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Dry January – the verdict

So I successfully completed Dry January! That is assuming I get through tonight – I still have to manage to brush my teeth without knocking back a shot of mouthwash. But barring any meltdowns of this kind, I’ve made it safely through to the other side. Oceanic February, here I come.

In the interests of full disclosure, I did drink a lot of Becks Blue. While this is marketed as ‘alcohol free’, it’s actually 0.05% proof, meaning I probably consumed the equivalent of half a vodka. Factor in a slice of chocolate Guinness cake, and a slightly fermenting grape, and a pedant might say I cheated.

Aside from these indulgences, however, I managed to keep my January fully dry. The month was as desiccated as a coconut; as moisture-wicking as a technical sports T-shirt; as dehumidifying as a pack of silica gel. If you’d plonked my Dry January in the desert, it would have bristled at the comparative damp.

Now, this is the point in most Dry January recaps where they say what a wonderful time they had. If you believe the Dry January Facebook page, giving up booze is one crazy, non-stop party in which everything is perfect and you snot out rainbows when you blow your nose. Check out some testimonials from the converted:

Just weighed myself. I lost 21 pounds ( stone and half) and saved £217. Sleeping wonderfully

I have loved this challenge it’s been a lot easier than I imagined. I’ve more energy, money, it’s kick started healthy eating, I’ve lost weight, am happier & feel so much healthier. I’m carrying on not missed it one bit. Well done everyone we should all be very proud!

Yep! I’ve enjoyed every minute and feel fantastic….so much so that I’m going to carry on!! I’m going to have a happy and healthy 2015

Unfortunately, I can’t concur. How can you skip the booze for a month – the very bleakest month of the year at that – and feel anything other than hard done by? You are forced to endure 31 days of brute reality without so much as a beer to wash it down.

I’m being facetious to a point, and am glad to have given this experiment a go. Still, the anti-drinking zealots just sound like they’re in denial. What is money saved compared to friendships cemented? What is ‘lower propensity to dandruff’ (a genuine benefit, apparently) compared to opening a second bottle and laughing till your stomach hurts?

Grudgingly: the benefits

True to the clichés, I’ve been sleeping better, my concentration span has improved, my workouts have felt less punishing and I appear to have lost most of my Christmas bloat. See, with Dry January you don’t just cut the booze – you also end up siphoning away your other vices. You go to bed before 2am, you’re more likely to get up for a run, and crisps are downgraded from ‘viable dinner’ to ‘so-so salty snack’.

As a result, your eyes do look brighter; your skin does improve. The Daily Mail ran an ‘article’ called ‘Look what giving up drink for a month can do to your face: Mother who enjoyed five glasses of wine a week is transformed after going cold turkey’.

In the interests of journalism, I have decided to include my own before and after shots. (These have the same title as the Daily Mail pics, only ‘Mother’ is replaced by ‘Childless trollop’, ‘five’ by ‘ten’ and ‘enjoyed’ by ‘desperately mainlined’.)

I didn’t actually take a before shot, so I’ve had to improvise a bit, but hey, you get the gist.

Screenshot 2015-01-31 22.37.41


Anyway, other than having been manipulated in Microsoft Paint, the biggest change has been my mood. I read somewhere that, when you’re teetotal, ‘the highs are higher and the lows are less low’. That seems half-right: in the absence of soul-crushing existential hangovers, the lowest you’ll tend to feel is mildly grumpy. But the highs are higher? Only if ‘high’ is taken to mean ‘painfully aware of your surroundings’ or ‘simmering with self-denial’.

The downsides

I decided from the outset that I wouldn’t stay in, but would conduct my social life as before. Accordingly, I had opportunities to drink on the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 23rd, 24th, 29th and 30th, disregarding all the other days I fancied a massive vat of wine.

Now clearly I like my friends, and thoroughly enjoy their company irrespective. But during Friday night pub sessions – when I consumed enough tomato juice to regurgitate the Red Sea – my sobriety weighed on me hard.

In part, this was simply a matter of being in temptation’s way – a bit like being a dieter at an all-you-can-eat buffet. There’s only so long you can flex that willpower muscle, before you say sod it and dive headfirst into a trough of profiteroles.

And just as dieters scour recipe books for hours, so too do temporary teetotalers become obsessed with what they’ve banned. You don’t remember the bad bits either – all you can think of is the group bonding, the warm fuzziness, the emotional catharsis, the flagrant silliness, the permission to spout anecdotes about your toes. When you’re not drinking, booze acquires a mystical glow it really doesn’t deserve.

I also missed the sense of anarchy. Case in point: the last tube home, which I took on day 17. Strangers were talking to each other, and some were flirting; a couple of guys who had been to a house party were offering round a plate of squashed cheese. Given that most Londoners would sooner headbutt a stranger than give them Brie, this deeply infringed the laws of urban atomisation. It was like TFL had been hijacked by the Lord of Misrule.

Drinking brings with it a sense of possibility, however illusory. Every time I drink, a little part of my brain wonders whether this will be the night some magic happens. Maybe I will meet the love of my life and live happily ever after, in a sparkling fairy kingdom doused in Laphroaig. Maybe I will meet a thrilling stranger who introduces me to fire-breathing or snail-racing. Maybe I will end the night with a mysterious plantain in my handbag (this actually happened) and no idea where it came from.

Sober, you come slap-bang against your own limitations – your anxieties, your awkwardness, your shyness, the laws of physics. This month, it was heartening to see I could still hold my own in mixed gatherings. But I’d be lying if I said I felt as relaxed or had quite as much fun.

I appreciated how clear headed I was, for the most part. Once February is here, I’m going to do my best to retain that clarity: my goal is to drink just three times a week, and keep it within recommended limits.

Equally though, if you’re visiting a gallery you don’t just want to see piece after piece of photographic realism. Sometimes you want swirls, and strokes, and blocks of colour – the sharp edges of life faded out to something more impressionistic. Drinking gives you that, for better or worse, and I’m looking forward to recommencing.

The main thing I have learnt in all this time? Turns out I’m really bloody stubborn.


Categories: Mind & Body

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Abi Millar

British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands

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