How 30 Days Clean Turned Into Five Years
James Swanwick is an Australian-American investor, TV and podcast host, former SportsCenter anchor on ESPN, and Hollywood correspondent. He is the creator of the “30 Day No Alcohol Challenge” that teaches people how to quit alcohol for 30 days. James started a 30-day challenge in March 2010 and kept going. He hasn’t had a drink since. He has interviewed celebrities including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and world leaders including U.S. Vice President Al Gore.
Admittedly, I am not a sports fan and had not heard his name until his decision to forgo alcohol for a healthier life was highlighted in an article in Elephant Journal. I was impressed by the commitment it took, much like that of any athlete, to invest himself fully in for what some would see as a feat of endurance. Here’s what Swanwick told me about his decision to stop drinking.
Q: You mentioned in the Elephant Journal article that alcohol consumption was not an ongoing concern and that it didn’t impair your life in any way. What was the pivotal moment when you decided to challenge yourself to 30 days alcohol-free?
A: I never considered myself a heavy drinker, just a social drinker. I’d enjoy a few beers during the week with friends and then go a little harder on weekends. I got drunk on occasion and it was all good fun in the moment. But I began to get sick and tired of feeling sick and tired from hangovers. I noticed I was irritable, tired and sluggish the day after any amount of alcohol. I awoke with a shocking hangover one morning in 2010 at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, after a particularly fun night. I walked into an International House of Pancakes for a hangover breakfast. The IHOP menus have photos of the food you can choose — big, bright, bold colors. The sight of those scrambled eggs, bacon and pancakes on the menu and overweight people sitting at tables next to me made me ill. I decided then and there to see if I could go 30 days alcohol-free. I wanted to see if I could get clearheaded and energetic again. It was simply a personal bet with myself to test my self-discipline. I didn’t plan to go more than 30 days. But I did.
Q: What was the hardest thing about it?
A: The hardest part wasn’t physically depriving myself of alcohol. It was breaking the mental habits we humans form around alcohol. For example, when you walk into a bar or restaurant, the habit is you order a drink. When you’re a guest in someone else’s home, you accept their offer of a glass of wine or a beer. When celebrating a birthday, wedding, anniversary or any special occasion, you drink champagne. It’s ingrained in our culture. It’s what you do, right? So breaking that custom felt peculiar. Ordering a water and ice in a bar felt strange. Declining the offer of a glass of wine and asking for soda instead felt awkward. Explaining that I was doing a 30-day challenge felt awkward again.
Q: What was the easiest?
A: Once I felt and enjoyed incredible mental clarity, improved sleep, fat loss and energy, it was easy to create the new habit of not drinking. The benefits I felt from not drinking far outweighed any temporary pleasure I got from drinking. So it was easy to simply continue not drinking.
Q: When you do a cost/benefit analysis, how does it balance out?
A: From a monetary standpoint, I was spending about $500 a month ($6,000 a year) on alcohol and alcohol-related activities including taxis and late-night meals. Sure, I thought I was having fun in the moment of drinking. But I had even more fun from feeling amazing all the time from not drinking. So I figured I could save $6K a year and feel amazing. Or spend $6K a year and feel crappy. It really just came down to the health and financial benefits of not drinking far outweighing any temporary pleasure I got from drinking.
Q: How did 30 days turn into five years?
A: After 30 days, I just said to myself, “I wonder if I can go 35 days.” Then I got to 35 days and I said, “I wonder if I can do 40 … and 50 and three months or even a year?” So I said I’ll just see how long I can go. I continued to feel better the longer I went — I lost more weight, slept better, became more productive and I landed my dream job as a SportsCenter anchor on ESPN. Much of that was because I was clear-headed and focused. I don’t think I would have gotten that job if I were drinking. Honestly, I always woke up feeling amazing so I just kept going and going and going.
Q: I found it interesting to see the juxtaposition between your male and female friends’ perspectives on your chosen sobriety. Can you offer some insight into that?
A: For many guys, drinking is considered a badge of honor. In many cases, it’s how men feel like they can bond. Drinking beer or getting drunk together. So my not drinking posed a threat to some guys. They’d think I was “soft” or “weak” or something like that. Women, on the other hand, were mostly impressed. I think they were thinking, “Here’s a man who’s got his life under control.” They seemed to like that about me.
Q: You mentioned that some friends attempted to get you to drink. Why do you think that is? Do you wonder why it would matter to them whether you drank?
A: If one member of a tribe does anything other than the rest, that person may be ostracized. It’s kind of like, “If you’re one of us, you’ll drink.” To be clear, none of my friends were honestly going to un-friend me because I wasn’t drinking. But my actions were remarkably different from the rest of the group. And so maybe they felt threatened or that I was doing something to disrupt the status quo.
Q: What is the social climate like in Australia with regard to drinking?
A: It’s part of the Australian culture that you get drunk on your 18th birthday party. And from then on, the culture dictates that you drink regularly forever after. You drink while watching sports. You drink at backyard BBQs. You drink at birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, brunches, “Sunday Sessions.” It’s so engrained in the culture. And getting drunk and acting crazy is considered a badge of honor in many cases. It becomes about how much you can drink without falling over. I lived in London from 1999 to 2002. I was shocked that many workers drink in the pub at lunchtime. They’d drink two or three pints of beer and then go back to the office and work. That’s crazy! On the few occasions I tried that, I almost fell asleep at my desk. I just couldn’t understand how they could do it and still function. It’s just part of the culture there. But it’s so detrimental to your health.
Q: How are sober people viewed?
A: It used to be people would be skeptical of someone who didn’t drink. They may consider the sober one a “nerd” or “soft” or “weak.” But it’s changing. People are starting to realize that there are very few positives from drinking regularly but endless positives from reducing or quitting alcohol. So now people are much more understanding.
Here are your choices:
- Drink regularly, store body fat, feel tired, sluggish and irritable and spend thousands of dollars.
- Drink occasionally or not at all, lose body fat, feel energized, refreshed, mentally clear and positive, and save thousands of dollars. It’s pretty simple for me.
Q: Does it make a difference if they are sober by choice as you are vs. being in recovery from alcoholism?
A: I feel like I am admired more for choosing not to drink as a lifestyle choice vs. those who have quit because they had a serious addiction to alcohol. Unfortunately, in many cases, there remains a social stigma around people who are in recovery from alcoholism.
Q: How does it compare with what you see in the United States?
A: Both cultures encourage a lifetime of drinking. Australians seem to be more proud of the sheer quantity of alcohol they can consume, though.
Q: How do you encourage healthy lifestyles for those with whom you work?
A: I created a program called “30 Day No Alcohol Challenge.” I teach members how to form the habit of quitting for 30 days. I give members recipes for non-alcoholic drinks, scripts of what to say to friends when they encourage you to have a drink, mantras so you can resist when the urge to drink appears. It’s really about lifestyle design. You have a choice to live your life the way you want to live it. If you want to feel amazing, don’t drink regularly or quit. Feel the mental clarity, improved sleep and better relationships from being clear-headed. Many of my members lose weight after 30 days, they take up hiking or yoga or join a gym and start to love getting out and being active. Some use their newfound energy to take up new hobbies, get a promotion at work, make new friendships, go travelling, improve their relationships and feel a lot happier. The best way to inspire someone to take action is to be the best example yourself. So I live an alcohol-free life and post photos of it on my Instagram, I make fun YouTube videos about not drinking, I talk about it on my podcast, the James Swanwick Show, on iTunes.
Q: Some who drink might wonder how you manage to have fun sans alcohol. What do you do to enjoy your life?
A: I have 10 times more fun today without alcohol than I ever did when drinking alcohol. It sounds crazy but it’s true. I am often the one dancing the night away. I’m often the life of the party. I laugh. I joke. I’ve made new friends at my gym, I go on hikes with other health-conscious people. I surround myself with positive people who inspire me in all areas of my life. I travel between Los Angeles and Brisbane and Sydney at least twice a year. I go to concerts, read a book a day, attend conferences, run half-marathons, bicycle at Venice Beach, make fun YouTube videos detailing my alcohol-free lifestyle, interview world-renowned experts, host alcohol-free poker nights and dinner parties. I mean I have a super fun life. Drinking alcohol would slow me down!
By Edie Weinstein, LSW
Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1