Dry January during a pandemic: a much needed challenge, or mission impossible?

By Gillian Reynolds

     In Scotland, there’s no doubt that we have a problematic relationship with alcohol. In fact, The Guardian recently reported on the Global Drugs Survey 2020, which found that we, along with the English, have the highest proportion of people who often “get so drunk that they lose their balance and slur their speech”. In general, those who don’t drink are viewed with suspicion at best, and utter contempt at worst, but is this simply because we’re jealous of what could be achieved without the spectre of booze weighing us down? We call teetotallers boring, but do we secretly wish that we, too, were attending parkruns on Saturday mornings instead of languishing in hangxiety?

     On a personal level, I’ve always associated drinking with socialising, but over this past year of repeated lockdowns, this element has been stripped away. Still, I’ve found myself having a few glasses of wine in the evenings purely to while away a few hours. So, in a fit of uncharacteristic ‘new year, new me’ energy, I decided to join millions of other Brits in the noble pursuit of a sober January. According to the organisation Alcohol Change UK, participation in Dry January was due to shoot up to almost double the amount of 2020 participants, so I was keen to find out whether this rise has anything to do with the pandemic.

     Alcohol Change UK cites several benefits of Dry January, including; improved sleep, better health, and saving money. However, the real jewel in the crown is that Dry January has been found to have a positive effect on our year-round drinking habits, and help people on the road to a healthier relationship with their favourite drinks. I spoke to Carmen and Paul*, both 23, who’ve taken the plunge this year, about how they’re getting on so far, and whether they think it might’ve been different back in precedented times.

     When asked why they’d decided to have a go at Dry January, this year in particular, they both agreed that they’d drunk more than usual over the Christmas period, despite not attending the normal programme of festive gatherings December is so famous for. Paul thinks “drinking at home definitely has a worse effect on your mental health, even if it is still with family or those you live with”, due to the lack of a change in atmosphere. I completely understand what he means – younger people tend to do most of our drinking in pubs or places designed specifically for that purpose, and suddenly we’ve been limited to our own homes, the same spaces in which many of us are working or studying all the time. The lines between work and leisure have become blurred, and it’s worth thinking about how we delineate the two to retain a sense of structure in our lives.

     I’m sure we’ve all been subjected to a virtual quiz or two, so I can say with certainty that it’s not quite the same – unless you’ve invested in a disco ball, which I definitely would’ve done back in March if I’d known we’d still be locked down now. Carmen says this makes 2021 the ideal year to try Dry January, as she would’ve struggled had she been out at the pub every week. Paul agrees, and though he’s never felt any pressure to drink on virtual gatherings, he inevitably always does. However, they both found that the temptation to drink subsided quite quickly, and Paul in particular said he’s now finding it “a lot easier to get up in the morning”, and his “head feels much clearer on a day-to-day basis.”

     Over the course of 2020, our drinking habits understandably adapted to the world around us. Carmen says: “I think my drinking generally got better as I’ve had far fewer instances of a big messy binge, although I have been drinking fairly consistently at home.” This is an interesting take on how our definition of ‘problematic’ drinking has perhaps changed. Before, we may have had one big night out every few weeks or so, whereas now it seems our consumption is more spread out throughout the week to alleviate boredom. But in doing so, we’re perhaps just swapping out hangovers for a more creeping dependence, and Dry January could be the perfect way to find that balance again.

     Overall, it seems 2021 is as good a year as any to give Dry January a go – perhaps even better, given the ‘unprecedented times’ we’re all facing. There’s never a bad time to assess our relationship to drinking, but we currently don’t know how long this pandemic will last, and maybe now is the moment to be asking ourselves whether a shift from sociable treat to coping mechanism is really sustainable. I know I certainly feel much better for it, and perhaps I won’t indulge in that celebratory drink on the 1st February after all, and keep going a little longer.

* name has been changed for the purposes of anonymity.