article by Will Piper
I always hated dry January; its air of Sunday night gloom hanging over the whole month, poisoning every waking moment with its back-to-school practicality. It made me want to crack open the left-over Christmas bubbly, and start the party up again.
Why did I ever go in for it? Was it really to detoxify? That’s probably just what I told friends and colleagues, but I don’t think that self-purification was the real reason.
I went in for Dry January to demonstrate to myself that I was in control. Usually a much-needed process after the month of December, the month that includes the office Christmas party and the 5 days holed up with family, not to mention all the spontaneous festive socials. Sure, I told everyone I was de-toxing, but that’s because I didn’t want to appear worried about my drinking. I didn’t want the stakes to be that high. If I failed, what would it say about my drinking? I wasn’t going to be hoisted by my own petard, as the saying goes. Instead I signed up to the detox fad and afterwards, went back to drinking when I was good and ready, quite often after only a few days.
Some Januaries I even managed to go 2-3 weeks without a drink. I felt exonerated at the end, full of resolutions for a more moderate year ahead.
But here’s the thing. As self-deceiving as I’ve made all of that sound, it does nonetheless demonstrate some genuine self-control. And self-control is the one thing that separates the heavy drinker from the problem drinker. You won’t hear people in AA meetings recount stories of how they managed, on repeated occasions, to stop drinking at the crucial moment.
I mean, if you can stay sober all evening in the pub and drive everyone home, or at a party when all the guests are fueling up with Dutch Courage, or stay off the booze the night before an important presentation, or a job interview, or for a whole month so that your internal organs can have a so-called rest, then you clearly have significant control over your relationship with alcohol. But does that mean you are having a great time? Are you substituting alcohol with some other way you’ve found of enjoying yourself – not another form of substance abuse – but another way of seeing the world? In reality you are probably brazening it out, clocking up the brownie points, ready to be cashed in as reward for your efforts – in the bar!
The thing is, we disguise our dependence on alcohol by making it appear to be just one pleasure on a long list of others. But for many of us, it’s the common denominator in all of them – the choice of holiday, the social planning, the club memberships. If you took alcohol away from one of these activities, our interest would quickly wane. We don’t lack self-control, but we do lack self-knowledge. I don’t think I knew how to have a great time without alcohol. And even when I did, I usually opined how much better it would have been with wine.
I look back, three years sober, and realise what a self- deceiving con all that self-control was – and high up there with it was dry January.
Instead of trying to blot alcohol out for a month, I should have been challenging my love of it, analysing its continued contribution and considering what life might be like without it.
I should have spent a few weeks working through my relationship with alcohol, analysing what each gulp-full was doing for my well-being, working out how exactly it relieved my shyness at a party, for instance, and made me able to enjoy talking to strangers, and at what cost; working out why it made me anxious the morning after the night before.
Running away from alcohol in dry January just seems like running away from the problem, like running away from a partner for a month as a form of relationship management – then going back to exactly the same arrangement as before, without analysing the pros and cons of any of the relationship.
It’s only when you see what things are like on the other side that you realise how you’ve been missing out on so many other pleasures, many of them simple enough, but all of them without the roller coaster highs and lows that come with alcohol. It’s truly eye-opening.
For most of my life I figured that alcohol was the best way to enjoy myself. Then over time it gradually became the only way. Was I an alcoholic? I don’t see how I could have been if I was exercising control, knowing when to stop, knowing when not to start. These are not signs of alcoholism, as AA will make you realise if you attend one of their meetings. The thing is, my life had not become unmanageable – that would be a complete exaggeration of the facts. Nor had I become powerless over alcohol. Yes, I was relying far too much on it, and allowing it to influence all my choices. But I hadn’t lost a job or a relationship through alcohol. I hadn’t killed anyone, or been told to go into re-hab or been arrested. I had fallen asleep at the dinner table or on the sofa at parties. I had got a bit emotional when talking about my dead sister after too many drinks. I had got angry and defensive and horribly sarcastic with my partner when drunk and then full of remorse the next day. But could this be called powerlessness over alcohol? Was it unequivocally alcoholic? Did I do it every time I had a drink. Absolutely not.
So how many people bow to the pressures of alcohol, like I did, by including it in everything they choose to do? And how long can they go on for without hitting rock bottom? Probably forever.
So, the sad thing is, these heavy drinkers may never give sobriety a real chance. Why would they want to? If they’re not powerless over alcohol, if their lives haven’t become unmanageable through alcohol, if they’re not alcoholic, why would they bother with sobriety – except perhaps during dry January, which will guarantee they keep drinking for the rest of their lives.