If you’re wondering why I’m writing an article about Dry January in March, well — welcome to my life. I suspect, however, that many of you will understand exactly how it happened. One minute it’s Christmas and you’re making grand plans about the new year; the next it’s almost St. Patrick’s Day and you never did manage to write down your resolutions.
This year, I was planning to get on the Dry January bandwagon, forgoing alcohol for a month to try and get a better handle on my drinking. While I don’t think my alcohol intake is necessarily problematic, I do notice that I tend to empty my wine glass faster than my friends at book club, and I almost always order a second drink when I go out for a much-needed happy hour, now that we’re able to do that again (thanks, COVID vaccines!).
Feeling bad about my failure to stop drinking for the month of January (or even attempt it), I reached out to addiction expert Dr. Joseph Volpicelli, founder of the Volpicelli Center — a recovery center that offers research-based treatment for addiction and substance abuse. To my relief, Dr. Volpicelli said that when it comes to alcohol abstinence challenges like “Dry January” and “Sober October,” it might be better not to worry so much about the calendar.
Is Dry January a good idea?
“While challenges like Dry January can be successful for many, they often don’t address the why behind our problematic alcohol use — nor do they actually teach us helpful ways to moderate our intake in the future,” Dr. Volpicelli told me. “Working together with a therapist can help uncover reasons for excessive drinking and teach skills to help cope with stress in healthier ways.”
In addition to therapy, Dr. Volpicelli recommends trying a “Damp January” — basically, moderating your drinking rather than stopping completely — if teetotaling for an entire month feels too overwhelming. (Of course, at this point I’m looking at a “Damp March” or perhaps even April … ) “Shorter periods of abstinence can be helpful to understand how alcohol is affecting you,” he said, adding, “Many people make the mistake of thinking that it has to be all or nothing, which simply isn’t true.”
Moderation, rather than abstinence, sounds good to me. But are there benefits to doing a month-long sobriety challenge? “Challenges like Dry January can often offer time and space to reflect on your personal habits,” said Dr. Volpicelli. “For example, if you drink on just one day a week, but on that day, you have six drinks, you may find yourself experiencing ‘hangxiety,’ or anxiety following a night of drinking. Cutting out these binge drinking days (four or more drinks for women) can help identify whether alcohol could be causing some of those negative thoughts and feelings.”
Is my drinking a problem?
Dr. Volpicelli did advise me that my habit of drinking quickly and always ordering another drink could be cause for concern. “Research shows that people who find they have trouble controlling their drinking or have increased energy after a couple of drinks are at risk for problematic drinking,” he warned. “If you find that when you begin drinking, your desire to drink increases, you are at risk for alcohol addiction.” He recommended being more mindful about my drinking, starting with keeping track of what days I drink, and how much.
He also said I’m not alone — something I knew, but which is still reassuring to hear. “Studies have shown that more and more people have been turning to alcohol to cope with stress and anxiety during the pandemic,” Dr. Volpicelli said. And, even though it’s already March, he said it’s not too late to give Dry January a shot.
“You can still reap the benefits of a Dry (or Damp) January, including gaining insights into poor drinking habits, cutting down alcohol intake slowly over time, and recognizing anxious feelings associated with drinking, whether you start on January first or January 10th,” he said. (Or, um, March 14th?)
The bottom line? “An [abstinence] challenge is a valuable way to assess your relationship with alcohol,” said Dr. Volpicelli. “What you learn this month may motivate you to do something about your drinking.”
I’ll raise my glass (of seltzer with lime) to that!