Dry January: Reflections on My Sober(ish) Month


I consider myself a light drinker, but undertaking the challenge of Dry January in Vermont proved more difficult than I expected. Forced sobriety brought into painful focus the negative impact of our seasonal darkness and cold punctuated pathetically by grey cloud-covered days, the unfortunate hallmarks of January in Vermont.

I kept a journal during my Dry January challenge, and here are my key reflections and takeaways:

It’s unrealistic to start Dry January on New Year’s Day.

New Year’s Day comes at the end of a long stretch of holidays, culturally observed by excess consumption. In other words, leftovers taunted me on January 1. My drink of choice, especially in the winter, is wine, red or white, usually a single glass with dinner after a workday. As I planned for Dry January, I noticed an open, half-full bottle of white wine in the fridge.

bottle of white wine and a box of frosted cookies
White wine and cookies…yum!

It felt too tempting just to leave it there. I wanted to prevent the open bottle from seducing me after I started the challenge. After all, it would have turned to vinegar and gone to waste! Making an executive decision to start fresh on January 2, I drank the rest of the bottle with dinner and planned to begin the next day with no open alcohol in the house. Feeling smug, I foolishly set a goal of waking up early the next morning and grocery shopping at 7 AM before starting to telework at 8 AM.

Alcohol consumption (or lack thereof) impacts sleep, energy, and clarity of mind.

After finishing half a bottle of wine with dinner, I slept terribly. Go figure. 

I snoozed my alarm twice before accidentally turning it off, waking up from a dream with a start at 6:53 AM. Needless to say, this sequence of events upended my planned early morning grocery shop. Still not making the connection between that half bottle of wine and my poor night’s sleep, I instead chalked it up to returning to work after almost two weeks off.

After lazy days in pajamas and sweats, staying home, and occupying the couch, driving to the office, even for only half a day, and resuming my professional life felt daunting. At dinner, when I would normally partake in a glass of wine or a beer, I drank a glass of water with lemon. My Dry January finally began. Tired from my poor night of sleep, I went to bed at 8:10 PM.

Waking up refreshed, I realized I slept through the night without having to use the bathroom. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time that happened. I got up a full 30 minutes before my alarm, put away the clean and dirty dishes, and made coffee for my husband before getting in the shower.

After dropping off my youngest at school, I arrived at work early, reveled in the extra time available to put things away properly, made and enjoyed breakfast, and prepared for my day. I noticed my usual overthinking replaced by a clarity of mind and ability to single task. Huh. Maybe sobriety is the cure for anxiety?

Withdrawal symptoms feel like the flu.

Arriving home from work on January 3, about 48 hours into my Dry January challenge, I suddenly felt ill – body aches, headache, fatigue, congestion, ear pain, coughing, and shifts in temperature from warm to chilly. Although I’ve never had COVID-19, I realized my friends described its onset in this exact way. I took a test and got a negative result. Going to bed early, I struggled to fall asleep, though I eventually slept soundly.

On January 4, after waking up slowly and struggling to get out of bed, I decided to take a sick day off from work in the hopes of beating this unknown virus. My husband offered to pick something up for me, and I blinked slowly at him, unsure what he was even offering. After a three-hour nap, I got up and reheated leftovers for lunch.

Suddenly craving carbs and grease (AKA hangover food), I texted my husband requesting pepperoni pizza and a salad for dinner. During dinner, he tried to tell me about a problem at work, and I failed to follow the conversational thread. My foggy brain occasionally went offline, causing me to request he repeat certain sections of the story. Given that I napped for most of the day, it took me a while to fall asleep that night.

In the absence of alcohol, carb cravings demand indulgence.

The next morning, January 5, I woke up a little slower than usual, but other than that, I felt much better, with no signs of a respiratory virus at all. 

The night before, I assumed if I went into work I would need to go in late and probably mask to protect co-workers from my symptoms. Waking up with zero symptoms and once again feeling refreshed, I started obsessing about baked goods, googling daily specials at a bakery on the way to work. (I now understand why individuals recovering from alcohol use disorder often crave sweets and consume them to keep alcohol cravings at bay.)

Since the bakery didn’t open before I was due at work, I responsibly (though longingly) drove past it and settled for my usual toaster waffles with berries for breakfast. When my thoughtful co-workers asked me how I was feeling, I responded honestly that all symptoms of a cold virus seemed to have vanished. 

It slowly occurred to me that maybe, instead of a virus, my body responded to the rapid withdrawal from alcohol after 48 hours with detox symptoms.

A co-worker and an out-of-state friend (whom I called to talk through my experience) confirmed I experienced a mild detox. This notion surprised me, as, at this point, I still felt convinced my drinking consisted of one drink per night. More on that mistaken assumption later.

Driving in the evenings no longer feels like a burden.

When my son texted at 2 PM asking if I could pick him and a friend up from school (20 minutes from our house) at 6:15 PM and drive his friend home, I realized I did not feel annoyed and concerned about how that request would impact the timing of my nightly adult beverage. Since it was a non-issue, I gladly agreed, acknowledging more energy than usual in the evenings.

The carb cravings continued to dominate, though, as I ate a pile of fettuccine alfredo for dinner and fell asleep dreaming of cardamon buns I planned to retrieve from a local bakery in the morning.

Eating an abundance of carbs over the previous two days negatively impacted my sleep with multiple bathroom trips. On January 6, waking up relatively early for a Saturday, I showered and headed directly to the bakery to claim two cardamon buns and a surprise bonus pastry – gibassier. While this breakfast tasted delicious, I noticed my carb cravings finally beginning to wane.

I associate certain foods with specific alcoholic beverages.

On January 7, I realized certain foods cue my brain to pair them with specific drinks. While I felt magnetically drawn to a glass of red wine to accompany my spaghetti and meatball dinner, I settled for water with lemon instead.

Peer pressure to drink continues indefinitely into adulthood.

On January 8, I noticed a Facebook post asking which restaurants offer the tastiest mocktails and mocktail flights. Given my Dry January journey, I curiously scrolled through the comments. While many people helpfully shared information, a few trolls sought to use this platform to attack the very notion of Dry January.

Mocktail Paloma mix
Mocktail palomas… not yummy 🙁

Their comments included taunts such as “Just have soda,” “uncarbonated, unflavored, out-of-the-tap water,” and “What’s the point of having a cocktail without the alcohol in it?” It makes me wary of the drinkers who feel so passionately about their imbibing that they resort to middle-school peer-pressure tactics to bully the (temporary) non-drinkers into falling off the wagon. Why do they even care?

Major and minor life stressors evoke the urge to drink.

My son is college-bound this fall, requiring us to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) to maximize the affordability of his higher education. This year, the federal government implemented new software for the FAFSA® to “streamline” the process by allowing it to suck your financial information out of your IRS tax return.

Theoretically, this improvement sounds amazing, right? In practice, the new online form is glitchy and frequently down for maintenance, meaning I spent the first 8 days of January attempting to start a new application. On January 9, I succeeded, but the whole process made me question my commitment to Dry January. Seriously, I wanted a drink after that ordeal.

Willpower and commitment increase the likelihood of following through on Dry January.

Luckily, the timing and location of my son’s chorus concert on January 10 eliminated the option of resuming my alcohol consumption. In the audience, I shared my Dry January challenge with my mother-in-law and learned that she not only undertook it this year but that she successfully completed it in the past.

Seeking the secret to her success, I asked her if she made it through all 31 days, and she said “Yes.” When I asked “How?”, she responded that when she makes up her mind to do something, she just does it. Based on what I know about her, that tracks. 

Maybe I started waffling because I saw Dry January as an experiment and failed to commit fully?

Dry January involves remaining sober during the darkest, coldest month of the year.

On January 12, I shared with my husband that Dry January feels so hard because there’s not much that gives me joy and comfort during this darkest and coldest of months. A warming glass of red wine or whiskey calls my name. He agreed. Maybe Dry June is more realistic? There’s sun, outdoor activities, and so much more for me to indulge in beyond alcohol.

Dry January helped me bring awareness and moderation to my drinking habits.

On January 14, I decided to re-introduce red wine as a pairing for our stuffed shells dinner. Given my unpleasant withdrawal symptoms early in the month, I looked up the number of ounces in a glass of wine and poured myself exactly five ounces.

Glass of wine next to a measuring cup with wine in it
5 ounces

The glass appeared mostly empty. At this point, the realization struck me that my original estimation of one drink per night actually amounted to two or three. No wonder I went through withdrawal!

Glass of red wine with a salad
It’s less than I thought

Since mid-January, I no longer imbibe nightly. Instead, I choose to treat myself to a measured single glass of wine or half-shot of whiskey about every two to three days, usually to warm up or accompany an Italian meal. These adjustments feel sustainable, as I’m continuing my reduction in alcohol consumption well into February and hopefully beyond.

(Bonus February Update: I caught that horrible respiratory virus, and my miserable illness necessitated 14 additional days of sobriety and further increased moderation of about two drinks per week since then.)

Not wanting me to feel bad about giving up on Dry January halfway through the month, my husband found an article on Damp January and congratulated me on my efforts to reduce my drinking.

mixed alcoholic drink and a glass of water
Enjoying my not-a-mocktail in late February

While I struggled with Dry January, I know the outcome of more moderate alcohol consumption benefits my health and well-being in the long run. Plus, based on what I learned about myself, I’m now fully prepared to undertake a Dry June challenge. Anyone want to join me? 

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Dry January: Reflections on My Sober(ish) Month

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