Kate O’Brien questions whether Dry January, a month off alcohol, really makes any difference and why more celebrities are opting to join the sobriety ranks and preserve their livers …
“I dedicated my latest book to Cocktail Girl, this persona I had created for myself as the magazine girl,” laughs Ruby Warrington, “but without the cocktails she doesn’t exist.” For many years Warrington, former features editor of Sunday Times Style magazine and founder of the digital platform The Numinous, lived her dream job mingling with celebrities and superstars over champagne and a zany, cocktail-fuelled lifestyle. She is sober now and in very good company with Nigella Lawson, Russell Brand and many others recently joining the ranks of the sober. But as millions worldwide pledge to start the new year alcohol-free, how much difference can a month off booze really make to our health or drinking behaviour in the long term? Dry January is socially acceptable, but extending it further may not go down quite so well among friends. Not to mention struggling ourselves with the idea of never drinking again.
In her book Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol, Warrington tells us that from the age of 15 she was teaching her brain that she needed alcohol to function, which left her insecure in other areas of life. “I was drinking because everybody else was, because alcohol was always at the ready, presented as a tool to help us deal with life. Her story is not one of drinking to reach rock bottom or as a response to any major life event, the discourse in traditional recovery circles. She can’t remember exactly when she quit and nor does she count the days. “On Sundays”, she writes, “when my head hurt from drinking. And not just my head, but also the contents of my head. When my gut roiled, my tongue was furry with forgotten words, and even my hair felt hung-over, greasy and crispy dry at the same time. Smelling of cigarettes and sour breath. Sometimes, on days like these, it felt there was a hollow where my heart was supposed to be.” Once she realised that alcohol was holding her back, even when she was making so much progress in her working life, the questioning started and her attitude to drinking changed.
Considering the overall toxicity of alcohol, some physical and emotional benefits would be expected as the poisoning effects of the toxin wear off, but Warrington was caught off guard by the “toasty warm sense of physical well-being” and sense of calm that began to become her new normal. “The clarity that comes with cutting out booze can feel like something of a spiritual awakening, the renewed sense of optimism and being fully present with yourself as a fast track to connecting with yourself and the world around you.”
The endless nights of deeper sleep are a well cited benefit of a sober lifestyle, and in his bestselling book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, University of California, Professor Matthew Walker explains why: “Alcohol is perhaps the most misunderstood drug when it comes to sleep. People think that it helps them fall asleep. That’s not actually true. Alcohol is a class of drugs that we call, ‘the sedatives’. And what you’re doing is just knocking your brain out. You’re not putting it into natural sleep.” To make matters worse, alcohol fragments sleep, so you wake through the night, and it also blocks our typical dream sleep or rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
This REM phase is when dreams occur and when memories get cemented into our minds. “So much so that drinking can make you forget new information – even if the drinking happens days after the learning took place.” It’s not just Walker’s own research that supports this either, as in the book he cites 20 large scale epidemiological studies that all reported the same clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. Walker carries this argument a stage further, by suggesting that this alcohol-induced sleep deprivation could be a key risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease among other chronic illnesses: “Inadequate sleep and the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease interact in a vicious cycle. Without sufficient sleep, amyloid plaques build up in the brain, especially in deep-sleep-generating regions attacking and degrading them. The loss of deep REM sleep caused by this assault therefore lessens the ability to remove amyloid from the brain at night, resulting in greater amyloid deposition. More amyloid, less deep sleep, less deep sleep, more amyloid, and so on and so forth. From this cascade comes a prediction: getting too little sleep across the adult lifespan will significantly raise your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.”
“There are two ways you can approach Dry January,” adds London-based behavioural change and performance coach Andy Ramage. “The first is to lock yourself away, cancel the social calendar and pray for February 1. Or you can use this as an opportunity to do something different that might change your life.” Ramage’s 28th alcohol-free day was a Saturday, five years ago. “I woke having slept like a baby,” he recalls. “My body felt refreshed, my eyes were bright and the sun was shining. My wife Tara was in love with me and I was in love with her. The kids were on top form and I felt great, really great. This time I knew I was onto something.” So he kept going. One month became two and then three months alcohol-free. This was when his life changed forever and the OneYearNoBeer challenge was born, which to date has helped over 50,000 people, many of whom are Irish, transform their relationship with alcohol.
As well as sleeping better and waking up without the persistent fog of a hangover, Ramage believes living alcohol-free produces enduring results, such as having a real life outside of work, thriving relationships (both personal and professional), enhanced energy, mental health, productivity and confidence. “The fake confidence or ‘Dutch courage’ that alcohol pretends to offer destroys real-world confidence. The anxiety and nerves induced by hangovers are enough to break the best. Over time I discovered that there is something powerful about dealing with all life throws at you without the crutch of alcohol. This builds a strong lasting inner confidence that puts Dutch courage to shame.” He feels that people are bored of the overdone drinks night. “Come to think of it, nobody ever sent me an email saying ‘thank you’ for a wonderful night’s drinking! If you want to get stuff done, take a break from alcohol. It’s that simple. The energy and motivation that I unearthed propelled me towards dreams that were almost lost in the fog of hangovers and regret.”
Warrington concurs, adding that without alcohol she felt so much more capable of really showing up with her family and friends. “I now feel connected with people in my life on a real and authentic level. Sobriety is a huge part of this as I was using alcohol to facilitate fake connections with people, connections that I thought were more meaningful than they really were.”
If you have been drinking your entire adult life, it is a big part of your life and the thoughts of really living without it can be terrifying. Warrington is adamant that rather than cutting it down or cutting it out for one month, an extended break of a minimum of three months to one year is needed for the body and brain to form new neural pathways. “Those pathways that led us to a drink are very deeply engrained and we need to rewrite these. From my experience, saying I’m only going to drink at weekends or only drink two glasses, or however you try to moderate, will inevitably lead you back to drinking at some time. As long as you still hold alcohol as something that brings you pleasure and joy, it will remain in your life. It is only when you retrain your brain to think of it as something that limits you, that real lasting benefits can be realised. If you really want to experience the energy connection and aliveness, then cut it out.” To help readers get started Warrington created the 100-Day Sober Curious Reset programme featuring daily inspirational emails, advice, support, and interactive webinars.
Professor Jim Lucey is a psychiatrist and Medical Director of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services in Dublin. He believes Dry January is a great initiative as it could give relief for a time to many who are suffering from the burdens of alcohol abuse within the home and at work. But he argues that the real solution lies in recognising that we have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol all year round, that is detrimental for ourselves, our colleagues and most importantly our children.
“There are approximately 270,000 children under the age of 15 years living in Ireland today and the best research suggests that at least one in eleven of these is directly coping with the effects of alcohol misuse at home,” he adds. “These children are often prematurely adultified as they become carers and copers on a daily basis. Children’s adaptation to adult alcohol misuse is hidden and heroic, it is inappropriate and harmful. Our behaviour as parents is by far the most important environmental influence on our children’s growth from dependence to autonomy. The greatest thing we can do as parents is provide a warm setting in which they can grow in safety. Alcohol misuse is the largest contributor to childhood misery and abuse in our country. Parents can transform Irish homes today by cutting down or ideally cutting out their alcohol use now. The effects of positive sobriety would be transformative, for parents and for children, now and in the future.”
Navigating those “Sober Firsts”, being the only non-drinker at the January book club or heading to the pub for a relaxing end-of-week drink isn’t easy. Don’t make a big deal of not drinking, is Warrington’s advice. “Offer to get that first round, so you can quietly buy a soft drink for yourself. Don’t lie about why you are not drinking either. Tell people it makes you feel like crap and see if that sparks a conversation. Once I started being honest with myself, I realised that many others felt the same. And most importantly, play it forward to the end of the night and the next morning by thinking about how great you will feel. The more people who hold themselves accountable and are prepared to enjoy their lives in a different way – the easier it will be.”
After all, no story of regret accompanies becoming sober, only that the change wasn’t made sooner. For most of us, this in itself is enough. Our collective consciousness is starting to shift away from alcohol, very slowly but surely. Lucey suggests we use this Dry January to rethink our relationship with alcohol and, “just maybe we can rediscover our relationship with ourselves and each another in ways which are joyous and social, sober and, sanguine, positive and coherent.” You won’t know until you try.