My 49th birthday seemed a good day to start drinking again, despite being warned not to.
I come from a family of drinkers, and for 30 years, I drank at levels that certainly went beyond "moderate." I'm not sure "heavy" was accurate, and I didn't have a "problem." Or at least, I don't think I did. Mostly, I didn't like the amount I drank and wanted to cut back, and I'd tried and failed to do so more times than I can remember.
As a health and fitness writer known for his skepticism, I never bought into the claims of a daily dose of alcohol being healthy or that ridiculous notion that a glass of red wine is equivalent to an hour in the gym. It's called being "intoxicated" because you're ingesting a toxin.
The dose makes the poison, however, and plenty of people choose to poison themselves: In a recent report, the World Health Organization stated that more than 5 percent of all deaths each year can be attributed to alcohol abuse. Five percent!
And last August, there was a disconcerting meta-analysis published in the Lancet that proclaimed "the level of consumption [of alcohol] that minimizes health loss is zero." While it is true that alcohol is a class 1 carcinogen, this led to alarmist reporting that even light drinking was going to cause your insides to spontaneously combust. The New York Times was more circumspect, dissecting the study to show that while alcohol isn't good for you, that doesn't mean light drinking is a guarantee of early death.
What's clear is that less alcohol is better than more alcohol.
I'm a health nut. I exercise more than about 99 percent of the population, have a healthy body weight, eat my fruits and veggies, don't smoke, manage my stress… but my alcohol intake was worrisome. I knew my health, and probably my life, in general, would be better if I cut back.
And then, while out for a run on a snowy winter's day in late 2015, I experienced a transformative moment. I had an awakening that prompted me to decide to quit drinking for at least a year. The sensation was so powerful that cutting out alcohol was effortless.
I knew it wouldn't be forever, but I wanted to be able to quit for a year and go back to drinking at much lower levels, both for my health and my lifestyle. Halfway through the year, things were going great, and I decided I wanted to extend it simply to prove that I didn't need to start again on day 366. Actually, it would have been day 367, because I quit on a leap year.
I figured waiting some extra months would be a good idea. After the year was up, I wrote of the benefits of quitting for the Chicago Tribune. But something I wrote in that article, which turned out to be quite popular, caused many to misplace their excrement and send apocalyptic proclamations to me via email.
"When I do decide to drink again, I'm confident it will be occasional and light," I wrote.
My inbox exploded.
Were I to summarize the content of these emails into a single, short sentence, it would be: "DON'T DO IT!"
I was sternly and repeatedly warned that I should never drink again. I was told many a man had thought they had their drinking under control and tried to reintroduce it after a lengthy hiatus, only to fall off the wagon hard into a puddle of puke and despair.
I don't doubt that happens, but I didn't think it would happen for me. I'd been a little ways beyond "moderate," not "alcoholic." For many, their drinking is so calamitous that there is no choice but to abstain for life. However, there has been a mentality perpetuated by abstinence groups that if you ever feel the need to quit drinking, it means your behavior is such that you should never return to it. You're seen as an addict, and moderation is a fool's dream.
Such all-or-nothing thinking regarding alcohol is pervasive, and not always helpful.
In my case, if I had been convinced that the only way forward was never to drink again, I never would have quit in the first place (and wouldn't have gained the benefits of eventually cutting back). I like to drink, but I was living a good life and didn't rely on alcohol to get through the day. My straits were not dire, as is often the case with serious alcoholics.
And there are many others like me who have success with programs such as Moderation Management and One Year No Beer. In these programs, the "reboot" of taking an extended hiatus prior to moderate reintroduction of alcohol is common. I didn't use a program but winged it based on what felt right at the time.
And when I went back to drinking, it was because that felt right too. When I finally ordered my first drink again (a Guinness), I enjoyed it. It tasted good and washed down some fish tacos nicely. I ordered a second pint, this one a Newcastle. I nursed it for almost an hour and didn't finish.
I was no longer ravenous for the taste. It was… nice. I still liked it. But I didn't long for it.
Another 17 months have passed since that day, and I can say the experiment worked exactly as I'd hoped. The desire to drink frequently or to overdrink is gone. Since the reintroduction, my intake can be easily classified as "light," which is where I'm happy for it to remain.
Why did I start drinking again? Because I always intended to. I believed light drinking was possible for me, and I made it happen by taking an extended hiatus to break the desire and show myself that I was able to abstain without it feeling like I was engaged in a constant battle of white-knuckle resistance not to.
James S. Fell's blog is read by millions and can be found at bodyforwife.com. His book, The Holy Sh!t Moment: How Lasting Change Can Happen in an Instant, will be released by St. Martin's Press on January 22. Check it out and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.