Dry January makes many people pause and think about their drinking habits, and where they do most of their drinking – after work, at office functions, at home. As a concept, it’s partly based on the premise of social contagion. You’ll find more people not drinking in January than at other times. That herd mentality can be supportive.
But if people have a serious alcohol problem, being ‘dry’ for just one month doesn’t cut it. Very often, if men and women ‘white knuckle’ it through January not drinking, they are back on the booze with a vengeance afterwards. They are not looking at the impact on their work, their relationships.
I know compulsive drinkers who have stopped for several Januarys in years gone by, but just counted the days until February. They are drinking enough to affect their lives and for people around them to notice – a work colleague, a spouse, a friend. That’s the test.
They think ‘because I have stopped, I can stop anytime’. It’s rarely the case.
At the Priory, we say that if you want to be a controlled drinker, you need to be off alcohol for three months. It takes a lot to recognise you have a problem in the first place, and then to be at social functions where other people are drinking and you’re not – that’s a massive challenge. You need to learn a new dialogue to explain why you’re not drinking, and be comfortable with it. That takes a bit of learning, longer than a month.
The vast majority of people who struggle with alcohol don’t necessarily look like they have a problem. People often come to me insisting ‘no one at work knows about my alcohol problem’, but as they come through treatment it emerges that alcohol has often caused them quite significant work problems for years. I saw a patient recently who was drinking significant quantities of wine out of a plastic sports bottle at his desk.
So if you think your drinking is problematic enough that you are thinking about not drinking in January, should you be thinking about stopping altogether or getting professional advice? You need to ask yourself, ‘is it really possible for me to be a moderate drinker?’ Everybody wants to be a moderate, social drinker. The truth is, some people can’t be.
Some people think Dry January gives the message that a month of abstinence does away with the need for regular breaks from drinking. People think they can just repair liver damage in a month, but you need to know what your liver readings are in the first place.
If you are in the early stages of alcoholic hepatitis, say, and you stop for a month, when you resume your drinking, your liver function will very quickly become abnormal again.
Alcoholic hepatitis may be the first time you’re aware you’re damaging their liver through alcohol. The liver damage associated with mild alcoholic hepatitis is usually reversible if you stop drinking permanently. Severe alcoholic hepatitis is a serious and life-threatening illness. Many people die from the condition each year in the UK.
Regular heavy drinking can also take its toll on your heart, brain and pancreas. Undoing damage to these will take much more than a month.
As a nation, we’re submerged in alcohol. But employers need to do more. Drinking is a social lubricant, especially in the work place and when it comes to sealing deals and networking, but firms often don’t want to address the consequences of that.
I’ve heard some harrowing stories about people losing control of their lives after losing control of their drinking. When people first come to me, I tell them they need to think about the consequences of their drinking, especially the binge drinking. I ask them: what has happened to you that made you feel embarrassed or ashamed – and that word is important, ashamed – afterwards? What’s been the effect on your livelihood, your employer’s opinion of you, your family’s opinion?
Often their heavy drinking is evident to colleagues at work parties, clients’ functions where they would become inebriated and embarrass co-workers, and more importantly embarrass the company’s clients (which bosses absolutely won’t tolerate). Some people keep their heavy drinking covered up in their private lives but it manifests itself at these work functions and the genie - as well as all the alcohol - is out of the bottle.
If you have a drink problem, you need to sit down with a professional and consider the consequences – to your family, your physical health and then things like your appearance. Are you starting to look like a boozer? I ask patients whether their drinking is affecting their mental health – making them feel guilty, and that word again, ashamed. Is it affecting their relationship with their family? A patient said to me the other day: “My daughter said ‘you’d rather have a drink than talk to me’.”
Sometimes people do need to give up alcohol to realise just how bad they felt when they were drinking. Patients are often motivated to give up alcohol by their appearance, because they are under so much pressure in today’s society to look a certain way. That pressure is huge. I have a patient whose skin was breaking up as a result of alcohol, they had psoriasis. Now their skin is fine. This is an important confidence booster in our image-obsessed world.
But there are loads of benefits to giving up alcohol; your blood sugar will normalise, you will feel much more clear-headed, less depressed and you will have more money in your wallet. If you spend, say, £40 a week on 4 bottles of wine, you will save £2,040 by the year’s end. You could go on a decent holiday for that.
- Drinkline is the national alcohol helpline. If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s drinking, you can call this free helpline in complete confidence. Call 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am to 8pm, weekends 11am to 4pm).
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a free self-help group. Its “12-step” programme involves getting sober with the help of regular support groups.
- Al-Anon Family Groups offers support and understanding to the families and friends of problem drinkers, whether they’re still drinking or not. Alateen is part of Al-Anon and can be attended by 12- to 17-year-olds who are affected by another person’s drinking, usually a parent.
- Addaction is a UK-wide treatment agency that helps individuals, families and communities manage the effects of drug and alcohol misuse.
- Adfam is a national charity working with families affected by drugs and alcohol. Adfam operates an online message board and a database of local support groups.
- The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa) provides a free, confidential telephone and email helpline for children of alcohol-dependent parents and others concerned about their welfare. Call 0800 358 3456 for the Nacoa helpline.
- SMART Recovery groups help participants decide whether they have a problem, build up their motivation to change, and offer a set of proven tools and techniques to support recovery.