January Teetotalism – what’s the verdict?

photo credit: chrisinplymouth

January teetotalism is a blossoming practice. These 31 days of new years’ resolutions, detoxes, exercise regimes and general purity/misery (delete as appropriate) constitute the one month of the year when it is socially acceptable to be teetotal. Some do it for charity (two causes which spring to mind are Alcohol Concern (http://www.dryjanuary.org.uk/ – the charity I am also raising for) and Cancer Research (http://www.dryathlon.org.uk/). Others do it just for the challenge and the supposed liver (and wallet) detox.

There are clearly a number of benefits to this practice, as well-publicised by the charities which promote it. Obviously a month off the drink is better than a solid month of dancing on the bar, flashing at strangers and waking up next to someone who resembles your great uncle. There’s money to be saved, inches to be lost and dignity to be regained. Not to mention the thousands of pounds raised for charity.

More dubious are the supposed psychological benefits, and even more controversially there are some who claim that the liver takes even more of a pounding than if the drinking continued unabated. The British Liver Trust, for example, discourages drinkers from giving up for a month and instead encourages them to give up frequently for short periods (they suggest 3 days every week). Dr. Christian Jessen (of Embarrassing Bodies fame) says that dry January is really just a process of lowering tolerance levels, before having a 1st February ‘reward’ of the biggest liver pounding imaginable. He claims that:

“Don’t kid yourself that you can atone for the sins of the year in one month. If you then hit the booze at the same level as before — or increase it — your body will actually be worse off.  The real damage we do to ourselves is by consistent, long-term drinking.”

(Although I am loathed to give publicity to the Daily Mail, if you really, really want to read the full article you can find it here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2259350/Resolved-alcohol-January-It-harm-good.html#ixzz2KVVXkt9H.)

So far, so controversial. I think all this is really beside the point, though. What I find most striking about the whole ‘dry January’ thing (not that I’m knocking it, I’ve done it myself a few times) is that not one charity can bring itself to encourage teetotalism – not even charities which would seem to be closely aligned with it (such as Alcohol Concern). A month is the most any organisation will permit itself to officially promote. There is a sense that some amount of drinking is ‘essential’. That life is unbearable without that glass of wine with dinner.

There is also the idea that giving up alcohol for charity is an enormous achievement, on a par with running a marathon or climbing a mountain, both of which require months of challenging training. Is a month of sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea really that difficult? Are we really so terribly challenged by meeting up with friends for a coffee instead of a beer? Are we? Should we be?

What does this say about us as a nation?

I know some people reading this will be thinking something along the lines of: ‘But ahhhh, yes, you preach about the virtues of giving up permanently and the dangers of giving up temporarily, yet I don’t see you embracing teetotalism permanently, Mrs. “I’ll see you in two years at the bar where we can forget this was ever written”.’

Yes, I admit to a certain disparity between what I believe and what I do. I’m just as brainwashed as everyone else and I confess, if someone told me I could never drink again – never ever – I probably would be trembling in the corner, pulling my hair out and scratching my nails down the walls (or similar).

Strangely enough though, I’ve found that giving up for two years is immensely easier than giving up for a month. Because a month is just long enough to be challenging, but just short enough to never lose sight of the end.

And this, I believe, is where the real damage of Dry January lies. By giving up for a month, your mind is perpetually focused on what you are giving up, and when you can have it back. A month is a reasonable period of time – enough to feel deprived – but not long enough for that glorious first day of drinking to not be constantly within reach; just a few more days to go; the light at the end of the tunnel. Even if you regularly go a month without drinking, as soon as you slap a ‘can’t’ label on it, a month of no alcohol, a WHOLE MONTH, the sense of deprivation is enormous. It’s like anything else: the forbidden fruit. I might go a month without chocolate, but as soon as I CAN’T have it, I NEED it.

So what does this do for the temporary teetotaller? It convinces them that if a month is SO hard, a lifetime is unthinkable. Life is just not worth living without a drinkie here and there. And the tragedy of this is, if they just carried on for a bit longer – say six months, a year, or two – they would discover what I have discovered (against all expectations). That given a chance, a life without alcohol is actually much better, much healthier, much deeper and much more on your own terms. Without that alluring end date in sight, it is much easier. I’m not wishing the next two years away because life is too short. So I’ve given up thinking about. And honestly. It’s not that bad.

As a result, on 31st January when all the ‘dryathletes’ were staring at the clock and counting down the minutes, I was enjoying my evening and wondering where the time had gone. Not because I wouldn’t know fun if it hit me and my idea of a good time is an early night with a hot water bottle. Not because of some pious virtue or superhuman self restraint (believe me, the vices of caffeine, cake, chocolate and cheese are still rife). But because I wasn’t feeling psychologically deprived. Which, in my opinion, is what most of the January Teetotallers will always remember.

Is that really a legacy that anti-drinking charities would encourage? Or should they really put their money where their mouth is and start publicising teetotalism as a genuine option?
What do you think? Please feel free to leave comments below