Updated: Feb 8
Dec 18, 2021 - Michelle Pugle, MA, MHFA
I’ll be doing Dry January this year.
But that’s because I am already 18 months sober from alcohol.
What Is a Dry January?
Dry January is when you stop drinking alcohol for the month of January. It typically begins on New Year's Day and is set to last until the 31st.
Dry January is not a detox program, a treatment for alcohol abuse or alcohol use disorder, or a way of proving to yourself or others you don’t have a problem with alcohol. If you think you or a loved one has alcohol use disorder, please go to the Canadian Association of Mental Health for more information on signs, screening, and treatment.
Why Should Someone Try Dry January?
You may want to consider trying Dry January if you’ve been drinking more than usual due to pandemic stressors, if you have been spending more money than usual on alcohol, or if you are beginning to notice your tolerance to alcohol increasing. You may also decide to do it to support friends or family who are doing it.
Dry January is for people looking to:
Dry out from the indulgent holiday season
Cut back on drinking
Reflect on their relationship to alcohol
Gain health or better manage illness
The Good, the Bad, and the Truth
Dry January Pros
Dry January is a positive pursuit, so it’s no surprise you can find endless lists of benefits of Dry January online. The most significant changes will be the ones that motivate you to stick with your goal of not drinking.
Some of these benefits include:
Lower blood sugar
Lower blood pressure
Liver fat loss
Clearer skin and brighter eyes
In the 18 months since I stopped drinking, I have had the best sleep of my entire life. I do not wake up between 2 and 4 in the morning when the alcohol starts wearing off with withdrawals of my heart pounding, thoughts racing, my stomach nauseous, and my body fire-hot and sweating. I do not experience hangovers, blackouts, or intense waves of guilt and shame the next day wondering what I said or did. I, however, would classify as a problem drinker (which Dry January is not for, anyway).
I have also benefited from improved concentration, clearer skin, and brighter eyes. I did not have cholesterol, blood sugar, or blood pressure issues to lower.
The biggest personal benefit is to my mental health. When I quit drinking, I was bordering between passively and actively suicidal. My antidepressant had stopped working. I was scared of myself while sober and scared of myself while drunk. Now, I’m learning to trust myself for the first time ever.
This, I repeat, is after 18 months (18x the length of one Dry January).
Dry January Cons
While there are undeniable benefits to not drinking alcohol or stopping drinking alcohol for any amount of time, there are some serious issues with Dry January that need to be addressed.
The idea of Dry January can make for a messy December.
December can already be a messy month with Christmas, Boxing Day, and New Year’s Eve. For some people, the idea of taking a break in January can fuel further binge-drinking behavior in an effort to have all the fun now or to go hard before going sober.
It’s a larger picture version of telling yourself you’ll start a sugar-free, dairy-free, or meat-free diet Monday and giving yourself the entire weekend to eat whatever, whenever. In other words, telling yourself you’ll do Dry January may make you more likely to drink to excess in December. This isn’t the case for everyone, but it’s something to watch for in yourself (especially if you, like me, are one of those all-or-nothing types).
If this sounds like you, try slowing down your alcohol consumption in December to prepare yourself for January.
A month may be too long (this is a warning sign).
Dry January may seem like a great idea in December, but by week two of 2022, many will be wondering if abstaining for the entire month is worth it. This is because the alcohol is out of your system and December is a memory, but the benefits may not be noticeable yet and life continues to be stressful, expensive, and unfair. You may decide that two weeks is long enough and start drinking before Dry January ends. This can lead to feelings of failure, shame, and guilt, which can further influence drinking behaviors. If this sounds like you, it may be time to address your relationship to alcohol.
A month isn’t long enough.
Thirty-one days is a starting point but it’s a long way off from some of the more meaningful life changes that can happen when you stop drinking for longer than a month. These include a deeper sense of self, purpose, connection to others, and confidence. These come with time spent away from drinking that gives you the money, time, and energy to explore other sides to yourself.
It gives people a false sense of safety.
If you can go an entire month without drinking, you’re clearly a normal, healthy drinker, right? This is just so wrong. I have watched people do 30 days only to pick up their favourite beverage on day 30 and spiral into backlash of drinking behavior akin to binging after restricting. I have also heard the Dry January chip being used as a denial and defense mechanism. “If I can go a month, I know I’m not an alcoholic,” or, “I had no problem not drinking for a month.”
A month of not drinking for someone who doesn't have an unhealthy relationship to alcohol is minor. They may miss their wine here and there or crave a beer with their afterwork ritual, but they are not consumed with Dry January and what it means to their sense of self. Not drinking doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem with alcohol.
It can lead to disappointment with personal progress.
It should be enough to just not drink. But with all the benefits and gains to be had from Dry January, you may find yourself comparing progress to others. Maybe a friend has lost weight and you haven’t. This is normal. We all react to stopping drinking differently. While some do lose weight from less calories and sugar from not drinking, others will compensate with other food and beverage items that may also be high in calories and sugar. Don’t assess your personal progress based on external benchmarks. Bear in mind this is an extremely personal endeavor and everyone will come out into February with a different story to tell.
What comes next?
Whether Dry January was easy, difficult, or impossible to complete will tell you something significant about your relationship to alcohol. It won’t change much though if you’re not willing to listen. This is one of the most challenging parts. When we take alcohol or other substances away, there’s a loss. Some people have healthy coping mechanisms, hobbies, and support systems to conquer the loss and keep moving forward with 2022, others will be stuck with concerns, self-doubt, and uncertainty. For those that feel let down by what Dry January promised, you may want to write down those thoughts and consider speaking with someone like a doctor or therapist who can help you put the experience into perspective.