"Give up booze?! January's hard enough, thanks very much." This has been my refrain pretty much every New Year's Day since I hit drinking age. Publicly dismissing Dry January as a pointless and unnecessary exercise, while privately worrying I wouldn't actually be able to manage 31 days without a drink. But this year, after a particularly hectic December, I felt exhausted, broke and finally sick of booze. I estimated I'd had at least one alcoholic drink 24 of the 31 days of December, a figure that totally horrified me. I started telling people this was the year I'd finally DO DRY JANUARY.
Waking up on New Year's Day, I actually believed I would. I felt determined, for the first time, to stick to a booze ban. I was slightly affronted by the number of people who mocked my plan, citing my Irishness, and usual love of 'a few drinks' as reasons why I couldn't possibly succeed. But I'd made up my mind. Armed with a stockpile of soda water and limes, I set out on a month of sobriety for the first time in my adult life. Here's what I learnt:
1. It's a great way to reset
Dry January has plenty of critics, most of whom say it's completely pointless to go cold-turkey for an entire month only to revert to drinking too much once 1 February rolls around. But hear me out. You know that feeling when you've had a quiet weekend, maybe you had time to finally get to the bottom of the laundry pile and make a few lunchboxes for the week. You get to bed early and wake up Monday morning feeling, if not exactly ecstatic, then at least prepared to face the week? Well, January is a bit like the Monday of the year, so starting it with a month free of hangovers (not to mention receipts for too much money spent in bars at 1am), feels like a proper fresh start. There's no question that I felt more focused and productive this month. Weekends felt so long - in a good way - I'd get up at 7.30 Saturday and Sunday mornings to the reasonably unfamiliar feeling of a totally clear head and hours and hours in which to get things done.
2. Sometimes, it takes a dramatic break to kick a habit
For me, drinking is a habit. If I'm out for dinner with friends, we'll order a wine. Friday nights just aren't Friday nights without a few drinks. I'd never show up to a party without bringing some prosecco. And so on. With booze so deeply interlinked with social interactions, it's hard to suddenly give it up. But in January it's at least a bit more acceptable. Everyone's broke after Christmas and there are enough people going on health kicks for it not to be weird. You can experience an entire month's worth of social events sober to prove to yourself that it is possible to have fun without alcohol. It also gives you a chance to reassure your friends that you're not going to become 'the boring one' just because you're not drinking - so if you decide to cut down on booze beyond January, they're already used to the revised version of you as an occasional, not automatic drinker.
3. If it's a bad night sober, it'd be a bad night drunk, too
There have been plenty of nights in my life where I've ended up drinking too much out of feeling bored or uncomfortable. It's a (misguided) assumption that another couple of glasses will make the party more fun, or make me a better conversationalist. But a month of sober events has taught me that you can't drink a bad night good. You'll only end up too drunk and hungover the next day feeling massive regret over how much you spent on having a rubbish time. Admittedly, there were a couple of times this month where I made dinner plans only to turn up exhausted from a long day at work, sipping my soda water and lime and thinking that a glass of wine would have given me the energy to be better company. But these weren't bad nights, I still had fun. I just ended up having to reassure people that there was nothing wrong with me beyond a need for sleep.
4. Drinking has a big part to play in anxiety
Starting the month, I had visions of my tee-total self bounding around with energy, skin glowing and looking a vision of health. That hasn't entirely gone to plan - although I did lose a few lbs, I don't see a huge difference physically. The major difference is mental and emotional. 'The Fear' that strikes the morning after drinking, that horrible, creeping feeling of shame and failure, of not being able to cope with the world, has faded dramatically. Realising just how big a part alcohol plays in the anxiety that's ruined so many Sunday evenings for me is probably the biggest eye-opener of this whole experiment.
5. Breaking it doesn't mean failure
Confession time - I drank twice in Dry January. Both times, it was sharing a bottle of wine over dinner at home. Both times, I enjoyed it hugely, stopped at half a bottle and didn't feel the slightest guilt. Breaking Dry January doesn't mean failure; one 'slip' doesn't mean you have to write off the whole month's effort and down the nearest bottle of gin. My goals were to drink less, save money, feel healthier and prove to myself that I am capable of socialising sober. On all of those counts I've more than succeeded. Life is too black and white sometimes; I'm hoping a more flexible approach will help me to drink less long after January has become a cold, dark memory.
Sometimes, sometimes, you just really want a let-loose moment, that particular brand of release that comes with your first sip of wine or the crisp fizz of a gin and tonic. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss that. It was hard not to drink socially for an entire month - harder still not to resort to wine at home after a tough day at work. But I'm relieved that I was - mostly - able to stick to it. I hope I've kicked the instinctive habit of ordering alcohol at every event. This month I've gone to comedy gigs, birthday parties and pub quizzes without drinking and still had a laugh. Turns out my friends are still lovely people without the haze of booze.
Am I going to drink in February? Well, with a trip to Rome (paid for with the money I saved from not drinking) and a couple of nice dinners booked, it's safe to say I will. But Dry January has opened my eyes to my relationship with alcohol and given us a bit of much-needed distance. We're still friends, just not constant companions. The soda and lime has finally grown on me.