What I Learned From Doing Dry January

I did it. I survived the month completely sober.

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Photo by Morsa Images/Getty Images

The first time I heard about "Dry January," I was in college—not even 21. A friend in her mid-20s posted on Facebook to notify her friends and colleagues that she would not be drinking for that month. She was part of Chicago’s improv community—a subculture with a notorious drinking reputation—which made this an especially difficult task. Most comedians couldn't manage their own performance anxiety (not to mention second-hand embarrassment for other performers) completely sober, even for a month.

I remember reading her post, passing judgment, and thinking: If you were drinking enough that you felt like you needed to scale back, shouldn’t you do it for more than just one month?

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What I didn’t know was that “Dry January” was actually a campaign started by Alcohol Concern, a U.K. non-profit aimed at reducing alcohol related deaths, in 2011. People participate by abstaining from drinking in order to raise awareness to drinking culture. The website for the campaign lists weight loss, better sleep, more energy, clearer skin, more time, and saving money as some of the benefits from taking part. People can choose to fundraise for charity with sponsorships from friends or family, as well, much like those participating in Movember. This idea of abstaining from alcohol in the new year has become popular stateside, too, in the past couple of years. Here, though, the focus is often more on individual wellness.

Now that I’m in my mid-20s myself, I get how not drinking for an entire month can be a tough, but potentially valuable, commitment. Though I don’t drink a lot (quantity-wise), I find myself drinking more often now than I ever did in college. "Hanging out with friends" often means sharing a bottle of wine or going to a bar. I even find myself watching TV with my roommates with a cold, crisp beer in my hand. I normally have two drinks a week, though that number creeps up to about six if there is a party or other event on the weekend.

So though I knew about Dry January, I didn’t go into the month thinking I’d come out sober. But I hosted a New Year’s Eve party. Everyone drank a little too much. And I woke up the next morning vowing not to put any more alcohol in my system, at least until the weekend.

But that weekend came and went, and I still found myself not wanting to drink. Instead of sitting down to watch my favorite reality dating show with a cliché glass of wine, I found myself opting for another glass of water. I realized, around January 9, that I had already not had a drink for almost a third of the month. Why not try to do it all the way?

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Once I committed to not drinking, January slowed to a crawl. I found it harder saying no to meeting friends at a bar or the occasional celebratory champagne toast at work. Luckily, people were supportive of me and my mission, but I was getting bored. I didn't realize how much of my social life was intertwined with drinking. Without the crutch of alcohol, I found myself at a loss when making plans with friends—what else is there to do, really? I switched out one vice for another: I watched so much TV!

As the month went on, I realized that I would have to miss out on the open bar at our belated holiday company party. And one of my good friends was planning to come into town for his birthday that following weekend. Even if I skipped out on the open bar earlier that week, I would surely have to drink with my friend. So I decided ending Dry January a little early was fine by me.

But here’s the twist: the day of the holiday party, I found myself becoming increasingly congested. A horrible cold came and kept me in bed for the last week of January (I did have NyQuil during this time, but I don't think that counts). By the time I felt well enough to socialize again, there were only three days left in January. Why not stick it out?

So here I am—an accidental Dry January-ian. On February 1, I celebrated with a friend after work with half-priced glasses of wine. We toasted to my accomplished sobriety, and, as we caught up, I found myself noticing and enjoying the Pinot Grigio more than I had the last time I drank—I sipped it slower, savoring my drink rather than downing it like water.

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Though I didn’t plan my month of sobriety, I’m glad it happened anyway. I don’t feel like I lost any weight or have clearer skin, and I actually found myself having trouble falling asleep more than usual. But overall, it was a great experience. I feel fortunate to have a good relationship with alcohol, but I didn’t realize until now how much it is a part of my life. I think taking a month off can be good practice for anyone who drinks in order to step back and take a breather. You might be surprised what you see.