I’ve been sober for over a year, and I’m fortunate that cravings very rarely hit me now. I barely think about drinking anymore, unless some new or triggering situation comes up, in which case I generally know what to do and have tools to navigate the whole thing. But yesterday, a new situation came up, which gave me the opportunity to think a bit more about an aspect of sobriety I hadn’t really encountered yet. The topic is nonalcoholic beers.
Surprisingly, I never really made it a habit, when I first gave up the booze, to replace my beloved IPAs with nonalcoholic beers. I spent a year happily drinking water, Kombucha, and tea, mostly avoiding the bar setting, as I was busy finishing a PhD during covid time and dating someone who was also sober and hated going to bars anyway.
Now that I’ve moved back to France, where café, restaurant and bar culture is deeply engrained in the collective identity, I’ve been walking around and musing at the late summer crowds, gathering and connecting over drinks and food, filling outdoor terrasses like the pandemic never happened. (France is going back into lockdown tonight, so it’ll be a whole other story this winter).
But yesterday, as I was walking back from my new meditation group in the sunny streets, I felt like I really “needed” and “deserved” some wind-down time, a treat, after the intense last couple months I spent overworking and stressing about my PhD defense. I was on the phone, then suddenly walked past a craft beer store, and hung up and walked in.
Before you start to worry about Anne throwing in the towel, let me stop you right there. Although during the PhD I did have moments where I toyed with the fantasy of giving moderation or occasional drinking a go, after the defense I realized those were mostly thoughts coming up due to a severe need of getting some rest and decompressing. I walked into that store with a very clear intention, and zero temptation to drink alcohol. I went straight to the vendor and asked him about their nonalcoholic options, saying that it’s quite hard to find a nonalcoholic beer that actually tastes good. I was happy to see they had a wide variety of choices, and walked out with two little bottles of alcohol free Citra IPA and an alcohol free Pale Ale. This is the first time that I had been so close to beer and actually held an object in my hand that looked and felt exactly the same as all those beers I drank in the past. What I held in my hand looked everything like the “forbidden” object, yet was supposedly harmless. My brain was struggling to process that this was even possible.
And oh, friends, I think I gave my poor brain a shock when I got home and opened the bottle and poured its content into a glass with a stem. Hadn’t held one of those in over a year. Took a sip: hadn’t tasted that taste in over a year. The gestures, the colors, the taste: it was all the same as a year ago. The “Aaaaaaah” feeling of instant relief with the first sip. All the mental associations were there. At first I thought: “This is the life, man. Who needs real beer when they make alcohol free options that taste this good?”
But then something strange happened: the feelings of guilt and shame that used to be associated with drinking alcohol also started to come up a bit. I felt like deep down, I was going something wrong, something prohibited, something dangerous. I think a bit of placebo effect even happened, because my mind began to scan my body for feelings of inebriation, wondering if the very small percentage of alcohol in nonalcoholic beers could trigger feelings of drunkenness, or worse, the horrible emotional mechanisms that came with being addicted to drinking alcoholic beers.
I had had a couple of alcohol free beers during the last year on random occasions, but they tasted disgusting, so none of this came up. Yesterday however, a part of me began to panic, because the experience was so similar to the ones I repeated again and again in the past, and work so hard to dismantle, that my brain automatically associated the consequences of my past drinking experiences to this present, supposedly harmless, alcohol free experience.
I came out of the whole thing with a contemplative mind-frame: alcohol free IPAs definitely hit the spot for whenever a beer craving hits. Also, their calorie content is pretty low, so it’s great option compared to a regular coke, say. But I don’t want to end up relying on the ritual itself, even if it’s “harmless”, like I used to. I don’t want to have that triggering mechanism set off, and start the whole cycle of relying on the repetition of specific behaviors or the ingestion of exterior substances to get through life. Maybe this was just the “manager” part of me worrying that the satisfaction I got out of the alcohol-free beer would lead me to lose control, and step back into the dark side. For me, the “dangerous” part of the experience was that I really would not have been able to taste the difference between that alcohol-free beer and a real beer.
So I’m undecided about repeating the experience too often. Maybe I’m overreacting, but I’d rather stay on the cautious side of things. I realize I still have a constellation of associations crystallized around that one, very specific taste, that one specific ritual. I guess a part of me is still worried about going back to the “f***k it” mentality, and cross over that line.
I wish they had more Kombucha options in France. I’m brewing my own, because in stores, it’s generally very expensive and not very good. But it takes weeks to grow a SCOBY 🙂
I’m curious to know what’s your take on AF drinks. I know they were instrumental in some of you guys’ sobriety success, and I know others find them too triggering. All in all it was an instructive experience, but it also helped me realize that there are still some areas of my sobriety foundations that need nurturing and strengthening, to that I can settle down in a mental space where I do, fully trust myself.