Long before it was a thing, I gave Dry January my best shot. Almost every New Year, I resolved to quit drinking. Maybe not for an entire month, but almost a month. Or a couple of weeks. I fell short, failing over and over again.
Maybe that’s why I’m fascinated by Dry January, and the millions of Americans who participate in the one-month sobriety challenge. I have friends who reported feeling better and healthier after an alcohol-free January. Some have taken it further, choosing alcohol-free lives.
I, however, was long baffled by the concept of sobriety and couldn’t comprehend a month without alcohol, let alone a lifetime. I desperately wanted to go a few weeks without it. To prove I could. To prove I wasn’t an alcoholic (or, to use the clinical term, someone with a Substance Use, or Alcohol Use, Disorder).
I came close in 1998, after overindulging on New Year’s Eve (again). While drinking mimosas on New Year’s Day, I swore I wouldn’t drink anything for three weeks. “Starting tomorrow.”
Within a short time, I felt better, recording my progress in my journals. “One day without alcohol. I feel great and determined.” “I finished Day 4 without a drink. Get me to Thursday. That’ll be a week.” And on January 10: “I feel like I’m accomplishing something. I just finished my 9th day without alcohol.”
I joke that the traveling Broadway production drove me to drink. During intermission, my husband, David, and I went to the lounge. Without a second thought, I ordered a glass of wine. I’d gone nearly 10 days without a drink. I’d proven that I could do it. That I didn’t have a problem. Right?
On January 11, that glass of wine unraveled my resolve and reignited my chronic and progressive disease. My 10-day run was over and I was back at it, as if I had never stopped.
I started drinking as a college freshman and drank differently from the beginning. When alcohol hit my bloodstream, something snapped. The thirst was insatiable; the craving, indescribable. I loved it. I hated it. The temporary relief… from everything… was amazing, but the subsequent hangovers were atrocious. I wanted to stop. I couldn’t stop.
Willpower is great. But when you suffer from a substance use disorder (SUD), rarely will any amount of discipline keep you sober. Not for long, anyway.
With a trail of broken promises behind me, and piles of shame and regret within me, I knew, deep down, that I was afflicted. The child of an alcoholic, I recognized the insanity of this disease, yet clung to denial, insisting that my drinking was merely a habit to alter. A problem to fix. But no matter how hard I tried, how much I prayed, or how badly I hurt, I couldn’t achieve another stretch of sobriety.
By 2002, I was so sick and my husband, David, was at his wit’s end. That January, I considered treatment, for a minute, writing on January 13, “I was about to check myself into the Betty Ford Clinic, wherever that is. But think I can handle this thing on my own. I just need my husband’s support. And a new job.”
Turns out, there was no way I could handle “this thing” on my own. Not with David’s support. Not with a new job. Not with any external circumstance. Because the problem ran deeper. Abstaining, or trying to abstain, for a month or any amount of time, won’t treat the disease of alcoholism. And while incurable, addiction, or SUD, is treatable. Recovery is possible. I started mine June 21, 2002.
It was tough, and sometimes seemed impossible. I was angry, sad, and resentful, giving up the crutch that helped me wobble through life. But I clung to glimmers of hope, a power greater than myself (God), and a supportive circle of friends who’d been there.
Life hasn’t been perfect, and I’m far from it, but everything is way better than it was when I was battling that baffling compulsion to drink on a daily basis. I am grateful that I am no longer trying—and failing—to get through Dry Anything.
All I have to do now is live one day at a time—no matter what month it is.