As a lifelong rock-and-roll dude and purveyor of pretentious literary screeds, booze and its many accoutrements came with the territory. From early on, I found the vibrancy — and sometimes even the dinge — of the party life wildly alluring.
But more than that, there was this aesthetic to uphold: the drunk writer. Hemingway in leather and chains with an electric guitar, if you see what I’m saying.
It was cool, and the whole image was fueled by booze and an eclectic, if inconsistent, brotherhood of psychedelics, uppers, occasionally downers, and absolutely always cannabis.
For a while — a surprisingly long time, actually — all of that was more or less fine. There were thrills and calamities, to be sure, but it’s hard to say that anything really terrible ever happened. Lots of close calls, perhaps. It’s hard to ever know what was and wasn’t a close call. But I was drinking a lot — a lot, a lot — every day for at least a decade or more.
I remember one time when some friends and I were taking a drug survey that asked how many times you’d blacked out in your lifetime: 0 times, 1 to 2 times, or 3 or more times. We thought that scale was hilarious. Our recollections of anything that ever happened after midnight were highly suspect.
Then, when I was in my early 30s, my career suddenly became a lively thing that required my attention, and one impediment was holding me back: Daily hangovers were destroying my writing.
For a long time, booze seemed to help with my work, but it suddenly became my biggest hindrance.
I knew I had to do something about it, but I couldn’t quite break the habit. Drinking felt less like a compulsion than a fact of life, like breathing or hating Bono. There are some things you just do, and you’re not even sure why.
I had a hard time drawing down the pace of my drinking for quite some time, but when I moved abroad and away from everyone I knew, it gave me the space I needed to make it happen.
Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve barely been drinking at all. Maybe a few drinks a month. I think that, by giving alcohol a wide berth for several years, I’ve created the distance necessary to visit it from time to time on a healthier basis. It also helps that I now have the tolerance of a 14-year-old.
I think sobriety means having clear ideas of why you would or wouldn’t take a drink or drug, understanding how you would act under the influence of it, then making wise decisions accordingly.
For some people, that might mean complete abstinence. There are others who have healthy relationships with their substances of choice, and their use is entirely conscious, or sober.
For me, being sober means I make conscious choices about when and why I drink. For example, I know that I can use alcohol to celebrate a happy occasion, but I recognize that repeated or self-medicating use doesn’t lead to desirable consequences.
What surprised me most was that I can write and create art sober. I came to realize that, in many ways, my art is much better than it was before — more consistent, focused, and thoughtful.
When I began to consider slowing my booze roll, I was under the impression that it was integral to my creative lifestyle and psyche, and I was terrified that I would become boring and uninspired.
This, I later learned, is an extremely common concern among recovering artists. But it’s not true. That’s the thirsty part of your brain whispering lies.
There wasn’t ever a moment when I thought it would be easy, and it never was.
I have a bad history with impulse control, and when you’re traveling all over the world, you stumble across a lot of exciting impulses. In our culture, those impulses seem to almost always include booze. So that has been extremely challenging. But I expected that.
Unconventional… where to begin? My lifestyle is exceedingly unconventional in the first place.
Picking up and moving around the world helped. It’s hard to be drunk in Tunisia — not impossible, but hard, or at least harder. And it’s easy to stay away from booze when you’re in Bangkok, you don’t know anybody, and you’re spending all your free time walking through Buddhist wats — or you’re wherever doing whatever.
The point is that traveling gives you the distance you need from your usual influences and temptations.
I’ve also used psychedelics in a therapeutic capacity, and that certainly helped. It allowed me to get to — or at least get closer to — the root of what caused me to self-medicate. And it taught me alternative tactics for living that have better results.
What can anyone really say about how psychedelics help? For me, they really turn over and shake the ol’ Etch A Sketch of the mind.
The fact that I’ve managed to reengage with alcohol on a healthy basis has surprised me. For a long time, I thought I couldn’t have one drink without having 26 more. And for a long time, that was true.
But after giving it a good amount of distance, I was surprised to find that I can have a few drinks now and again without the spiral cycling up again. I think it helps that I did a lot of work on myself beyond my drinking as I sobered up. So now, when I drink, I’m in a healthier, non-medicating space for it, psychologically speaking.
There’s this common misconception that it always has to be all or nothing. That’s simply not the case for everyone. People fall on a wide spectrum in terms of their relationship with alcohol, drugs, and sobriety.
And for some people, half steps are better than no steps at all. It’s a very personal thing, and the puritan evangelists don’t speak for everyone.
I don’t necessarily think there’s something that I would “tell” my pre-recovery self. That guy wouldn’t have listened, and, in fact, it probably would have encouraged the opposite of the desired result. And I don’t have a lot of regrets.
I do know what I wished I could have heard: You don’t need to be f*cked up to be creative, and you miss a lot of cool opportunities when you’re wasted all the time.
Nick Hilden is a culture and lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in the Daily Beast, Scientific American, Salon, the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Health, Thrillist, and more. You can check out his work at www.NickHilden.com, and you can follow his travels and get updates via Instagram (@nick.hilden) or Twitter (@nickhilden).