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Alcohol-Free Beer: a Lesson in “Moderation”

I drank a near-beer and it didn't kill me, but it did teach me to cherish my hard-won sobriety that much more.

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By Jenny Oliver

12/27/13

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I was in a bar a few nights ago—actually, the site of my last drunk—having pizza with my boyfriend. After commenting on how nice it would be to taste a beer, he said I should get a non-alcoholic one. A non-alcoholic beer? The last time I thought about a non-alcoholic beer was probably…never. When I was drinking, the idea seemed ludicrous—why bother? What a waste. Over the course of my recovery, I simply equated having anything even associated with alcohol with the inevitable spiral back to compulsive drinking. I can’t drink. Ever again. End of story.

Or, is it?

Alcohol-free beer can go by many names: light beer, non-alcoholic beer, small beer, small ale, or near-beer. All have variable amounts of alcohol, from none to up to 4 percent. Now, I’ve tried non-alcoholic wine once, and I didn’t like it. When I was newly sober, my uncle served me what looked like a perfectly nice wine at a holiday dinner—no offense to him, but I almost gagged. Not only did it taste tart and syrupy, but I felt even worse drinking red “wine” and not getting the familiar buzz. Did I shed a tear of longing? Pathetic, but probably.

I know that some decaffeinated coffees are not entirely caffeine-free, and I’ve gotten high off four pots of decaf before. So, caution says, why test fate? What if, somehow, that beer did have an appreciable amount of booze in it? Worse, what if, somehow, the taste and texture alone triggered a psychological craving to have more, and bam—I’m drinking a gallon of it every night out of a 32-ounce cup?

I decided to assume the best and ordered the non-alcoholic hefeweizen beer—after all, it was alcohol-free. I poured it into the tall stein and drank. I felt nothing, at first. After about a third of the bottle, though, I knew I was feeling drunk—or some version of that. My boyfriend scanned the label on the back of the bottle with his iPhone, and lo and behold, Schneider Weisse “alcohol-free” beer is comprised of .5 percent alcohol. Oops.

It’s an honest mistake. I don’t consider this a slip, by any means. In fact, it was a liberating experience in that it made me see that having one drink—albeit, at a very low level of alcohol—will not necessarily trigger a physical craving, or even a mental one. And, even though I’ve continued to harbor romantic delusions of drinking in moderation again, I never in a million years imagined that I wouldn’t want to.

In abstinence-based recovery models, like AA—which is where I started—there seems to be a lot of emphasis on what I would call fear-based conditioning.

The beer tasted great, but the buzz was decidedly unpleasant. I felt anxious, and then, disoriented and “unglued.” It’s how I often felt in my later drinking days, when I regularly blacked out after as little as a bottle of wine. Maybe I had simply become more sensitive to alcohol? Maybe a certain panic was kicking in because the feeling of being drunk was so unfamiliar to me now?

Most surprisingly, I didn’t want more. Back in the day, I drank to get buzzed, and when that stopped happening, I continued drinking anyway—the definition of compulsion. That night, it seemed that my desire had somehow recalibrated to the actual reward. As I sat there and examined the buzz, so unfamiliar in that it didn’t feel euphoric, but mechanical and empty—I realized that I was simply waiting for it to wear off.

Over the course of my recovery, I never once considered that alcohol might no longer hold the weight it once did. The fact is, alcohol stopped being a reward a long time ago, well before I stopped beating my head against the bottle. Alcoholism is part learning disorder—no matter how many times we “learn” that the substance offers no real reward, we keep using it. We hold it in high regard; we give weight to it. That’s the addicted brain talking. But what does the “recovered” brain sound like?

In abstinence-based recovery models, like AA—which is where I started—there seems to be a lot of emphasis on what I would call fear-based conditioning. As in, if you drink again, you will die. Why? Because you’ll go right back to using. That presumes, however, that you’ll get the same high, and that you’ll seek that high with the same desperation as before. And that might be the case for some—one sip becomes another life-threatening binge.

For others, it’s a different story. The “never drinking again” mentality is impractical for certain folks, especially those who fall on the lower end of the alcohol use disorder spectrum. Maybe you’re a binge drinker, or a “problem drinker,” or maybe you present symptoms of psychological, but not physical dependency? Moderation might be tolerable—even desirable—for some.

After my Schneider Weisse experience, I was completely surprised by my reaction, or lack thereof. Maybe it was a lucky break; maybe I’ve simply lost the ability to get buzzed off alcohol. In any case, this experience added more to my toolset than probably anything thus far. My two slips (once at two months, another at six months) helped me to fully commit to abstinence, for instance, while this near-beer episode gave me an incentive to drink that goes beyond craving, triggers, and self-talk/Higher Power: I don’t drink because it doesn’t make me feel good. I can’t drink, not because I’m afraid of losing control, but because it doesn’t work. I choose to not drink because I know I don’t want to, instead of, I can’t drink even though I want to.

I am not saying that experimenting is safe, or advisable. Know thyself. Be mindful. Many drunks—myself included—find that abstinence is the only way to heal. I drank that small beer feeling strong and happy in my skin. Every time I drank in the past five years, however, I drank when I was feeling down; I drank to numb, to mask depression and anxiety. Now that I know it doesn’t work—when I’m feeling up, at least—I’m more firmly committed to finding another way to deal.

I am also not saying I’d go out and try this again. I know all too well the thoughts that lead to the “fuck it” mentality—the rationalizations that go from one-sip-here to two-bottles-a-night-there. It’s a slippery slope.

What I am saying is that I appreciate having taken a calculated risk—even if it was accidental. I appreciate knowing more about how my mind is working these days in response to alcohol. I appreciate not having to live within this scratchy curiosity. In fact, I appreciate not having to live in fear.

I used to think the whole point of getting sober was to be able to drink “normally” again. These days, I’ve come to believe the point of getting sober is to not want to drink—in essence, to thrive without alcohol, and not just find workarounds. For me, this is what sober living is about, and I think my near-beer accident might have been the best “mistake” I ever made.

Thank you, Schneider Weisse, for your “alcohol-free” beer. Now, can we do something about that label?

Jenny Oliver is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about how her addiction does not define her identity. 

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