"Dry Jan", Week 3: I See Drunk People

Illustrated by Assa Ariyoshi.
Last week: "Dry Jan", Week 2: Report From The Front Lines Of Dry January

When we drink alcohol, it passes down our throats, into the stomach and small intestine, and is absorbed into the blood within about 10 minutes. From there, it travels to the brain, working as a depressant to slow down your thought, speech and movement, meaning that, if you drink enough, you’ll advance from crap conversationalist to incomprehensible quicker than you can say “Uber home”. And yet, we drink on, because alcohol also triggers a dopamine release, causing you to feel more fantastic and carefree with every sip. It relaxes you but also stimulates you, which is, by all accounts, a dangerous combination.

On Friday night, I witnessed this process happening to everyone except me, as I braved my first night out without booze. It had been a long week; a lot of work had come in and I was writing about 2,000 words a day while staying with a friend in the Lake District. We avoided the pub, drank a lot of tea, and took long walks – not really a challenge to my sobriety, particularly as I felt like I was hitting my "Dry Jan" stride. But when I got back to London on Friday, I experienced a familiar itch – the itch to press the “fuck it button”. If I were drinking, I wouldn’t have hesitated to go out and wipe away a week’s heavy workload with a soup of white wine, beer, vodka, gin and tequila. A totally plausible and delicious evening menu, back in December.

But my newfound clarity had given birth to another voice, a voice that said: "You’re going to feel very, very bad about yourself tomorrow if you’ve not only broken 'Dry January' but are too hungover to even write about it.” It also muttered something about the £300 I spent on Net-A-Porter and the astronomical tax bill I’d paid earlier in the week; both had felt like less of a dent because I’ve been saving so much money from not drinking. I tried to keep these thoughts in mind as I headed to the party but, deep down, I was worried what people would think of me; when the cloak of inebriation was lifted, would I be funny? Would I be entertaining? Would I have the imagination and stamina to take the night somewhere new?

More than that, I was worried that if I went out stone-cold sober while everyone else was drinking, I might find myself being judgemental. I predicted a moment in the night where I’d look around me, see my friends arranged like a particularly raucous Hogarth painting – slurring, falling and fighting – and think ‘Christ, is this what I look like?’ I was definitely projecting; as someone with the proclivity to become A Mess within one hour of meeting the bar, I was worried that a night out with drunk people would be like a long, hard look in the mirror. I worried that the entire night would be an elongated version of that moment at the end of the party when all the lights come on and everyone looks like wild animals under the bright, halogen glare.

I was surprised to find myself on the receiving end of a lot of interesting information; people just kept telling me things they shouldn't.

The party I was going to was a surprise birthday party. When I got there, I ordered a soda and lime and told as many people as I could that I wasn’t drinking. I wanted a safety blanket; if they knew I wasn’t allowed to do it, I’d be less likely to cheat. I felt monitored. Within 20 minutes I also felt extremely hydrated. We surprised the birthday girl, I had a few conversations with new people – no more significant or meaningful than if I had been drinking, but at least I’d remember their faces if I ever met them again – then, along with everyone else, I started dancing. I started dancing and I didn’t stop, for probably the next seven hours. I danced more than I’ve danced in about three years. I danced until four in the morning.

Other than the fact I am fit enough to dance for such a long time, what surprised me about going out sober were the things I noticed. I felt hyper-astute; I saw couples arguing, single people snogging and one friend circling the room ‘husband shopping’, which involves engaging every man in conversation only to duck out when they announce they’re taken. I was also surprised to find myself on the receiving end of a lot of interesting information; people just kept telling me things they shouldn’t. I was like a confession booth. ‘Maybe this always happens but it just goes in one ear and out the other’ I thought, remembering all the secrets I’ve leaked to other people, four beers in. At times in the night, I bordered on feeling nosy, like I was seeing and hearing things I wasn’t supposed to – the soda-drinking fly on the wall.

The moment I’d worried about never came. I looked at my friends having fun and felt grateful to know them. I didn’t judge anyone (and not because I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on), not even when one friend got so drunk that she passed out on the bar, or when a guy friend went home with someone he met in the corner shop, or when a new friend gave her number to a man on the street who was selling laughing gas, in exchange for a balloon. I realised that, if I wasn’t judging them – as the soberest person in the room – no one was, and that if they felt crap tomorrow it would only be because they were judging themselves.

So much of the negativity we feel around our drunk behaviour is self-imposed and partially to do with the way that, chemically, alcohol drains you. In particular, the dehydration it causes has been linked to heightened feelings of anxiety; it also depletes serotonin levels, responsible for mood. I’ve experienced this first hand a thousand times or more; the vague feeling that you let yourself down, even when you can’t put your finger on why. One friend calls it getting the “RAGS” – regret, anxiety, guilt and shame – while another calls it a “prangover”; maybe the best one I’ve heard, though, is “Regret-a-Manger” – shorthand for an indulgent breakfast of self-doubt.

It was relieving to wake up on Saturday morning regret-free. I hadn’t snogged anyone inappropriate (I didn't even flirt with anyone tbh, but that’s another column), I hadn’t spunked £45 on cocktails and I didn’t have any gaps in my memory. And yet, I didn’t feel clear-headed either. I actually woke up with a banging headache and a brutal cold. I was furious. "I could have just got fucked off my face and lain in bed all day incapacitated", I complained to a friend as I rammed paracetamol into my mouth for all the wrong reasons. Any pride at remaining sober was eclipsed by the sensation that my sinuses were exploding.

Luckily, two minutes later I checked my phone. A friend had texted me: “You’re so much more fun when you’re sober!!!” it read. They had actually used three exclamation marks. This was definitely food for thought – I contemplated whether the reason I drank on nights out was to ease the sort of social anxiety I’d experienced on Friday, namely, that I wouldn’t be much fun without booze. From just one night out without drinking though, I already had more confidence in my ability to hold a conversation, not to mention my coordination on the dance floor. How much better about myself would I feel after three nights out sober? I wondered. Perhaps by the end of "Dry Jan" I’ll know the answer.

Next week: Does not drinking unleash your inner supermodel, world leader and shaman? An analysis of how sobriety affects your body, behaviour and outlook.
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