Glasses of wine

The Dry January Blues

Nicola Biggerstaff

As it was revealed that more and more young people are turning their backs on alcohol, I wanted to ask: where does that leave our young people here in Scotland? In a country where alcohol-related harm is on the increase, as my colleagues have written on previously, does this expose a frank generational divide? Are the tides now turning?

Going alcohol-free, or even just reducing alcohol consumption (newly-coined ‘sober curious’), will always be encouraged from a healthcare perspective. But, as always in a capitalist society, we run the risk of the trend becoming commodified. Sales of alcohol free alternatives, including mocktails and CBD (cannabinoid) drinks (made from the non-hallucinogenic extract of the hemp plant), are booming and becoming normalised. If you ask a crowd of people when they last had a drink, at least one will smugly tell you of their abstention, whether sponsored in October, just for the fun of it in January, or just for themselves because they want to. But is this a healthy habit? Or is there a deeper meaning to it? Will total abstention cure or highlight the issues of alcohol use and dependency?

The only way I could think to find out was to do it myself.

The idea came to me during one of many particularly fragile mornings during the festive season. I was still holed up in bed, wasting the precious few hours of daylight we were now getting in mid-December, lying in a dark room, neither my head nor stomach thanking me for what I continued to put them through. This continued, as has been tradition, through Christmas and approaching the New Year. My first year with a ‘festive break’ since my school days, and I spent the nights out drinking and wasting my mornings paying the price. I grew tired of putting myself through this quite quickly. And so, after seeing in the bells with my family, I settled down and prepared for the month ahead of me.

My first obstacle came the next weekend. I had a housewarming party for a university friend, and I needed a gameplan. I thought back to our days in the pub after lectures and came to the horrific realisation that I’d never actually socialised with them sober. I spoke to one of our other friends who would be there, and she decided to also go sober in solidarity. I offered to drive us, but she suggested we take the train there and the night bus home, so it didn’t feel too unfamiliar and detract from our enjoyment. The only difference between this and any other previous night out would be how blurry our vision was.

It turned out to be a lovely, civilised night. We petted their cat, made conversation, and sipped on our canned mocktails until it was time to leave. We bought some snacks for the bus, giggling and gossiping all the way back home. The only difference? I woke up feeling just fine.

What is a young person to do when they find themselves with this much energy at the weekend now? They tell us to exercise, so exercise I did.

I finally made it back to the gym after taking a few months out and enjoyed making a habit out of it again. I even found a Saturday morning spin class, which I also haven’t done for months. All things I previously enjoyed and now, sans alcohol, had the right energy at the right time to get back into the swing of things. I’ll never be a pro athlete, or a bodybuilder, or a fitness influencer, but finding joy in movement is one of the hardest hurdles to overcome, so finally having the time and energy to dedicate to it has made room for progress already.

I’ve been left thinking about my relationship with alcohol a lot this month, as is to be expected. I’ve never seen my drinking as a problem, even if my intake has admittedly been on the higher side of average. It is the Scottish way, after all. A glass of wine or two with dinner, cocktails with friends, all seems pretty normal. It’s the little moments we don’t think about where it all adds up. Did we need that one for the road? Was mixing drinks necessary that night in particular? The ‘eff it, it’s Friday’? That night you thought ‘well I’ve started drinking, I may as well continue’? It leads down a well worn path up here, and you only know you’re on it when you’re almost at the end of the trail.

Well, if you’re reading this, it means I finished it. One whole month without alcohol, something I haven’t done for many years. Probably something I shouldn’t be expecting applause for, but I do still feel rather smug.

That’s because I did struggle. I would be lying if I said I adapted and ran with it and it was the best month of my life. I still had stressful days, where all I wanted to greet me at the end of it was an ice cold Sauvignon Blanc. No, alcohol-free wine is not the same, and I hope I never have the displeasure of it passing my lips ever again. There were more hard days than I thought there would be, and for what? That sense of superiority? Why was I doing this to myself? It wasn’t a resolution, or a total commitment to sobriety, I just wanted to test myself.

Why do we force ourselves to change in the midst of the most miserable time of the year? Why is it in our human nature to make nihilism fashionable? Buddha said life is suffering, but he did not mean self-inflicted. The concept of resolutions annoys me, it sets a time limit on our personal development, and we punish ourselves if we don’t meet or exceed these expectations that we made for ourselves, knowing that often, they were beyond our limits in the first place.

People often report more positive health outcomes when they abstain from alcohol, but I can’t say I’ve noticed anything different. My sleep has not gotten any better or worse, I eat the same, I still experience the full range of emotion at much the same rate as I do when alcohol is in my life. My skin still breaks out in spots, I still laugh with friends, I’m still me.

In a nutshell, abstention works for me just as much as it doesn’t. I can continue my life of balance safe in the knowledge that I don’t need to be drinking constantly, but I can still have fun with it when I want to. Would I do it again in the future? Maybe, now that I know I definitely can. January is still a convenient month to do it in, while everyone is still too skint, miserable and tired now that the festivities have passed and the true gloom of winter settles in. It means no one wants to socialise anyway. But what I won’t be doing, is forcing it upon myself for the sake of it. I can still live a fun, fulfilling life either way, one that’s filled with freedom and choice. Even if that choice sometimes is red, white, or rosé.

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol dependency or addiction, there are many resources out there that can help. You can find your local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting here. You can also view advice from the NHS here, or from charities such as Alcohol Change here, and WithYou here.

3 thoughts on “The Dry January Blues”

  1. Ian Davidson

    Personal experience: Started drinking at 14, stopped completely at 40. Nothing since then (exc St John’s Wort!) albeit I have convinced myself in my dreams on many occasions that I have drunk alcohol. I stopped due to medication and it still amazes me how many folks think that meds + booze are compatible; in most cases they are not. Also I rationalized that many of my many life errors inc. hurtful actions/speech have been linked to alcohol. My wife does not drink + our social life is limited which makes things easier. My mental + physical health is better for it; weight control is non-optional at 61! The bad news for the young is that full brain maturity lasts to 25/30 (now recognised officially in criminal justice sentencing guidelines in Scotland) so booze, cannabis etc can be harmful long term even though the young body recovers quicker from hangovers than older ones. General rules are unhelpful as individual genetic susceptibility + circumstances vary. Government policy is chaotic + inconsistent. Tax revenues on booze fund many services whilst booze abuse costs billions + much misery. Humanity is always inclined to some form of chemical relaxation and few of us can, or would enjoy being nettle eating half naked saddhus (holy wanderers) esp in our climate! It is a mystery why Europeans can consume wine with good food whilst we get pished to be anti-social + regard food as merely low grade fuel, esp when in the pub + having an “attack of the munchies”! As with many things in life, resist the crowd/advice, be it epicurean pleasure seeking or its nemesis, guilt ridden Presbyterianism, + make up your own mind. And don’t take any health/life/moral advice from politicians!

    1. Ian Davidson

      PS: In my youthful booze days, I was at times careless, even reckless with my personal safety but emerged unscathed. Whilst risk taking is part of life, I would always counsel to be safe. If you are likely to be blotto, then prepare beforehand with relevant precautions including people you can definitely trust to protect you. I am not a parent; if I was, I suspect that I would be paranoid when my off-spring were on the razzle!

  2. Ian Davidson

    The island of Islay is my “spiritual home” albeit visit less often these past few years. Some spine tingling lonely walks in deserted beaches + ghosted glens. A whisky island popular with whisky tourists from across the globe. This could be threatened by current proposals to curb alcohol promotions. I agree that the link between sport + alcohol advertising needs to be curbed, albeit in a gradual way to avoid financial ruin to football clubs. However, whisky tourism is undertaken by consenting adults who already drink whisky so preventing them from buying products whilst visiting distilleries is ludicrous + will definitely reduce local jobs in the distillery shops. Needs a rethink?

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