New Orleans, Personal Development

Sober on Bourbon St.

“Try not to party too hard.”

I had just told my friend I was headed to New Orleans for Hallowe’en. His response was fairly typical.

I laughed. “Actually,” I said, “I’m doing it dry.”

What what what?

New Orleans is a city of festivals. There’s pretty much always a party happening, and of the occasions to hold them Hallowe’en is the biggest (yep, better than Mardi Gras, as every local has told me). Just google Bourbon Street and you’ll see a wall of revelry with almost as many nipples as nostrils.

So who goes there and stays sober?

*raises hand*

Firehouse for rent on Dauphine St.

Why to Try Dry

Seven days out of eight, anyway. I’m allowing myself to enjoy absinthe one night. Other than that, alcohol is a no-no on this trip, part of a move toward zero drinking that I’ve been making for several weeks now.

Why? Well, I’m not in recovery, and I have no moral objection to drinking. In fact, sharing libations is one of the most important ceremonies in my religious repertoire. But abstaining from alcohol has benefits. For starters:

  • It’s an easy way to lose weight
  • It makes my trip much cheaper
  • Staying up is easier
  • Waking up is easier
  • I can spend more time exploring and pick up a lot more about the city

However, these side benefits were never enough for me to quit drinking. I come from a family where drinking is the norm, at meals as well as social occasions. It feels normal for me to have a beer pretty much any day of the week. And enjoying cocktails is part and parcel of experiencing a new city.

The biggest reason is something my teacher told me:

“I like to stay conscious.”

This was the whole of his reason for not drinking. I like to stay conscious. Tied up in that simple sentence is an entire philosophy. He’s not talking about blacking out, though that’s no fun either. He means the little bit of consciousness you give up with each drink.

This is a profoundly different view of alcohol. In this view, the drawback of drinking is not solely in the consequences. You could be very responsible, know your limit, stay polite and friendly, and take a cab home—to most people, this is an example of problem-free drinking. But it still comes at a cost of consciousness. During those hours you have less awareness, less cognitive power and a greatly impoverished set of reflexes.

To the average person, that may not matter much. In a city you know well, surrounded by friends, the danger of walking around in a fog is easy to forget. But people carry those same habits into less familiar surrounds. When you go on a bender in a new city, you bet your safety on the amount of love the locals have for tourists.

I’m mounting a two+ year trek across more than a dozen countries. I refuse to give up my life on this quest, and I’m sure there will be many times I’ll have to make quick choices that affect my survival. The lessons I’m receiving about self-preservation go beyond the brutal moves on the dojo mat, and I’m not waiting till I’m on the road to learn how to make friends without a bottle of Scotch. Right now, every day is training.

The Philosopher’s Gambit

So I spend evenings wandering the French Quarter with friends, witnessing the night life with an unusally clear mind. It gives me a sort of poet’s lust for the city around me. There are layers of magic and culture in New Orleans that run deeper than a backstreet bar, and my teacher’s lesson has given me a new tool for exploration.

What role does drinking play in your social life? How about stress relief? I’m curious what you think—is the “consciousness cost” worth it for the high? When? Leave a comment and let me know!

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30 thoughts on “Sober on Bourbon St.

  1. Well, yeah. There’s a reason that I choose when I drink, and it doesn’t always have anything to do with every time I want a drink.

    I’ll be feasting with mead from Colorado tonight, though, in the privacy of my own home. Where, frankly, a little less consciousness will be quite pleasant.

    But I don’t think you could pay me to drink in public tonight. I wonder if I’m already deeply aware of the dangers of losing even a little bit of consciousness because I’m female, and have been brought up with all the weight that carries with it? (Media attention to date rapes and abductions, etc.)

    • I was thinking about that. I seem to see plenty of women out there drinking as hard as the men though :) The big difference I see is that the women rely more on the “safety in numbers” policy. Personally I question how effective that really is…

  2. I generally don’t drink in public. If I’m out at a restaurant, sure, a glass of wine with supper. But I don’t like to be out of control, and most especially I don’t like it at a club or a pub where the music is loud and the lights are dim. Plus, I can’t dance when I’m drinking, so what’s the point?

    But even in school I was like that. Actually, in school I was worse, because I had far less trust in my friends’ abilities to stay safe and know their limits. Nowadays, it’s not so bad.

    I usually use a glass of wine as a reminder that it’s time to stop working, because I have a terrible habit of working from the time I get up to the time I go to sleep. If I have a glass of wine with supper, the glow I get makes me feel much less like working. :)

    • Funny, my school days were the opposite. I was never really the blind bender type but I did love to participate in drunken revelry with good friends. I like how you use wine as an end of the day ritual!

  3. Well, I guess if you are sober during the celebrations, you’ll be able to more clearly see and appreciate all those nipples you mentioned, hehe.

    Personally, I drink a glass of wine maybe 5 times a year, which makes it special (although I’m sure I’ll drink more when I’m in France). Anyhoo, your teacher is a smart man, and it is the main reason I drink so rarely (and I have a few embarrassing college memories).

    So your journey will be 2+ years–that is quite the commitment. I was wondering how long you thought it would take. Will you be walking through Costa Rica? I want to go there someday.

  4. Jaguar in Arkansas. says:

    I my twenty’s i drank like a fish. By my early to mid thirty’s I only drank on weekends, by the late thirty’s, maybe once or twice a year. Now in my mid forty’s, I don’t drink at all and don’t have the slightest urge to. Why? One word, hangovers. I got to the point where the hangover wasn’t worth the buzz. I don’t even like the taste of any kind of “adult beverage” anymore. I also get a kick at parties of sitting around watching the antics of all the poor drunkin silly people around me!


  5. Let me just say this, and it’s a huge part of the reason I gave up being vegetarian: Oh wow, are you going to insult your hosts along the way.

    Cutting way down, that’s your choice, and your reasons aren’t bad… but I’m pretty sure you’re planning to stay with people/ couchsurf in your travels, and refusing to drink with your hosts can be kind of like a slap in the face. (Granted I’m in Russia, and that’s how people treat it here. If you aren’t on strong medication and refuse a drink with someone who offers, it is taken as a personal insult.)

    I drink a fair bit, in public though more often at friends’ homes, in foreign cities, and I’ve never had any problems resulting from it other than a hangover now and then. I know how much an adrenaline rush can sober me up and don’t generally drink past that point. For that matter, alcohol in small quantities – one or two drinks – is an upper, not a downer, and I find the relaxation and slight expansion of conciousness after a glass of mead or shot of absinthe to be very nice. (I recommend Xenta and St. George’s as good brands. Absinthe is either excellent or horrible; there’s very little in the middle.)

    Before I lived in a Muslim country, surrounded by coworkers who thought a beer was the ticket to hell, I didn’t give that much thought to alcohol as sacred (even though I’d homebrewed extensively). In rural Turkey I realized how much I enjoy a culture that celebrates the world’s beauty and the decadence of a good inebriant. Quality alcoholic drinks are the meeting of human science and nature’s bounty, soil and sunlight distilled into camaraderie and pleasure. It’s about life and joy and letting go of absolute control now and then.

    You’re going to travel. Excessive paranoia isn’t going to help you any more than excessive caution. Live a little!

    • Haha I think you know me better than that Kira. “Excessive paranoia” doesn’t fit in my repertoire. Certainly if a host is being friendly I’ll enjoy a drink now and then. On this trip I don’t need to worry about it so I’m trying something new.

  6. Soliwo says:

    I drink wine in the weekends, usually two glasses a night. Plus, even when I party hard (maybe twice a year) I don’t get a hangover. I just wake up at seven, have a slight hangover, drink a glass of water, and by nine or ten in the morning I am like new. During summer time, when it is hot, I sometimes drink a beer. I like red wine better though because you drink it more slowly. It is a slow transition. Plus, I would like to think that drink doesn’t necessary makes you less conscious, it makes you conscious of different things. And different states of consciousness can be useful. Relaxation, and ecstasy as well.

    I drink less now, also to loose some extra pounds. The important thing is to be conscious why you drink, how much you drink, and now what the drawbacks are to your lifestyle. But I do not think there is anything wrong with an alcohol drink once in a while.

    • “Plus, I would like to think that drink doesn’t necessary makes you less conscious, it makes you conscious of different things.”

      That is a really beautiful way of putting it, Janneke. I do cherish the feeling of mild inebriation + social togetherness that comes from a couple of drinks with friends. It is sacred in its way.

  7. I seldom drank the summer I lived in New Orleans, and still rarely drink more than a half cup of wine every now and then for festivals. You summed it up pretty well the reason why…I like to be fully aware. When I was in New Orleans I was more interested in soaking up the atmosphere, exploring etc than going into a drunken binge. I think this has what made New Orleans such a rich part of my memory. The health and monetary reasons are extra pluses of course :)

  8. I am not against drinking myself, but I am dry most everyday except maybe once a month when there is game night with friends if the host offers. As I am a guest, and the host obviously wants to enjoy their drink with friends, and not be the only one drinking, I join in (they have good taste too). I get a buzz and my DD spouse, who is not a fan of the taste of alcohol so is always sober, drives me home at the end of that night.

    Not having alcohol in the house save money big time, and I don’t have to worry about killing my liver. Not to mention a fair bit of the ceremonies I get involved with, you have to have been sober for at least a weeks time prior to.

    I don’t mind people getting shmamered, so long as they don’t let the alcohol control their lives, having their lives being about it. I have met my fair share of people who, upon meeting them, were past alcoholics and haven’t touched a drink in years, some in decades. I have questioned myself if it is even worth it in any way to drink. I mean, why even bother? What benefit do I really get out of it as opposed to doing the same things sober?

    I had made that comment before in a conversation, and one response surprised me a little, “A lot of the parties you see people do, if they weren’t drinking, they’d be really bored and wouldn’t know what to do with themselves.” And that got me thinking, if you were to be bored if sober, then would what your doing be a complete waste of your time? Wouldn’t you rather be doing something better? More constructive?

    Just my thoughts.

    • “Shamered” is the word of the day. The word of the day is “shmamered.” ;)

      It’s funny how different people have such different perspectives on drinking. I have a friend who drinks about as rarely as yourself, who holds a similar view on alcohol. He said that it is only fun as a social activity, so anyone who drinks on their own has a problem. To myself, coming from a family of regular drinkers, that didn’t even compute to me. Drinking is a pleasant feeling, whether alone or with friends; and many drinks taste good to me, so why wouldn’t I enjoy one while having dinner on my own? To me, drinking adds something of its own to a situation; so it may actually improve otherwise boring activities. To many others such as yourself, it seems to have no special value of its own. I wonder what causes such a difference in experience.

      • Was raised in a fundamentalist christian household that only permitted alcohol either as something you only have at large celebrations and only a couple of drinks if that, or as a horrible medicine that I don’t wish on anyone unless your desperate (it really does work, but your tastebuds are shot for a while, not to mention the burning sensation). From my first experiences with alcohol being the later horrible one, I had less incentive to start. Since I was raised and was a fundie for most of my life, I waited until I was 19 (being the age limit in Canada). Drank a fair bit until the night I dry heaved for four hours past midnight and knew my limit since then. Through college I drank a fair bit weekly with friends and started to see that I was drifting to having it take over my time and money. So I just decided that it wasn’t really worth it and ended up doing what I first posted for some time now. Since that decision I noticed my health has improved as well. So that is my background and what led me to my current perspective. Which mayhaps give you something to see if there is a similar cause to different views.

        • That’s very interesting, because my parents raised us the opposite ways. We were allowed to have a tiny bit of wine of beer at dinner even at a young age, and as teenagers could sit around sharing wine with my parents after dinner. By the time I was old enough to go to drunken parties, there was no mystique or taboo around alcohol so I didn’t go as overboard as many of my friends. I definitely had some heavy indulgence during college but not that often. Though evening drinks did become habitual during the unhappy marriage years and I’m glad I put a stop to that.

      • Oh, I forgot to say that I have nothing against people drinking alone. I had often did that while playing video games, and found them a whole lot more fun doing so. It also was nice to do to relax and read a book. But I now personally find it better health wise and money wise to not do that anymore.

    • Good challenge Manu! I did a 30 day sober period once just to make sure I wasn’t drinking in an unhealthy way. I also abstained for about 15 weeks as part of a Chinese medicine diet that I did this past spring. This is the first time I’ve considered changing my long-term, everyday habits toward alcohol. I’m curious to hear how your challenge goes.

  9. I had my last bender a month ago in Seattle for my birthday. I stayed pretty dry in September.

    I am an alcoholic, so I pretty much always want a drink. I stopped drinking for a year after I lost my job. As my awareness increases, it’s easier to manage. I know that I can drink, and I’ll have fun at the time, but afterward I will either feel depressed for the next several days or continue drinking to cover it up. The longer I continue to drink, the harder it is to stop.

    When I’m not drinking, I end up being way more productive. Last night I was composing until 6:30am. I’m sleep deprived, but working on that. I eat waaay healthier. I stay and home and not spend all the cash I have on me.

    Going to a local bar to catch some live music is interesting. Sometimes I meet everyone else on the same wavelength and my perception is altered, like someone drunk being inside a sober body. Other times the energy clashes hard and I’m disgusted by the whole spectacle and I have to leave the building.

    Of course it’s good to question everything I’m doing, so I consider the option of never drinking again. As much as I love it, I’m one of those people that has the potential to self-destruct by just adding ethanol. The big difference these days is that I know the warning sings and can see it coming.

    • Joseph, I’m sorry to hear that but glad you recognize the warning signs. I’m curious, are you part of a recovery group or program, or do you try to manage it purely on your own recognisance?

  10. jenincanada says:

    I’m dry all the time. Booze is too expensive and I grew up in a home where drinking at meal times was normal but led to uncomfortable evenings. So I just don’t drink 99% of the time. However, on special occasions in a place where I’m comfortable? The gloves are off; I’ll drink with friends around the fire if I get the chance.

    • Good policy Jen :) If I go dry long-term, I will have the same policy – occasionally alcohol can be part of a wonderful experience with old or new friends, and good conversation, known colloquially to us Gaelic types as the craic :)

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