Should you do Dry January? You might not need to…

Dry January encourages people to go sober for the first four weeks of the year. If you can quit alcohol for a month, you probably don't have a drinking problem.


Instead, its first 31 days have become synonymous with willingly undertaken self-flagellation: Tupperware boxes filled with cold, sad salads and forlorn trips to the gym. Crap weather lends itself to inactivity and modest self-indulgence of the kind warmly enabled by the consumption of alcohol.

But somehow, January is now also about abstinence—making it cruel, wet and dry; and turning sobriety into another virtue to be temporarily commodified and then ditched come February 1st. Penance used to take the twin form of confession and umpteen rosaries, but now that our bodies are our places of worship, these have been replaced with shame and umpteen press-ups.

Dry January shakes

New gyms are opening every week as centuries-old public houses board up their windows. The former appeal to our vanity and individualism, while the latter encourages commonality and mirth. We seek spiritual guidance from strangers who spend their whole day in Lycra: people who wear sleeveless shirts and earnest expressions as they preach the benefits of flax and spirulina while warning of the evils of beer and sausage rolls.

Modern life is rubbish—or, at the very least, not cool. But if we spend it addled on Smirnoff and Vicodin, we’re only stuffing more money in the pockets of grey men in even greyer suits. Unless you know how to homebrew Valium or vodka, January is an excellent time to see whether a hangover-less Sunday morning might work better for you… or to find out how white your eyeballs will be after a month off the sauce. Spoiler alert: moths have begun flying towards mine.

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There’s a story in my family that at the turn of the last century, some uncle or other emigrated to Canada by boat. As the steamer was pulling into port, this uncle, standing astride the top deck, caught sight of a massive billboard proclaiming the words: Canada Dry. Appalled at his chosen land’s unabashed prohibition, he apparently refused to disembark. He waited below deck until the boat turned around and returned home.

Even as a young boy, I could see that this anecdote worked on a few levels: there’s the obvious pun; my uncle’s ignorance of ginger ale; Canada’s reputation for priggishness; and alcohol, which, though unarticulated, seeps through the story like red wine into a carpet. In this sense, it’s the perfect metaphor for society’s relationship with booze and another example of a funny story with alcohol at its centre.

Alcoholism’s funny unless it’s happening near you. The enduring appeal of characters such as Father Jack and Homer Simpson, as well as Dylan Moran’s entire shtick, proves this. In fact, if you have several go-to anecdotes, chances are most of them will involve drunkenness. Drunk people are funny. Look at the number of Instagram accounts dedicated to chronicling their sloppy high jinks.

Abstinence is not funny. And it doesn’t make for good copy. Stories involving alcohol usually include crime, murder or infidelity. While sober literature, if such a thing exists, must be about mended relationships, clear-sighted decisions and properly felt emotions…

Any writing on abstinence is also about absence. The absence of alcohol, most obviously, but also the unpredictability that comes with it. Unpredictability is exciting—though you wouldn’t want it lurking at the bottom of every glass.

I’m not an alcoholic, but I know enough people who are to understand what lies at addiction’s core: control. People often begin drinking compulsively to control their feelings—to assuage negative thoughts or emotions. The irony is that they very quickly relinquish all sense of it.

By deciding to give up booze for a month, the idea is to regain control. Anyone who treats you with contempt for going sober is only annoyed because it forces them to consider their dependency or lack of control.

Unlike veganism or not owning a television, doing Dry January is not something to force down someone’s throat. One no longer has to fill a glass with apple juice and wince every time they take a sip to feign consumption. There are plenty of (dare I say) delicious alcohol-y alcohol-free alternatives.

Discounting things like Schloer and Seedlip because they sound and taste ridiculous, quite a few alcohol-free beers now offer a near-enough authentic taste experience without the accompanying bleary-eyed bloatedness.

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Erdinger’s Alkoholfrei and Shipyard’s Low Tide are the two I have tried that are nearest to the real thing, both in look and taste. But if the idea of alcohol-free beer makes your soul froth with dread, most pubs serve lime cordial for free.

Ah, pubs. Places whose upholstered nooks and elbow-height crannies make them ideal for inebriation. It can be hard to enter one knowing that you’ll be leaving without tasting a drop of sweet fermented nectar. It can also be near impossible not to enter if you want to meet someone (but not for a meal) in town, especially if that town is London.

Due to the successful commercialisation of nearly all public spaces, if you want access to a toilet or sit down somewhere warm, you will have to part with some moolah. And while you might think a coffee shop is an acceptable alternative, no one wants to drink more than one hot drink in a sitting, especially not in the evening.

As you get older, alcohol begins to mediate your entire social life. The last time I went without for a significant period was when I was recovering from glandular fever, aged 18. It was much easier back then.

When you’re a teenager, you get absolutely rat-arsed with your friends, or you do things like go shopping or play football with them. But as you begin to near the void, also known as your 30s, and your daytimes are either spent working, completing chores or, indeed, hungover, evenings become the only time for play.

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And play is what it is and always should be. Without wanting to come over all nanny state, when your relationship with alcohol stops being one of enhanced jollity and starts regularly producing negative things like shame or regret, you should look at how much you consume. If you can quickly stop for a month, you probably don’t have a problem—but if you can’t stop for a month, it doesn’t mean you do.

Alcohol’s effects can be insidious, so it’s essential to know what it’s doing to your body and mind. Whether or not you prefer being sober, one thing’s for sure, when January’s over, there’s reason to be cheerful.

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