After years of disordered drinking, writer Rosie Mullender discovered that going cold turkey on alcohol could actually harm her health. So, pre-pandemic, she tried an alternative approach to Dry January, instead…
Watching a film on the sofa with my boyfriend, I couldn’t concentrate. The level of white wine in my glass was getting low, and I felt a familiar feeling creeping up on me. An unfocused anxiety settling in my stomach, like an itch inside.
I’d only filled my glass half an hour ago, and I knew that if I topped it up my boyfriend – who’s virtually teetotal – would shoot me a disapproving look. Although he knew better than to say anything; I’d bite his head off if he dared to comment on my drinking.
But I still hated that small (and entirely unreasonable, I thought) frown. So when he paused the film to nip to the loo, I leapt into the kitchen, grabbed the bottle of Sauvignon from the fridge, and filled my glass up almost to the top. Settling back into my seat before he returned, plastering innocence across my face, I felt a buzz of victory.
Then I wondered: is this normal?
I’d been a heavy drinker since a bad break-up eight years earlier, but had convinced myself that my bottle-a-night wine habit was normal. Alcohol gave me a soporific glow, wearing down the corners of my worries. In company, it made me relax; I became more fun and more likely to dance.
Besides, I didn’t hide a stash of whisky in the toilet cistern or start drinking first thing in the morning. So, I reasoned, I didn’t have a problem – and anyone who disagreed was just a killjoy.
But as I approached 40, I began to wonder if my love of drinking wasn’t quite as endearing as I thought. I’d recently been diagnosed with rosacea, which gave me bright-red cheeks if I overindulged. Then, when a friend told me, without malice, ‘You drink more often and get more wasted than anyone else I know,’ it really stuck with me.
I hadn’t thought anyone beyond my boyfriend noticed how much I drank. I didn’t want to be that person.
By the time January 2018 arrived, a month of abstinence had started to feel like a good idea. So I filled in a drinking audit to find out how much work I had ahead of me. The results were shocking. A score over eight meant my drinking could be considered harmful. I scored 27.
Rattled, I did another quiz, which warned that going cold turkey could be harmful to my health. In fact, Alcohol Change UK advises that a woman who drinks more than 35 units a week – that’s a couple of medium-sized glasses of wine a night – and thinks they might be alcohol dependent, shouldn’t attempt Dry January without seeing their GP. I was drinking at least 70 units a week.
Worried my doctor would tell me to quit booze altogether, which felt like a mountain I wasn’t quite ready to climb, I decided to try and change my drinking habits myself. I’d made some half-hearted attempts to have a few alcohol-free days a week in the past. But now, I made a promise to myself. I’d give it my all, and if I couldn’t alter my habits, I’d quit completely.
I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I’d become an expert at finding socially acceptable ways to cram alcohol into my days. I was a big fan of the airport cliché, ‘it’s always 6pm somewhere,’ and would head straight to the bar before a flight, no matter how early it was. Brunches were always bottomless for me, and even the cinema presented an opportunity to get tipsy: one glass would go in with me, and I’d nip out for another halfway through the film.
Kicking off with a week of complete abstinence, my first hurdle was a group visit to the cinema (before the pandemic, I should add), including a spot of pre-loading at a friend’s house and a plan to smuggle in a bottle or two of wine. The second was having to watch The Greatest Showman entirely sober. But I did it – and began to feel cautiously optimistic.
With lots of my friends embracing Dry January as well, my biggest challenge was resisting drinking at home. I adopted a mantra: buy a bottle of wine, and you have to exercise your willpower over and over. Resist buying one in the first place, and you only have to exercise it once.
Walking past Tesco on the way home without popping in became a miniature triumph, although a couple of times I snapped, driven to the corner shop by my cravings for wine.
Using the Drinkaware app, which tracks your weekly units and dry days (it recommends at least three), my aim was to bring my status down from ‘high risk’ to ‘increasing risk’. Not perfect, but a firm step in the right direction.
I started making tentative moves towards success. Don’t buy a bottle of wine every night, I told myself. Leave a glass of wine in every bottle you open. Start every night in the pub with a soft drink. Get through brunch without drinking.
As I achieved more small wins, it became clear exactly how disordered my drinking had become. I realised that not everyone arrives at a friend’s house and barely registers a word they say until a drink appears.
It was embarrassing to realise how my behaviour must have come across to other people. I gained weight, too – as well as craving the alcohol in wine, I missed the sugar, and had swapped my nightly bottle for boxes of Maltesers.
Although gaining half a stone was disheartening, I didn’t diet, but decided it was more important to be kind to myself and preserve my willpower. Plus, it felt like a small price to pay: I had a lot more energy, and the terrible anxiety I experienced the day after drinking had mostly disappeared.
Having learnt to use alcohol as a coping mechanism, there were times when I desperately wanted a drink. But I asked myself if I really wanted to feel anxious and tired the next morning, and took myself to the gym to chase endorphins instead.
As the months went on, the ‘high risk’ weeks on my DrinkAware app became a rarity. Instead, I was seeing regular ‘low risk’ weeks of 14 units or fewer. The first time I went for lunch and automatically ordered a soft drink without even glancing at the drinks menu was a revelation. Soon after that, the milestones came thick and fast.
Cutting down was no longer about fighting against my urge to drink. Miraculously the urge, which had followed me for eight years, had simply disappeared.
I’d go to the cinema wondering if I had time to grab some popcorn, rather than a glass of wine. I’d have dinner with a friend and enjoy one cocktail, instead of working out how many cheaper drinks I could cram into an hour. I even discovered that if you leave a half-drunk bottle of wine in the fridge for too long, it goes fizzy. Who knew?
After months of hard work, I’d cracked it. And now, a year on, I enjoy a completely different relationship with alcohol. I still drink regularly, but only on two or three days a week. I’ll have the odd binge, but only when everyone else is over-indulging, too.
I’ve learnt that rather than cutting out alcohol this January, then swiftly returning to old habits, it might be better to cut down – for good. The changes I began to make a year ago have lasted, and I’m excited about toasting my success this new year. With just a glass or two, of course.
Should you try Dry January?
Lauren Booker, alcohol consultant for Alcohol Change UK and author of Try Dry: The Official Guide to a Month Off Booze (£12.99, Square Peg) says:
“If you’re a woman drinking 35-50 units a week, you could potentially be harming your health, and if you’re drinking 50+ units, you’re at risk of dependence. If you think you might be dependent on alcohol, or experience symptoms such as sweating or shaking when you stop drinking, you should see your GP before trying Dry January.
“If you want to cut down on the amount you drink, doing it bit by bit is a great long-term solution. Other people find the all or nothing approach works better for them – you can choose whichever method suits you best.
“We see Dry January as a chance to reset your relationship with alcohol - if you think it’s going to be easy, there’s no reason not to give it a go, and if you think it’ll be hard, that’s an even better reason to try it. There’s lots of support out there, from the Dry January app to our Facebook page.
“Right away, you’ll find you have more energy in the morning and sleep better. A couple of weeks in, your skin starts to feel brighter, and your hair and nails tend to improve. A whole month without alcohol can improve your liver function, and bring down your blood pressure – and, of course, you’ll save money.”
This article was originally published in January 2020.