I can have a drink again the day after tomorrow. I might do, I might not. OK, I probably will. The lure of the hop, the anticipation of the crisp smack of the bittersweet apple, have been mostly dormant for the past four weeks, but now I’m so close to the finishing line, I’m getting thirsty again. I probably won’t drink the day after. Because whatever I do, and whenever I have my first drink, I won’t be going back to my old habits – not completely. Here are eleven things about drinking that I’ve learned over the last month and want to remember for the rest of the year.
1. Not drinking is amazing
In the first few days, you notice the better sleep, the higher energy, the greater clarity of thought. My blood pressure, which landed me in hospital in October, is now verging on normal. After a couple of weeks, you realise you’re thinking differently. You’re more in the moment, more thoughtful, more connected. This is not always pleasant. But like the physical benefits, it does feel like it’s doing you some good. My old mate, star of Three Sheets and Australian beer legend David Downie likes this side of things even more than he liked beer. This short account of his own experiment parts company with my own but has much in common, and is well worth a read for anyone who enjoys a drink, whether you ultimately share his path or not.
2. I’m not an alcoholic
No physical withdrawal symptoms, no cravings, no obsessive dreaming of drink, no problems being around people who are drinking. I drink for many reasons: because I’m stressed, because I’m relaxed, because I’m happy, because I’m sad, because I’m with people, because I’m alone. The times I’ve missed drinking the most are times relaxing with friends who are drinking, and that’s good because that’s when I should be drinking – something I can’t say so easily about some of the other times. I stumbled once, at a drinks industry event where the invitation clearly specified there were soft drinks available, and was wrong. Not even being able to get a glass of water, I cracked. But I drank less than I normally would. I didn’t feel compelled to carry on afterwards. I simply got back to not drinking the next day.
3. Many people are defensive around their own drinking
If you’re angry or annoyed with someone who is taking time off drinking, maybe you need to ask yourself why.
4. Each to their own
I take a month off every year because I drink heavily over the other eleven months. If you only drink a couple of days a week, or you stop after one glass, or any other permutation which means you are genuinely pretty sure you’re not overdoing it, you probably don’t need to do a #Dryathlon, whatever misinformation bodies like Alcohol Concern might spread. Your relationship with your alcohol consumption is your business alone (unless it reaches a stage where your actions harm other people.)
5. The eternal party you think you’re missing out on is not really happening
The social media networks we create for ourselves mean that every few minutes someone is telling us about the awesome beer they are currently enjoying. If we’re not drinking an awesome beer, we can feel like we’re the only ones missing out. But it’s just an illusion created by lots of people all drinking at different times and in different places. Not a single one of them is partying as hard as the aggregation of them makes it seem.
6. It’s an age thing
Lots of people drink heavily in their late teen and twenties. It’s a cultural norm, and it’s good for you. Lots of people then drastically reduce their drinking when they have kids and settle down and need to be sober enough to drive everywhere, or simply feel that propping up the bar every night is not a good look for someone with a family waiting at home. At some point, the childless among us need to stop drinking like 24 year-olds and recognise that, like fashion and hair styles, there’s a different way of doing it when you’re older.
7. It is possible to socialise without drink
It just takes some getting used to. Alcohol is a welcome social lubricant in many situations. Some of those can be almost as good without that lubricant. A scattered few might even be better.
Nice and strong, with sparkling water, it seems I’m still a five-pints-a-night man. See also: spicy Virgin Mary, various proper loose leaf herbal teas.
9. The anti-drink lobby is in complete disarray
There’s nothing like a heavy drinker taking a break and being fine with it to illustrate the utter confusion among the anti-drink lobby. Parts of this lobby have mounted a massive campaign to persuade everyone to give up in January. Others say that if you feel the need to do this, it proves you have a problem. Other still say it might be bad for you because it encourages you to drink like a bastard for the rest of the year. I even read one article which tried to argue that an increasing number of people giving up alcohol in January was solid proof of more people drinking to greater excess – yep, that’s right – a rise in the number of people not drinking is proof that those people are drinking more. Some people simply drink a lot because they enjoy it, and are not alcoholics, and can stop as and when they need to. The more militant neo-prohibitionists hate this, because it disproves so much of their bullshit about the perils of booze. And that alone is reason enough to go dry for a month.
10. The pro-drink lobby is in complete disarray
As I wrote in a recent Publican’s Morning Advertiser piece, pubs don’t always cover themselves in glory in January. Heavy drinkers provide pubs with most of their profits over the year as a whole. Many of them go further than that by blogging, tweeting and otherwise spreading the word about how great their locals are. Often, these same people then get abuse when they decide to put their health before the pub’s profit for just a few weeks. That’s just plain nasty. Pubs are very quick to say they offer so much more than beer, and rightly so. If that’s true though, it shouldn’t be the end of the world if some of your regulars decide to temporarily abstain from alcohol. Maybe if pubs offered a decent range of soft drinks at sensible prices Dry January wouldn’t be such a financial problem. We Dryathletes still want to go out and see our friends in the convivial environment we love.
11. Drinking is amazing
By the second week you start to feel like a cultist praising the virtues of abstention. By the third week, you start to notice that everything is bright and shiny and hard. Perhaps a little TOO bright. It’s natural and healthy to sometimes want to fuzz the edges and turn the lights down to mood. I’ve missed that. But I’ve missed the sensory experience of drinking – the aromas and tastes of good beer, cider, wine, sherry and the occasional malt whisky, and the stories that go with them, the associations they have, the connections they make, the contemplations and flights of fancy they inspire – a whole lot more. Drink is special. It should feel like a treat, not something that’s so much a part of your routine that you hardly notice it, let alone appreciate it.
The end of my Dry January neatly coincides with a trip to Chicago next week for the American national cider conference. While I’m there, I’ll be taking in a new Lagunitas brewery opening, visiting Goose Island, and cramming in as many craft beer bars as I possibly can among the many wonderful US craft ciders. When I get back, I’m straight into looking at the drinks finalists for the Food and Farming Awards, then visiting Brew Dog in Aberdeen… and so it goes on. A rich and varied drinking life, and one that I want to be able to enjoy for many years to come.