I roll my eyes a bit every time I hear someone talk about their New Year’s resolution.
Maybe my cynicism has reached an unhealthy level, or maybe it’s because 80% of people give up on their resolutions by February, and ultimately 92% of resolutions fail. And I’m not in the business of being motivational (as evidenced by the multiple dark humor meme pages I have), but this high failure rate doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t try, just that you should be more reasonable with your goals.
Saying “I’m going to lose weight” is too vague, and saying “I’m going to lose 50 pounds this year” is too bold. A good goal should be simple, specific, and attainable. And if it’s a goal that you’ve set for a year, have smaller goals as milestones along the way.
That’s why when I woke up on January 1st, 2019, my wife and I both decided that we wouldn’t drink alcohol for the entire month of January.
First things first – I am not a doctor, and this is not medical advice. Got it? Good.
I’m not in the business of telling people what to do or think, and I’m not telling you you should/shouldn’t avoid alcohol. I’m only relaying my personal experience and what worked for me. I’d guess that most people wouldn’t be able to stop things cold turkey like I did.
Admitting you have a problem with alcohol dependency (or any other substance) isn’t something that’s particularly fun. Despite having a large social media following, I’m a fairly private person and I don’t usually share much about my personal life publicly. But I’m writing this in hopes that someone reading will have the same type of honest conversation I had with myself and just do something to try to change the situation. Your plan may or may not work at first – but what’s important is trying to make a change to disrupt the cycle of addiction.
And I don’t subscribe to the school of thought where you have to say “I am an alcoholic.” I don’t think it’s very helpful. It carries with it an aura of shame that serves to only make people feel more guilty about themselves. Like a lot of labels, it’s pretty meaningless. After all, addiction is a disease, and we don’t call people “norovirus-aholics” because they have food poisoning, nevermind blame them for having the audacity to eat food.
Last year, we dedicated an entire episode of the Science Enthusiast Podcast to secular, evidence-based alternatives to Alcoholics Anonymous. The Freedom From Religion Foundation also has a guide to finding non-religious alternatives to AA. There are many options out there, so don’t be frustrated if you’re having trouble – it may take time to find what works for you.
I know that for some people this wouldn’t be a big deal. After all, about 30% of adults don’t drink alcohol at all and another 30% consume less than one alcoholic beverage a week.
But a third of all adults consume, on average, about 1 alcoholic beverage a day or more. And the top 10% consume about 10 drinks every single day.
I was in the ninth decile, and most nights had a few drinks in the evening. It sort of just became a habit that I didn’t really notice – have a drink with dinner, and maybe a few more afterwards because that first one was just *so* delightful. It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that it’s not a big deal.
But research has shown us that there is no “safe” level of alcohol to consume, and that alcohol is actually more dangerous for you than LSD, cocaine, or amphetamines. And leading up to the new year, I read a handful of articles on various websites about doing a “dry January.” So my wife and I decided to give it a go.
The first day was pretty easy. I felt like hot garbage from the night before, so drinking more booze that day wasn’t really something that sounded pleasurable. Despite that, I consciously had to think about not drinking. Instead of drinking, I would either write or play video games. I distracted myself and before I knew it, it was time for me to go to bed. This doesn’t sound like much if you haven’t experienced it, but at the time, each day felt like a goddamn marathon (and yes, I’ve actually ran a marathon).
VICE news spoke with clinical psychologist Bart Vemer, and I feel like it explained what I was experiencing:
[W]hen your body is used to having a beer at 5 PM, your brain will start preparing for that beer at 4PM – getting your body ready to process an alcoholic beverage. “Your liver goes into a different state, the part of your brain that thinks of alcohol activates and starts asking: ‘Are we there yet?’ Those impulses are chemical at first – your body responds in a certain way, and that releases feelings and thoughts. When you stop drinking, those needs don’t go away. You’ll be grumpy and tired – or you’ll channel that activity into something else that’s bad for you. Those symptoms will lessen after a while, when your body starts to realise that it’s not getting a drink.”
By the second week, the “habit” ingrained in my brain of drinking at night was slipping. I didn’t have as much of a desire to pour a drink for myself with dinner or afterwards. Sure, I still had the inner desire to drink, but it was becoming less and less of an intrusive thought. It was becoming more of a “Oh, I haven’t thought about drinking tonight”-type thing.
At this point, I discovered the only cure for hangovers: not drinking the night before. (I’m sure I’m the first person who ever had this thought.)
I’ve never been much of a morning person, so in the second and third weeks I would still wake up and feel ‘bleh’ about getting my day started. But it was extremely noticeable how quickly that feeling went away compared to when I was drinking regularly. Once I got a little bit of caffeine in me, I felt great, which set up the rest of my day.
I also realized that if I’m not drinking 500+ calories of alcohol each night, I could probably get away with drinking fruit juice or something similar. So I would have a couple cups of strawberry lemonade (yes, i know it’s mostly water and sugar instead of actual juice, you don’t have to yell at me about it) or grape juice.
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Research has also shown that alcohol abuse can actually shrink your brain, but as quickly as two weeks later, your brain can bounce back. According to Live Science:
“We found evidence for a rather rapid recovery of the brain from alcohol-induced volume loss within the initial 14 days of abstinence,” she said in a statement. “Although brain shrinkage as well as a partial recovery with continued abstinence have been elaborately described in previous studies, no previous study has looked at the brain immediately at the onset of alcohol withdrawal and short-term recovery.”
So, my brain got bigger. Anti-vaxxers, beware!
By the third week and fourth week, not drinking wasn’t really a thought I had anymore. I managed to drop the habit of wanting a drink every night. Which is strange to think about now, since I honestly don’t remember the last time I went a full week without drinking alcohol, nevermind a month.
Going back to the same report from VICE news, psychologist Kelly McGonigal explained this phenomenon as well:
“After three weeks of not drinking, the quality of people’s sleep is generally greatly improved,” van Bakkum tells me. “People who drink a few beers before bed tend to fall asleep easily, but end up sleeping lightly. On alcohol, your body doesn’t rest as well as it should.” Getting more and better sleep is important if you want to keep your resolutions, because a shortage of sleep is disastrous for your willpower.
Oh, there’s also that whole “alcohol costs money and if you don’t buy it, you won’t spend money” thing.
Your body (is a terrible device)
One of the big reasons I decided to do dry January was the health repercussions of alcohol. As you’re all aware, human bodies are generally terrible and break down slowly over time, and I realized that I was likely expediting the process by drinking heavily. But I decided that I should try to limit the things I do that could lead to be dying before my kids had their own kids.
Because this was a spur-of-the-moment decision my wife and I made, we didn’t run tests on our bodies to do a before and after comparison. I did lose about 9 pounds throughout the course of the month without other changes to my normal routines, but I didn’t check other metrics to do an accurate comparison. To be fair though, I don’t need a blood test to tell me that I feel pretty fucking fantastic now that I’m not drinking on a daily basis. But having actual data behind my subjective observation would have been great. Thankfully, a few people at at New Scientist did exactly that in 2013.
What they found was that, duh, not drinking alcohol for a month is great for your body. More specifically, your liver (the only way you can detox your body) is a happy camper when it doesn’t have to worry about getting alcohol out of your system.
The New Scientist team explained that removing alcohol from your system just adds one more thing to the list of over 500 processes your liver does every day. And in 2009, a third of all deaths from liver disease were attributed to alcohol consumption. So they did a small-scale, semi-scientific study where they had ten members of their staff stop drinking alcohol for a month while four members continued on as normal. Their results:
Liver fat fell on average by 15 per cent, and by almost 20 per cent in some individuals. Jalan says this is highly significant, because fat accumulation on the liver is a known prelude to liver damage. It can cause inflammation, resulting in liver disease…
The blood glucose levels of the abstainers dropped by 16 per cent on average, from 5.1 to 4.3 millimoles per litre. The normal range for blood glucose is between 3.9 and 5.6 mmol/l...
Ratings of sleep quality on a scale from 1 to 5 rose by just over 10 per cent, improving from 3.9 to 4.3. Ratings of how well we could concentrate soared 18 per cent from 3.8 to 4.5.
They admit that they don’t know how long these conditions would persist, but it’s plausible to think that some level of improvement would continue to be present. They said that the only negative effect of not drinking was “less social contact.”
I’m not going to avoid alcohol the rest of my life, or even the rest of this year. After all, in the words of an esteemed Supreme Court judge: “I liked beer. I still like beer.”
(Sadly, I’ll never know PJ… Or Squi.)
I don’t know when I’m going to have a drink next, and I’m okay with that. It might be tonight, or it might be in a week. I do know that know I will again, and not just because I just bought tickets to a sour beer festival in mid-March (if you’re in the Indianapolis area, my wife and I highly recommend the festival, it was fantastic last year). But drinking is not something that’s generally at the forefront of my mind anymore in the evenings, and I’m very happy about that.
Even though it was a “dry” month, we didn’t throw out or hide our alcohol. We still had around 15 bottles of wine between our pantry and a wine rack, and we have more than a few bottles of booze in our liquor cabinet. Again, this may or may not work for some people – and that’s completely okay.
If you don’t think you can make it through a whole month, just try making it through a day. Then maybe try two days. Or three. Then maybe a week. I know I would have failed had it not been for my absolutely amazing wife, so it’s also important to have at least one person there to help you who understands and won’t judge you.
But hey, if I can avoid alcohol for a month, I bet you can, too.
Cover image via iStockphoto