What I learned from giving up alcohol for Dry January
Is abstaining from alcohol for a month a good plan for you? InForum reporter Tracy Briggs tried it and has some advice.
Over the last year, the pandemic has done much to change us. Many of us have become expert Zoomers, a few of us learned how to make our own face masks, and somewhere between "many" and a "few" of us are asking ourselves, "Am I drinking too much?"
According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last September 2020, not only has the sale of alcoholic beverages increased during the pandemic — so has overall alcohol consumption and incidences of binge drinking.
Count me in with those study participants. I noticed my intake started to rise — ever so slightly and gradually — the longer the pandemic went on. So when I saw something about "Dry January" on a friend's Facebook page, I thought maybe I should give it a shot. (No pun intended).
For those not familiar with Dry January, it’s the idea of abstaining from alcohol for the first month of the year. People often do it for three reasons:
To curb excessive drinking.
To detox after heavy alcohol consumption over the holidays.
To reexamine their habits surrounding alcohol consumption.
Reexamining my habits with alcohol consumption was my purpose. I’ve never been an excessive drinker (thanks, probably, to "The Great Long Island Tea Lesson of 1985.") Also, I wouldn’t say my drinking over the holidays increased greatly. But I figured now would be the time to take a harder look at what and how I was consuming.
So Jan. 1, I swore off any beverage containing alcohol. Here’s what I learned over the next 30 days and what I hope you can take with you if you decide to attempt a dry month.
The pandemic can make weekday drinking easier
Prior to the pandemic, my typical alcohol consumption would include an occasional happy hour with friends or having a couple of drinks on the weekends. While regular happy hours weren’t possible (I find Zoom happy hours depressing), I could still do cocktails before dinner Friday and Saturday nights. It’s a nice ritual, a relaxing routine of spending a little extra time crafting a nice weekend dinner with The Food Network or an episode of “The Office” playing on the kitchen TV.
But I started to notice as the months of the pandemic wore on that the weekend ritual starting spilling over into weekdays — less having an elegant cocktail while making a nice chicken parmesan on Saturday and more having a drink while making Tater Tot casserole on Tuesday.
Since March 2020, ending the workday has meant walking approximately 15 steps from my living room “office” to the kitchen. Somehow, even though my trek from work was shorter now than my normal drive home from downtown Fargo, I often felt more exhausted and drained after a pandemic workday.
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And it didn’t help that I found myself turning away from “The Office” or baking shows to watch the latest COVID numbers on cable news. That’s rough. So, I thought, "I’ll pour myself a gin and tonic."
I mean, why not? I wasn’t driving anywhere for committee meetings, to run errands or attend kids activities. And these are tough times, right? "A cocktail will help," I thought. No big deal.
You might be drinking more servings than you realize
I started to notice I was drinking alcohol closer to four or five days a week, and if I averaged two drinks a night, that’s eight to 10 drinks a week. For health reasons, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends women consume no more than seven drinks a week. To know I was now, most weeks, drinking more than I should was an upsetting idea.
To make matters worse, if you look at what is counted as a serving size, I now realize I was likely actually drinking more than 10 drinks a week. Research shows that when people make their own drinks at home, they tend to use more liquor than a bartender would. According to the guidelines, a serving of hard liquor, like gin, is 1.5 ounces. My guess is I was putting at least 2 to 3 ounces in every cocktail.
I was fortunate that I didn’t see many negative impacts from my short-term uptick in drinking during the pandemic. Working remotely was still great — my dog is a cute, albeit not terribly helpful, personal assistant, and my old brown recliner makes an awesome desk. Family life is good, especially my daughters trying to teach me the choreography to BTS’ “Dynamite” repeatedly over the holidays. (Of course the increased alcohol consumption probably made me think I was a much better dancer than I really am).
I’d say the only negative effects were slightly more disrupted sleep and waking up with the occasional headache in the morning. I’d pop a couple of Advil and go about my day. However, I was still glad to be zeroing in on my increased consumption now instead of waiting to see if and when it would become a serious problem.
Find a plan to satisfy your ritual
Right away, I knew I’d have two challenges with Dry January. No. 1 would be breaking the ritual of having a cocktail while making dinner, and No. 2? I just really like the flavor of a gin and tonic. I couldn’t stop making dinner for the family, right? Or could I?
No, I can’t.
So I decided I’d turn to my dear friend — a friend I’ve really gotten to know so well over the pandemic — Amazon — to see if there were nonalcoholic versions of my favorite cocktails. I figured most of my habit was the act of pouring the drink and sipping on it leisurely while cooking. Sipping on water, or just another Diet Coke, like I had for lunch, wouldn't cut it. I wanted that end-of -the-day drink to feel special and I figured since I like the taste of gin, I’d try to find a version without alcohol.
I ended up buying a nonalcoholic gin that I could mix with my own tonic. I won’t tell you the brand because if you can’t say something nice, it’s best to say nothing at all, right? But I will tell you the brand I tried tasted what I imagine watered-down Pine-Sol tastes like. Do not try this at home — watered-down Pine-Sol or this nonalcoholic gin.
It can be more of a mental than physical challenge
For the first few days, Dry January was tough. I wasn’t having any physical symptoms of withdrawal. I just missed my real gin and tonic.
And by Jan. 6, when the incident at the Capitol happened and people all over Twitter were saying "Well, there goes Dry January," I almost wanted to join them in commiserating over a cocktail and chucking my experiment.
But nevertheless I persisted. With the empty Pine-Sol gin bottle now in the recycle bin, I set off to find another faux cocktail to help make Dry January a little less painful. I figured I’d try some of the canned, pre-mixed and nonalcoholic cocktails on Amazon. I ordered the Beckett’s brand of nonalcoholic gin and tonics and Moscow mules. And lo and behold, they were completely fabulous! (And no, they are not sponsoring this article, I promise. I just really like them).
The drinks had a little spice or kick to them — creating a slight tickle or burn at the back of my throat the way alcohol does. It made me feel like I was drinking something special — something I wouldn’t drink during the day. And they’re low in calories.
So honestly, the rest of January clipped right along. I found when I did cook for the family, I would still pour myself a special drink (the Beckett’s), but it never came back to haunt me with a hangover in the morning. And I didn’t miss the alcohol. So how was I feeling after a month alcohol-free?
I noticed slight improvement with my sleep during the month, my Advil consumption was way down and I’ve also lost a little bit of weight. Not bad at all.
Plan for the future
Before I started Dry January, I heard health experts say the worst thing you can do on Feb . 1 is make up for lost time by going on a binge. Ask yourself, now that I got through the last 31 dry days, what is my plan going forward? Is my drinking problematic and should I change it? Will I give up alcohol for good?
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I realized I did learn a lot about my habits and consumption. I really had no desire to have an early February binge. I wasn't even looking forward to that first post-Dry January cocktail.
That being said, I don't think I want to swear off alcohol forever. I still like the option of drinking a refreshing (and real) gin and tonic on the deck in the summer and sipping on a high-quality bourbon over ice to warm my throat in the winter.
But this month has convinced me more than ever that it should truly be just an option and doesn’t need to be an everyday thing like it was starting to become during the pandemic. It’s far more special if it’s a rare or occasional thing. and I’ve found there are nonalcoholic alternatives that are good substitutes if I crave the flavor of a cocktail without the booze.
I’m glad I tried Dry January. I was able to reexamine my relationship with alcohol before it became a problematic relationship. As Barney Fife might say, perhaps I "nipped it in the bud." Now I can see that I can still enjoy that ritual of pouring myself a drink as I relax and prepare a nice dinner, but that drink doesn't always have to include alcohol.
January might be over, but there’s no reason you can’t try for a Dry February or a Dry March. You might be surprised at what you learn.
If you are a heavy drinker, consult your doctor before attempting a dry month. Physical withdrawal symptoms from alcohol can be dangerous.