The year of living soberly
Ed and Heidi Adkins, the couple who annually get 30,000 people drunk, don't drink for a year
Midnight on New Year’s Day of this year, surrounded by many of our best friends, my wife and I threw back small plastic glasses of cheap champagne at one of our favorite dive bars. It tasted like pure concentrated victory. Those drinks ended a one-year break from alcohol. When we first announced the break, our daughter didn’t believe we could do it, and our friends assumed we had to be joking.
If you’re wondering why we saw it as such a huge accomplishment, it’s because our work and social lives are spent getting people to flock to our city to fill our bars. Over the last eight years, we’ve done what we can to turn Reno into the bar crawl capital by organizing some of the largest events of their kind in the United States, like the Reno Zombie Crawl, Leprechaun Crawl and Superhero Crawl. We kind of live and breathe drinking. But like beloved actor Wilford Brimley sort of said, it was the right thing to do and the right time to do it. I think he was talking about oatmeal or diabetes when he said that, but it fits.Last Call
My philosophy regarding drinking habits evolved from my general desire to protect my ability to make bad decisions in the future. I don't drink when I'm sad, because drinking to avoid your emotions is a great way to become a problem drinker. Depending on booze to get you through the day is regarded as a sign of alcoholism, and once you're an alcoholic, they tell you that you have to stay away from drinking forever. So in order to protect my ability to get hammered on occasion, I cannot get hammered every day. Yet, when I looked at how much and how often I was consuming, I saw something rising that I needed to address.
We weren’t noticing any one problem caused by our increased drinking yet. There were no chronic fights or glaring issues. The problem was that it snuck up slowly. Both my wife, Heidi, and I spend a lot of our time in bars, and we have a lot of friends. She’s a DJ (see “We can do it,” Musicbeat, June 11, RN&R). I MC events, and we both run many of the city’s crawls, so at least three or four nights a week, we’ve got a reason to be somewhere that serves alcohol. We inevitably see friends who want to share a drink, and we weren’t monitoring how our drinking had increased. I tallied that I was having meetings after work where I’d have a few, then I’d have a few more with dinner, and then maybe a few more while watching TV or something before bed. That’s about nine beers every day—every normal day. That’s not even when I meant it. My wife noticed a similar pattern for herself.
On top of my mathematical revelation, we had a big year ahead of us. There was a lot we wanted to accomplish. It was going to require putting in more hours a week than either of us had ever done working for other people, and that would mean a lot of focus. We’d need to maintain healthy bodies for all of that. The pattern of excess had to go. Also, to be honest, I kind of get off on exercising self-control every once in a while. We both spent several years in a cult before becoming the professional hedonists that we are now, and I kind of miss having things I’m not allowed to do. The one-year restriction began to look attractive.
Once we talked about it, taking a year off made a ton of sense to both of us. We figured it would give us a chance to reboot our habits and focus on work, and probably get fit or something. My wife now says that she wasn’t paying attention when I suggested a whole year, but she went along anyway. Why not head off any future problems now, while it was still fun? What we didn’t realize was how much of an effect the year would have on us.The Year Begins
The initial month of not drinking took a lot of getting used to. It wasn't so much of a physical shock as it was a mental one. First, there was the constant explanation to our friends. “Oh, no thank you, I won't be needing that shot because I'm taking a year off drinking” was a story we probably told 3,792 times that month. Each time we had to launch into what we were doing and why. Then we had to tell them, “Yes, we are serious,” and “No, we haven't joined another cult.” On the bright side, at least three-quarters of the people we told managed to keep from getting defensive and spending the whole evening explaining for no reason why they didn't have to do such a thing.
Next, because we still frequented the same establishments, we learned a new game we like to call “What the hell do I do now?” This game consists of standing around talking to people and keeping still when every 15 minutes an alarm goes off in your head telling you to get a beer. Another thing kicked in that you could call water-drinker’s guilt. For some reason, I felt bad ordering non-alcoholic drinks from the bartender, and I’d register whatever look he or she gave me after I ordered as disappointment. I tipped so well for those waters.
We also began to miss how easily alcohol can take away awkwardness. Say you show up to a social function and don’t know anyone. Ordering a beer gives you a person to talk to and a reason to do it. What if you’re suffering a moment of awful silence after a friend accidentally says something offensive in a crowd? What easier fix is there than seeing who wants shots? It’s definitely a crutch we take for granted.
The toughest part by far, though, was learning how slow time actually is. When you’re not drunk, an hour takes a literal hour. It’s a whole 60 minutes. That’s not at all how things work with alcohol. When we’re drinking, my friends will be dragging me out of a bar after four hours, and I’m asking what the rush is. The Scottish band Frightened Rabbit describes that condensing of our memory well by saying that with drunken nights, it’s only “the best bits that are coloured in.” That first month we’d end up hitting eight different places in a night because after 10 minutes anywhere we were bored as shit.
After adjusting to all the weirdness of not drinking, the payoff began. There was the obvious benefit of saving hundreds of dollars a month. Then there was the newfound energy, too. When you habitually drink too much, you still have hangovers, but you’ve beaten and ignored your body to the point it has just given up trying to tell you about them. Each week it seemed like a layer was peeled away and underneath was an even newer, better rested me. It was about that time I was watching an episode of Bob’s Burgers where the mother, Linda, quipped something along the lines of, “Who can go to sleep without alcohol?” It made me laugh, but at the same time struck a chord because I realized how during the first month, it had actually been hard to go to sleep without being buzzed.
Next I encountered something I didn’t anticipate: My emotions became much easier to regulate. I hadn’t even realized it when I was drinking, but I must have been a lot more up and down than I knew. After two months of not drinking, I had allowed my body to build up melatonin, the sleep hormone that leads to better rest, and that had given me the effects of about six months of psychodynamic therapy all at once.
During the third month, we were becoming experts in making non-alcoholic drinks. We had a refrigerator full of juices, sparkling waters, and tons of little things to put in them like berries and sliced citrus. In hindsight, it was almost obnoxious. We began promoting more alcohol-free drinks during the crawls, too. It was then that we shifted our focus with the events to a better balance. The more we looked, the more it was clear that there were so many reasons other than drinking that people were coming to them, like the camaraderie, the contests and the chance to show off what costumes they created. We met lots of people who were attending our events who didn’t drink a drop, and that was really encouraging.Clean, sober and productive
By the fourth month of not drinking we were getting the hang of it. That's when we weren't focusing on what we weren't doing anymore, and we genuinely broke away from the habit of feeling like we needed booze in order to have fun. By now, we had proven to everyone that we were serious, and we'd become a story of inspiration, too. Our friends had stopped saying, “Yeah, but I didn't think you'd really do it” and were now cheering us on. One by one, they started to take interest in our journey, and we started to feel like Forrest Gump when he collected all those people running behind him on his endless cross country jog. Through those months, our year off started to feel like a movement gaining momentum. One major difference, though, was that no one was dumb enough to take a whole year off like we did.
If the first half of the year was all about shock and epiphanies, the second was about pure resolve and getting tons of shit done. I was able to work what seemed like endless 18-hour days in order to accomplish my goals. We added two new successful events at work, and when we were out with our friends, we’d outlast the drinkers every time.
This was also when we started noticing things that we’d just have blown past when we had been tipsy all the time. Being able to remember the whole night meant that on those occasions when people we knew acted like drunken assholes, we’d still be aware of it the next day. Sometimes that would repeat itself, and we couldn’t help but see a pattern emerge and wonder what we could do to help.
We learned quickly, though, that no drinker will listen to you when you’re not drinking. Nothing is more annoying to someone who doesn’t remember what they did last night than to hear about it from the friend who jumped on the wagon for a year. In that case it’s kind of impossible to avoid the label of over-zealous convert or even worse, sellout. It’s best that they hear it from someone still in the trenches, because during your time abstaining, you ain’t bad; you ain’t nuthin.Home Stretch
By the last three months of the year, we were so incredibly over sparkling water. We would only occasionally open a can of pomegranate blah-blah water, and even then with visible disdain. We'd totally given up on berries and sliced citrus. At that point, we'd learned all we'd learn and had all the epiphanies we were going to have. More than once we considered the idea that a year off was overkill, but there was no way we could turn to the group cheering us on and say we had quit.
Sometimes, though, you just want a beer. In that desire, we saw something positive. When we looked into the future to a time when we’d drink again, we just wanted one beer. Not a six-pack. Not a case. Our tastes had changed. What I wanted was more quality and less quantity. I wanted to stock our home with better stuff we could make quality cocktails with and enjoy them slowly and one at a time. And when I did think about the quickly approaching New Year’s Eve celebration when we’d share that first drink, I wondered whether I was even up to it.Lasting Effects
I waited six months to write this because I wanted to ensure that the habits we were trying to improve weren't just going to revert right away once the year was over, and I can say we're doing very well. Now, alcohol is something we're more mindful of, instead of something I always expect to be constantly pouring into my liver. I think about it before I pull out a beer. “Do I really want this?” I answer a lot more often with a no, and go about whatever I'm doing. I drink in much lower quantities and less often. Some weeks I drink, some I don't. Our friends and our daughter were all proud of us, and some were inspired. We are, too.
I learned that healthy decisions can build momentum to cause you to make more of them. On the night we went back to drinking, I quit smoking. I joined a gym and have been able to stay with it because I’m sleeping well and waking up happy. Also, the benefits of going a year without one of those dumb, drunk squabbles is pretty nice. We’re happier, we feel healthier, and I guess what I’m getting to is that when you’re not drinking all the time, you have a lot more sex. You’re better at it, and you remember it all, too. Just saying.
Do we feel like we needed to do it? Maybe not. We could’ve just decided to cut back a bit and seen what happened. I’m glad we chose the route that we did and had the experience we had because it was memorable, we learned a lot, and we managed to inspire some folks in the process. Most people won’t ever feel the need to do it, but most people aren’t us and that’s OK. Also, we know we didn’t cure cancer. We just took a year off booze.