Is ‘Dry January’ worth the hype?

Let me come clean from the get go before I flaunt my New Year’s abstinence – I did not make it through January without drinking alcohol. Not even close. Even before January began I knew I wouldn’t last the duration. I had planned a much-anticipated trip to London towards the end of the month, and withholding alcohol was not part of the plan. It was an absence of intention as opposed to a lapse of will, which perhaps in hindsight is a degree worse.

I relinquished my teetotaller vow an additional two times before the trip. My mother of all people was the first person who enticed me to break my pledge, a reversal of roles my younger self would never have dared to imagine. She had opened a bottle ofgood’ prosecco, which she had been saving for me to open on a special occasion. A multitude of celebratory events in my life worthy of ‘good’ prosecco had come and gone yet the bottle always remained unopened. Instead, the birthday of a family friend, which coincided with the only time in my life I had sworn off alcohol, was deemed the idea occasion. I initially demurred the offerings of a glass, resolving to stick to my pledge, but given my mother’s affrontation I played the role of dutiful daughter and acquiesced. Admittedly, it didn’t take much coaxing. I drank one glass and it tasted divine.

My second moment of weakness occurred a few days later. I was at a friend’s birthday in a swanky bar in town and glasses of champagne were being handed out for free. Amid proclamations of how good the champagne tasted, and one particular friend accenting her enjoyment with audible lip-smacking, I couldn’t stand the feeling that I was the only one missing out. Ameliorating my guilt with the flawed logic, ‘Its basically the same alcohol so it doesn’t really count’, I sipped my free glass of champagne and savoured every drop.

Alcohol is to be Enjoyed
Both lapses imparted wisdom that was as valuable as the month long prohibition itself: it is possible to really enjoy alcohol and in small quantities too. Along the trajectory of my career as a seasoned drinker, beginning with my teenage days drinking whichever brand of cider was most inexpensive, I had come to regard alcohol almost entirely as a stimulant, forgetting that it is a luxury product to be tasted, savoured and appreciated. If I had to classify my relationship with alcohol over the years I would describe as complicated, but in an Irish context, entirely normal. Getting to the truth of the matter, a lot of the time when I drink, I binge drink.

If I had to classify my relationship with alcohol over the years I would describe as complicated, but in an Irish context, entirely normal.

Like most people my alcohol consumption rotates around my social life so the bulk my drinking is done between Friday and Sunday. If I avoid alcoholic social events, it is entirely plausible that I could go stretches of weeks without drinking at all. However once I’m geared up for a night out, I’d lash the stuff back like its going out of fashion. I had known for a long time that my alcohol consumption and the surrounding patterns of behaviour were unhealthy, and it was this dissatisfaction that prompted me to join in on the ‘Dry January’ hype.

Dry January
There is one particular night in Dry January that sticks out in my mind, the night I played the role of ‘sober friend’. A group of friends and I had gone to a bar followed by a bar/club, the kind of place where you can have a dance and actually talk to people. While everyone was drunk and merry, I experimented with different kinds of fruit juice, starting with orange and boldly working myself up to pineapple. Not the least perturbed by my sobriety, I enjoyed my friend’s drunken antics and all in all had a great night. I talked to lots of different people, spent less money, and felt great the next day. It actually surpassed similar alcohol fuelled nights in the same venue.

Looking back, two things stuck with me:

  1. If I enjoyed someone’s company, the following day, I knew I actually liked them
  2. Being sober is far more stress free.

Number one is pretty self-explanatory but number two requires some elucidation. Don’t get my wrong, I’m not saying drinking alcohol is stressful per se, but the very lack of control we hope to attain by drinking foments the inherent risk that things can go wrong. This can range from minor incidences, like losing your phone or purse, or potentially finding yourself in a compromising situation. Every time I drink beyond a cautious few drinks, in the back of my mind there is always the fear that something regrettable will happen, either due to my own stupidity or my inability to resists someone else’s. This of course is liable to happen with or without alcohol, but restricting one’s alcohol intake very much undermines the chances.

The very lack of control we hope to attain by drinking foments the inherent risk that things can go wrong.

Reminding myself that I can have fun without alcohol, or that I can simply enjoy a few drinks, Dry January served its purpose. The hype was equally as valuable, providing the necessary impetus and a legitimate excuse not to drink (a decision which I doubt would have been met with as little resistance on an ordinary occasion).

So with such positive experiences of abstinence in January, how did I fare in February?
My first night out in February started with good intentions. I was actually going to count my drink intake, or so I told myself. This proved slightly harder because I was drinking a punch mixture made by a friend; vodka, peach schnapps and juice mixed in a steel pot, because we’re classy like that. Without even realising it, getting to the end of that pot became my challenge. It was after all free alcohol, and drinks in the club are expensive. As is always the case in Ireland, time and speed were of the essence and my drinking was driven by urgency rather than caution. I was drinking for the future as much as the present. Although I didn’t end up in too bad a state, on reflection, my motives for drinking were questionable. There is something about a club environment, current or impending, that incites me to drink beyond what is reasonable, a desire to shake off my sober state.

And if I go a little deeper, it’s more complicated again. In recent years I’ve realised that when it comes to alcohol and tolerance, my own bodily limits are somewhat of an enigma. I usually start out with a vague, unarticulated (even to myself) goal in mind; drink to loosen my inhibitions, while preserving my memory and not totally surrendering control. The sweet spot between sobriety and getting plastered. Sometimes I get it just right but veering towards drunkenness is far too easy; once I get to a certain level of inebriation a little voice inside my head starts egging me on – ‘go hard or go home.’ Mostly its fine, but I will wake up the next day wishing I had drunk less.

Sober Parent and the Drunken Child
My second night out in February, I took a different tac by starting out the night purposefully, measured my drink. Dare I say it, achieved that sweet spot. Despite its effectiveness I can’t say it’s a role I am pleased to undertake, playing both the sensible, sober parent, keeping alcohol out of arm’s reach of my later drunken, child-like self, but perhaps it is an unavoidable by-product of alcohol and one that I just have to accept.

Growing up, but especially leaving Ireland, has transformed my drinking habits. When you quickly realise that the behaviour normalised here is totally shocking abroad, it forces you to examine the Irish drinking culture with a critical gaze, while allowing the necessary distance to do so.

As generalisations go, the reputation that Irish people drink too much is fairly accurate. In the country responsible for the phenomenon ‘pint baby’, it is too easy to brush away drunken affairs with humour, forgetting to take any lessons on board. I have absolutely zero judgment for anyone that has a messy, drunken night, it would be the epitome of the pot calling the kettle black, but taking some wisdom from past mistakes wouldn’t go amiss either. The advice I am giving myself at least is, drink with awareness and intention, veer on the side of caution rather than recklessness. And don’t forget to savour the taste too!