Nearly everyone was nursing club sodas at my family’s Sunday dinner this week.
My own love affair with alcohol ended four years ago, and my Aunt Jessica and cousin Andrew were only a few hours into “Dry January,” the custom of going sober for the first 31 days of the year.
Also known as the “Jan Plan,” “Dryuary” and “Dryathon,” Dry January is credited to Englishman Liam Kelly, who is said to have invented it in the early 1990s. The British government hopped on the bandwagon in 2015 when Public Health England, a Department of Health agency, teamed up with the charity Alcohol Concern to “encourage social drinkers to give up alcohol for a month.” Last year, 1 in 6 Britons, or 16 percent of the adult population, attempted a Dry January , according to Alcohol Concern’s Cara Barrett. She says that 2017 will be the fifth year they’ve run the campaign, which now boasts a Facebook page and an app to help people track calories and money saved.
While the idea is most popular in Britain, more and more Americans are opting to cork the bottle in January. Both the The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have run stories about the phenomenon in recent days. I have friends and family who have done it since 2002: My college buddy Spencer has been dry in January for 15 years, and my cousin Andrew for half that. Andrew’s mom is giving it a go this year for the second time. Same for my old Brit buddy Stiv Pik.
Not that it’s easy. Or particularly healthy: “As a doctor, you might expect me to give the concept of Dry January my total backing,” writes Christian Jessen in the Daily Mail, “but I’m afraid you’d be wrong. At the very least, a dry January is a complete waste of time health-wise. At worst, it’s actually bad for you because most people go back to boozing with a vengeance in February.” Yet my crew swears by it — a physical and mental reboot they claim perfectly centers them for the year to come.
Spencer, 40: At a certain point every December I start feeling some relief that it’s around the corner. I heard someone on TV claim that Sober January started in England in 2012 which is funny because my boozebag uncle’s buddy was doing it in the 1970s. That’s how I first heard about it in 2002, right after I left college. He used to really get it done when he was younger, and every January, he would do 40 days and 40 nights of sobriety as penance for his holiday season overindulgence. I thought, Wow, that sounds like a good idea. I should try it. And I’ve done it every year since.
Andrew, 32: I heard about it in 2008 from the P.E. coach at the high school where I was teaching in San Francisco, who said he’d always done Sober January. He’s one of those ageless, Mill Valley hippie Deadheads and a personal friend of Bob Weir. It seemed like he still had his shit together so it sounded like a good idea to try. And it just stuck.
Jessica (Andrew’s Mom), 68: I started two years ago at Andrew’s suggestion. When you get older, you don’t metabolize alcohol as well as you do when you’re younger.
Stiv, 43: I definitely never had the typical British “get shitfaced” mentality, but I did like to drink. Especially cocktails next to the pool in L.A. Or anywhere sunny and with a pool. It turns out there are lots of sunny places with a pool. I loved the buzz. I didn’t love the next morning though. So last year, when I was out for a walk discussing life in general with someone, I came to the conclusion that I should take some time off. I tried a month in January, which turned into 90 days.
Andrew: Sober January brings clarity to a lot of things because I end up focusing more on personal goals and myself as an individual. It helps bring balance to the constant on-the-go lifestyle I lead. It’s opened up the whole second part of the day. All of a sudden I can work till 10 p.m.
Spencer: I give myself some wiggle room and make an allowance for special occasions. For instance, I got invited to Christopher Hitchens’ house for a party for the first Obama inauguration. I was like, There’s no way I’m going to that party and not drinking. But if it’s a dinner party with my usual idiot friends, I don’t. If there’s a party on January 30, however, I’ll stop a day early. The main thing is to get in that solid four weeks of no drinking. As long as I’ve done that, I feel like I’ve succeeded.
Stiv: The first few days and last few days are the most challenging. It’s a mindset, and you can’t let it slip in the first three weeks.
Andrew: I allow myself a little weed here and there to take the edge off. But nothing crazy. The hardest part for me is the social aspect. All social interactions from the time you’re 21 revolve around drinking, so the ritual is the hardest thing for me to get over. Finding social interactions that aren’t at bars is challenging. I still go out and get soda water. I’ll be the DD for the whole month.
Spencer: It gets harder every year now that I’m older and much more stuck in the house than I used to be. Kids are a grind, so I look forward to having a drink when they’re in bed. It feels like time goes by more slowly than it used to. January used to fly by, but now I look at the clock and I’m like, Fuck, 27 more days of this shit? For 2 or 3 days, you’re like, God, am I really going to do this? One year we had a snowstorm, and the wife was doing Sober January with me; it took every ounce of self-control we had not to fall off the wagon. We waffled for almost an hour, but eventually, we prevailed. I can say that once you’re a week in, you’re like, Man, this is great. I’m so glad I did it.
Andrew: The physical benefits come mainly from the increased amount of exercise I get. I find myself playing tennis or something like that to fill the social component I end up missing from going out to bars or over to people’s apartments “to have a beer.” Also, if I’m not hung over, I tend to eat better because I’m not too lazy to cook something adventurous or healthy. Slipping into pizza/mac-and-cheese land is much easier when you’re exhausted.
Stiv: The biggest physical benefit I noticed was the absence of the “I can’t do this because I was shifaced last night” feeling. Sleep is much better, and waking up is a pleasure. Generally speaking, my productivity increased in all areas and at all levels. I found exercising to be easy again, and I didn’t even have to think about whether I was going to do it. Walking for an hour became natural. One time I suddenly noticed I was running like Forrest Gump.
Spencer: I always lose weight, which helps right after the holidays. You’re going to lose a couple of pounds without even trying just by not drinking alcohol. I meditate somewhat regularly, but in January, I do it every day. And it’s better-quality (to the extent that one can be aware of this). There’s never a day where I’m like, Christ I can’t do that right now. You’re more mindful. You feel it’s the beginning of the year, and you’re focused on all the shit you need to do. It’s a really good time to be clear-headed. I also notice it in the little things. A lot of times having even one drink puts some separation between you and the world — which is why people do it, and crave it — but when you don’t have that as an out, it forces you to deal with situations right away. I’m more present with the kids in the evenings, and a little more patient across the board. Sometimes just a tenth of a second of not reacting or overreacting to something makes an enormous difference, particularly with kids.
Andrew: The culture of drinking has been alive and well in my family for many years, and the alcoholism gene is definitely lying dormant somewhere in me. So I like doing Sober January to check in and ask myself: Was this really hard? Was this a big deal for you to do? It’s become a tradition as much as all the other holiday stuff and makes you have a little less Catholic guilt while you’re entering the holidays because you know there’s a finish line after which you’re going to be repenting.
Jessica: In order for this to have a benefit for me, I have to do a lot of other stuff, too — watching what I eat, exercising, etc. Because it’s all about metabolism. If I were to stop drinking alone, it’s not going to have any effect. But not drinking inspires me to do all of the other things I need to do.
Andrew: At the end of the month, I’ve never thought I needed to continue doing it. I more or less go back to my regular habits. The reason why I don’t usually feel inclined to continue with the Jan Plan is because while it helps bring balance and contrast to my lifestyle throughout the year, I also think going out for drinks is important and something I get a lot out of as well.
Spencer: I always hope it will set the tone for less drinking throughout the year, and it usually does for a couple of months. But then I inevitably fall back into all of my old patterns. It’s just like any New Year’s resolution; it’s pretty rare that there’s a “new you” on the other side of any of them. Sober January is a little different in that it’s always the same, and reliable in that way: When it gets toward the end of December, you start to look forward to it — and to be really glad that it’s there.