I first toyed with the idea of doing dry January about ten years ago. I made the mistake of telling people I was ‘thinking about it’. The response was quite extraordinary. A colleague at the time told me not to bother because it was the most ‘depressing month of her life’. Fast forward to today and I am about to do it for the fourth year consecutively. I try and do two sober months in the year to give my body and mind a break. When I do, I find I am so much more energised, happier and more productive.
I love a drink as much as the next person, however, I am constantly trying to find balance with it as the next day is usually pretty challenging. Once I began to learn more about the physical and mental effects of alcohol it changed my feelings towards it and makes me think twice now about how often I have it. I have the sort of relationship with alcohol where, after 3 drinks I completely absorbed in the ‘craic’ and want to keep going to which point I am in a heap the next day and feeling really annoyed with myself for doing that to my body. Maybe it’s just me, but when I’m hungover I feel a bit hopeless about the world we live in and things that are a normal part of everyday life feel so much more difficult. When the hangover is particularly bad, I start worrying about climate change, the war-torn countries, my three nieces and what sort of world they live in. I get caught up in questions like 'Am I a good person? What if I end up homeless? How am I going to die?' That is all so depressing and completely irrational. It is not for me to be thinking about when life is already hard and time is so precious. Essentially real-life issues but that I have no control over and don’t think about unless hungover. The fear makes everything seem so much worse.
People around us are dying of liver failure and alcohol abuse. In 3 out of the 4 companies I have worked for in London, at least one colleague (in their 20’s/30’s) has died as a result of drugs or alcohol. I think we all need to take accountability for our bodies, lives and happiness. Alcohol has literally driven people to early graves. I know most of us have probably thought about giving it up at some stage or trying dry Jan but there is always some celebration that we 'need to drink for'. That is total bullshit and a bad state of mind. While training for a half marathon early this year I ended up cutting alcohol for a while and during this time I went to 2 weddings sober. It was a scary thought beforehand but absolutely fine at the time and it felt so nice to not be hungover the following morning. I felt so fit and healthy and my state of mind was great after even a few weeks off the booze. Of course, some people I told at those weddings asked plenty questions, some even looked like it bothered them but I bet not one single person even remembers that I didn’t drink. People always seem very invested in the moment but are so wrapped up in themselves they don’t remember once the conversation is over.
I think most of us have an idea of how alcohol affects our minds and bodies. How it impacts our sleep. How it’s a slippery slope that can and has ruined people’s lives. How a bad hangover can make you feel poisoned. How one drunk night and a bad decision can turn your world upside down. Alcohol affects our sleep, it changes our judgement and makes us lose inhibition (drunk mistakes anyone?), it affects our serotonin and dopamine levels, it depletes our bodies of nutrients and dehydrates us completely.
In this article by Drinkaware.co.uk, it states ‘Our brains rely on a delicate balance of chemicals and processes. Alcohol is a depressant, which means it can disrupt that balance, affecting our thoughts, feelings and actions – and sometimes our long-term mental health. This is partly down to ‘neurotransmitters’, chemicals that help to transmit signals from one nerve in the brain to another. The relaxed feeling you might experience if you have an alcoholic drink is due to the chemical changes alcohol has caused in your brain. For some, a drink can help them feel more confident and less anxious. That’s because it’s starting to depress the part of the brain we associate with inhibition.’ Hence the terrible things we end up doing whilst drunk.
We all make jokes about the ‘fear’ as if it’s just something we should accept, and maybe some people don’t get it, but I think it’s important to observe how you react to alcohol in your mind and body. Everyone (including me) is on their own journey with alcohol, but I personally am trying to be more thoughtful about when I do have it. If at any stage it’s making me feel bad or like I am not being as productive as I could be, I take a break from it and focus on other things in my life.
Dry January is not as hard as you think and is such a great way to enter the next year and decade with a clear head and give your body a break from the chaos it's been victim to over the holiday season (not to mention all the calories in alcohol, a reason you may be holding weight you can't get rid of through clean eating). Once you make the decision, the rest is easy. Make your mind up and just do it. Being in the grey area of ‘I might do it’ or ‘cutting down’ is half-assed and is like pissing into the wind. I promise you it’s not that hard and here are some tips to help you through:
1. Find a hobby. Join a gym, a book club, start walking, start to write, make pottery, attend a cooking class or start a podcast club. Basically anything to keep you busy at the weekends and out of the pub. You will be absolutely gobsmacked at how amazing your Saturday and Sunday morning’s feel without a hangover. It's like discovering the secret to happiness and you won’t believe you only just figured it out now. Meet friends for brunch and gym dates instead of dinner and drinks. Try to build friendships with people who see there is more to life than a boozy brunch.
2. Be prepared. Make up your mind before you go out. Once you’re in the pub if you are in the grey area of ‘I might not drink’ you will crumble. Decide what you want to drink in the pub, my choice is tonic water and lime (feels like you’re having a G&T) or else Heinikin 0. Don’t tell people unless you have to, their reaction is usually so unnecessarily over the top and usually, people take it personally. Even your closest friends who want what’s best for you will surprise you with their reaction, society has given us a warped view of people who choose not to drink and it will take years to change this. I’m sorry if it offends you that I want to look after my mind and body and not die of organ failure at 50.
3. Surround yourself with the right people. You should know that you will probably lose some friends if you kick the booze. Your ‘barstool buddies’ will think you’re zero craic. This is actually a blessing, they might have been great fun to go out with but they’re not going to be the lifelong pals who are at the end of the phone during the hard times to encourage you to keep going. Better to eliminate now and stop investing precious time in people like this, they don’t fill your cup. Unfollow their basic Instagram page too where every story is a glass of prosecco or an espresso martini. No one cares.
4. Create your narrative. Think about what to tell people when they ask. I am sorry that you even have to do this but it is helpful because I have learned that people often ask so much unnecessary detail about your life. Anticipate the reaction and come up with something short and sweet to advise that you’re off the booze and people should mind their own business. Remember, this is a reflection of how they see their own relationship with alcohol and they probably are envious you have the will-power to do this. Anyone who gives up alcohol or takes regular breaks will tell you that people’s reaction and borderline disbelief is the most astonishing part of the experience. I found when people asked me why I’ve given up in the past when I tell them that it makes me feel down or anxious the next day they are very quick to stop interrogating me. Remember that you don’t owe anyone an explanation of what you put in your body. Would you sit across from them and force a huge slice of chocolate cake down their throat? Probably not.
5. Learn about the effects of alcohol. Whether you decide to give it up, cut it down or stay the same at least know what you’re consuming and how it affects your body and mind. He who knows wins. Be informed. There’s a lot of helpful content out there and some amazing stories of people who have turned their lives around. Try One Year no Beer if you need some extra support. There are also some interesting articles out there including this one about living alcohol-free and some amazing books like This Naked Mind is a great book to open your eyes on what it’s really doing to us (also has a podcast). You should also try The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober (99c for Kindle so get in) or The Sober Diaries.
I don’t go out heaps in January but if you do decide to go out and not drink, it’s not that difficult once you follow those tips. Usually without a drink but you do get tired earlier and not to mention get so sick of dealing with drunk messy people. It’s totally fine to go home early, do an Irish goodbye and slip off quietly, people will not even notice. The worst thing you can do is tell someone because they'll most likely buy you a tequila shot and guilt you into staying out. Being out sober is an eye-opening social experiment where you see how messy people get (yes it's been me before) and that’s the scariest part. You can so clearly see how in the space of a few hours peoples eyes have sunken into their heads, they're slurring their words and falling around. It’s actually scary to watch and makes you think about how vulnerable you must have been on so many occasions if you ever drank too much.
Try to change how you think about alcohol, what you associate it with and in no time you’ll create new pathways in your brain and won’t look at it in the same way. Be aware that alcohol companies are glorifying gin and prosecco for the gals everywhere you look and pints for the lad's lads. Going out for cocktails with the girls seems so eloquent and fun. Wine o'clock. Who created such nonsense? Think about why you believe these things to be true. Why we think it's often cool to get wasted. Perhaps one too many episodes of Sex and the City ( I love this show but am I right?). You can find lots of other ways to have fun sis. I find with anything sport or exercise-related hobby you can't do it hungover so it really makes you think twice about boozing too often. Book yourself a 10am Saturday Bootcamp you won't be getting wild that Friday night that's for sure. You can pick up a hobby or sport at any age so there's really no excuse. To be informed on what society feeds us and aware of the effects of alcohol is really important so you at least know what you are doing. If it is affecting your mind and making you feel down then perhaps make a change. It's entirely up to you.
If you want a final blast of inspiration, here is a list of celebs who don’t drink and some of their reasons why. Remember, it’s your body and you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone.