what it feels like to be naturally happy

Today marks one year and one day since the last time I drank alcohol.

I’ve talked about quitting alcohol quite a bit. As this date drew closer, I’ve been feeling like it’s something I want to stop talking about so much. But with this milestone, it’s worth me spending an issue of The Grind memorializing what this last year has been like, what I’ve learned and why I don’t plan on drinking alcohol anytime soon.

One year ago, I was going through a rough patch as we all go through. I was pissed off about things happening in my business and my life, and I reached for a drink a few times too many in October 2018. By the time November 2018 rolled around, I knew that I needed to make some lifestyle changes, but I honestly didn’t think quitting alcohol was one of them.

I started therapy in the early part of November. My therapist and I had a conversation about the prevalence of high functioning people who use alcohol as a tool to escape to excess. By not discussing it as a weakness but rather a common coping mechanism amongst a particular type of person, I was able to accept it as something that I’d unintentionally slipped into.

Throughout last November, I started my new addiction, listening to podcasts about business and health. One podcast that I started listening to was Peter Attia’s The Drive. There was a particular episode of The Drive where Peter talked about the impact that alcohol has on one’s health because of how the liver has to prioritize addressing the level of toxicity it introduces to the body.

Right around the time I heard that podcast, I did some blood work with my doctor and found out that I had elevated liver enzymes. Not good.

Through the mirror of therapy, I started to connect my use of alcohol with a collection of experiences that were among the things making me most unhappy in life. Alcohol had become an insidious tool I used to cope with challenges in my life. Its upside was small and getting smaller, and the damage it was doing was increasing.

So one year ago today, on the same day that my son left home for Marines boot camp, I decided to stop drinking alcohol. I’d be lying if I said at that point I didn’t think I’d developed a “problem” with alcohol, but the “problem” wasn’t the dominant motivation for stopping. I stopped because I was desperately seeking to remove anything that was contributing to the negative avalanche energy in my life. I wanted relief.

This is probably a good point to say that I did not want to identify as an alcoholic and did not seek treatment or groups outside of therapy. In my heart, alcohol was a substance I had misused and was not the core of the problem. I didn’t find the label of alcoholic helpful to me, and I still don’t. Each person has their path to walk, and mine was about eliminating something that wasn’t serving me anymore without labels or other’s prescriptions.

The first month without alcohol was really hard, and mostly at the physical level. My body hurt. I remember the look on my primary care physician’s face about three weeks in when I told him that I had quit cold turkey. He almost looked mad at me and then said: “well, you’re through the worst of it.” He was right.

The second month was better but disorienting. All the questions about how I would operate in the world without drinking came rushing in. How would I do business? How would I have fun? I figured I would have to stay in all the time and avoid most of my old friends.

After the second month, things got a lot better. For the last ten months, I’ve been in a consistent process of developing increasing clarity, improved health, and more honest relationships with myself and the people closest to me. I took a blood test six months after quitting to find my liver enzymes normalized, and my cholesterol dropped significantly.

I’ve found that I can hang out with people who are drinking and still have a great time with them. In fact, one of the most considerable upsides to this decision was finding my social skills were still there without drinking. What a relief to know I’m even better in that category too without alcohol.

This past weekend was more proof of that as I hung out with my best friends for one of their milestone birthdays. Great time, a little sleep deprived, but no hangover for me.

So, I’ve learned a few things during this past year that I wanted to get out of my head before I turn to new opportunities for growth to talk about.

  • Environment Matters

One of the things that made it extremely helpful for me to stick to the decision to quit drinking when the challenge felt significant in the first two months was staying in spaces that supported my decision. After a while, as my body evolved to accept this new normal, I developed some confidence and expanded the environments I could be in safely. But those early environmental limitations (mainly my house, my office, the therapy office, and the gym/dojo) gave me a sense of support that was important to build momentum.

  • Interacting with humans is often anxiety-inducing

I’ve realized that many people, myself included, use alcohol to manage the anxiety that is developed from interacting with people. In months three and four of sobriety, I noticed how often my interactions with people could drive me to a state of low-grade anxiety. I’m talking basic stuff like driving, going to the grocery store, the bank, etc. Every interaction has the potential to be a small trigger that builds into something ugly. I believe I numbed this anxiety with drinking in the past, but without the alcohol, it was a revelation to see how affected I could be by it all.

This realization is what got me on the path of meditation. And meditation has helped immensely on this front.

  • Our unmanaged minds can be terrible for our wellbeing

Continuing on the last point, as I started meditating in a consistently sober state, I got a front-row seat for all the thoughts that regularly run through my mind. Wow. So many thoughts that come from everywhere and have no concern for what they will do to us if we latch on to them. Staying sober has given me the mental energy to work on this front.

Of all the lessons I’ve learned from quitting alcohol, this is the most important. When drinking, I couldn’t be an objective observer of my mind, so it got away with any and everything. When I stopped, I developed the faculty to watch it, to disassociate with it, and to begin to learn how to manage it. Here is where the untapped potential for each human lies.

  • The body functions very differently without consistent toxic attacks

Alcohol is toxic. Outside of the buzz and the mental reprieve it can offer, it has little physical benefits. There are some potential physical benefits at one drink, but once you go past that, it’s a lot of downside. When you are as used to drinking as I was, you actually lose the memory of how your body functions without alcohol.

There are huge differences. So huge that the difference in feeling is hard to put into words.

When your liver and kidneys don’t have to fight off the toxins of alcohol, they can do a lot of awesome things for your body. They are a clearinghouse for separating the bad from the good. When they are overworked due to the introduction of too many toxins, the body is in an overall imbalance. Simply removing alcohol is a massive step towards rebalancing the body in every single way.

The impact of alcohol on sleep is incredible, and since I always drank at night, my sleep was always affected by it. From blocking REM sleep to making me snore, I had completely forgotten when a great night of sleep was like. Now I get them regularly. I dream all the time. And I don’t need to drink to get a hangover, because when I don’t get a good night of sleep my next day pretty much sucks.

Mental clarity, digestion, energy, recovery from working out, and more have all been dramatically improved with alcohol out of the picture. It’s like I have a different body.

Also, I know what it feels like to be naturally happy. I know what the real boost from a workout feels like, or nailing a talk on stage, or doing something great for someone. I know what the pure feeling of happiness is again, not some doctored up version of it that goes away when the buzz is replaced with remorse.

  • There is great power in cutting negative habits out of your life

I had been working out at an increasing level for four years when I quit drinking. In fact, last November, I got my first-degree black belt in Hapkido. But it wasn’t until I ended the harmful habit of relying on alcohol to cope with stress and anxiety that I found the power within me to accelerate my evolution.

“I won’t” or “I can’t” were the words I often used when the topic of cutting back on drinking. And so it was.

When I finally did quit and stuck with it, all of the energy built up from all the times I used those words disintegrated. What replaced it was a belief that I could and would care for myself, I just needed to take it a day at a time and go easy on myself when I came up short.

So today is a day of sincere gratitude for me. I have had a great 12 months since I made the decision that I didn’t need to drink alcohol to be a happy, healthy person. I was right.

Thanks for listening. Going forward, unless I say otherwise, you can assume that this is just part of my lifestyle. I’m looking for the next thing to work on, and I think I’ve found it.

For those of you in the US like me, Happy Thanksgiving. I hope you are with loved ones and getting a little bit of time to reflect.

Have a grateful week.

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