I recently took a month off alcohol. I’d slipped into the habit of drinking a bottle of red wine most nights of the week. For a man of my ample belly this was moderate immoderation. But it would still render me sluggish and sleepy the next day, and my mental health was affected adversely.
It’s clear to me I have addiction pathways in my brain relating to alcohol, and breaks are sometimes necessary to help me keep control of the habit. I don’t think I’d ever consider giving it up totally, though, simply because alcohol, used properly, bring me great pleasure. Despite the puritanism that still infects our culture, pleasure is a wonderful thing and a worthy pursuit in an often painful world. What often seems to be missing, though, is a framework for using drugs. This means many of us indulge unconsciously and impulsively, which can often lead to unpleasant outcomes (ever been really hungover at work?) and increase the chance of addiction getting it’s claws in.
For me, the most useful way to frame most non-medicinal drugs – including alcohol, coffee, cigarettes, non-prescribed prescription medications, and other more illicit goodies – is this: drugs are psychological tools with that provide or enhance pleasure. This is helpful because tools have purposes, which inform how we use them. If you have an axe, you know its purpose very well. It is to chop wood, or maybe to chop enemies. Either way, you know the tool’s function and you know when it is failing to perform. If the axe is blunt, you can sharpen it. If the axe breaks, you can fix it. You also need to know the best way to use the axe – how to swing it safely, maximising impact and minimising strain on your body. If you don’t use the axe properly you may hurt your back or cut your knees off and then the tool won’t serve it’s function because you won’t be able to use it. It may also turn out you don’t have to chop wood any longer or never really did. Maybe you have moved to a new home without a fireplace or you find out your neighbour has a wood chopping machine you can use. In that case, you will probably give the axe away or sell it – why keep a tool that serves no purpose in your life?
By asking what pleasure a drug is supposed to be enhancing we can, with some honest introspection, determine whether it is serving its purpose or not. If not, we can use the same framework to decide if the tool needs to be fixed – by adjusting our usage – or whether the purpose we are using it for is not the healthy pursuit of pleasure, but something darker. Drinking to ease depression is a classic example of a self-destructive ‘cure’. If a drug is serving a destructive impulse in us, it is best to simply stop using. Cigarettes fall into this category for me, which is why I have finally permaquit.
You might also find that some drugs don’t serve the purpose you’ve assigned to them, but could serve another. Someone who gets stoned to ‘loosen up’ at parties only to spend three hours sitting in the corner not speaking could either stop smoking altogether or find a more suitable pleasure for marijuana to serve, such as the solitary enjoyment of art.
For myself, I have come to realise I use alcohol to enhance three pleasures I value greatly: the pleasure of food, the pleasure of socialising, and the pleasure of joyous dissipation. Those first two pleasures do not require true drunkenness; in fact, they are hindered by it. Realising this has been an important part of reducing my overall drinking levels.
Take pairing wine with food. When I sit down to enjoy a tasty pinot gris with pan-fried salmon, the pleasure is in the interplay between the flavours of the wine and the fish meal. The rich, fatty textures of the salmon flesh, the salty crunch of the fried skin, and the dry, crystalline simplicity of the wine create a flavour together they don’t have separately. Two glasses is all I really need to make this joyous experience last a whole meal, with the option of a cheeky third glass to round things out.
That will leave me a little bit tipsy, but not truly drunk. If, however, I continue drinking at this point, all is lost. I have learned from experience that after a fourth glass of wine, something happens in my brain that means I am almost certain to finish that bottle and likely start on another. Once drunk, I will also start eating again, but with far less enjoyment than before and likely to excess, so that I end up feeling sick and overfed. The next morning I will be groggy, tired, and depressed, meaning anything I have to do that day will feel like a chore.
So, starting from the principle that alcohol is a pleasure tool, I can conclude that I shouldn’t have more than two or three glasses of wine with a meal to maximise my pleasure. Notice that this is not based on moralising or even health concerns, but solely on increasing enjoyment of food and wine.
So, in case you were wondering, that’s how Kinch thinks we should think about drugs.