When My ‘Dry January’ Became Permanent

I quit drinking. I wasn’t an alcoholic, it wasn’t January, and it was a really long time ago, but the ubiquitous “Dry January” memes of late brought it to mind and I thought I’d contribute a bit to the trending topic.

I framed myself as quite the drinker back in my younger years, the post-college rock and roll have to live out the stereotype of a hard-drinkin’ rocker chick on the road years. But even then, I was basically a pussy about it: Jack & Diet Coke, Black and/or White Russians, Bailey’s and Coffee, and Gin & Tonics with a splash of Rose’s Lime Juice were my drugs of choice… I know, hardcore, right?

Even more hardcore is the fact that past one drink—literally just one of those sweet spirits—I was a mess. Nausea, head spinning, heart pounding; couldn’t sleep, queasiness and migraines for days… but yay, so much FUN, so I’d drink on! Self-immolation as an art form.

By my thirties, and after countless epic hangovers—though luckily, I never hurt myself or others, even if there were mornings I wondered who I might need to apologize to—it became patently clear that I was someone who could not hold my liquor. At all. It was also likely I had an allergy to it; there was no amount that didn’t get my heart pounding and head aching. Even a Grand Marnier Mousse with a touch too much liqueur could trigger the dreaded effect. So, one queasy morning, after taking far too long to come to the decision, I decided to stop drinking. Period. Anything. At all. At any time. And that was it.

I quit drinking.

It’s now been decades and I gotta tell ya: I don’t miss it. I don’t even think about it. Sure, a warm Bailey’s and Coffee, or a frosty pitcher of margaritas might tickle my receptors from time to time, but all I have to do is consider the aftermath and I’m good. At this point, I don’t even have to go there. It’s just past tense.

And now, it appears, I’m in vogue! “Dry January” discussions are everywhere. More and more articles have come out dispelling the previous belief that some amount of alcohol is okay/acceptable/good for you. The “hidden risks” for women are widely proselytized. Even literature is focused on the topic: see the Washington Post piece:

‘Drinking until I passed out’: Quit Lit targets women’s sobriety A new genre of storytelling focuses on alcohol dependence and is helping some women curtail drinking or quit altogether.

It seems I was ahead of the curve.

And I don’t say that with arrogance, but rather, gratitude. I am fortunate to have come to my decision before too much damage was done, or I did hurt someone or myself. Before I bungled jobs, ruined relationships, or adversely impacted my children. I feel like my spirit guides (play on words, yes), who clearly required overtime-effort to prevent those hideous results, finally opened my eyes to the folly of imbibing in something that might have been “a fun buzz” for a minute or two but ultimately kicked my ass for far longer. I am grateful for the epiphany.

It has, however, been an interesting journey since, being someone who doesn’t drink. In a culture, a country, a time when drinking is so prevalent, so accepted, so every day, it appears in most TV shows and films, is de rigueur at dinner parties and gatherings, and largely expected at any celebration or ceremony, I’m an anomaly. I’ve learned it can actually trigger anxiety when you say, “No, thanks” to a drink. I’ve elicited wide eyes of wonder when refusing a champagne pour. I’ve had hosts insist, “Just a little red for the main course.” Garnered supposedly knowing (and inaccurate) whispers of, “Oh, you’re in the program,” from people who either were in the program or forgot it’s supposed to be anonymous. Some have outright blurted, “Not even a splash?” followed by, “God, that must be so hard!” or “How do you have any fun?” Which makes me smile. Because they didn’t know my mother.

Both my parents were surrounded by drinkers growing up. A brother, in my father’s case; my mother was basically raised by a loving family of hardcore drinkers; in both cases they lost many of those folks to alcohol-related illnesses, likely the reason neither were drinkers themselves. My father would occasionally enjoy a beer or glass of red wine, and before she stopped all together my mom was fond of Sloe Gin Fizzes, but alcohol was not a regular accompaniment to our family activities. My mother even made it a mantra: “You don’t have to drink to have fun!” she’d chortle, and though it took me a few years of really bad hangovers to realize she was correct, once on board I wore that mantra like a cloak.

Maybe it’s my particular personality—or the fact that my parents made having fun our birthright—that her mantra works for me when it might not for others, but whatever the reason, I’m grateful for it. I don’t want to need alcohol to “loosen up.” Don’t want to require a buzz to enjoy my circumstances. I hate the thought of not remembering what we talked about last night or wishing I’d done this and not that. I want to be clear-headed at all times, bracingly aware of my surroundings and the people I’m with. Sharp and cognizant of what’s being said, the nuances of the moments I’m in, the beauty of my surroundings. I couldn’t, and didn’t, do that when I was drinking. I don’t think anyone can.

There’s also the health angle. As mentioned above, more and more articles have come out verifying the negatives of imbibing. And while I hate to be a spoilsport, a Debbie Downer of Drinking, it’s something to at least pay attention to. What you do with the information is, of course, a personal choice, but for what it’s worth this is the latest from the World Health Organization:

No level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health: The risks and harms associated with drinking alcohol have been systematically evaluated over the years and are well documented. The World Health Organization has now published a statement in The Lancet Public Health: when it comes to alcohol consumption, there is no safe amount that does not affect health.

To read the whole piece, which came out in January of 2023, just click here. It’s sobering… (pun intended).

Why the WHO declaration resonates with me specifically is that I’ve had my own health scare, not related to alcohol, per se, but still… being informed that your biopsy came back positive and you’re now obligated to endure well-known rituals attendant to that diagnosis is a wake-up call like no other. Once you’re done with all of that (and it’s a lot), you can never again take your health for granted. I pay more attention to what’s required to protect the “clean bill” I’ve returned to, to hedge my bets towards living the long life I intend as a strong, robust, hardy gal singing rock and roll in my nineties. And, as has been made clear by my oncologist and other scientists I’ve read and listened to, the following is a fact:

Since I’ve been there/done that and don’t wish to ever again, that information solidified the decision I made years ago.

But the truth is I am rarely, if ever, in the company of either men or women who don’t drink. Most accept my status without question or judgment, but some see me as an outlier; a few even frame my not drinking as socially subversive (a woman once said to me: “I don’t trust a person who doesn’t drink.” Go figure). And though I never discuss the aforementioned in social settings, I’d guess most would rather not even read or think about what I’ve written in the paragraphs above.

I get it. We’ve been groomed, acclimated, almost trained to see drinking as so commonplace and customary that it’s the act of not drinking that’s strange. And yet as politicians (who surely drink without question) debate the health issues of pot, CBD, cannabinoids; are horrified about opioids and the ravages of other drugs, it bears considering the pervasive and deleterious effects of our most beloved and common drug: alcohol.

OK, that’s it, I’m done. I’ve probably annoyed some of you to no end, but I hope those on the cusp of considering these points consider them further. I’ve had too many people in my life suffer greatly because of alcohol, and probably some in my current life whose health and welfare are being negatively impacted even if they don’t know yet. I’d like to see a shift in public perception, much as what happened with smoking. How what was once considered “cool,” accepted, and socially ubiquitous was discovered to be profoundly unhealthy and became ultimately undesirable. Perhaps someday the truth of alcohol will awaken those who care about such things, enough to shift their thinking towards my mother’s mantra: “You don’t have to drink to have fun.” At least try it. With January almost over, it’s a thought.

Photo by Michael Discenza on Unsplash

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