here, that most Dry January weight loss seems more due to reductions in carbs and calories from beer or wine. If you are a cocktail drinker with tastes like mine, I seriously doubt you will get much weight loss from stopping booze.

What makes a month so special? Probably nothing, other than humans’ need for nice round numbers. The science says some benefits appear well before a month. What the sweet spot is maximizing benefit for amount of effort is not known. It could be two weeks, it could be seven. What is known is that a month seems to give pretty good results. And for someone who is less lucky than me in terms of the mental effort needed to stay sober, a nice, defined period of “suffering” would likely make chances of success a lot higher.

My March on The Wagon was well worth it. I will do it again. I may not do it again the same month, and depending on the results of my annual physicals, I may not do it every year. But I feel it was certainly worthwhile. I’m going to press the PeguWife to try it soon. And I suggest, if you haven’t given it a shot, and you are no longer so young as to imagine yourself to be indestructible, you ought to try it too.


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