Lessons from My Failed Dry Januaries

It’s hard to believe I’m writing this, but today is my 366th day without alcohol. On so many levels, I feel like a different person than I did a year ago. And it all started with a simple New Year’s resolution.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t attempted this before. In fact, Dry January was an annual tradition for my body and my brain: we’d enjoy a particularly liquidy November and December, declare that it was time to make a change, quit for a week or two, fail to notice any drastic improvements, and cave right around mid-January when there’s nothing to do in the upper Midwest but get a buzz. New year, same beer.

But in 2020, I finally managed to break the cycle. I stuck with Dry January and kept going, making it all the way through to the next January without so much as a sip. Now that I’m a year into not drinking, I have no desire to go back, but it’s not because I did anything drastic. It’s because I finally took stock of Dry Januaries 2002–2019 — may they rest in peace — and realized I was doing it all wrong.

In honor of my one-year anniversary, I’ve decided to compile my decidedly non-expert but very real-world lessons I’ve learned from years of failures. While I’m not a doctor, a therapist, or any sort of credentialed specialist, I am a real person who has been there…and been there…and been there again. So this is for those of you attempting to give up booze, whether it’s until February first or forever.

It took more than a few days to notice a positive change. I am the type of person who wants instant results. A few hours after downing my last drink, I’d wonder why I wasn’t sleeping better, losing weight, experiencing mental clarity and setting world records in productivity. But ultimately, it took about three weeks for me to stop feeling sluggish and bourbon-deprived.

Once I got over that hump, it felt incredible. If only I’d just hung on a few more days in years’ past. Everything improved, from my quality of sleep to the fit of my jeans. My first sober travel experience (remember travel?) was the last week in January, right when the pink cloud started to kick in. It was just a short trip to Philadelphia, but I felt like I was on top of the world. “Oh,” I remember thinking to myself, “apparently it wasn’t the lack of humidity on the plane that always gave you such awful jet-lag.”

I realized I missed the ritual of drinking more than drinking itself. After a long and stressful day of work and commuting and exercising and parenting (and step-parenting, and pet-parenting), I often thought I “needed” a drink. But what I really needed wasn’t the drink. What I needed was to walk in the door, drop my bags, sigh loudly, complain about my awful day, open the fridge, hear the hiss of a craft beer bottle opening, and revel in the satisfaction of watching imperial stout cascade into my heavy crystal glass. That ritual — that pour and that first sip — did everything to quell my anxiety, yet often left me with a lingering headache and the need to collapse into bed at 8:30.

Rituals are so, so important, and you don’t have to give them up. If you are a connoisseur of craft beer, fine wine or fancy liquor, Diet Coke out of a juice glass just won’t do. There are plenty of delicious alcohol alternatives: Athletic Brewing Company near-beer, Lyre’s Spirits and Gruvi Prosecco, to name just a few. Drink them out of fancy glassware, and you may fool yourself into realizing you don’t need the alcohol.

I saw how much drinking affected my life…but not until I stopped. I’d never considered myself a heavy drinker or someone who had a problem with alcohol. I had my life (mostly) together, and I observed with delight and relief as many of my friends and peers drank just as much as I did, if not more. But the longer I was sober, the more I’d have these tiny yet profound moments of realization: drinking was a big part of my life.

The realizations hit every time I got into my car, clear-headed, after a dinner or a happy hour. They came to me when my fifth-grader announced one night after dinner that he had a science project due the next day and needed to get supplies right now. They emerged when I woke up on Sunday mornings full of energy and felt ready to go out for a run. And they came with a vengeance several weeks ago, when we got the chilling phone call that my husband’s parents were both in the hospital with COVID.

In years’ past, those moments would have been enveloped in either the effects or the consequences of alcohol. Now, whether thrilling, frustrating or terrifying, they were raw with clarity.

Not everything in my first year of sobriety was easy — in fact, it was just the opposite. Like many of you, 2020 was easily one of the most difficult years of my life. But it wasn’t a year I survived; it was a year I lived. For that, I will be forever thankful.

So if you are participating in Dry January this year, I encourage you to look at it through a different lens. It’s more than just a dry month. It’s not an exercise in deprivation; it’s an opportunity to challenge yourself and to really examine your relationship with alcohol. Who knows — maybe a year from now, you’ll be writing an essay like this one.

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