Mid-afternoon on New Year’s Day of 2018 arrived, not surprisingly, with a throbbing sensation in my head and a vague sense of digestive unease. Brief flashes of the night before began to engage my overactive shame complex, leaving me to wonder whether I’d said or done something the night before that I should—or at least would—regret. I had filed away another New Year’s Eve awash in alcohol and a little worse for wear.
The funny thing about New Year’s is that, at its core, it’s just another day. But it falls at a time in which holiday excesses leave us in a fog, typically mumbling something about never wanting to drink again. It’s as though we’ve decided to release a year’s worth of anxiety, struggle, and exhaustion on New Year’s Day, and grasp tightly to the promise of something better in the year to come.
For the past two years, that feeling has led me to take part in Dry January: a month without alcohol. Dry January began in the UK in 2013 and has blossomed into a global campaign. Its mission is to help people take stock of their drinking habits at that particularly opportune moment. Many of us reflect on our self-destructive behaviors post-holidays, and resolve to break them, at long last, in the new year. For those 31 days in January, people around the world start every new year with their best foot forward, embracing a month of total sobriety.
Dry January sounds like a great idea. And yes, I benefited from not drinking at all last January: I spent less, felt more alert in the morning, and experienced a general improvement in physical well-being. But as I approach the end 2018, I’ve decided not to participate in Dry January next year. Here’s why.
It’s as though we’ve decided to release a year’s worth of anxiety, struggle, and exhaustion on New Year’s Day, and grasp tightly to the promise of something better in the year to come.
What Dry January Does for You (and What it Doesn’t)
For several years, I’ve known, in some capacity, that I have a problem with alcohol. Social drinking in college gave way to a few beers after work most nights, which eventually slid into a daily drinking habit. I’ve been functional throughout, but my mental health has slowly deteriorated, and the years spent drinking have taken a toll on my body.
I’ve taken breaks from alcohol at various points throughout my drinking life, trying to prove to myself that I was in control. Deep down, I always thought I didn’t really have a problem if I could take a period off from drinking without succumbing to my cravings. Doing so meant that I was still in charge.
I’m a person with a lot of endurance and a lot of willpower. I used to run marathons. I can white-knuckle my way through many painful situations, especially if I know there’s an end in sight. Thirty-one days of sobriety was never a breeze, but it was manageable enough that I was able to complete the challenge with relative ease. Dry January provided just enough proof that I could continue on with my life unchanged, trapped in the delusion that I could quit drinking any time I wanted.
Therein lies my problem with Dry January. The initiative is about taking a step away from drinking for a time but not making any sustainable, long-term life changes.
Therein lies my problem with Dry January. The initiative is about taking a step away from drinking for a time but not making any sustainable, long-term life changes. For me, those 31 days were about counting down until my next drink, not about figuring out how to overcome cravings, prioritize self-care rather than self-medicating, or learning to love myself enough to stop doing harm to my body.
When January Turns to February
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that less than a week into February 2018 I had already slid right back into my comfortable old habits. The buildup of cravings and the sinking feeling that I would drink again brought my dependence on alcohol back—now stronger and more persistent than before.
My experience isn’t unique, either. Researchers call it the alcohol deprivation effect (ADE), which is the tendency for people with alcohol use disorder to drink even more after they’ve gone through a period of abstinence. A scientist might well have predicted that my stretches of sobriety would lead to more destructive drinking episodes.
By April, I had hit enough of a low point that I realized I needed to make a real, lasting change. This time, I knew that quitting cold turkey for a period wasn’t going to cut it. I needed to completely rework my lifestyle. I needed to develop healthier habits that could carry me through moments of sadness, anger, and pain. I needed to do that by slowly and steadily cutting back my alcohol consumption.
I needed to completely rework my lifestyle. I needed to develop healthier habits that could carry me through moments of sadness, anger, and pain.
So far, I’ve managed to do just that. I started by incorporating a few sober days into my weeks, spending those sober days being deliberate about how I cared for myself, and sat with difficult feelings without drinking. My path hasn’t been linear. There have been weeks where I’ve been more indulgent than others. Finding a way to moderate my substance abuse is the only thing that has truly worked for me.
Today, I’m only drinking twice per week at max. This is a feat for someone who used to easily down a six-pack every day. And with a new prescription for Naltrexone in my back pocket, I have faith that within a few months I’ll be drinking even less— maybe even not at all.
Abstinence Isn’t the Only Answer
The world of addiction treatment tends to give us only one option to regain control: abstinence. For many people, cutting out substances cold turkey works. I heartily applaud those who take that route. But abstinence has never been sustainable for me, especially without any safeguards built in to help me push through moments when all I want is to crack open a beer. For me, abstinence was a setup for failure. Failure, in turn, was my catalyst for a swifter and stronger descent into addiction.
Dry January is a beautiful initiative with good intentions. But it’s also an example of how our society’s approach to alcohol addiction treatments might actually fail to help some of us. Not drinking for a month cold-turkey can feel similar to trying a crash diet. You stick to the severe restrictions and complicated rules for a few months. The diet forces to see your body as an obstacle—as something to hate and overcome.
Loving myself into sobriety, rather than bullying myself into abstinence, is the best thing I can do.
Crash diets aren’t sustainable. Their goal is not health—they are about squeezing your body into a socially acceptable shape. It’s far better to find ways to feel healthy. To approach your body with happiness and love, rather than hatred and shame. If you’re happy and you love yourself, that’s all that really matters.
This is where I am with my alcohol use. As I approach the New Year, I’m keeping in touch with myself and my needs. I’m talking openly with my therapist and my friends about my addiction. I’m working out a plan for approaching sobriety that doesn’t involve the painful swing between the elation of abstinence and the regret of relapse. Loving myself into sobriety, rather than bullying myself into abstinence, is the best thing I can do.
I’m forgoing Dry January this year. And maybe, if it’s not the right fit for you, you should, too.