Dry January – What are the Lessons We Learn?

note pad with hello dry January written on it

With the best of intentions, we approach Dry January.

During the holidays, I was extolling (as one does when loved ones gather) about the relative ease of my recovery from an acute alcohol use disorder. I am nine years sober, and at this stage of the game, not drinking has become as much of an affectation as my omnipresent wine glass used to be. Designated driver is my perpetual role. I’m even comfortable ordering my drink of choice in bars. Sparkling water in a wine glass with a splash of cranberry, please. No fruit, no ice. My daughter reminded me (as daughters with long memories do) that I had tried to quit for years before I committed to recovery, regularly taking 30-day respites that ended in binges.


Dry January vs. Recovery

My daughter called the binges that came at the end of my attempts at alcohol management relapses. Hence proving her hypothesis that my recovery was not as easy-breezy as I thought it was. But there is a significant psychological difference between alcohol management and recovery. Dry January, Dry July, moderation management, and sober curiosity are all methods of creating awareness and cutting back on habitual drinking habits. On the other hand, recovery acknowledges that alcohol is a life-long problem and typically comes with a lifetime commitment to abstinence.



Never drink again?

In my case, the 30-day respites were an opportunity to prove I could go without alcohol. In the years I tried to manage my alcohol intake, I did not allow myself to consider that I could never drink again. That was the most challenging part of recovery – foreverness. But my daughter is correct in her assessment that my frequent hiatuses always ended with the little devil on my shoulder telling me, “One drink won’t hurt.’ Of course, one drink became two, a bottle, and back to the same old used to be. It wasn’t until I accepted that I could never drink again that my recovery began. And I never faltered after that realization.


Dry January

Dry January started as a public health campaign by the British charity Alcohol Change UK. Their slogan was “ditch the hangover, reduce the waistline and save some serious money by giving up alcohol for 31 days.” According to the American Heart Association, the health benefits of a month (or longer) without alcohol are:

  • Improved quality of sleep
  • More energy
  • Improved mood
  • Improvement in levels of concentration
  • Reduced insulin resistance
  • Healthier skin
  • Improved liver function
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Weight loss


The American Heart Association also says, “Studies show people who complete Dry January are less likely to be heavy drinkers, to begin with.” For those who can drink responsibly, a month-long abstinence is an opportunity to put alcohol into the proper perspective and a great way to start the new year. Additionally, 74% of participants claim they completed the challenge last year, which makes it a resolution that beats the odds – most New Year’s intentions have 8 – 10% success rates.




Excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages can take a toll on every system in the body. Alcohol increases the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, breast cancer, liver disease, depression, suicide, self-harm, and accidents. It also wreaks havoc on your appearance. Bloodshot baggy eyes, lank hair, and sallow skin are the hallmarks of substance misuse.


The Dry January challenge can highlight addiction problems. Going “cold turkey” is dangerous for those who need medical detox. Further, if an individual takes the challenge and cannot complete it or hides/cheats/lies, it could signal that they have a problem. An escalation in drinking alcohol after the challenge is also a warning sign. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction, do not hesitate to call 616.202.3326.



Conclusion – Resolutions for the New Year

Managing alcohol addiction, misuse, and use is an individual process. Our goals are different, and each person’s expected outcomes are unique. But, by all means, take the Dry January challenge. Alcohol moderation might work for those who have not become dependent upon alcohol. Or for those who want to keep track of their controlled alcohol intake. Or, like I was, for someone in denial about the extent of their alcohol misuse, as a first step to treatment. It is pretty easy to figure out if you can moderate or not. As an old therapist of mine suggested, “Wait till 6 PM. Have one glass of wine.” Even nine years sober, that seems unreasonable to me.


As therapists, we meet our clients where they are. But whether our clients start treatment in residential or outpatient programs, they have begun to experience the adverse effects of alcohol on many aspects of their lives. We have clients who want to test their newly developed coping skills to ‘moderate’ their drinking. Or someone whose drug of use is alcohol might suggest they try cannabis. And I’m okay with people challenging me – it opens the dialogue. Never drinking again is a daunting prospect. But once those pathways to an alcohol use disorder have been opened, moderation is not the answer; the default is abstinence.

Lynnel Brewster, RN, LPC, LLMFT, CCTP, Clinical Director Sanford Behavioral Health


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Marilyn Spiller is a viral writer, recovery coach, and recovery advocate. She is the Marketing Director at Sanford, responsible for written and creative content, website design, new media, promotions, subscriber outreach, and SEO. Excursions Magazine is a particular source of pride; it serves a wide range of readers, and “excursion” has become part of the company vernacular, describing Sanford’s signature experiential outings for those in treatment. She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction and is Vice President of the Board of JACK Mental Health Advocacy.