I hear this quite a bit; people saying how they envy ‘normal’ drinkers. These envyers of normal drinkers can often be very set in their sobriety and have no intention of ever drinking again. They know from personal experience that if they drank it would end in a horror show, so they themselves would never drink again. But they envy those drinkers who can have one or two, or even a few more than that, then just get on with their lives.
It’s particularly understandable at this time of year. Here in London it feels like summer is finally here; the sun is out, the evenings are getting longer, and the thought of a few drinks in the open air can be compelling.
It’s worth looking in a bit more detail at the experience of these so-called normal drinkers, who apparently can have one or two drinks (or even a few more). Let’s look at what they get form their experience.
Firstly, and let me get this out there once and for all, the best drinks I ever had were the ones I wanted the most. Either because I had a horrible hangover and knew a drink would take me from feeling anxious, miserable and frail to feeling confident, happy and relaxed. Or because I was just obsessing about having a drink. The inescapable fact of the matter is that the more you want something, the more you are going to enjoy it. And if you don’t really want something, if you are ambivalent towards it, chances are you aren’t going to enjoy it that much.
So this is the first point. People who can take it or leave it, can take it or leave it for a reason; because they’re not that fussed about it to begin with.
But even if you skip this part, and assume that they really do enjoy their drink, how long does that enjoyment last for? 15, 20 mins? Then the sedating effect of the alcohol turns into a corresponding feeling of restlessness and anxiety. Maybe they have another one. Then another. Then they will be offsetting that restless, anxious feeling. But of course that unpleasant feeling is increasingly pronounced when it eventually kicks in (which is has to do eventually when the supply of alcohol is stopped).
But even when you keep the alcohol flowing, the good feeling doesn’t last. As the intoxication builds up the good mood slowly dissipates. Try watching drinkers on a night out. The good mood passes pretty quickly, and later in the evening they look sluggish, tired, even argumentative or aggressive.
At some point of course they will go to bed, to have their sleep ruined by the chemical effects of the alcohol. This is true for whatever amount they have drunk; even one drink will interrupt the drinker’s normal sleeping patterns and leave them tired and washed out the next day. And there will be that anxious, restless feeling which is the chemical aftereffects of the alcohol. If you only have one drink, that feeling will be minor (almost imperceptible), but they more they have drunk the more pronounced it will be.
And of course alcohol elevates our heart rate. In the short term this robs us of energy (the more your heart is beating the more you want to sit down and rest) and in the long term It greatly weakens your cardiovascular health.
That mix of tiredness, anxiety lethargy and restlessness will follow them around all the next day.
So what do these drinkers actually get from their drinks? 20 minutes of ‘pleasure’ followed by 23 hours and 4 minutes feeling far under par? Maybe they might get an hour of ‘pleasure’ if they keep the drinks flowing, but then the following 23 hours they will feel even worse.
If you envy someone something they are experiencing, you have to envy the whole experience, you can’t just envy them a selective part of it. It’s odd how we envy them 5% perceived benefit of the experience, and give no thought to the 95% unpleasantness they pay.
It all comes down to the fact that we often think that those who drink less get the pleasure without the downsides, but of course they get the downsides. These downsides may be less pronounced the less you drink, but you can never escape them.
Next time you see someone drinking in what you consider to be an idyllic drinking situation, remind yourself that you’re seeing 5% of the total experience. Think about the 95% price they will be paying. Would you willingly and knowingly pay £95 for a £5 benefit? I don’t know many people who would (other than politicians…)