Years ago, I used to smoke. A lot. People used to plead with me to stop smoking, but I would always reply: “Hey, I’m no quitter. I never give up!”
Well, turns out I was wrong. I am a quitter. I haven’t had a cigarette in 20 years. I haven’t eaten meat in 4 years. I haven’t had a drink of alcohol in 3 months. I haven’t had any caffeine in two weeks. (And here I add, while telling this to friends: “And I haven’t had sex in 20 minutes. I’ve become Mormon!”) (Sorry, Mormons. Just kidding there…)
Some people find quitting so hard to do, that they don’t do it. Some find quitting somehow morally reprehensible, so they don’t do it. Some find quitting (things they otherwise enjoy) completely absurd, so they don’t do it.
But maybe they should give quitting a try. See what happens.
I can tell you a few things about quitting, now that I am a veteran quitter. As a quitter, you will get a variety of reactions from family and friends, generally depending upon what it is that you have quit.
If you tell people you quit smoking, you will be congratulated and admired for your courage, strength, and perseverance. Even smokers – so long as you don’t become one of those annoying, self-righteous ex-smokers who is always sermonizing and otherwise bothering smokers who are not quitters – even smokers, I say, will extend their best wishes and perhaps even envy you. Quitting smoking is hard, and one who has done it has mastered himself in an important way.
If you quit eating meat, people will look at you with bemusement. “Well that’s unusual,” they’ll say, uncomprehendingly. They’ll want to know if it’s a “health thing” or a “religious thing” or whatever. You will not be congratulated for quitting (except, perhaps, by a vegan who will then immediately castigate you for not going far enough). You will not be envied (unless your skin noticeably clears up and you’ve begun to brag about more regular bowel movements). But you neither will you be criticized for your quitting. No one will think the less of you if you don’t eat meat . Although it is possible you will not be invited over for dinner as regularly, I’ve found that my meat-eating friends are frequently keen to try out some vegetarian recipe that sounded good and will use an invitation to you as an excuse.
If you quit drinking caffeine, many people will nod their heads in agreement, saying something like, “Yeah, I should give that up, too. Makes my heart race and I sweat a little too much.” But that’ll be the end of it. Quitting caffeine is no different to most people than quitting Coke to drink Diet Coke. No big deal.
But if you tell people you quit drinking, then watch out! Unless you were a raging, obnoxious alcoholic whose life had become completely unmanageable, in other words, if you were simply a run-of-the-mill social drinker – wine with dinner, beer during the game, cocktail on a night out – you will not be congratulated. Indeed, you will be looked on with suspicion and even revulsion. People will feel betrayed and abandoned. Announcing you’ve quit drinking is like (assuming you were in my social circles) announcing that you’ve converted to Islam. People will wonder if you have been hiding a dark secret. Were you really a raging alcoholic? Was there “an incident”? What was going on with you behind closed doors. They will wonder what could have possessed you to give up the delights of a fine Pinot or a single-malt scotch. They will find you – even if you never utter a negative word about drinking – judgmental, self-righteous, holier-than-thou. They will take your quitting as an unspoken demand for them to quit. And as they resist that, so they will resist accepting your quitting. There may be, however, among your more sensitive and forgiving friends, those who will pity you for quitting. “Oh you poor dear! How are you going to ever have any fun anymore? How are you going to handle this new social life you will have to lead, one that does not include bars, cocktail parties, and wedding receptions?” They will treat you as if you just lost a leg in a terrible automobile accident. They will see you as handicapped.
Although smokers rationalize, there is really not much of an up-side to smoking. Quitting smoking is clearly good for you.
No reasonable person could deny that there are a number of real benefits to becoming vegetarian or vegan. The individual benefits from a generally healthier diet (or at least a diet that is not unhealthy), and society would benefit in many ways from the changes in land and water use (and the climate implications) from having fewer cattle farms. And let’s not forget the animals – eating vegetables diminishes cruelty. These reasons for quitting eating meat have not been persuasive on a grand scale, of course. A day does not go by on Facebook without a post on bacon. But still, there are good, reasonable arguments for quitting eating meat.
Quitting caffeine seems more of a judgment call. I used to say that my body was a machine for turning caffeine into philosophical insight. One could argue that if caffeine helps the cause, then use it. But Adderall might help the cause, too. Or perhaps LSD (remember that?) or heroin might produce some transformative insight (people like Beatles and Charlie Parker seemed to think so). But to what extent should one go? And if one has been on caffeine for so many decades, what insights would not being on caffeine lead to? What might a calmer mind find? But I admit it is a judgment call.
Quitting alcohol is another matter. Many studies have shown that a moderate amount of drinking (especially of wine) may have marked health benefits. But it is not a matter of health. It is a matter of sociality. You can still hang out with anyone and do anything if you don’t smoke. Not smoking changes nothing. Your smoking friends will just be glad you stop bumming cigarettes from them. If you don’t eat meat you can still go to any restaurant with friends (well, okay, you won’t be going to the Great American Barbecue Rib Cook-Off, I suppose) – there’s always something on the menu. And not drinking caffeine may only have an impact if you draw the night shift for driving on a long road trip. Quitting smoking, meat-eating or caffeine has no deep or lasting social impact.
But quitting drinking changes the social dynamic. When all around you are on their second or third cocktail, things begin to change. The flow of the conversation between you and them is disrupted. You are less likely to feel a part of the party. You are not going to be doing that “dance thing” you (used to) do when the music gets going.
The truth is that for me, the impact of quitting drinking has been minimal (I tend to live a bookish-birder hermit-like life). I hadn’t been going to bars for quite some time and I don’t go to that many parties anymore. Plus, I can’t see how my drinking friends won’t benefit from having another designated driver at their disposal. Gee, I could become even more popular!
Unlike quitting smoking and meat-eating, I cannot say for sure that quitting drinking is a permanent decision. It is at least an experiment. For one who does not suffer from the disease of alcoholism, quitting drinking has plusses and minuses. Some social customs and practices are harder to break than others. Drinking alcohol has a religious, even sacred, character to it. We toast each other’s health with alcohol, we don’t smoke a smoke to your good health. Some of the world’s religions see drinking wine as a means of connection with divinity, but none sees polishing off a hamburger as communing with God (unless it is a Five Guy’s burger, I guess). Alcohol is primal, and being without it is being without something that reaches deep into our past in deep into our soul (and not always for good).
For the moment, in this experiment, I have been happy not to be forcing the body up throughout the day with stimulants and back down at night with depressants. And as a person who has suffered long (but who has coped fairly well, considering) with disthymia, I have noticed some relief (well, duh! self-medicating to ward off depression with a depressant seems obviously unwise). I know the reduction in my bar bill has had a noticeable positive impact on our bottom line! Perhaps I cannot afford to start drinking again.
On the other hand, perhaps I cannot afford not to.
We shall see.