Dry January is Over. What Happens Now?

By Christine Livingston 02/22/17

For the first time, I was able to see how I'd begun drinking as a way to escape the grief, sadness and confusion I had felt after my dad died.

A calendar made of blocks reading 31 January.
Not a long term solution.

Dry January is a program that invites people who regularly consume alcohol to take a break from their habit for the first 31 days of the year. This year in the UK alone, one in six people are estimated to have taken part, many of them using social media to laud their temporary sobriety. Some studies, like this one by New Scientist, suggest a slew of benefits from an extended period off booze—among them weight loss, lower cholesterol, and less liver fat.

But what happens in February, March and beyond? Can a month-long drink-fast have sustainable effects? Well, not if my experience is anything to go by.

I was inducted into drinking at the age of 14 as a kid growing up in Glasgow, Scotland. Had my father not already been dead, he’d have keeled over at the thought of me buying beer from a traditional, wire-barred off-license while still several years underage, or of snogging six boys in succession at a party while blind drunk. And my mother was so lost in her widow’s grief that, if she suspected me of drinking, she turned a blind eye. My early drinking career therefore flourished unhindered.

As I grew up, alcohol grew up with me. Being hammered in the sticky floored, beer-smelling caverns that passed as bars in my university’s student union was a weekend norm. When I started serious dating, nights out revolved around gin-and-tonics in posh pubs and hotel lounges. When I moved to London and got my first professional job, I graduated to after-work drinks in city wine bars. And, at the same time as I bought my first house, I developed the habit of pouring a glass of wine or three when I got home from the office each evening. Everyone seemed to do the same thing. It never occurred to me back then to go a day, far less a month without booze.

I loved wine for many years. If I’m honest, part of me still does. The taste, the smell, the color, the texture. But, more, I loved the person it enabled me to be. I have a good sense of humor, but with drink I become louder, funnier, more apt to do things I’d consider outrageous while sober. Like, sing soul songs out of key in front of an audience of strangers, dance like a disco queen while still wearing office clothes, ask random single guys back to mine for the night. And people loved this me too. In a consulting job I did, I was asked to be the team’s Minister of Fun in addition to my project role. I was never drunker than then, thanks to all the crazy, booze-fueled events I convened.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that’s when I took my first deliberate break from drinking. Thanks to soul-crushing hangovers, I was losing days of my productive life. I was also blacking out more and coming-to in ways that left me feeling mortified. Like the time I woke up in a hotel room to find a colleague in the same bed as me. I'd passed out while trying to seduce him following a black tie event and there we both were, me in my long red strapless evening dress, him in his tux, both of us looking sheepishly at one another.

“You’re drinking because you’re depressed,” said the counselor with whom I eventually signed up in an attempt to curb my habit. She was right. I was miserable about my career at the time and I quit drink while I tried to get my mojo back. For the first month or more I shook, felt like a zombie, wanted to sleep the whole time but rarely could, had the appetite of a marathon runner, and felt that life had lost its meaning. And indeed, UK doctors advise folks more dependent on alcohol to practice caution if withdrawing suddenly from their fix without medical assistance, because to do so can cause a wide range of significant health consequences like DTs, hallucinations and seizures. By contrast, many of the fizzy articles about Dry January skim over the side effects of what is, for many people, a form of detox.

Still, as the weeks and months went by, life felt better and eventually I resigned from my miserable job and began to freelance. With my depression fixed, I figured I could start drinking again. Just one glass of wine an evening; sometimes days with no booze at all. While life was good, I could manage this. But things changed when, having lived in London for many years, I moved out of the city and struggled to transition to country living. One small glass of wine a night became a large one, which then morphed to two. And, while I never returned to drinking as much as I had done before my first period of abstinence, I was feeling more and more tired, looking more and more bloated, grey and, frankly, old, as a result of what I was putting away.

I was never the picture of the person who is so ravaged with drink they are no longer holding their life together. On the contrary, I was seen as a successful woman with an envious Chardonnay lifestyle. One morning, however, while on a business trip to Singapore, I collapsed with exhaustion. I knew that drinking my way across eight time zones on a 12-hour flight the day before hadn’t helped.

Back home, I found another counselor. Instead of seeing my drinking as a symptom of a current-day problem—as I had with my first therapist—we went back, as I've done here, to my teenage years. For the first time, I was able to see how I'd begun drinking as a way to escape the grief, sadness and confusion I had felt after my dad died. And how I'd learned early on that, when I was in any difficult emotional situation, including those of day-to-day life, I could trust alcohol to numb me in a way that allowed me to get through.

That insight was life-changing. I saw that my childhood injury was the genesis of my complicated relationship with alcohol, and to heal the latter, I had to heal my continuing pain from the former. Believe me, that's a job that takes longer than a month.

I now have a choice about whether or not I’ll ever drink again. Right now I’m choosing sobriety and taking it a day at a time.

Dry January's exponents seem to want us to believe their increasingly popular 31-day abstinence program is an answer to society's challenges with booze. But in the end, I echo the BMJ's caution when they warn against seeing it as a panacea for our drinking problems. Alcoholism is somewhat akin to obesity; it's about making lifestyle choices for the long term, and ones informed by a thorough understanding of what has led to the initial issue. Certainly, for people like me, Dry January—like crash diets—doesn't work. The only way I've begun to resolve my complex relationship with alcohol has been through doing deep, on-going, year-round work.

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Christine Livingston is a psychotherapist, coach and freelance writer. She works with and writes for people seeking the courage, inspiration and clarity to live conscious, fulfilling lives. As well as writing for The Fix, she has written for Psychologies LifeLabsTiny Buddha, and Top Santé. You’ll find her at www.christinelivingston.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter as @WriterOfThings1.