By Karen Mulvahill | Jan. 28, 2023
My commitment to an alcohol-free January was challenged the night we hosted dinner and friends brought a special bottle of red to accompany the bison lasagna. Threatened the night I went to a Mexican restaurant and watched everyone else drinking margaritas. Truly tested the night I went out with a friend to talk about men. This discussion would usually involve at least one bottle of wine and would dissolve into tears and laughs. And although we didn’t solve our man problems, being sober wasn’t to blame.
I read a story about Dry January around year-end, when imbibing higher than usual quantities of alcohol during the holidays. While not a fanatic, I strive to eat healthy foods and to exercise regularly. And the ill-effects of alcohol consumption are well known, including insomnia, loss of energy, depression, and anxiety, not to mention the cringe-worthy remarks or actions that the loss of inhibition may lead to!
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Excessive alcohol use led to more than 140,000 deaths and 3.6 million years of potential life lost each year…shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 26 years.” A Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study, Alcohol and Violence, found that 48 percent of homicide offenders drank right before the murder occurred and 37 percent were intoxicated during it.
In my own life, I’ve seen alcohol use destroy marriages and friendships, change normally intelligent people into idiots, cause near misses on the road, and result in drunk driving convictions.
Still, in moderation, drinking alcoholic beverages can be pleasant and relatively harmless. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests either not drinking at all or drinking in moderation, which means two drinks or less in a day for men or one drink or less in a day for women.
It’s been interesting to note how many times I might’ve had a drink and didn’t. In our culture, we drink to celebrate, and we drink to commiserate. We drink when we’re angry, and we drink when we’re happy. We drink to wind down. So many of our social activities involve drinking. Just look through this issue and see how many of our local entertainment options involve alcohol. We meet friends at a bar or restaurant or winery. We go to listen to music at venues that serve alcohol.
One suggestion frequently offered in the Dry January articles is to replace alcoholic drinks with “mocktails” or de-alcoholized drinks. (This is not recommended, however, for those who have alcohol use disorder, as it may trigger a desire for alcohol.) I tried a bottle of something called “Sidecar” and it was delicious, but also $9 for two servings. As for dealcoholized wine—I tried a Sauvignon Blanc. It tastes like the wine sans the complexity. Still, it’s fruity and would be a good accompaniment to fish.
What worked for me was pretty much anything, including flavored sparkling water. I have some vintage glasses that are alternately striped with gold and frosted glass. Just using those glasses felt like a special occasion. Typically, I don’t drink soda pop, so that, too, was a treat to myself. I discovered a simple combination of ginger beer with a splash of coconut water to be particularly satisfying.
Studies have shown that the benefits of participating in Dry January are lasting. It’s the improvement in physical well-being that some may notice, or the heightened awareness when considering a drink and choosing more often to reach for something non-alcoholic.
“The objective of Dry January is not long-term sobriety—it’s long-term control,” says Richard Piper, CEO of Alcohol Change UK, the originator of Dry January a decade ago. Last year, 130,000 people signed up to participate.
Here are some other benefits: Being a good listener and intelligent conversationalist. Having enough energy after hosting a dinner to clean up the kitchen. Waking up the next day feeling good, both physically and mentally. Not feeling guilty for over-drinking. Not wondering if you offended anyone.
So why not challenge yourself? Be mindful when choosing a beverage. Find a non-alcoholic drink that feels special. Set small goals. A week of abstention or a limit of one drink. Go for a dry—or damp—February.
And don’t be embarrassed to seek help if you need it. Munson offers assistance: munsonhealthcare.org/services/community-health/help-with-substance-use-disorder-recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous has numerous meetings throughout northern Michigan. In addition, there are many therapists who specialize in the treatment of alcohol use disorder.
I’ve discovered there’s no downside to drinking less.
Karen Mulvahill is a writer living in northern Michigan.