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What I learned from doing Dry January

Yes, you save money and sleep better. But is it a total soul-sapping experience? And what happens after January?

Declan Cashin

So it's that time of year where you might be considering Dry January, the name given to a month-long abstinence from alcohol. 

Having done Dry January 2018, I thought it might be helpful to describe how it went for me - and what impact it had on my relationship to alcohol afterwards. 

Don't worry, this isn't a booze-shaming, 'Oh, my life is so much richer' piece about how wise I've become from a life of semi-sobriety (at least, I hope it's not). Nevertheless, the experience of Dry January was pretty educational. It was my first ever go at it - and it seems I wasn't alone in wanting to try going without.

Going into last January, I knew I wanted to do it for three key reasons:

1. I was bored of drinking: I'd been going out on the razz since I was 15 years old. That was more than two decades of boozing. The thought hit me coming home from my Christmas party in December: I was over it.

2. I'd become a total lightweight: To be fair, I wasn't a massive drinker anyway. Still, I'd turned into a complete lightweight over the last few years. A couple of beers was enough to knock me on my ear, and I'd actually be hungover from it the next day, stumbling through the tiredness, foggy mind and volatile emotions that come with low-grade but potent hangovers.

3. I wanted to see if my health improved: I've been on medication to treat anxiety and depression for four years, and in all the time I'd been on anti-depressants, I'd never gone for any serious length of time without booze.

So how was my Dry January? Here are the specific takeaways from the month, some pointers if you want to cut back on your own boozing, and how my relationship with drink evolved after the month.

Staying off drink wasn't as hard as I expected/feared

Ahead of giving up drink, I was absolutely bricking it. I expected it to be like that episode of The Simpsons where Homer forsakes Duff beer for a month, and by the end of it, his hand is shaking as he marks the days off on a calendar. 

But it wasn't like that. And it's not like I avoided situations where I'd ordinarily be drinking. Turns out I have a lot of friends with birthdays in January. So the first two weekends of the month were dominated by parties and nights out - all of which I did sober.

Throwing myself into club and pub situations was the best thing I could have done, kind of like immersion therapy. It forced me to consider - for the first time in my adult life - whether or not I have the confidence to rely on my own, influence-free personality to get me through social encounters.

My biggest fear was that I wouldn't be able to relax, converse, dance, or chat up people on nights out without a litre of gin inside me.

And you know what? I think I did fine. The thing you have to remember is, that while you might not be drunk, other people probably are. So what's the point worrying about being embarrassed or self-conscious on a dance-floor, in a flirty 1:1, or at a house party?

I had to resist the 'beer pressure'

You know the old (and, depending on your dietary choices, potentially very annoying) joke: "How can you tell if someone is vegan? Because they'll tell you"? I found myself talking the ear off anyone who'd listen to me about my Dry January venture.

It's helpful to have one clear, firm line to give people which sums up your reason to stop drinking.

Declan Cashin

At the same time, I spent quite a bit of time and effort explaining - sometimes, even defending - my decision to stay off drink for a month. It's helpful to have one clear, firm line to give people which sums up your reason to stop drinking, be it: "I'm trying to lose weight", or, "I'm trying to save money". Or, "I'm just bloody well not drinking, deal with it!"

Finding an alternate drink was a drag

One of the first things I quickly learned during Dry January was the pubs I went to didn't stock any non-alcoholic beers. This just seemed like poor business acumen, in January especially. Bars could basically charge whatever they want for non-alcoholic beers, and Dry January-ers would probably pay it.

Another non-drinking friend tried to convince me that ginger beer was a good alternative. Spoiler alert: it wasn't. One of the January birthdays I went to was held in a bar with a decent stock of virgin cocktails. I almost cried with relief and gratitude that night. The fact is, nothing can recreate the effect of alcohol. I settled on soda water with lime as my default drink during January. It was the best of an uninspired and uninspiring bunch. 

Side note: phantom hangovers ARE REAL. I think mine were a result of sugar-overload from too much lime cordial with my soda.

Be willing to end the night early

This one is crucial. Give yourself permission to head home early from the pub or club. I've found 1am to be the real witching hour at which tipsy friends and crowds tip over into outright messy and rowdy. Some nights you'll be able to deal with that while sober, other nights you won't. You don't owe anyone an apology for Irish goodbye-ing at that point. Chances are the others won't even notice or remember.

On top of that, you'll feel extra fresh the next morning. One thing I've learned is that, even if you crawl in at 6am, you may be tired the next day, but it's a much more pleasant form of tiredness than if you'd had a skinful the night before.

I swapped one vice for another

When I started Dry January, one non-drinking friend who'd given up a few months before told me you needed some kind of outlet in lieu of booze. For him, it was weed.

For me, I upped my caffeine and energy drink intake throughout January. Oh, and cake. Couldn't have enough cake that month.

Yes, I saved money

The key here is making it clear on a night out that you're not drinking, to avoid being dragged into rounds. 

I felt better, generally

I wanted - I needed - to see if cutting drink out of my life led to any improvement in my mental health. And on that front, I definitely noticed a difference. I was sleeping better, which was in itself a massive boon to my mental health management.

What's more, my moods started to feel more stable, I felt chattier and more sociable. I read a lot more books and I had more energy, generally. I can't definitively draw a link between those benefits and sobriety, but it was noticeable, and the change didn't go unremarked upon by other people in my life, including my counsellor.

The point is, if you're going to give up drink for a while, you have to be conscious of taking care of yourself in other parts of your life in order to feel the real benefit. For me, that meant sleep.

What happened after January...

By the end of January 2018, I'd gone through the longest period in over 20 years that I had abstained from alcohol. I'd expected it to be hell, and joked throughout about how hard it was proving to be.

I'd also encountered different opinions on how best to manage alcohol intake - for instance, mindful drinking, or abstaining for two days a week.

But I definitely felt like my relationship with booze had shifted and, when it ticked over into February, I honestly felt no desire to start drinking again. So I thought that I'd stay dry for a bit longer, taking it a week at a time. Before I knew it, it was near the end of February and the closest I'd gotten to alcohol was 0% beer.

Then it was March and still no drinking. I wasn't militant about it. Over Easter in April, I had a couple of glasses of wine. And I really enjoyed them.

However, beyond that, I didn't drink that much again until the summer. The warm weather feels like a distant memory now, but I remember finding it very hard to resist a few gin and tonics in the park with friends, or while sitting in the back garden on a scorching Sunday afternoon. That said, it still wasn't a regular occurrence, and two or three drinks were more than enough.

It was in September that my drinking picked up again, during two weddings at home in Ireland a few weeks apart. I won't lie, they were absolute bedlam - old-school benders that left me feeling like death for about a month afterwards.

All those months of feeling emotionally steady and clear-headed felt like they'd been wiped away, and I found myself swearing off drink again.

But, of course, once that thermonuclear hangover subsided, I did another renegotiation with the booze. Going back on it in a heavy fashion clearly just didn't work for me. And since then, frankly, I've had the odd pint or glass of wine, but that has been it.

Although my mental health fluctuates, cutting out prolonged episodes of 'the hangover fear' has definitely helped.

Declan Cashin

As I write this, we're in the middle of the heady Christmas period, and my drinking hasn't been excessive. Having those few really hard sessions throughout the year was a good reminder that I just couldn't - or didn't want to - do it anymore. That knowledge more than outweighed any initial worries about sober dating, or going for nights out without tons of booze.

So some 12 months after trying Dry January, I can confidently say the experience has made a big difference in my life. I drink less, and although my mental health fluctuates (as it tends to do), cutting out prolonged episodes of 'the hangover fear' has definitely helped.

Who knows, in three or six months' time, things might be totally different again. But right now, I'm a firm believer in something said to me at the start of my Dry January by a friend who quit booze four years ago: "Hard as it might be, I've never met anybody who has regretted giving up drinking."

I'll drink to that.

Here's some more advice on managing your relationship with alcohol. There's further support and resources at BBC Advice.

This article was originally published on 1 February 2018.

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  • Comment number 22. Posted by xanderF

    4 Jan 2019 23:54
    many, many years ago I used to enjoy a good drink and maybe a good fight at the end of the night. 'twas the done thing in the mining village that I grew up in. after uni, and a good few years away, I moved back 'home.' By then, having a bit more wool on my back, I just wanted to enjoy my gallon of beer and a game of darts. Trouble is a reputation that will never leave you, being attacked by a gang because you were once 'the man' and having one poor bugger needing hospital whilst his mates ran off. That stopped me drinking. two years six months twenty seven days. sober.
  • Comment number 21. Posted by AreThoseMyFeet

    4 Jan 2019 15:18
    @16

    I know what you mean. I'd have classed myself as a binge drinker back in the day. Not touching it through the week, then on it hard Friday and Saturday night with my mates. As I got older and with getting married and having kids, I still don't touch alcohol through the week, with the odd whiskey of an eve or if I was out midweek for a meal I'd have a glass of wine. My time out with my mates at the weekend is limited to one Saturday night in a month or a gig, but we still go hard. It's not big or clever, but it's a right laugh. I say if you want a break from alcohol, go for it. If not, carry on!!
  • Comment number 20. Posted by TheLastKingOfEngland

    4 Jan 2019 10:52
    I've been doing Dry January for a few years, apart from annoying a few January birthdays (you do tend to go home earlier, and if there are several people doing it, then I can understand people feeling a little abandoned on their birthday) you don't get negative responses from people. That said I've often felt little difference, my mental and physical health don't change, I do save money but then I tend to cut back in January anyway.

    I've always returned to drinking and enjoyed it.
  • Comment number 19. Posted by HughOC

    4 Jan 2019 0:20
    This comment was removed because it broke the rules. Explain
  • Comment number 18. Posted by Bearded Chicken

    3 Jan 2019 23:28
    As an recovering alcoholic, I can say that booze is not missed as long as I have something to go to instead. Using drink to change me as a person and the way I think, I have a daily program instead which I reach for to help with life.
  • Comment number 17. Posted by Trickcyclist

    3 Jan 2019 22:26
    I have stopped drinking every year for Lent.... 40 days, Never had a problem. Alternatives are all garbage and overly expensive. I would end up buying one orange juice and nursing it all night.

    However my pub mates were really happy... because I became the dedicated driver for the period.
  • Comment number 16. Posted by Iain Morris

    3 Jan 2019 21:22
    The trouble with these dry Jan blogs is that they all seem to be written by people who don’t have any real enthusisasm for drinking and seem to be doing it because their mates drink or because getting drunk used to be fun. There are actually people - and I would like to think I am one of them - who savour the taste of a real ale or single malt (and certainly a vintage red) in the same way that others relish a gourmet dinner. The dry January bores don’t really miss it because they never really liked it. So their missives are all pretty pointless and tiresome - like having someone who occasionally switches on the footie explain how he coped without watching it for a few weeks.
  • Comment number 15. Posted by Free to those that can afford it

    3 Jan 2019 9:54
    I'm doing it, and I calculated the number of hours in January that I'd have to survive. So far, no DTs, no cravings, no phantom hangovers, Is it hard? Depends on your definition. I'm enjoying not trekking daily to the store to pick up two or three bottles of wine, and the 3-for-a-fiver beers, and trousering the savings. I'm wary of going out for drinks with friends, so I'm keeping my head down, but I know there are okay 0% beers out there if I want to join in. Like everything hard to achieve, it's one day at a time. I will do it, because I know I can do it. And because, like Declan, I'm not an alcoholic. If I was, I wouldn't be pussy-footing around like a metro-numpty, going 'dry' for a month. I don't know how those with an addiction can turn it around, so good luck to everyone trying to stay off the booze this month; we're already winners for trying.
  • Comment number 14. Posted by Penfold

    3 Jan 2019 9:36
    I've never been that bothered about alcohol. To be honest I don't understand the amount that some people say they drink, especially where I live in Glasgow. I wouldn't have the money or the time to drink that much, and if I did I'd rather do something more fulfilling. I think they're just scared that their pals will think they're a big girl's blouse if they actually exercise some willpower and self-control.
  • Comment number 13. Posted by Eddie

    3 Jan 2019 0:37
    I haven't had a drink in almost ten years and I really don't miss it. There was no wanting to give it up, I just found that work kept me away from it and after a while I didn't even want any. That work I mentioned, was a nightclub and my dual role as bouncer and first aider meant I had to deal with all the idiocy that drink caused. Some of the things I dealt with would be enough to make anyone rethink their relationship with booze.