Love & Wisdom

Sober: Why Dry January Means Something Different to Me

An alcoholic reflects on his journey

By Danny O’Neil January 23, 2023

Illustration by Arthur Mount

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

I was nearing the end of my screed against holier-than-thou practitioners of Dry January when I came to a startling realization: My brain was broken.

This was somewhat alarming as you might imagine, but not totally unexpected. As with many crises, it happened slowly at first and then all at once. Years of arguing on the internet had reduced me to the point I was actively mocking something that was not only harmless, but actually healthy and potentially helpful. Here’s how I initially began this column:

The problem I’ve encountered with some of you practicing a Dry January is that once you find out I’m sober, you perceive some sort of kinship or connection because of the fact that neither of us is consuming alcohol. We are not the same, though, and the belief that your binge sobriety gives you an understanding of my reality is at best laughable and at worst kind of insulting.

You’ll need a little background. I’m an alcoholic or if you’d prefer a more clinical label I suffer from alcohol-use disorder. I generally just refer to myself as a recovering drunk. I’m 48 and have been sober for almost six years, and while I wouldn’t characterize this as a long time, it has been sufficient for me to run into a few folks who really want to talk about how they’re not drinking for the first month of the year.

Dry January is a thing now. Alcohol Change UK is credited with formalizing it in 2013, but the practice dates all the way back to 1942 in Finland where the government asked for abstinence due to concerns about rising consumption during its war with Russia. In the United States, it was estimated in 2020 that anywhere from 13% to 15% of adults planned to abstain from alcohol in January.

Three years ago, I encountered one of these folks at a friend’s birthday party. He wanted to commiserate about how inconsiderate it was that no non-alcoholic beverages were provided. This was kind of annoying, and it occurred to me that the difference between his recovery cosplay and my long-term reality is that the last thing I wanted to do was talk about what I would like to be drinking.

Did I say this to him? Of course not. Because that would have been ridiculously out-of-proportion to what was harmless small talk between strangers at a party. I said something along the lines of, “Oh, I don’t know if it’s all that bad,” and we moved on to something else.

But last year, I was writing about this very scene as indignantly as I could to complain about this rank amateur who’d put a plug in the jug for a month and then assumed he was walking a mile in my shoes. I also mentioned a coworker who chose February to abstain because it was a shorter month and then wouldn’t stop telling me how hard it was for him and how much he admired my sobriety.

I didn’t stop there, though. I found other stuff to be annoyed at. Here’s another section from my initial draft:

Oh, and before I forget, all you people who make fun of Dry January while sipping a little sum’n-sum’n? Don’t act like you’re any less annoying. You’re treating the idea of abstinence from alcohol — even if it’s just for a month — with the kind of cynicism usually reserved for CrossFit or Keto. Then you make it worse, by saying you’re mocking the Dry Januarians out of respect for people like me, who actually have a drinking problem.

Well, that covers just about everyone now, doesn’t it? The people practicing Dry January suck because they won’t stop talking about it. The people criticizing those who practice Dry January suck, too, because they have no business talking about any of it. Pretty much everyone sucks except for me, the voice of truth providing the hottest take on this particular issue.

And that’s when I realized my brain was broken not by alcohol or the lack of it but because of the years I’ve spent debating people online, especially on Twitter.

Dry January doesn’t suck, and most people who practice it aren’t annoying in the slightest. They’re practicing self-improvement, which is admirable. They’re taking a break that will likely cause them to sleep better, lose weight and save money. It will reset tolerance levels and provide them with information about the impact alcohol has on the way they feel.

It can even be a doorway for some people to become sober for reasons that have nothing to do with addiction. They’re the “sober curious,” as Ruby Wellington termed it in her 2018 book.

Sure, some of those participating in Dry January may be obnoxious or self-aggrandizing, but it isn’t done out of any malice or hostility. They might get a little carried away in their own excitement or maybe they’re overly self-involved, but you’re going to find people like that in every crowd. There are sober people who are super annoying in the way they point out how many people they believe have drinking problems.

As for those people mocking Dry January? Well, that’s not typical behavior, either. Most people — even if they’re drinking — respect the choices that others make with regard to what they consume and when. I remember being very anxious when I went to my first Washington football game after I quit drinking, certain I was going to be grilled about not guzzling beers by my friends who didn’t yet know I was sober. No one even noticed.

The online discussion, however, makes it seem that Dry January is a yet another polarizing topic in a polarizing time for a polarized country. There was a piece from headlined “What’s to hate about Dry January? Business Insider was a little more direct: “Here’s why Dry January is terrible and you should stop doing it.”

These articles, though, say way more about the way we argue online — what gets promoted and consumed — than they do about the subject itself. Outliers get amplified. The most outrageous opinions are not just singled out for ridicule, but presented as if they are the logical conclusion of a certain perspective. Pretty soon, you’ll find yourself arguing that everyone who practices Dry January will end up being performative and insufferable about the fact they are not drinking, or conversely, everyone who complains about Dry January is an intolerant jackass who won’t respect the consumption decisions of other adults. You might wind up writing a column that argues both points simultaneously, as I did. I’m just glad I realized that my brain had broken before I submitted it anywhere.

I think that each person’s relationship with alcohol is individual. I’m part of the estimated 40% of adults in America who don’t drink. I make no judgments and harbor no resentment of those who do. I hope you enjoy the hell out of drinking. I would if I could trust myself to exercise anything resembling responsibility or moderation. I can’t.

I don’t profess to be an expert on anything other than my own relationship with alcohol. I studied that doggedly for 25 years. I’m more than happy to share my observations, and if some people wind up feeling a little too comfortable talking about their own opinions during Dry January, it’s a really small issue in the overall scheme of things. I don’t want to be the kind of person who gets worked up about that stuff.

I’m not sure my brain is fixed, but I’m working on it and trying to be a little more measured, a little less dogmatic in declaring others to be stupid. I think it’s something we all could benefit from. Turns out alcohol isn’t the only thing that I need to moderate.

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