Quitting drinking for a month might reset your relationship with alcohol, but not in the way you expect.
Day 13 of Dry January. Millions of people around the world are happily not drinking, and others are persuading themselves that it’s not the end of the world that they already slipped up.
I admit, that during my Dry January I was in this latter camp. I framed my accidental drink as abstaining from abstaining, and the next day I returned to the challenge.
If this is you, then no judgment. Although I technically ‘failed’ at Dry January, it was a really important learning experience for me. I drank on Day 16, which was still the longest stretch I’d gone without a drink since my teens. Looking back, I certainly don’t see it as a failure. It was the beginning of one of my favorite successes.
Because a couple of years later, I managed to quit alcohol for good. And as I wrote that, just then, I felt a shiver of disbelief. I got a sense of the magnitude. Because I never believed I could get sober.
Even in my unhappiest times of drinking, I didn’t want to not drink. I wanted to drink less or for my boyfriend to stop being such a drunken liability so I could drink more without worrying. But I never wanted to quit entirely.
This April I will be four years sober.
And it all started with Dry January.
“Dry January is the UK’s one-month booze-free challenge that helps millions reset their relationship with alcohol every year.” — Alcohol Change
That’s the official line from the website, but there are plenty of detractors. Alcohol experts and those working in the field worry that Dry January attracts the drinkers that don’t have so serious a problem in the first place while ignoring the ones who really need the support.
There is also some cynicism about the idea of a ‘reset’ when it comes to people’s relationships with alcohol. It sounds fabulous, doesn’t it? It’s certainly why I signed up. But is it misleading? Worse still, is it dangerous?
No serious drinker should stop suddenly and expect to feel better. They run the risk of withdrawal symptoms ranging from headaches to hallucinations and fits. ‘Resetting’ their relationship with alcohol in the way Dry January describes could be life-threatening. Obviously, these drinkers are not who the campaign is aimed at.
But how about me? Did I get to reset my relationship with booze?
On the 31st January I got as drunk as I had on the 31st December, which was the night that inspired me to do Dry January in the first place. Within a week my drinking was as troubling as it had been before the challenge.
But, I had some compelling new knowledge. I had discovered that life without booze was a slower, sweeter affair. No wine meant no arguments. These revelations made me curious: what would a year without alcohol be like?
Dry January worked for me, but aren’t I precisely the kind of drinker that its detractors are detracting about?
I drank daily for most of my life since my late twenties, but usually only a little bit. Half a bottle of wine and a few glasses of lager, maybe less, maybe more. Interspersed with more committed pub sessions whenever I felt like it (this could be every day, depending on my finances).
Hardly the most chronic of the dependent drinkers, and yet, I had become psychologically dependent. Over the years I’d developed a pretty high tolerance for alcohol. I’m just over five feet tall, and I would often match the men I drank with pint by pint.
The problem with this is that in spite of what I wanted to believe — that binge drinking was a triumphant fuck you to binary notions of femininity — alcohol affects women differently. In fact, the research shows that women can be more susceptible to booze’s adverse effects.
Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in mental health and addiction at the University of York writes that “anyone drinking several glasses of wine after work each day should seek support before they abstain completely from alcohol.”
But who, drinking a few glasses of wine a day, would think to get support to quit? Such quantities are so normalized in the UK that many of us like to believe they equate to moderate drinking. Unfortunately, the government daily guidelines attest to the fact that they are not.
It didn’t occur to me that I might need support until I failed to quit for the nth time. Friends struggled to understand where I was coming from. Many of those I had frequently drunk heavily with seemed amused at the idea that I needed support to quit, but I’d failed so many times I knew I needed help.
Luckily I had learned enough about the non-binary nature of addiction in the interim between my first Dry January and my sobriety date to understand what I was dealing with.
Dry January didn’t reset my relationship with alcohol in the way I expected — by reducing my tolerance — but it did begin my journey into understanding addiction, which, eventually, led to my sobriety.
Dry January is a great tool for those lucky enough to be able to use it. The millions of people, who are in almost total denial about their drink problem. Those who publicly acknowledge that they drink ‘too much’ while privately lying awake in the early hours of the morning, wondering if they’ll ever get full control of their life back.
A friend of a friend wrote a song about Dry January. The joke in the refrain is that the only person who doesn’t know they have a drink problem is the person doing the Dry January.
In other words, if you think it’s a success worth talking about not to drink for a month, then you have a pretty warped relationship with booze.
Although it feels like ‘everyone drinks heavily’ when you are a drinker, the truth is that most people will never have a blackout. Having more than a few blackouts is a pretty sure sign of an Alcohol Use Disorder.
Failing to stop drinking after you’ve made a serious attempt to quit is another.
Dry January is important because it starts a conversation. It creates an opportunity for a person to reflect on or be jolted out of a drinking habit, that if not alarming right now, has all the makings of a future disaster.
The advertising is clever. Dry January isn’t associated with alcoholism; it is simply an invitation to improve your life.
And yes, it might do nothing for the physically dependent alcoholics, or those with a more complex personal map of trauma, mental health issues and life circumstances, and it’s a travesty how services continue to be heavily cut for those most affected by alcohol addiction in the UK. But at least Dry January does something to stop problem drinkers from reaching those same lows.
Dry January, with its stealth approach, has the power to reach the many drinkers who barely even realize they are in danger.
‘Alcoholism’ is, most often, a progressive disease/condition/experience. Without help or intervention, a person’s drinking and its attendant problems are likely to get worse.
Dry January arrests this journey. I believe it arrested it for me. And I’m grateful.
But the skeptics are right. Dry January wasn’t enough to enable me to change my habits longterm. I had to seek support from organizations that specialized in helping people to get sober.
So, if you are still committed to ‘resetting your drinking’, I wish you the best. And if you’ve already slipped up, that’s okay too. Try going to Smart or AA for a bit of support sticking to your decision. There is no need to be ashamed or embarrassed about needing help to quit using an addictive substance.
If you’re struggling to quit drinking, you’re not alone.
If you’re ready to try something different, read beautiful hangover and discover what I did. Do whatever it takes to stay sober for 30 days: go to your doctor, try Smart or AA or Hip Sobriety or Soberistas.
There is a whole community of people just waiting to help you. Reach out. Something better is waiting for you.