I look forward to the increasingly popular Dry January, even though it is nearly two years since I gave up drink, mainly because it means the number of occasions I have to put up with shouty, repetitive drunks dramatically decreases, and I benefit from people’s desire to spend time doing other things socially.
It has now become quite a big movement, with friends taking part in the Dryathlon (a challenge to raise money for Cancer Research UK by giving up alcohol throughout January), as well as those who sign up to Alcohol Concern’s Dry January challenge, or simply choose to do it alone.
I’ve got mixed feelings about it all. All the official challenges advertise the benefits, such as sleeping better, losing weight, having a clearer head and of course saving money. Alcohol Concern says this is about starting a conversation about alcohol, something which is clearly valuable and focused on the bigger picture, rather than just the benefits of abstaining for 31 days. Perhaps this is a modest start towards rethinking our attitudes to alcohol, and the place it has in our own lives and in British society.
The problem I have with it is I don’t think a month is long enough to produce lasting change. I did this challenge a few years ago, and as promised, I did indeed lose weight, sleep better, experience a clearer head and save quite a bit of money. In that respect, I was like the people in the New Scientist experiment, who after a month of giving up booze felt significantly better, and were shown in empirical tests to have improved the condition of their livers, altered their cholesterol and blood sugar, and lost weight. However, there are two issues with this:
The first is that the group reported that the only negative was that they socialised less. It is relatively easy to stay in and not drink for just a month (the quietest month of the year during which no one has any money, people can do with a break from socialising after December, and it is freezing cold out, to be precise).
When I gave up alcohol, I found that it was tempting to become reclusive in order to stick to the ban, and the process of learning to socialise without it was a very long one. In time, I found I slept in less so did more activities during the day than at night, and eventually spent more time with some people and less with others as I no longer had anything in common with heavy drinkers. This amounts to a revolution in your life, and one which is not possible after just 31 days. I also found I initially experienced a great deal of tension which I couldn’t process, and again it was months or longer before I could find new ways of dealing with this. I had probably used alcohol to relax and escape unpleasant feelings since my teens (and yes, I am talking about so-called social drinking), and I was learning how to process these emotions as an adult for the first time, not a quick and easy process. A month is like holding your breath – not easy by any stretch for regular boozers (and I really don’t want to belittle the achievement), but it can be done, and then normal service is resumed.
Which brings me to the second issue – that the gains that are made (and studies point especially to the effects on the liver with this) are lost if the person starts drinking again to the same level as before once Dry January is over. I am really torn as to whether a month is long enough to really change someone’s drinking habits, or if it will just encourage the kind of boom-and-bust bingeing we are so good at over here. Some people never go more than a few days without drinking, so it will be a significant event for them. On the other hand, my previous experience suggests the bingeing is likely to resume once DJ is over, and with a vengeance.
Though something occurs to me just now as I write this. Perhaps my Dry January was a dry run, and I would never have been able to make the move I’ve now made without doing this first. It had shown me the tangible benefits I would get after just a month, and after all, you can’t run a marathon without at some stage running a 5k. In which case, hats off to Alcohol Concern and everyone else who conceived of Dry January.
Another thing I think is important to mention – everyone in the New Scientist experiment considered themselves to be a “normal drinker”, but the article does not say what level that really is. This is definitely something I want to explore more here, as I am coming to believe that what is considered “normal drinking” in the UK is very often problem drinking, if you look at the effect it has on that person’s life, relationships, health and especially mental health. Perhaps the other reason the New Scientist team socialised less is that they were socially excluded once no longer prepared to drink to excess. More later, and a Happy New Year to those with hangovers, those without, and those embarking on a Dry January. I wish you the best of luck.