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Why Cutting Back on Booze Can Be Hard

Deciding to skip that evening cocktail (or two) might be a lot easier said than done. Here's why.

By Robrt L. Pela

I keep forgetting I'm no longer 22. Unfortunately, the world is full of reminders — like pants-buttoning. And 40-year-olds who refer to me as "Sir." And the way I feel in the morning after last night's parade of vodka stingers.

Champagne being poured into a glass. Next Avenue, cutting back alcohol, booze
Credit: Aleisha Kalina/Unsplash

For a while, I blamed the pandemic for my expanding waistline and my 6 a.m. hangovers. Trapped indoors for more than a year, in close proximity to my estimable collection of ports, I'd been indulging myself more often than usual. My trousers noticed; so did my general practitioner.

"You're up eight pounds from last year," she told me during my annual physical. "Your cholesterol and triglycerides are higher, too."

Neither my diet nor my exercise regime had changed, I insisted. "Then maybe lay off the hooch," my doctor suggested.

No problem, I figured. A quick online search told me that men my age — I'll be 60 any minute now — should imbibe fewer than four drinks per day. That's more than I typically consume in a week, I thought. I'd be back in those slim-cut jeans by nightfall

But my online search also enlightened me to some alarming facts.

Drinking More Than Before

Like how, according to the National Institutes of Health, people 60 and older are routinely drinking more than those in that age group did only 20 years ago. And how that puts us at higher risk because too many wine spritzers are more likely to dehydrate or spike the blood pressure of an older person. And since many older adults take medications for what ails us, there's a greater risk we're mixing prosecco with prescriptives — almost never a good idea.

I was stuck on the part about how more older people are drinking more booze. While I mixed myself a bourbon-and-soda without the bourbon, I telephoned Dr. Elisa Gumm to ask why.

"What's that old Mark Twain quote? Something like, 'It's easy to quit smoking, I've done it a thousand times?'"

"Older people are often looking back, reflecting on their lives," said Gumm, who's the director of the addiction fellowship program at University of Arizona's College of Medicine. "And maybe they're seeing all the things they meant to accomplish but never did. That can lead to regret, and maybe a routine of drinking to mask those regrets."

So what's an older, regretful person to do?

"I always recommend a harm-reduction approach," Gumm told me. "Go to your favorite restaurant and order a Coke instead of wine. Or create a new goal to replace one of the accomplishments you missed, like 'I'm going to drink half as much this weekend.'"


It may not be that easy, according to Joseph Kane, clinical director of Avenues, a recovery center in Philadelphia.

"I guess you can just announce you're going to quit drinking," he said with a big laugh. "But if you're going to work on any issue, any good clinician will tell you first to work on the coping skills that will allow you to abstain."

Even before that, Kane suggested, it's a good idea to determine where you are on the Alcohol Use Disorder spectrum.

"There are varying degrees on that scale," he explained. "Mild, moderate, severe. You have to be careful about cutting back, because if you're moderate or severe, your chances of failure are higher, which can lead to more shame-based alcohol abuse."

Kane ought to know. "I'm sober now," he confided in me. "But in the past, I had a problem. Then and now, modern science can't say if you're someone who can successfully temper your drinking. Before you cut back, do some research so you don't fail, feel bad about it and end up indulging even more."

When you announce you're cutting back on a bad habit, not everyone will be happy about it."

Dr. Marvin D. Seppala, a national expert on addiction treatment, agreed that setting yourself up for success is always a good idea.

"What's that old Mark Twain quote?" he asked when I phoned him at home. "Something like, 'It's easy to quit smoking, I've done it a thousand times?'"

Seppala, chief medical officer of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation treatment centers, thought keeping liquor out of the house altogether was a surefire way to cut back. But even after pouring all that good Scotch down the drain, creating a solid support system is paramount.

"When you announce you're cutting back on a bad habit, not everyone will be happy about it," he cautioned. "To some people, 'I'm drinking less' can sound like a judgment of their own bad habits. Those people may not be your best allies if you plan to drink half as much."

'Pretend Hootch'

Seppala's advice got me to thinking about my friend Don, an alcoholic who, rather than seek traditional treatment, opted to curtail his drinking instead.

Was I always supportive? I texted Don, when you decided not to quit drinking altogether?

Yeah, he texted back. Aren't you the one who bought me all that fake bourbon?

I'd forgotten about that.

A year or so ago, I'd written an article about a fellow based in Scottsdale, Ariz. who was making a bundle selling pretend hooch. Afterward, I'd dropped off a couple bottles of something called Kentucky 74 on Don's doorstep.

"We're in our fifties and we like beer, but we didn't want the hangover, the increased anxiety, the lack of sleep, the carcinogens."

"That's one of our better sellers," said Daniel Stiller, co-founder of Better Rhodes, which calls itself "a curator of alcohol-free related content." I'd kept Stiller's phone number.

When they launched Better Rhodes late last year, Stiller and his business partner figured they'd be selling faux spirits to guys like themselves.

"We're in our fifties and we like beer, but we didn't want the hangover, the increased anxiety, the lack of sleep, the carcinogens."

But Better Rhodes' main customer is millennial women, it turns out.

"They're redefining the narrative around alcohol and replacing it with a larger awareness of health and wellness," Stiller said. Most of the company's sales are alcohol-free wine and ready-made cocktails.

Stiller admitted that non-alcoholic spirits, beers and wines taste different than the real thing. "But we're giving people healthier choices," he said. "We're also taking away the awkwardness of explaining why you're not drinking wine at a dinner party. You can show up with your own bottle of Luminara red blend and ask the host to serve that to you."

Some of his clients cheat a little, Stiller told me. "If you love a martini and you're trying to cut back, you can have one made with Hendrix or whatever, and then your second one could be made with Damrak, which is distilled from botanicals and tastes real close to the real thing," he noted.

After talking to Stiller, I wanted a Hendrix martini. I thought about the hangover I'd likely have tomorrow, and about drinking juniper-free gin instead. I wondered if I'd feel judged for switching to pretend merlot, whether I had an Alcohol Use Disorder and if I had keen enough coping skills to divorce rye whiskey.

Finally, I decided to buy a bigger pair of pants.

Robrt L. Pela
Robrt L. Pela is a Pulliam Prize-winning writer who has worked at magazines including Psychology Today, The Advocate, Phoenix Home and Garden and Men’s Fitness. For the past 30 years, he has been a columnist at Phoenix New Times and a correspondent with the NPR member station KJZZ. His last book was Filthy, a biography of the film director John Waters. He and his husband live in Phoenix, Ariz., and look forward, post-pandemic, to returning to their homes in Niles, Ohio and Bargemon, France. Read More
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