07/19/2012 11:34 am ET Updated Sep 17, 2012

Drinking As a Way To Fill Time

Alas, the long, lazy days of summer are here. Most people love the summer, but it makes me kind of anxious. I've always been more of a fall girl than a summer girl. I'm not good at creating structure, and somehow, the structure of the school year (even though I'm no longer in school) suits me. With two of my three kids away at summer camp this year, I have suddenly found myself with more free time than usual. Sometimes I worry that I no longer know how to be still; how to be bored; how to just be.

In my twenties, I was the ultimate daydreamer and "loafer." I did have a job (the night shift at a big-city newspaper), but during the day, I'd wander the city, stopping at a museum or a movie on a whim. Before work, I'd swim laps, slowly, more for the stretch and release of it than anything else. Sometimes, I'd write. And there was drinking. Ah yes, drinking. Many nights, I'd go out drinking after work. It seemed to stretch time, and it became my go-to nighttime leisure activity.

Then I had kids, and life took on more of a structure again -- the structure of the days, weeks and years determined by schedules: sports schedules, dinner schedules, vacation time. Suddenly, I barely had time to wander. Instead of having a drink at the end of a long day, I preferred sleep, a precious commodity after chasing three kids around.

Now, many years later, life is circling back to more leisure time, more time to wander. Or, depending how you look at it, more time to "fill."

This got me wondering: with all that time to fill on the horizon -- the horizon of the empty nest (which, admittedly, is quite a way off) -- will I return to the habit I acquired in my twenties; the habit of passing my leisure time with drinks?

As the daughter of an alcoholic, I now know that drinking as a pastime makes me uncomfortable, so no -- I don't think I'll return to that habit. (But it certainly was fun at the time...)

Just as I was having this internal debate, I read a fantastic wake-up call of a piece in the New York Times by Tim Kreider, called "The 'Busy' Trap." He explains: "Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day."

Kreider writes that even though we, as a society, fear being lazy or bored, downtime is vital to our well-being:

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration -- it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

Reading this piece reaffirmed my belief that drinking should be a conscious act, rather than an unconscious way to "fill" time. I do not want to drink because I'm bored, or because I lack the creativity to find other ways to spend my evenings.

There are so many other great things to do, like going to the movies, meeting friends for dinner, taking a walk, reading, taking a bath or going for a run. Or doing nothing and just being.

The revelation here is that I don't need to fill time at all. That's just making busy work of life. The way I'm looking at it is this: How would I like to spend my downtime? Not hoard it, but spend it. I'd like to spend my time like it's worth something. However, I'd like to budget for it, to save sometimes and then splurge.

Maybe it's healthier to reframe my relationship to time not in terms of "filling" it, but rather of letting time fill me, much like the ocean fills in the holes we dig in the sand, then retreats, then inevitably fills them again.

And so it is with drinking: If I drink to "fill" time, to be busy doing something and avoid dealing with my existential angst, then I probably shouldn't be drinking. On the other hand, if I decide to have a drink as a way to celebrate my time, to spend it freely, to accept life as it is, surf the time and let it fill me up rather than trying to fill a void, then I say, "Cheers!"

Leah Odze Epstein is a writer and co-founder of the Drinking Diaries. She is currently working on a young adult novel about a character who is the daughter of an alcoholic. She has reviewed books for BookPage and Publisher's Weekly, among other publications. She also writes poetry, and her poems can be found on the website Literary Mama.

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