I am one of three people in my immediate work circle doing “dry January,” a phenomenon that has grown in global popularity to the point that, in England, for example, it is more or less a public health initiative. There, the two words have become as cohesive as “hard” and “Brexit”; here, as natural a fit as “summer” and “Fridays.”
Some dispute the timing. “I don’t think it’s the right month because January is cold and depressing and you need a drink,” says colleague A, who I’ll call Flopsy. She admits, “I started off strong but I failed. I broke it for a birthday party over the long weekend—it was held in a brewery! Then I broke it the next weekend, too.” Two of her friends, she says, have tweaked the concept to “don’t-get-drunk January, which seems more feasible.” For me, the blahness of the time of year makes it easier to lie low, and the fact that dry January’s a thing helps me get through. It’s my third time: two successful attempts and one that only lasted two weeks. Like Flopsy, I decided to break it midway for one party. That was it—the spell was broken.
My reasons for doing it in the first place? One—and this is huge—to prove that I can. That creeping paranoia that you’re becoming hopelessly dependent on post-workday wine glugging recedes in light of 31 water-fueled days. Two: curiosity. Will I sleep better, think more clearly, lose weight, be less tired, less puffy, achieve more? (Answers below.)
“I’ve done it for seven or eight years,” says colleague B, who I’m naming Mopsy. “I always do some sort of reset. It used to be a really abrasive detox; now I just give up alcohol and dessert.” Like Flopsy, she has not been religious about it. “The other day, the plate of pasta I was having was begging for a glass of wine. Plus, it was a $4 happy hour and I’m a cheap date.” Last year, Mopsy says, “I broke it for the Women’s March. I had the worst hangover all the way back from D.C.” Also, she notes, “January is the time when people join dating apps the most. I did that once and allowed myself to drink on the dates, which was not a good idea because you get totally trolleyed on one drink if you’re doing dry January . . .”
As February 1 rapidly approaches, I’m pretty proud of my 100 percent record. At first, it was a cinch, helped by the fact that, after a holiday skiing accident, I was on the kind of painkillers with scarily undefined skull-and-crossbones warnings forbidding alcohol all over the bottle. Three weeks in, I was starting to go a little nuts. Feeling like a crazy person, I combed the neighborhood looking for delis that sold nonalcoholic lager. And after a movie with a friend in the West Village, I sat forlornly in Seamus Mullen’s Tertulia restaurant, known for its carefully curated Spanish wine list, and begged the barman to make me some sort of mocktail. It was fizzy and citrusy and tasted of not much, but it was something.
The benefits of short-term detoxing are still in question. Sure, you give your liver a break, but if you pick up where you left off, does it really matter? A recent set of studies has reduced the threshold on the maximum number of weekly drinks advised for women: It now stands at seven (“It feels like they are slowly taking back each drink I want,” bemoans Mopsy), which means that the two or three drinks every night of the week, or the four or five a couple of nights a week that doctors are seeing, will not do.
According to integrative medicine practitioner Frank Lipman, M.D., the only long-term reason to do dry January is if it makes you change your habits. “Drinking too much often causes low-grade problems, particularly affecting your sleep,” he says. “My experience is that when people stop drinking for two to four weeks, they have a different experience of their health and they realize the negative effects the alcohol has been having on them.” Which gets me to my symptoms. Did I sleep better? (Not really.) Think more clearly? (Yes, especially first thing in the morning.) Lose weight? (Sadly, not.) Feel less tired? (A little.) Less puffy? (No.) Achieve more? (Maybe.) If I had to name one quality I think has been different, it would be getting a smidgeon more headspace into my day.
So now, it’s all about going forward. Says Lipman, whose forthcoming book, How to Be Well, includes a section on “How to Unwind,” it’s a warning sign if you need to have a drink just to chill out after work—which probably covers just about everyone on my floor. Lipman would prefer us to meditate, do restorative yoga poses such as legs-up-the-wall, take L-theanine tablets, or even CBD oil. “Alcohol is a drug,” he says solemnly. “Use it intelligently.”
Roll on, February 1. “That first glass of wine is so good,” says Mopsy. “Giving it up for a while teaches me to really savor each drink, and I want this to be the time I rethink how I drink during the year, rather than just patting myself on the back.” Flopsy, too, faced with a tendency to go back “full throttle,” says she will try to moderate. “I think I’m actually going to drink less now.” There’s strategizing going on, a desire to change the culture of drinking; maybe save drinking for weekends; maybe wait to order your first drink with the meal, not before; maybe don’t go out for drinks, but go out for a drink. . . .
As for me, while I still want to pat myself on the back for a little bit longer, I’m full of good intentions. And if they don’t take, there’s always next year.