Staying Dry Beyond January | Pushing the Wave

Staying Dry Beyond January

Opinion, 13 January 2023
by L.A. Davenport
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A nice refreshing pint of beer
It’s January. Everything is quieter, and there’s not much going on. So there’s plenty of, perhaps too much, time for reflection after the festive mayhem of Christmas, and for all the hope—guilt surrounding those hastily chosen new year resolutions we’re now so desperate to keep (see the last column of 2022 for my thoughts on that).

A common way of tackling this rather dark and potentially emotional precarious period is to have a bit of time off from the drink, and focus on our health.

After all, we’re a bit flabby, inside and out, from sitting around eating and drinking non-stop over the holidays, and it would be good to get back in shape and restore some of our former sharpness. And anyway, surely it’ll be good for the body to not be constantly swilling in booze, at least for a few weeks.

The science behind this is good: studies have shown that even a short period of time without alcohol can allow the liver to recover from the damage that drink inflicts, and patients with serious liver disease can benefit from abstinence.

But science aside, it’s become rather trendy to stop drinking in the weeks after Christmas as part of a health kick, so much so that it’s even got a name: Dry January.

I was thinking about this recently when I read an article in The Guardian by Jill Stark, who ended up being a so-called poster girl for sobriety when she wrote the book High Sobriety. She went on have a more complex relationship with alcohol than simply to give it up for good and espouse some kind of modern temperance movement. And this realisation — that it is not simply a case of all or nothing, at least for most of us — can be difficult to handle.

I speak from experience as, just over a decade ago, I decided to give up the drink. I wasn’t sure for how long, but I knew that I needed to do this, for myself as a person, and for my life.

It is an interesting step to take, because, for anyone who lives in a Western culture, it is by no means a simple case of deciding whether or not to continue consuming alcohol. Drink is, for better or for worse, tightly woven into our societies, so tightly that we don’t often see its threads and how they constrict our world view.

It is different from smoking, which has undergone a fall from grace in many countries: from a habit that was considered essential for any adult to be an adult, to almost a dirty, morally suspect activity that should be carried out, if it must at all, out of sight of polite society.

I remember very clearly its death throes, when silly people would parrot the nonsense arguments of Big Tobacco and pretend that there was something stylish or clever about it.

I was one of those silly people. I had started smoking at a young age, and I came up with all sorts of convoluted reasons as to why I should continue when it became increasingly, and worryingly, clear that I should stop. I tried many times to quit, but it was difficult.

I used to say that the difference between smoking and alcohol is that you can smoke any time of day, but society dictates that alcohol be taken only during specific times and activities, such as at meals or in a pub or bar. That means you can smoke from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed (I knew someone who would even wake up in the middle of the night to have a cigarette), and I would have to have a battle with myself simply to stop myself having my first cigarette before 9am.

And then it stopped. The desire to smoke, I mean. One day, after having argued with myself constantly over my habit for weeks and weeks, I just didn’t want to look at another cigarette, let alone put it in my mouth and light it. And that, apart from the odd moment of wondering whether I could have just one, was that. No more smoking. And because the culture around it has moved on, it’s actually quite easy to stay quit.

There is none of that with alcohol.

Giving up booze is, by itself, easy. You just decided that you’re not going to drink today, and then you decide the same thing again the next day, and then again the day after that, until your body gets used to it. There are no real cravings to speak of, outside of those invented by your brain to torture yourself and make you pour anything alcoholic down your throat. (The subconscious brain hates change of any kind.) But within a day or two of internal battling, you start to feel better, much better, and you can use that to encourage yourself in the coming days any time you want to crack open a beer or pour a glass of wine.

A week or two later, you feel reborn. You are capable, fresh and properly awake every morning, and you are so much more efficient at work. Fitness comes easily, and you are, finally, happy with yourself. “Of course it’s like this,” you say as you reflect on the changes, “I always knew it would be. Why didn’t I think of doing this sooner?”

It is all rather wonderful, and self-sustaining.

The problems start when you mix with other people. You see, the pressure they impose on you as a non-drinker is immense. In a pub or a bar, if you among a group aren’t having any booze, you can quickly become a pariah. (Less so now with the advent of non-alcoholic beers and their wide availability, but the problem has not gone away by any means.)

To give you an example, I was once out with a group of friends and acquaintances in a London pub. Everyone was boozing hard and having fun. I had settled on a non-alcoholic drink I always had when I was out — lime and soda — and was sipping away in sync with the rounds; you have to do this, otherwise you can become quite lost when confronted with all the terrible non-alcoholic choices. I was enjoying myself and being as silly as everyone else; after all, why not? They won’t remember the next day.

Out of nowhere, and apropos of nothing, a big burly lad dressed in a tight suit and tie, with a red face and receding blond hair, came up to me. “You are ruining my evening,” he bawled at me over the din of the conversations all around us. “Why,” I asked, although I knew what he was about to say. “Because you’re not drinking.” Before I could I reply, he was back off among his friends. Occasionally, he would glare at me out of the corner of his eye.

I initially felt defiant but quickly became deflated, and wondered how many of my friends thought the same but didn’t want to say anything. Was I no longer really part of the group? Did they not want me there? Did they even like me anymore?

Once, at Glastonbury festival, a friend of a friend bent my ear for two hours over why I wasn’t drinking, so much that my friend apologised afterwards on his behalf. Over and over again, I was compelled to justify myself and my choices, and made to feel like I was the deviant, the one doing wrong, the one putting a crimp on everyone else’s evening with my boring, party-pooping ways.

And of course there’s the problem of being around drunks. For someone who is pissed, it is not possible for a sober person to participate in a conversation with sufficient conviction. Every time you react to what they say, it’s not enough: they need more emotion, more response, more, in fact, than you can give. That and the endless repetition once they start talking in circles pushes you out of the moment in the end, so much so you have to go, whether home or simply to be around people who aren’t drinking.

(Before you get all misty-eyed and think this is a problem only experienced in the UK or Ireland, where we like to think of ourselves as having a romantically problematic relationship with alcohol, the cultural pressure is the same, if not worse, in France, Italy, Spain or Germany.)

Despite all that, I stopped drinking for four years. Four whole years. To be honest, it was a great period in my life, and I saved a hell of a lot of money, but there was an issue. I didn’t want to be unable to drink (I had stopped because I recognised I was becoming an alcoholic), and it because it became clear to me after a while that being sober was, for me, simply the inverse of being an alcoholic — an extreme position that was more in control of my decisions that I was of it.

So, little by little, I started drinking again. Much more than stopping the booze in the first place, this was hard. A real challenge, in fact, and it took me many years to address and properly deal with the impulses that pushed me towards alcoholism in the first place. Now, I have a handle on it, and on myself. Occasionally, my grip on the handle slips but I don’t really think too much about it anymore. I just enjoy having a drink, and my recognition of the need for self-limitation stops me going too far. Most of the time, anyway.

But what of dry January? I don’t bother with it. Nowadays, I only drink on a couple of days per week, so there doesn’t seem to be much need. To me, that is a better approach: Don’t impose complete sobriety for one month and inevitably go back to excess afterwards; instead introduce some sobriety into your life all year long.
Last week, I moaned not so much about having lots of spam mail but more that it was all apparently sent by the same person, one Eric Jones. Not that I didn’t like the name, but more that I craved a little variety.

Well, it seems the internet gods were listening, as at the time writing I haven’t had one single spam email from Mr Jones. Instead I’ve had a whole flood of people with names that could have come straight from my character suggestions for authors: Lashawn Main, Duane Threatt and Joann Betz, to name a few.

I should be satisfied, yet somehow I miss Eric Jones. I find myself wondering what he is up to, wondering whether is okay. Maybe he’s on holiday. In any case, I’m sure he’ll be back soon.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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Staying Dry Beyond January | Pushing the Wave