I'm giving up alcohol during January for the 3rd year in a row. Here's how it helps me understand my relationship with drinking after almost losing a loved one to alcoholism.
- I'm participating in my third Dry January, the equally beloved and derided cultural phenomenon that involves giving up booze for the first month of the new year.
- Alcoholism runs on both sides of my family, and after I almost lost a loved one to liver failure in 2017, I decided to reassess my relationship with alcohol through participating in Dry January in 2018.
- Beyond its many health and financial benefits, Dry January has helped me gain important perspective on the role of alcohol in my life and society. This is what I've learned.
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I completed my first Dry January in 2018, four months after a loved one was rushed into emergency surgery for a liver transplant that would ultimately save her life.
Before that moment, I had mostly scoffed at Dry January, the cultural phenomenon that involves swearing off alcoholic beverages in the first month of the new year. It seemed like a silly manifestation of wellness culture, an excuse to post pictures of green juice on Instagram alongside hashtags like #healthyliving and cliché captions like "New year, new me!"
However, in December 2017, my sentiments toward Dry January shifted. Alcoholism runs on both sides of my family, and I began to have my own reckoning with the countless nights spent sloshed with friends, slinking out of dive bars at 3 a.m. and waking up at noon with hangovers that felt like taking a screwdriver to the skull.
I had spent so long ascribing excessive alcohol consumption to youth and societal messaging that equates drinking and fun. Yet after witnessing someone dear to me nearly die at the hands of drinking, I couldn't shake the thoughts that clouded my head in the hazy aftermath of a night out: If you're not more careful, this might kill you.
So I decided to do Dry January in earnest, in quiet solidarity and in hopes of better understanding my relationship with alcohol. Here's why I have vowed to do it every year since.
'The harm doesn't end with the individual'
Since Dry January became part of the zeitgeist, it has evoked everything from praise to ridicule, including on this website. Though variations of the movement have existed for the past decade, it rose in popularity in 2014 when the nonprofit Alcohol Change UK launched its sober-month challenge. The campaign was designed to curb heavy drinking in the United Kingdom, where one person dies every hour as a result of alcohol, according to Alcohol Change UK.
The nonprofit asserts that it is not anti-alcohol but rather focused on reducing harm from alcohol, both for people seeking a healthier relationship with it and for those indirectly affected by drinking.
"The harm doesn't end with the individual; each of us who drinks too much is part of a family and a community who feel the effects too, whether through frequent use of emergency services, drink driving, violence or neglect," its website says.
Six years later, some have surmised that the phenomenon is losing steam amid the rise of "sober curious" culture and a continued shift toward healthier lifestyles that helped propel the success of lower-calorie and lower-ABV beverages like hard seltzer. In a recent YouGov survey of more than 22,000 adults, 14% indicated an interest in partaking in Dry January this year, compared with 23% the year before. Thirty-three percent said they "don't ever" drink, up from 24% in December 2018.
Still, I've found significant value in a more regimented abstention from imbibing, even if it's temporary. My first year of Dry January had less to do with a desire to follow a social movement and more with proving to myself I didn't need to drink.
My semi-flawed logic told myself that if I could make it through January 2018 without drinking, then I'd be free from the grips of alcoholism. This is, of course, not how genetically predisposed diseases work, and while I'm grateful not to have manifested any addictive tendencies yet in my 28 years of life, I knew that my relationship with alcohol was fraught at best.
Testing my limits
The first time I got drunk I was 18, an age I'd later learn made me a relatively late bloomer compared with many of my peers, who had already been slamming Mike's Hard Lemonade and shotgunning Natty Lights in unchaperoned suburban basements.
While attending a family wedding, my similarly underage and inexperienced cousin and I sensed an opportunity to catch up. We ordered "Grey Goose on the rocks," trying our best to emulate sophisticated adults we had seen in movies, before quickly discovering we did not like the taste of straight vodka. Switching to Champagne, we kept refilling our flutes until the fizzing bubbles left us in fits of giggles as the ground beneath us started spinning.
What a feeling, I remember thinking, marveling at the light-headed sense of euphoria I felt as I whirled around the dance floor.
Over the next few months, I waded tepidly into the party scene, before diving in headfirst to repeatedly try and fail to test my limits. I had my fair share of shameful moments at the mercy of alcohol, and while I'm thankful I managed to stay safe in these situations, I have regrets.
Perhaps most troublingly, I began to love how drinking seemed to help me escape my overly anxious, self-conscious mind. I felt like an enhanced version of myself, someone who could dance and socialize freely. It would take a long time and a lot of therapy to learn that drinking wasn't the only way to attain that, and even today I am constantly working on it.
It's not a perfect process, but giving up alcohol for the month helps me to reflect on why I drink and to try to understand what I'm gaining from doing it. It gives me pause when I consider cracking open a beer on a boring Wednesday night in February, a moment to remember that the liquid inside has the power to destroy.
And so I put it back.
Reaping the benefits of a sober lifestyle
Despite my conviction to get through my first Dry January in 2018, I had my doubts. So much of my social life was enmeshed in drinking, and what about Friday-night happy hour with my colleagues? What would I do at a bar without a drink in my hand?
Turns out it is, in fact, possible to enjoy yourself without drinking, and when an urge ensues (usually around the end of week two for me) there is a bevy of apps and resources to help motivate. Try Dry, an app developed by Alcohol Change UK that includes a calendar tracker, tips, and motivational quotes, has been especially helpful in seeing my progress and staying inspired. I also keep my fridge stocked with La Croix and find that the carbonated water emulates some of the enjoyment of opening a cold beer at the end of a long day.
In past years, I have also reaped the well-documented benefits of Dry January, including improved sleep quality, higher energy levels, clearer skin, weight loss, and a fatter wallet from saving money. A 2018 study from the University of Sussex found that one month of sobriety could lower levels of drinking throughout the year.
"The simple act of taking a month off alcohol helps people drink less in the long term: by August people are reporting one extra dry day per week," Richard de Visser, the researcher who led the study, said in a statement. "There are also considerable immediate benefits: nine in ten people save money, seven in ten sleep better and three in five lose weight."
Ultimately, I still enjoy drinking. I like a crisp IPA, a tart rosé, and the occasional celebratory tequila shot. It's taken the better part of the past decade, but I've gotten better at understanding my limits and the enjoyment of having one or two - and only one or two - glasses of wine with dinner.
I still overindulge sometimes, but when that happens I try to be kind to myself. (Another resolution for 2020!) The goal is no longer to unwind so much that I unfurl completely, but to try to find a happy medium, however challenging that might be.
Do I feel profoundly changed by Dry January? Not exactly. However, I do complete the month with a sense of satisfaction and a firmer grasp on my relationship with alcohol. To me, that's worth it.
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