"Dry Jan", Week 5: What Happens Now?

Illustrated by Assa Ariyoshi.
Last week: "Dry Jan", Week 4: Waiting For A Miracle

My friends couldn’t break me (although a free bar might have). I survived clubs and pubs. Over the last few weeks, I have fought the urge to reach for the red wine bottle when I needed it most; during an EasyJet flight; when my ex decided to play some Jedi mind tricks on me; even as the news rolled in that a fascist dictator has successfully snatched hold of the world’s greatest superpower. Instead of drinking, I’ve been in bed by midnight and up by nine, sailing valiantly through my days, conquering (almost) any work-related crisis thrown in my path. I had the finish line in sight; it was looking like nothing could come between me and the end of "Dry Jan". And then, for no particular reason at all, on 25th January, I drank four and a half glasses of rosé.

The circumstances in which I broke my dry spell were disappointingly unceremonious. I was sitting down to dinner with my aunt, having just arrived in Spain for a visit. She offered me a glass of wine with my food. There was no big decision-making process, no game show-style countdown while I weighed up my options, no one on my team to consult. There was no moment when I rose up out of my body, met a weird shaman who told me I could only drink alcohol if I agreed to forego my eyesight (am I too late for OA references?) and sent me on my way. I would love to tell you something interesting happened, but I’m not allowed to lie in these things. I just said: “OK, thanks” and, with those three syllables, "Dry January" was ruined.

Since I’d broken "Dry Jan" anyway, I've carried on drinking over the past week but have, to my very limited credit, approached booze with caution – no splurging on shots or losing my bra, for example, just your run-of-the-mill red with dinner on Saturday or half-pint at the pub. As I move into February, I feel nervous; acutely aware that my tolerance might have dropped and there might be a sleeping lion in me somewhere, a few pinot grigios away from being roused. To be honest, I keep thinking about that time Kate Moss went on a detox holiday for Sadie Frost’s birthday, presumably didn’t drink for a week then had a few vodkas on the way home and called a member of airline staff a “basic bitch”. An age-old parable for what happens when you drink after not drinking for a while.

I suppose the other reason I’m holding back a bit on drinking again is because I’m still trying to figure out what should happen next... what usually happens after "Dry Jan" ends. Do we all just go back to the pub and act like it never happened? Or are we supposed to be changed as people? A few nights ago, I turned to Google in an attempt to answer this very question and there was little to help me out. I did, however, quickly stumble across an article by a man who said that, as someone who has since accepted that he is an alcoholic, "Dry Januarys" were – for him, at least – a salient form of denial. He explained that, if AA has taught him anything, it’s that people who don’t have an alcohol problem shouldn’t need to go all-or-nothing, they should be able to have one drink and head home.

As I read these words, and felt them resonating, I realised why I packed in "Dry January" six days early – it had been starting to feel arbitrary. After enough time had passed (25 days, apparently) for me to feel safe in the comfort that I don’t need to drink alcohol on a regular basis, and like I do in fact have a couple of bones of self-discipline in my body, "Dry January" sort of... lost its point. Once I’d learnt the basic lesson that I could go about my life without booze, abstaining from it wasn’t teaching me much that I didn’t know in Week One, which is that I’m someone who doesn’t quite have a problem with alcohol, and doesn’t quite not have one either. Just like the guy in the article, not drinking didn’t change my working relationship with alcohol per se, it just showed me I could be sober.

And so, despite the fact I didn’t actually miss the drink – not in social situations, and certainly not for the taste – I felt ready to take the next step of "Dry January", which was returning to life as it was before and proving to myself that, rather than going all-or-nothing, I am capable of a really healthy, low-key relationship with booze. That I am capable of falling off the wagon without accidentally leaving the handbrake off and running myself over. Because, let’s be honest: it’s the way you consume booze, not whether you consume booze, which is the hardest thing to exert control over in the long run. And if you can’t drink in a way that you feel comfortable with? Well, then it’s time to stop altogether.

My incomplete "Dry January" wasn’t in vain, though; it taught me a lot of valuable lessons as I attempt to practise a healthier relationship with booze going forward. It taught me that there are always sober people to hang out with, and that not drinking on a night out can be just as fun as getting pissed. It taught me that I could afford to visit my aunt a lot more if I saved £75 a week on booze. Even breaking "Dry January" early taught me something; namely, that drinking four and a half glasses of rosé and drunk-dialling Obi-Wan doesn’t make me feel great. And perhaps most importantly, the whole experience taught me that behaviours or habits you think are impossible to change can be unlearnt much, much quicker than you thought. Whether that’s drinking or something else entirely, alternative ways of being in the world are out there if you seek them.
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