To Quit Drinking, I Had to Let Myself Be Bored

Growth, Stories and Essays

by Ben Kissam

When I gave up drinking, I made a promise: “Don’t make a social media clout post about this when you reach your one-year anniversary.” Per usual, I was getting ahead of myself. I was also pretty hammered when I said it.

My relationship with alcohol has always been dichotomous. Getting drunk has always felt, shall we say, heavier than it might for the average person. Despite countless half-hearted attempts at sobriety, though, I’ve never really abused alcohol.

So, why quit?

One, I’ve never felt in control of my mind and always envied those who seem to be. I figured giving up drinking could help me make strides in this area. Two, I generally just felt bad when I drank. If quitting for good seemed appropriate after the year was up, I would. 

The early results were anticlimactic. I prioritized daily exercise and avoided social outings that might put me in compromising positions. 100 days passed. The motivation to continue waned. Then everything changed a few weeks later.

Not because I drank. I was sitting on my butt watching TV on a Saturday night when the familiar negative loop in my head started going off: 

What’s wrong with you? You could be using this time to do X! Why didn’t you do Y? You’re a lazy piece of Z! 

My pulse rose and a familiar scratching sensation clawed at my chest. For the first time in months, I had an honest hankering to crack a tab or turn a corkscrew. 

The sudden, extreme anger bothered me, so I sat with it for a while. Upon further inspection, I realized I wasn’t craving alcohol. What I really wanted was to walk to the liquor store, choose a flavor, walk home, and tip a few back while I made dinner. Basically, I wanted to distract myself so the negative self-talk would go away. The trigger was feeling guilty for sitting around doing nothing—even though I was purposely avoiding going out to stick to my goal. 

That night, I made (what embarrassingly felt like) a courageous decision: as long as I wasn’t drinking, I had permission to feel bored without feeling guilty or angry. When the sensation arose, I would simply watch it and listen to the words. 

Weekdays were easy. 

Weekends kicked my ass. 

There was too much free time. I saw how brutal—and second nature—my inner monologue had become. 

But as I sat around weekend after weekend, bored and reflecting, something strange started happening. I got more honest with myself. I could see more and more clearly that the “productivity” I was apparently missing out on was bullshit.

My strategy for getting things done has always been to throw myself into it so hard there’s no time to think. You get a lot done this way, but it takes its toll on the system. Crashes are inevitable. At that point, I had suffered from splitting headaches that made my vision blur for two years. I routinely used alcohol or other substances to numb myself. I also spent about five days each month locked in my bedroom with the lights off, recovering from anxiety attacks.

I was embarrassed by this, but I considered it normal. And the whole time I laid there recovering, I was furious at myself. 

Why are you so weak? You should be doing something! 

When you’re stuck in a negative loop, only new experiences offer hope. The problem was, my body was physically unable to seek them out.

I surpassed one-year without drinking recently. I didn’t miss work once because of headaches or anxiety. Sometime around the six-month mark, my face got strangely hot before a massive band of tension uncoiled through my face and neck. No pain after and nothing since. What I thought was a permanent issue was, most likely, trapped emotions I was sedating with booze, food, scrolling, and other distractions.

This may be a dangerous message for some, but I will probably drink again. I don’t know when. But if I do, I won’t consider it a relapse.

Living substance-free for a year cleared my mind enough that I noticed the insanity and gave my body time to heal. Now that I’m aware of it, my plan is to keep adding good things to my life, not deny things (or feelings) I’m afraid of.

Of course, if I drink to mask my problems again, I’ll end up where I started.

Despite my best intentions to not share for clout, here I am a year later writing about my anniversary. For me, it’s less about the merits of sobriety, and more about not shying away from being bored, or angry, or sad, or any other bad feeling that comes up. Training yourself to feel these emotions might seem, well, boring. But if you’re used to feeling sort of bad all the time and can’t pinpoint why, I’d encourage people to give it a try. You might be surprised to see, as I was, there are reasons we run away from things we don’t understand.

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