More than four million people signed up to Dry January this year, committing to stay off the booze for 31 days and raise money for Cancer Research and Alcohol Concern.
It’s become something of a staple in the fund-raising calendar, boosting charity coffers by hundreds of thousands of pounds and it has even spawned its own language, with words like ‘Dryathlete’ and ‘Dryathlon’ creeping into common usage.
The very fact it exists is testament to the British way of life and that drink is a foundation stone of our culture. Weddings, funerals, Christenings, Christmas, birthdays and New Year’s Eve, not to mention Friday nights, all revolve around it.
In this country, to be social is to have a drink and tee total-ers are viewed with suspicion.
With that in mind, what is it about staying away from drink that makes it a challenge? And should we be receiving praise for giving our long-suffering livers a rest? Does steering clear of alcohol for one month actually improve your health or does it do more harm that good?
We do a lot of work in liver disease, meaning we are faced with these questions on a daily basis. So, in the name of science, we put ourselves to the test. This is how we got on.
Sophie Randall: The dry struggle of a ‘terminal lightweight’
After the excesses of Christmas and New Year – this equates to drinking everyday for me rather than getting blind drunk – I was actually looking forward to Oyster’s Dry January challenge. I thought I’d ace it.
I consider myself a moderate drinker. I have at least three dry days a week. I tend to have a glass of wine or two with an evening meal and the odd G&T (double tonic, single gin) – not the “FXXK off G&Ts” my Dad pours. My adult children classify me as a terminal lightweight.
After two weeks of daily seasonal indulgence I felt tired, puffy and generally sluggish. As I progress through middle age I find alcohol disturbs my sleep and interacts badly with my haywire hormones –I avoid it or stick to my two-glass rule.
So I didn’t think Dry January would be a struggle but it was: at least at first. I started on 4 January with a mild hangover from the last of our seasonal socialising. That made day 1 a breeze – I’ve never been one for a hair of the dog.
On day 2, Tuesday 5 January (my husband’s birthday), I returned to work. Tuesday is our date night anyway. We went to the cinema and shared a pizza and a bottle of sparkling mineral water. The celebration fizz seemed a bit flat. But we drove home smug.
Day 3 and 4 were no problem. But then came Friday, the end of the first, albeit short, working week after the holidays. That was my temptation. On a Friday I walk through the door and shake of the work persona and its associated stresses and strains with a glass in my hand.
I realise now alcohol helps me change my stride. The wine goes in and I feel a physical sense of relaxation ooze through my physical and mental being. We ate our meal, with mineral water again, and felt restless. Channel 4 helpfully scheduled the Amy Winehouse biopoc, Amy, enough to put anyone off the demon drink. My resolve held.
I discussed the Friday struggle at work – a colleague helpfully suggested I should “phone in sober” and stop working Fridays. As my other New Year resolution is to work a four-day week I gave it a go. It definitely helped, but with my unpredictable schedule, hardly a long-term solution.
But as the days and weeks passed it became easier and easier and I still haven’t had a drink – right now I don’t miss it. I’m sleeping better and haven’t had any hormonal headaches or migraines. I’ve had an energy boost – in the last 10 days I’ve begun to feel restless and bored on the long winter evenings. All the domestic admin I’ve been putting off has been tackled and new possibilities are opening as the light returns.
So today it’s Friday and office drinks night. I’m in two minds whether or not to break my dry spell, it seems somehow anti-social not to in our booze-sodden culture. As someone has helpfully pointed out Lent begins on Tuesday. On that basis I might sink a drop, but it won’t certainly be a “Southampton” (a large port), before I return to my new sobriety.
Annabel Daguerre: My not so ‘dry’ January
I started out 2016 as I do every year – full of good intentions. After a three-day-long hangover following New Years celebrations that involved far too many glasses of prosecco and staying up most the night dancing around my living room, the first few days of my ‘Dry January’ were an absolute cinch.
Fast-forward a few days into the first working week of bleakest month of the year and a frustrating appointment at the bank and, guess what, I am reaching for a relaxing glass of plonk faster than it takes an ice cream to melt in the desert.
So I sat back and watched as my more virtuous colleagues remained resolute in staying off the booze and tried not to feel bad about my weak will.
Simultaneously blessed and cursed with a low alcohol tolerance (cheap date / victim of “unjust” hangovers) I don’t tend to drink very much in relative terms. BUT I do love a drink – I really enjoy the taste of alcohol and drink at home regularly. I also know that, like many, I drink in response to stress triggers.
MMH (mental health hangover)
Sometimes, I get carried away with the fun of it all and will then inevitably suffer the consequences, which for me tends to be what I refer to as “mental health hangovers” or MMHs – acute anxiety and/or depression that can last for a couple of days. (At one time, my MMHs would manifest as a conviction my hair was falling out. It wasn’t.). They are far worse than any physical symptoms of a hangover and these days, the fun never really feels worth it.
So with my failure tucked neatly under my belt I decided all was not lost and that I would try to cut down on, rather than cut out, alcohol. I actually think long-term moderation is a much healthier goal than temporary abstinence that is quickly forgotten as soon as February arrives.
I’ve been successful in this endeavour and am feeling happier and healthier as a result. I now restrict myself to just one drink during the week, and two at weekends. I’ve avoided situations that make “binge drinking” almost obligatory. (It’s true I’ve become a little socially reclusive but I’m really enjoying lots of quiet time and the absence of those doomy, depressive hangovers).
Self-conscious and judged
I have to say that drinking less was made much easier by the fact I was surrounded by an army of Dry January-ers and truthfully, I felt self-conscious and judged – by them and by myself.
That’s the funny thing about alcohol – it invites so many judgements from almost everyone. I felt the need to justify the fact I was still drinking and my habits in general. I found myself on the defensive and reciting clichés to myself, and even, I’m ashamed to admit, embarking in a little bit of mockery of other people’s efforts at times.
It has really brought home just how difficult it must be to permanently quit booze. The social pressures are huge and I have so much respect for tee-totalers. Secretly, deep down I kind of wish I could give up alcohol but I know that I never will.
I enjoy it too much and am a firm believer in doing the things you love in life. So instead, I will just aim to continue to drink in a way that feels healthy for me.
Tonight’s social will be a challenge (can I stick to just two drinks?) but I have faith in us all, and our new-found, healthier attitudes.
Amanda Barrell: Don’t tell anyone, but….
Don’t tell the boss, but I have a hangover: my first hangover of 2016 after marking the end of Dry January (and then some) with a few ales.
For the whole of January, I was increasingly more chipper, chirpy and generally happy. My skin was shining, my waist was shrinking and I was going to the gym five times a week.
Today, I am a little ropey – not enough for it to show, and certainly not enough for me to be huddled under a duvet with an Alka-Seltzer, but enough for it to be encroaching on the corners of my consciousness.
It begs the question: why do it? And why am I planning to go to the pub straight after work, meaning I will feel like this again tomorrow?
This was my second annual booze-free January, and, even if I do say so myself, I smashed it.
While everyone else was bemoaning the evils of the season: the dark, the rain and the tedium, I was having a whale of a time at home in my fluffy slippers, binging my way through box sets, rearranging my book collection and cuddling up on the sofa.
My close circle of friends meet weekly, and I went along to sink a couple of pints of soda water – I spent next to no money and consumed zero “empty calories”, but still laughed until my belly ached and was fine the next day.
Saturday mornings involved jumping out of bed bright eyed and bushy tailed, going for a run before my gym class then spending the rest of the weekend chilling out with my husband. Which was lovely. I felt great.
So, why will I drink tonight, jeopardizing my ability to do exactly that tomorrow?
Well, because it’s Friday, and we purposely planned our team night out to coincide with the end of Dry January. And, mainly, because it will be fun.
Brighton’s reputation as a party city is well deserved, and it seems the whole population goes to the pub after work on a Friday. While it’s not the law, it’s pretty close, and going straight home at the end of the day seemed counterintuitive – how do you congratulate yourself for getting through the week if it isn’t with a pint?
It didn’t help that my husband and I had decided we were quitting meat for the month, too – where’s my reward for working hard? It’s not a glass of wine or a posh beef burger. What do we do?
By the second week, however, I was really looking forward to getting home, settling on the aforementioned sofa and having a bean burger (though, this could just be because I am getting old).
Stress was always another drinking trigger for me. Bad day at work? Have a pint. Family issue to deal with? Have a pint. Argument? Have a pint.
Don’t judge me, but my new stress relief is exercise – you can’t even think about what ails you if you are working out, and if you can, you are not working out hard enough!
A study from the University of Sussex and Alcohol Concern found people who successfully gave up the sauce for a month were more likely to be drinking less six months later. The work had its limitations, not least that those who did manage it drank less in the first place, but it stands to reason that it will make a difference.
We live in a county that places booze right at the centre of its culture. Like most others, I had my first drink at 13 or 14, and have been surrounded by it my whole adult life – how to live without it is something you have to learn.
Booze of the future
I failed last year’s dry spell at the last hurdle when I slipped up on the last weekend (I went for coffee with my best friend on a Saturday afternoon, one thing led to another – we have all been there) but by February, I had a (mainly) “no drink in the week” policy.
This year, it has left me realising I don’t need, or want, to drink every weekend, and I know I won’t go back to automatically heading to the pub on a Friday.
Yes, I went out last night and yes, I will go out tonight, but, as in everything, moderation is your friend.
If I am honest, I quite like being sober.
But don’t tell my friends: I have a reputation to maintain.
Emily Wilkinson: Moderate to wet January
I worry that I drink too much. I listen to Radio 4 constantly reminding me that we all drink too much. It’s not just something I think about in January, it’s a frequent talking point amongst me and my friends. We all worry that we drink too much.
Most of my friends (outside work) are mums, some single, most working, with children still too young to be left alone in the evenings. A glass of wine at the end of the day is a welcome treat. Some say it marks adult time when the kids have gone to bed. For me, it’s when I’m cooking or clearing up the kitchen on my own, listening to the radio. A drink is a little ‘unwinder’. Sometimes I feel I need it to relieve the stress of being a single mum, sometimes it’s after rushing around picking up kids after a day at work, sometimes it’s to relieve the mundane nature of daily life. I love the fact that my neighbours (good friends) will come round to escape grumpy husbands and demanding children and share wine with me in my hidden, fairy light-lit corner of the kitchen.
None of us did Dry January. Maybe because we are at that stage in our lives when daily life is quite stressful, it’s difficult to go out and we don’t get much time to ourselves. Having a drink doesn’t seem unreasonable. But getting a balance is the hard thing and that’s what Dry January made me question. We all get too excited when confronted with a Friday or an opportunity to go out or, God forbid, both! We down the alcohol, only to wake up in the morning remembering how horrible it is to have a hangover with children.
I continued to drink through January but in a different way and so did my friends. We went for moderate January (although probably not as moderate as the new guidelines would like). We went to the pub after the first week back at work, drank beer and took the kids so we had to leave at 9pm. If the teatime/ homework/ bedtime routine is a bit stressy, a G&T in a tin or a bottle of beer is a better option than opening a bottle of wine. I go to bed so ridiculously early that getting through until bedtime isn’t very hard!
I won’t say that I’ll never drink too much again but I certainly think more carefully about the amount I drink and January was definitely much better without a hangover. Now it’s Friday evening and I’m off to help my dry friends get moderate to wet!
Published on: February 5, 2016