Staying Sober for Dry January Is More Difficult Than I Expected

On the first Saturday night of my month of sober living, I found myself curled up on the couch, Googling ferociously, “Is Dry January making me depressed?” I had spent Friday night on that same couch, eating an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s, scrolling through Instagram, intermittently crying about a 2-year-old breakup (yes, I am a cliché), and feeling bad about the fact that there was an entire alcohol-fueled world out there that I was missing out on.

When I decided to partake in Dry January, after a holiday season that felt like one party after another, I didn’t think much of it. I’d always considered my relationship with alcohol to be a fairly healthy one—a glass of wine with dinner a few times a week, Friday or Saturday night out with a martini or two—and figured that going a month without it would be NBD. I was excited about the prospect of starting my year off on the right foot and further motivated by a study that essentially said I'd be richer/more energetic/more well-rested after a month of no drinking.

The first few days were as expected—a-m-a-z-i-n-g. I went to bed by 9:00 p.m., got an uninterrupted 8 hours of sleep, and I awoke ready to crush my workouts at dawn. My brain functioned at max creative capacity—I wrote more than I had in months. But then the weekend arrived.

I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I said no to every invite to a social gathering because I couldn’t think of a single activity that didn’t involve alcohol. I went to a bar on Saturday afternoon, sipped on a water while making small talk with friends from college for 45 minutes, and then I went home. The feeling of empowerment I had experienced in days prior had vanished; I just felt really, really sad.

In my preparation for Dry January, I hadn't considered the emotional challenges of giving up booze. And I’m not alone. "When people make the decision to have a Dry January, they are coming off the holidays where perhaps they drank at many parties and events. They associate drinking to fun and now it's as if the fun is over,” says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a psychologist in New York. “Whenever we are trying to break a habit we will feel down at first. We're getting uncomfortable and our brains are being rewired.”

So much social interaction revolves around alcohol, which may not be something people are fully aware of until they cut it out. “A lot of times, alcohol is used in enjoyable ways—pairing it with a food or a certain event or with certain people. It has element of fellowship or friendship or an experience,”  explains Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, a psychologist in Dallas. "So if you wrestle with FOMO, it can be really challenging for you.”

In addition to the so-called "fear of missing out," going dry means no longer depending on alcohol to cope with any uncomfortable, underlying emotions. "You can also feel down because you're using alcohol as an escape," says Duy Nguyen, DO, the lead psychiatrist at the Beachway Therapy Center. "Without alcohol, people face their problems head on, which can make them feel down or depressed.”

Dr. Gilliland calls out the age-old "glass of wine after work" scenario, noting that "your stress and emotions may feel more than they typically do. [Alcohol] does take the edge off of our emotions and our stress levels.”

Considering all of the inexplicable couch crying I dealt with last weekend, all of this is starting to make a lot of sense.

One thing to keep in mind, all three doctors said, is that feeling extra meh during Dry January could mean that your relationship with alcohol is an unhealthy or dependent one. "When alcohol is used as a coping tool, a crutch to soothe anxiety or any other pathology, when it's gone, people can feel really down and that's to be expected," says Dr. Nguyen.

As Dr. Gilliland points out, Dry January is an opportunity to consider your relationship with alcohol, which is something I've certainly spent the better part of the last few days re-evaluating. "One of the things that I think folks will notice when they do this is that you get a real different perspective on how you interact with alcohol," he says. "What you'll see is that people start to consume alcohol differently because they've thought about it in a new light."

In spite of the social discomfort and—perhaps more significantly—the acute awareness of my feelings, I don't intend to give up on the goal I set for myself at the beginning of the month. If anything, this experience has made me realize just how important it is that I change the way I drink. When I pour myself a glass of wine, I need to be doing so more mindfully. So, how can I continue with limited sobriety—for the next 22 days and potentially beyond—without feeling like I'm constantly on the verge of an emotional breakdown? "The key is to pack your month with things to do that don't involve alcohol,” says Dr. Hafeez. "Engage in other activities, such as exercise, reading, cleaning, organizing, volunteering, painting, dancing, hiking. These are ways to lift the spirits and show you how you can connect with yourself and others without alcohol.”

In the days since that frustrating Saturday night, I've joined a dance squad, planned multiple "sober dates" with friends, and bought tickets to a Broadway play. My brief experience with Dry January has been tough. But 2019 is the year for me to prove to myself that I'm tougher.

Whether or not you’re sober-curious, you might want to take a look beyond the standard Friday night out. And if you plan on sticking with it for longer, you're in luck—the social scene is sobering up.

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