Dry January: Still in the Running

S. E. Brady 28 January 2020
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Several weeks ago now, a friend and I visited a restaurant as a late New Year’s celebration. Upon entering, her eyes immediately fell on the blackboard hanging above the bar. Scribbled in chalk, it read: ‘Two for One Cocktails.’

“There goes my Dry January,” she laughed, waving over the bartender. “failed in six days, eighteen hours.”

A version of this scenario repeated itself, ad nauseam, throughout my first month of 2020. For ever person who has told me they are partaking in Dry January, twice as many have admitted that their planned month of sobriety lasted mere days, their disappointment barely-masked behind a thin veil of self-deprecating humour.

Dry January is an admirable resolution, and one I’d recommend everyone at least attempt, but as a recovering alcoholic I worry it has engendered many misconceptions about sobriety which are not conducive to achieving any meaningful change in a person’s drinking habits. The most common being that sobriety is something which can be ‘failed.’

Sobriety is not made of glass: once broken, it is not irreparably shattered. Envision it, rather, as a learning process. Take learning a second language as an example: to completely abandon your studies based on a single grammatical error would be a disproportionate, and frankly ridiculous, response. The same thought process should be applied to sobriety. One mistake is not a failure, nor is it an excuse to fall into old habits. It is, however, expected.

It is by no means pessimistic to state that most people will have a drink (or several) while striving to be sober. It happens and it is disappointing. But the key, I have found, is not simply the avoidance of alcohol, it is how you react in the aftermath of a relapse.

Once you have had your first drink in some time, overindulgence becomes extremely easy to rationalise: if your sobriety streak is broken by one drink, why not make it several? You haven’t drunk in weeks, why not reward yourself a little? The answer: damage minimisation.

To return to the learning analogy, once you have made a mistake, you do not sabotage the rest of your work with a litany of grammar errors. One error is substantially easier to correct and recover from than several. It is natural to feel some disappointment, but the beauty of mistakes is that they are not damning, they are the path to improvement.

A month of sobriety to some is negligible, but for many it is a Sisyphean task, one so intimidating that it is easy, or even tempting, to mistake as impossible. Whether you lasted a week or a day is inconsequential. One drink is not equivalent to irrevocable failure, it is a mistake and one that you can recover from.

So, to all who half-joked that they had ‘failed’ Dry January, you may be more or less relieved to hear that you are still in the running.