Notes from two years without alcohol - what I have learned so far
In 1989, sociologist Ray Oldenburg published a transformative theory about human interaction with urban space. According to Oldenburg, people spend the majority of their time in two places: home and work. Oldenburg formalised the concept of a ‘third place,’ explaining how pubs, cafes and similar social hubs are pivotal to the functioning of a society and, indeed, to the continuation of democracy.
“Third places host the regular, voluntary, informal and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work,” Oldenburg wrote in The Great Good Place, his opus. He then described how third places encourage social equality by providing a level playing field for all guests. Moreover, Oldenburg argued that third places provide a breeding ground for political enlightenment, cultural expression and communal empathy. They help us take stock of our hyper lives, in other words, creating a safe haven where we can just be.
Today marks two years since I last drank alcohol, and more than anything in the past 12 months, Oldenburg’s third place theory has loomed large over my discoveries. This year, partially obscured by coronavirus-induced lockdown, I have realised that, with regard to alcohol, we are not so enamoured by the substance itself than by the places in which it is obtained. Our collective alcohol problem is really a third place problem, I’m increasingly convinced. The social aspect of drinking is one of its strongest anchors to addiction.
Here in Britain, we have a broad array of third places. Quaint village pubs with crackling fires. Cosmopolitan coffeehouses with gentle jazz piped in. Football stadiums galore. Rugby stadiums, too, and cricket grounds. Impressive churches. Crowded gyms. Hair salons, sunbed shops, barbers and massage parlours. We have spa retreats and community centres, libraries and theatres. We have art galleries and museums beloved around the world. But do we have an appreciation of these spaces, and are we mindful of their emotive power? All too often, we take these amenities for granted, and that contributes massively to our misspent recreation.
I’ll be honest - this year has been harder than last year to avoid the temptation of alcohol. I have not come close to ordering a pint, but the allure of third place comfort has never been more powerful in my world. Walking past a beer garden on a scorching Friday afternoon, it hits you. Walking through the concourse of a boozy away end, following Tranmere around the country, it hits you. Driving through the city on a vibrant Saturday night, it hits you.
That looks so fun. I could just join those people.
Except, it is not fun. Or, more accurately, alcohol-fuelled socialising starts with fun, but then it descends into agitation, frustration, tiredness, anger, arguments, fights, lost wallets, smashed phones, exorbitant Uber bills and massive hangovers. That is why I choose not to participate in the regurgitated frolics. That is why I continue to abstain from alcohol.
I’m a 25-year old Tranmere Rovers fan living in the Baltic Triangle of Liverpool, surrounded by bars. My fiancée is Polish. My ancestors are Scottish and German. My hometown is Birkenhead. The Libertines are my favourite band. Pete Doherty is my ultimate hero. By day, I’m a Bid Manager. By night, I’m a council estate kid loitering in the middle class, writing books and blogs. Every statistical indicator says I should be drinking alcohol to excess. My liver should be doused in Gamma Ray, Tyskie, Famous Grouse and Jägermeister. Instead, I’m teetotal - or, more accurately, coffeetotal. That is a mathematic aberration considering the demographics I frequent. That is a minor miracle, in fact, and I’m proud of my abstinence.
I was never a huge drinker. I did not have a problem. However, the cultural and behavioural phenomena surrounding alcohol made me somebody I was not. Sitting in the pub every weekend was not my ideal third place. I’m an introvert, more at home in a library than a nightclub. And, besides, I was diagnosed with depression in 2018, prescribed sertraline and then fluoxetine to ease the pain. Taking antidepressants with one hand but drinking depressants with the other seemed logically redundant to me, so I stopped. In truth, it was not even a difficult decision.
Sometimes, I struggle with bouts of nostalgia, ruminating on happy memories from the past. For me, such reminiscence typically revolves around Tranmere, and I often yearn for those classic awaydays of yore. You know, the ones where you carry a crate onto Merseyrail and gradually make your way to some shithole town in the arse-end of nowhere, singing and cavorting, laughing and joking, enjoying it all before an inevitable stoppage time defeat. Those days are special, man. Enjoy them while you can.
In the end, though, we must grow up. We gradually outgrow the urge to sing about Jason Koumas in crowded train stations, seven bottles deep at two in the afternoon. For some of us, that moment of realisation comes later, but it never really goes away – that rebellious, insouciant itch. It is almost like a third place of the soul, if you will, and it must be contained with age, experience and wisdom.
You see, the human memory is a strange thing. It is fundamentally flawed. There were no good old days. Not really. We just think of bygone moments as such because they represent a departure from the present, which can often be sad and demoralising. In reality, most of those awaydays, and indeed those trips to the pub, ended the same way: with beer fear, regret, cloudy headaches, vomit, depleted bank accounts, new enemies, police surveillance, chronic anxiety and gloomy despair. They simply reinforced and magnified every insecurity I had about my own existence.
Accordingly, when I walk past that beer garden or drive past that heaving pub, a fleeting wistfulness occasionally floats over me, but my mawkish pondering evaporates quicker than it even arrives. I remember the unseen consequences of unfettered indulgence - for, me at least, if for nobody else. The four-day meltdowns. The nonsensical behaviour. The sick and the self-loathing. The depression, ultimately, which for me lurked at the bottom of that fifth pint, unleashed a few hours after consumption.
Ironically, I’m probably more respectful of alcohol culture now than I have ever been in the past. There is something magical about pubs, regardless of what is sold inside them. There is something iconic about 5pm on a British Friday, especially in summer, when wearied workers are spat by the corporate monster onto wooden benches in nondescript fields, refreshing tincture in hand. There is something intoxicating – literally and poetically – about liquid relaxation. And yet, it is just not for me. Too many dickheads tend to ruin it for the moderates among us, and I'm through pretending to like stuff that actually eats me alive.
Ultimately, this brings us back to Oldenburg and his third place. You see, all the things we love about alcohol culture – community, relaxation, companionship, padded armchairs, gossip, venting, humour, chasing bygone freedoms – can be experienced without drinking alcohol itself. And when you strip all that romance away, what other reasons do we have to get bladdered? Unhealthy ones, almost exclusively, and they should be avoided if at all possible – especially if your mind is as complex as mine.
While Oldenburg conceptualised the third place theorem, one company pioneered it in practice. That company was not a pub or a cocktail bar or even a restaurant. It was a coffee seller, believe it or not. It was Starbucks, and that speaks to the ultimate irrelevance of alcohol in the attainment of human escapism.
“You get more than the finest coffee when you visit Starbucks,” said Howard Schultz, the company’s spiritual leader, in 2001. “You get great people, first-rate music, a comfortable and upbeat meeting place, and sound advice on brewing excellent coffee at home.
“At home, you are part of a family. At work, you are part of a company. And somewhere in between, there is a place where you can sit back and be yourself. That is what a Starbucks store is to many of its customers – a kind of ‘third place’ where they can escape, reflect, read, chat or listen.”
Of course, Schultz is a master marketer, and his description of a caffeinated nirvana is somewhat contrived as a result. Anyone who has grabbed coffee from a service station Starbucks will attest to that. Still, I tend to agree with his basic premise, even if it was plagiarised from Oldenburg. We need that third place, and I would argue that, in the continuation of Schultz’ point, at the pub we are part of a superficial performance, unable to be ourselves. That is why alcohol, no matter where it is sold or consumed, can never deliver the salvation we so readily demand of it.
In conclusion, then, how do I feel after two years without drinking alcohol? Well, pretty good, in all honesty. My medication is working well, even though antidepressants are notoriously inconsistent. I have more clarity of thought these days, and I’m able to maintain a steady level of emotion rather than peaking and plummeting with the fermenting rhythm of modern life.
Some people derive great value and pleasure from alcohol. It binds their life together, providing routine respite while authoring great memories. That is fine. That is great. If it works for you, be my guest. I’m no Andrew Volstead. Yet, when the sun sets on this, my 731st consecutive day without an alcoholic drink, I’m thankful for the stillness of discipline, and I’m pleased with the person temperance is allowing me to become.