Our "Dry January" diarist explains her relationship with alcohol, questions what we consider “normal” drinking, and why she wants to stop for a bit.
“If you think you can’t stop drinking, you should probably try to do it,” a close friend told me back in September. The friend was, at the time, celebrating one year sober with the help of AA. Now, I’ve been given a lot of advice about my drinking over the years, but it’s often the type I choose to ignore: “We’re going home after this one,” my friend will say as I order another round of tequila shots; “Maybe you’d have enough money to buy a house if you didn’t spend it all on alcohol,” quip my hilarious parents.
The suggestion to take a break altogether felt different, though – and not just because it came from a recovering alcoholic whom I used to frequently drink under the table, or because I have a tendency to switch off around clean-living evangelism. It struck a chord because I already knew it to be true; yes, I would seriously struggle to go a month without booze. Or as one friend remarked, "There is more chance of a meteorite hitting Earth in January than you not drinking."
It’s embarrassing for me to admit it in writing – and I’d never tell my doctor – but I should be honest here about my alcohol consumption so we’re all on the same page. I probably drink six or seven days a week; on a good week, four or five. I’m 25 years old and I haven’t had more than two weeks off drinking for almost 10 years. And those two weeks were really, really hard.
I don’t drink vast quantities every day. I can happily and often do have just one – an after-work beer and then home to a cup of tea. I can have three glasses of wine at dinner and stop without searching for the next one. Yet I’d be lying if I said alcohol isn’t a crutch for me; it eases stress, it slows down anxious thoughts and, when I really go for it, provides an escape route from life altogether.
Rarely do I stop to question my drinking because it’s so normalised by everyone around me. Headlines tell me that women are catching up with men in terms of the quantity they knock back, that other young women are “drinking themselves to oblivion” too, and that “wine o’clock” isn’t just my favourite time of day but a national pastime. I look around me, among my friends, professional Londoners in their 20s and 30s, and most of them drink as often and as much as I do, some more.
In fact, there are two types of drinkers who stand out as “different” among my wider circle of friends. There are those well-balanced, healthy folk who can take or leave a drink at the end of a long Friday, and then there are the people who know they have an issue with alcohol, those friends like the one mentioned above, who, as they advanced into adulthood – you know, actual adulthood, with marriage, careers and babies – took control and decided to stop altogether.
A few months ago, after my friend's advice and while I was dating someone who didn’t drink much and feeling introspective about my own habits, I decided to talk to a bunch of women who had been sober for one year and ask them how it had changed their lives. It didn't surprise me that I recognised traits of myself in them as drinkers; the idea of wanting to press the “fuck it button” and obliterate reality, the fear of dating or going to parties without an alcohol-fuelled confidence boost, even the simple, habitual enjoyment of an end-of-day pint. But unlike them, I hadn’t pulled into the station. I hadn’t come to the shock realisation that I needed to stop.
You could say I’ve been waiting to hit "rock bottom" with my drinking but it’s just never come. Falling asleep with the oven on, drunken tattoos, sleeping with someone at a work event, break-ups I don’t remember happening; I’ve done all of it. And yet I’ll always show up to my job in the morning, I'm reliably there for my friends and rarely do I wallow in a hangover or the accompanying guilt or shame. As one ex put it: "Loose cannon by night, highly functional by day." And that’s why I’ve never quit before: because I don’t necessarily have a "bad relationship" with alcohol, I have a slightly tumultuous one. And just like any tumultuous relationship, you ignore the bad times and stay for the good ones; the unexpectedly wild nights out, the pub Sundays, the nights in on the sofa. I stick with it for what I love about it most: how it wipes away inhibition.
So, why try a month off now? Well, partly because I need to (when I asked my friends if they thought I could do "Dry January", expecting to get the piss taken more, most were worryingly supportive) and partly out of curiosity, to see what it teaches me. A month of sobriety is a relatively normal event by a lot of people’s standards – people who don’t like the taste of alcohol, people who have a health condition, people who know they’re bad drunks – but I think I speak for a lot of people my age when I say that, for me, not drinking represents a big challenge.
Alcohol is like the furniture of my life, furniture that I have, perhaps conversely, built the rest of the house around. My behaviour premeditates my drinking; I keep cash at home in case I lose my card, I make notes in my phone in case I black out (seriously, it’s like the film Memento), and I keep days free just to be hungover. I wonder how my life will change when the focus shifts. I wonder: Could alcohol become an afterthought, rather than something at the forefront of my social calendar and my mind?
Over the next month, I’ll keep a weekly diary here of my – hopefully – sober January. I will be honest about whether or not I lapse (hopefully the pressure of documentation will prevent that happening). Charting the effects on my body, my bank balance and my mood, I am keen to find out how annoying it'll be to take a bottle of wine to dinner parties knowing I can’t drink any of it, as well as what the hell people do with their time when they're not drinking.
If I make it, I guess I’ll also be asking, "What happens when ‘Dry Jan’ is over?" Because I don’t want to quit forever, even though it would probably add 10 years to my lifespan. I just think that breaking up with booze for the longest period in a decade might help me understand my relationship with it a bit better, as well as giving me a much-needed glimpse of what my relationship with myself looks like when it’s unmediated by alcohol. I hope I’ll find that the things drinking gives me – mainly social confidence and a way to calm down at the end of the day – I am in fact capable of mustering myself. And if I’m not? Then I suppose the lessons learned from "Dry January" will be all the more important.
If you would like more information about Dry January, or alcohol in general, please visit Alcohol Concern
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