Can an App Help You Drink Moderately?

Can an App Help You Drink Moderately?

By Caitlin Clark 04/17/15

Maybe problem drinkers of the past had to resort to AA, but I am part of a generation with miraculous apps.

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I was sure technology could save me from myself. Maybe problem drinkers of the past had to resort to AA, but I was part of a generation with miraculous apps. Apps brought private cars to my door, acted as personal trainers and assistants, and guided me through perplexing public transportation systems. Of course, there had to be an app that would help me drink normally. 

Normal drinking can be hard to define, but I saw it as this: not blacking out, destroying relationships, or suffering daylong hangovers. I’d tried old school moderation tricks like rotating drinks with glasses of water, only drinking with food, and cutting out hard liquor. I tried collecting lemon wedges in my glass and stopping after getting to a certain number, but I eventually stopped counting and started enjoying the extra citrus. I needed a more high tech solution.

Drink In Hand

It occurred to me that if I could track my blood alcohol content, I might be able to drink responsibly. But carrying a police-grade breathalyzer in your purse isn’t exactly chic. I turned to my smartphone for a more discreet option and found Drink In Hand – The Ultimate Alcohol Calculator ($.99). 

Short of being an actual breathalyzer, Drink In Hand had all the features I was looking for. I entered my gender (female), body weight (110 pounds) and an estimate of my metabolism (moderate, based on how I seemed to metabolize food quickly and alcohol very slowly). Then I hit the “Start Drinking Session!” button. Each time I finished a drink, I let the app know, and it asked for the specifics.

I was impressed by the array of drinks built into the app. It knew the alcohol content of everything from an Alabama Slammer to a Zombie, and the beer selection alone included over 200 brews. It was like a really good bar. Each time I finished a drink, the app recalculated my blood alcohol content. My plan was to stop at .08.

Drink In Hand includes a disclaimer that it’s for entertainment purposes only. But I wasn’t looking for scientific accuracy; I just wanted to stop acting like a moron. I figured .08 was an ideal level of intoxication, somewhere between tipsy and sloppy and below the driving limit in another half hour. (Not that I was worried about driving; the app can call a cab.) 

But the problem was stopping. The first time I tried Drink In Hand was at a celebratory function with free champagne. Much to my disappointment, according to the app, I reached my .08 limit after three tiny plastic cups of bubbly. 

I pointed out my dilemma to a friend who forced me to leave with her. But the next time "I Started a Drinking Session!," the same friend was not around. I drank until blacking out, eventually forgetting the app was running. I woke up the next morning to its cheerful pronouncement that I was now 100% sober. As I vomited up the previous night’s poor choices, I felt anything but. 

Drunk Dial NO!

If an app couldn’t stop me from blacking out, I figured I could at least find one that would protect me from more damaging drunk behavior. One particularly bad habit was my penchant for drunk dialing. I drunk dialed exes, enemies, strangers and, on one random weeknight, the professor of a course I was taking who’d unsuspectingly given me her home number. 

Checking my phone after one of these drunk-dialing sprees was terrifying. How many people, how many minutes—did I leave any voicemails? My call record often had a vaguely alphabetical shape to it, as if I’d been scrolling through my contacts and passed out somewhere around L. 

Enter Drunk Dial NO! ($.99). Most of the drunk dialing apps I found seemed designed to facilitate drunk dialing, but Drunk Dial NO! was the real deal. For a period lasting from one to 48 hours, the app scrambles the numbers and email addresses of selected contacts, making them impossible to reach.

This could have worked beautifully, if not for a few things. The first was that I had to decide when to block contacts, which was tantamount to deciding when to get drunk. I didn’t decide when to get drunk; each time I took a drink, I believed I’d handle it like a lady. 

The second problem: if Drunk Dial NO! gets deleted while contacts are blocked, their numbers stay scrambled forever. This happened to me somehow, maybe when I deleted the app in a blackout. I still occasionally try to call a contact only to find their number has been permanently converted into a jumble of random characters. 

Finally, the app didn’t help when I had access to social media. Drunk Facebook-ing was a problem I never found an app for. The more numbers I blocked on Drunk Dial NO!, the more hours I seemed to spend chatting up random Facebook acquaintances at three in the morning. Ultimately, I ended up deleting Facebook altogether, which was probably the best drunk decision I made.

iDrinkulator 

Since alcoholism is a disease of forgetting, I decided to retry my previous idea of using a drink tracker. By this point, I was obsessed. I couldn’t imagine drinking without the help of an app, yet I still believed normal drinking was within reach. 

iDrinkulator ($2.99) doesn’t track blood alcohol content with the same accuracy as Drink In Hand but serves as a more long-term drinking diary. Unlike Drink In Hand’s cheerful approach to binging, iDrinkulator involves a certain degree of shame.  

For one, iDrinkulator asks you to enter a weekly drink limit (I optimistically entered seven based on the CDC’s moderate drinking guidelines for women) and warns you when you go over it. It distributes that weekly limit evenly throughout the week, so I couldn’t cheat by having seven drinks in one night. 

iDrinkulator also includes a calorie counter with a chastening “Doctor” who says things like, “I can see from my records this week you have been a bad girl, drinking 16.3 standard drinks out of 7 drinks per week.” The doctor’s “Yuckulator” converts calories consumed in alcohol to their food equivalent (e.g., five pints of IPA equals two-and-a-half cheeseburgers, fries and a slice of cheesecake).

I learned other things from iDrinkulator besides how many cheeseburgers I drank. I learned that a pint of IPA with an alcohol volume of 7% equals not one standard drink, as I’d previously considered it, but almost two. So if I had those five pints, I was actually at nine drinks. 

I also learned that I was incapable of staying within CDC’s weekly limit for moderate drinking. How could anyone? It was ridiculously narrow and maybe a little sexist. I decided to cut myself some slack and increased my weekly limit to 14 drinks, the moderation limit for men. I couldn’t stay within that either.

Despite my repeated failures, I stuck with iDrinkulator religiously for over two years. Waking up the morning after a blackout, I’d do my best to remember what I’d had to drink the night before and entered it into the app. I’d read somewhere that “whatever gets measured gets improved,” and I desperately wanted to improve my drinking.

One day, shortly after a come-to-Jesus talk with my therapist, a weekend of blackouts, and a fight with my boyfriend about taking drugs from strangers, I opened iDrinkulator to enter the previous night’s drinks and felt exhausted. I didn’t want to do this anymore. It was too much work.

I scrolled back through my weeks and weeks of drinking records and although the numbers had peaks and valleys, they all seemed to be saying the same thing: STOP. Just give it up already. 

So I quit drinking. And while I can’t say I haven’t looked back since, I can say I haven’t had to enter a single drink into the Yuckulator for almost a year. And that feels, for the first time, like progress. 

Conclusion

These apps might help some drinkers moderate, but I apparently wasn’t one of them. At the same time, I credit iDrinkulator in large part with my decision to quit drinking. I still believe whatever gets measure gets improved, even if that measurement results in calling off the whole endeavor. Sometimes, the numbers don’t match up. There wasn’t enough room in my life for alcohol.   

For me, sobriety is a lot less work than drinking. I don’t have to try to remember whom I called or offended, take full days off to hug my toilet, or obsess over when and where I’ll get the next drink. These days, I wake up with a clear conscience and sense of peace. As far as I know, there isn’t an app for that.

Caitlin Clark blogs about recovery at The Air of Elsewhere.

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