With a new year comes new restrictions.
Ditch meat for a month with Veganuary. Start that new gym membership, or try this new diet. The onslaught of demands to “start the new year right” seems endless.
One, though, has steadily gained supporters: Dry January. A version of the term, reportedly first coined in 2006 by John Ore, simply refers to skipping alcohol for the first month of the year. This voluntary month of sobriety has become a cultural bomb – some praise its money-saving, weight-losing ways; others sneer at its braggy participants.
Every year since 2019, I spend the month of January alcohol-less. I first heard about the trend from some New York-based food magazine that, at the time, felt like the epitome of cool. If they, in all their hipster glamor, told me to trade “natural” wines for kombucha for a month, I would. At least I could actually afford kombucha.
My first sober January was eye-opening. Though I’d never had a drinking problem, I looked on with envy as my roommates would indulge in a glass of whiskey at the end of the day, or cram into bars and breweries on the weekend, while my only indulgence was of the sweet variety. While they downed shots, I reached for every pastry in sight. (I later learned sugar cravings, particularly when people first go sober, are relatively normal.)
Now, every time January rolls around, I brace myself for the coming sober season, stocking my kitchen with a variety of sweet snacks to hold me over. I hold firm, mainly out of stubbornness.
But it’s never easy, and taking a month off drinking sometimes feels like taking a month off socializing. After years of practice, I’ve become adept at simply declining offers of a drink, but being the only one not partaking in a group can feel awkward.
To alleviate that, I sometimes avoid large get-togethers in January. I’ll even hold off on visiting some of my favorite restaurants, just so I’m not tempted to order any alcohol. Four years into my annual practice, and I still feel the pressure.
And yet I, and a growing number of people dubbed “sober curious,” still choose to take the month off drinking. Some of us continue to abstain after January is over, or choose to only drink on weekends. Others give up drinking permanently.
Come the new year, the cycle restarts, and Dry January returns. As more and more people opt into some sort of sobriety, the continued popularity of the month may signal larger shifts in drinking culture.
It’s part of the rise of wellness culture
Many people have credited Dry January with helping them reassess their relationship with alcohol. And every year, the number of people exploring sobriety rises. A study published in 2020 found that a growing number of college-age Americans – up to 30% – were choosing to abstain from alcohol.
And drinking has declined among younger people in the UK, where in 2019 people got drunk more than any other nationality, a global survey found.
The decline is being driven by young people, but alcohol consumption in high-income countries has declined across the board, said Claire Davey, who researches gender and sobriety at Canterbury Christ Church University in England.
Part of the reason, she said, is the rise of wellness culture – tied to the rising popularity of things like yoga, mindfulness, self-care, even Peloton bikes.
“All of these concepts that are now quite fashionable really underpin that culture shift, that desire to be well,” Davey said.
The rise of mental health awareness has also played a role, Davey said, encouraging people to think about the impact drinking may have on their mental health.
A lot of this shift has occurred in online bubbles led by women, Davey said. These online peer support communities, which are typically more than two-thirds women, per Davey’s research, help minimize the stigma and shame around recovery related to drinking that some may feel through traditional methods like Alcoholics Anonymous.
Some people feel empowered by sobriety
Not everyone choosing to go sober – whether temporarily or permanently – may consider themselves an alcoholic (though, it’s relevant to note that “heavy drinking” for women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is eight or more drinks per week, a number I have certainly crossed before).
Still, sobriety, in many of these online communities is suggested as a tool toward female empowerment, Davey explained. It’s in part a resistance to binge-drinking culture among young adults and the marketing of slogans like “Mommy’s wine time.”
The current wave of this hip sobriety driven by the commodification of wellness – the non-alcoholic spirits, the dry bars, the kombucha – is a rejection of that past. “We know that you already know alcohol sucks,” Tempest, an online resource to help people quit drinking, bluntly states.
Another resource, Sober Girl Society, writes of its founder: “After years of partying and hangovers started taking a toll on her mental health, Millie Gooch gave up alcohol.”
Both seem to call bullsh*t on the promises alcohol has sold. They point instead to a grim reality: that alcohol, and its hangovers, its blackouts, its hospital visits, its addictiveness, can be far more dangerous than it is fun.
Davey has been sober for about four years now. Before she embarked on this research, she worked a very different, very corporate, job where drinking was ingrained in the culture. Business deals, client meetings – all done with a cocktail or glass of wine in hand in a nice restaurant. Davey minimized the alcohol consumption as much as she could, but the drinking took its toll on her mental health. Though she had at one point enjoyed having a drink as a tool to have fun, it wasn’t serving her anymore.
When she started her studies, she decided to take a step back. She started with 30 days, then 90 days.
“By the end of that 90, I realized I didn’t really ever want to go back to a time where I had been drinking,” Davey said.
Much like Davey, many people enter sobriety through temporary phases, like Dry January. Though studies don’t necessarily track the long term effects of this hiatus, Davey said they do suggest that people who complete the month continue drinking at lower levels six months later.
It doesn’t help that alcohol, though it can be fun, isn’t exactly a necessity. And the risk of overindulging is ever present: in the short term, overconsumption can lead to car accidents, alcohol poisoning, and all sorts of other issues that can occur when inhibitions are lowered. Long-term, it can lead to addiction, or other health problems like high blood pressure.
Many celebrities are embracing a sober lifestyle, even if they hadn’t (at least publicly) struggled with addiction in the past. Chrissy Teigen, for example, shared last year that she quit drinking.
“I don’t get more fun, I don’t dance, I don’t get relaxed,” she wrote on Instagram. “I get sick, fall asleep and wake up sick, having missed what was probably a fun night. I had my fun with it and appreciate anyone that can enjoy it responsibly!!!!”
Attitudes about alcohol can be complicated
In the long, long term, alcohol may become a bit like cigarettes, Davey hypothesized. Younger generations may continue to drink less than older generations and, eventually, it will become less normalized. (Remember smoking indoors? I don’t.)
During my month off drinking, I wish I could say I feel lighter, healthier. That I wake up every morning for my daily yoga, that I’ve switched my coffee for green tea, that I drink a liter of water a day. That I’ve become someone that the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow would deem “well.”
The truth is less glamorous. Dry January gives me time to reassess my relationship to alcohol, which is never a bad thing.
I’ve learned that, like many other people, I tend to reach for a drink after a long day – a habit that recedes after a month of going dry. I don’t consider myself at risk for dependency, but it serves as a worthwhile checkup. And, I save money.
On a larger scale, Dry January lessens the stigma from those who may need help quitting alcohol or who simply don’t partake for other reasons. These are wins all around.
Still, I find myself looking forward to my post-work beers, or weekend drinks with friends. That feeling of my shoulders relaxed, my jaw unclenched, lips loosened. A drink can be a short cut to vulnerability, and I love that. My first one on February 1 feels transcendent.
I am grateful that Dry January, and larger sobriety movements, exist and that we are able to prioritize our health without shame. For now, though, I’m still having my fun. Dry January is my ritualistic break. But it’s also a reminder of why I love to come back.