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A Year Without Alcohol: An Experiment in Creative Flow

How cutting alcohol changed my creative practice

Over the past several years, I have been looking carefully at all of my resources – time, energy, focus, money, and well-being, to name a few – and have been looking at how I can optimize each of them. Since I became unblocked and began making art regularly, I have found myself discovering just how important creative flow is to my life. If I truly listen to myself it is one of THE most important things to me and my life. This realization gave me a desire to truly embrace my creative flow and see how healthy I could make it. As a result, I have found myself doing things I never thought I would, like quitting drinking.

Creative flow is fundamental for all makers

Creative flow, to me, is an organic state of being that involves many moving parts. It is not merely a matter of producing a certain quantity or quality of work or of doing certain things. Rather, it’s an ongoing mental and emotional state. It requires patience, constant diligence and care (somewhat like tending a garden). It involves caring for your well-being, your energy levels, learning to notice when your brain gets loud and being able to slow down, and also finding tools that help you to get into a healthy state of creative flow as often and as successfully as you possibly can.

Doing all I can to improve my creative flow is a part of taking the best care I can of the body and the life that I’ve been given. Part of being in creative flow means being fully present, able to focus, and take action on the things that are most important to you.

I have been experimenting with making changes to habits and patterns in my life that I feel may be having a negative affect on my ability to show up and live my best creative life. These have included eating more healthily, reducing caffeine consumption, building better sleep habits, and cutting a swath of circle of concern things such as reading the news, self-help books, podcasts, and other external ‘shoulds’.

What I have found with these bigger life changes is that they are often nebulous and hard to tie cause and effect together conclusively. This makes them more difficult to spot as problems, and also more challenging to adjust… but it’s also amazing how tied together some of these behaviours and habits are. Fix one and you can end up improving several others!

The hidden effects of certain habits

What I have found with these bigger life changes is that they are often nebulous and hard to tie cause and effect together conclusively. This makes them more difficult to spot as problems, and also more challenging to adjust. It can be hard to keep doing something difficult when you cannot easily see the benefits and rewards from doing it.

I have also found that, very often, they have a trickle effect into many other areas of your life. For example, when I cut alcohol by 50% in 2017, I almost immediately began eating healthier, craving more fruits and vegetables. This was not an intended consequence. I realized that when I drank, I tended to eat less well. I also tended to sleep less well, which then lead to making poorer decisions around diet or drinking more caffeine which had the unwanted effect of adding higher anxiety into my life. It’s amazing how tied together some of these behaviours and habits are. Fix one and you can end up improving several others!

Deciding to quit drinking

In January 2018, I decided to stop drinking altogether – just to see what it would be like. At first, I said I would simply not drink for a month, but then as the month went on, I decided to try not drinking for the first three months of the year, this lead me to try not drinking until after my birthday – 6-months into the year. Of course, by the time I made it to that point in the year, I wanted to get to a full-year without alcohol. I was mainly motivated by both a curiosity of what it would be like and also a desire to really break default habits. When I first stopped drinking, I thought about it all the time! I craved an after-work drink or an end-of-week drink. It was shocking to discover how much mental space it was taking up.

Creating a hard line around alcohol and stopping drinking certainly made a huge difference. It freed up a lot of mental space so that I no longer debated with myself whether to have a drink, what to drink, how many, under what circumstances, etc.

Identifying what needs to go

That quiet voice of my intuition had been telling me for some time that alcohol was not serving me. I knew, but I resisted because it seemed way too scary, way too hard, and like way too much of my identity was tied to things related to alcohol. I had a very strong resistance and defensiveness to the idea of quitting alcohol. This is a pretty sure indicator that your intuition is telling you something that’s true but that you don’t want to hear/believe. I convinced myself that since most people I knew drank more than I did, it wasn’t a problem. We live in a very alcohol positive society. Drinking is ever-present and widely considered not only socially acceptable but ‘fun’ and ‘cool’.

At the same time, I had been tracking my moods in my Morning Pages before and began to notice clear negative mood patterns around alcohol and media consumption. This brought them to my attention and lead me to resent the effects they were having on my life. I began to want to change them. To want to have power over them instead of the other way around. For me this thing was alcohol, but for you it may be something else that is not serving you.

That quiet voice of my intuition had been telling me for some time that alcohol was not serving me. I knew, but I resisted because it seemed way too scary, way too hard, and like way too much of my identity was tied to it.

Powerful learnings

While I still have the occasional craving for a drink – usually when I see it in a movie or walk by an old favourite bar – I find that I hardly think about it. I never thought I’d say this, but I actually don’t miss it. At all. My life is so much better without alcohol. I feel much stronger without it. I have more energy and steadier energy. I tend to be in a better, more positive mood, and have more self-confidence. I never wake up hungover, dehydrated, or feeling like I’ve been hit over the head. I can do so much in the mornings, now, and I love being up and about before the city has really awoken for the day!

Creatively, the past year has been the best creative production I’ve ever had. I’ve consistently had the ability to pull focus, take action, and work on things as-needed, nearly any time of the day or day of the week. I no longer have so many emotional or energetic highs and lows.

One of the most surprising things I learned as I cut alcohol was that I was just as likely to crave a drink on a very good day as on a bad day. I realized that not only was I trying to soften my low-points, I was also lowering my high points! Bréné Brown talks about this as ‘numbing’ our highs and our lows to stay within a reduced zone that we are more comfortable with. You can miss out on a lot of life this way.

Another thing that emerged from this experiment with not drinking was the emergence of what I’m now calling the polymaker in me. I picked up knitting, wrote more than ever, became curious about sewing, renewed my focus on gardening, and began to have more creative solutions to everyday problems. I seem to want to make, make, make… in all forms! And it’s wonderful!

Feeling the highs and the lows

Quitting something like alcohol is not all rosy. Many people don’t do it because it is hard! It requires sticking firmly to something even when others are doing otherwise. It can be hard for a while because you can’t ‘numb’ as you used to.

Since I quit drinking, I have found that I feel higher highs and lower lows. This is because, without your usual ways of shutting yourself off, you have to feel everything. You have to look at everything. I have learned that this also means that things leave a larger impression on you because you feel everything more intensely.

This may sound terrible! For a while, yes, it is much harder. I am here to tell you, though, that if you stick with it, it’s so, so worth it. These are just phases you go through and they do pass. It does get easier as you go. You will learn to feel the fears and the discomforts that you were using alcohol to mask.

A year in, though, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I truly believe that this is leading to a better, more fulfilling, and deeply joyful quality of life. It allows me to be alert and present, to be myself, in all situations. Increasingly, there is no baggage. I can spend time with myself and with my partner. I do not need to hide behind anything in order to be myself. This increased awareness also has the benefit of inspiring a response – a change, an action, a new direction. Looking with more awareness at your life can result in making other changes and taking actions on your behalf.

A year in, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I truly believe that this is leading to a better, more fulfilling, and deeply joyful quality of life. It allows me to be alert and present, to be myself, in all situations.

Taking care to not swap vices

As you make a significant change such as quitting drinking, be alert to the risk of simply swapping vices. It can be easy to pick up another habit that doesn’t serve you – like watching more TV or browsing social media more in place of not drinking – and it’s something to be aware of as you go.

Looking ahead to what’s next

I have been feeling it out as I go, but the further along this path I go, the less I want to drink. After my one-year was up, I did try adding in an occasional low-alcohol drink. I find I really notice now how much less clear my mind is when I have a drink. I tend to feel sluggish, and feel less strong in myself. I’ve also been very reluctant to open the door to the mental treadmill of ‘can I have a drink?’ ‘when should I have a drink’ ‘how many drinks is ok?’. I also, certainly, do not want to slip back into drinking regularly, so I am vigilant and paying close attention as I go. At the moment, I have decided to continue not drinking – though, I will continue to feel things out as I encounter different situations.

A side note on labels: I am not all that big on labels (ex. Vegetarian, vegan, sober, etc.). Even though it takes longer, I tend to prefer to feel things out for myself when I can. It’s more lonely because you can’t shout your label out and find others in the same group. It’s harder to explain. But, it also feels more natural to me and like the results were brought about by inner guidance (rather than a ‘should’ or external set of rules). The moment I put a label on it, it becomes driven by external rules, to me. However, I definitely think this is something that each of us needs to feel out and decide for ourselves. If you feel the need to strictly avoid alcohol 100% or if you identify with being sober or any other term, most certainly do what works best for you.

Learn more about how I identified alcohol as an energy drain using daily journaling – and how you can track anything you’re curious about to see whether a change is needed for you.

Setting smaller goals four times per year instead of once at New Year’s greatly increases your chances of sustainable success. It allows you to set smaller, more manageable goals, to focus more fully on them, and to make more progress toward what you want, it also creates forward momentum that carries you through. Learn about quarterly summits and my goal-setting process.