Sunday, 5 January 2014
This is the strangest time of the year to be doing what I do.
With grim inevitability, we are told that we should all stop drinking alcohol for a month, just to prove we can.
Just as inevitably, those of us who decide to do so are met with sometimes extraordinary hostility by those who don't want to.
Both sides are now pissing me off.
Any reader of this blog knows where I stand on the cynical creep of neo-prohibitionism. My last blog post is just below this one if anyone has any doubt.
But I try to go dry for January every year, and have done so for years - since long before it became a piece of nonsense to beat people with.
I drink too much. I counsel that we should feel free to drink more than we are told. I rubbish the distortion of data that suggests we're all drinking ourselves to death. But even by my own more relaxed standards, I drink more than is good for me. I am two stone overweight and am on medication for high blood pressure, and this is related to the amount of alcohol I drink. It's an occupational hazard, and it's also more than that. Going dry for January is my way of proving to myself that I still control my relationship with booze. When I do it, I lose weight. I sleep better, and have more energy. When I start drinking again, my tolerance is lower and I drink slower and less frequently. And gradually, through the year it creeps up again, until over Christmas my alcohol consumption is excessive by any standards, and January provides a reset.
When I talk about this, it's amazing how many people seem to know more about my body and my psychology than I do. The neo-prohibitionists would argue that the above paragraph proves I'm an alcoholic - that if I need to stop drinking for a month, that proves I need to stop drinking altogether. Some idiots even try to say that dry January is dangerous because it encourages people to drink with abandon for the other eleven months of the year - a point of view that garners headlines every year despite having absolutely nothing to back it up.
On the other side, people tell me that detoxes don't work, implicitly asking me to ignore the evidence of my senses and the bathroom scales. Others seem threatened, like I'm betraying the cause of drinkers somehow. And then there are those who attack January abstainers for ruining the businesses of microbrewers and closing pubs.
This last point is particularly annoying. I appreciate that a campaign suggesting we all abandon pubs for a month might anger people whose livelihoods might be damaged by it. But beer enjoys a cyclical year. In December, pubs were packed. Some drinkers and publicans complain about the Christmas 'amateur drinkers' who turn up to their pubs, packing the place out and ordering in annoying fashion as they throw money over the bar. A few weeks later the same people complain that pubs are empty.
Given that pubs know a lot of punters take a breather in January, why not cater for them? Where are the specials on interesting artisanal soft drinks? The promotions on non-alcoholic cocktails? Why not put some detox-friendly dishes on the menu? We get very indignant about the idea that pubs are mere drink shops. We spend all our time saying that they are more than that, that they are important community centres that provide many benefits. So in January why do we then act as if beer is all they can do?
Just because I'm not drinking for a few weeks doesn't mean I'll be going to the pub any less in January. I still want to get out of the house and see friends. But when I do so I'll most likely be drinking stupidly overpriced lime and soda, having viewed and rejected the range of excessively sugary, crap-filled soft drinks available, and wondering yet again why there isn't a single dish on the menu that isn't full of fat, cream or grease.
Dry January, like Christmas and 'NYE' before it, is a result of our desire for shared experience. We are social creatures and for the most part we enjoy the knowledge and experience that we are all going through something together. The rise of social media has intensified this sharing. Most of the time that's good. But it does also create a shared sense of obligation that some of us rebel against. A month ago newspapers were full of articles about What You Must Do To Enjoy The Perfect Christmas, and every one of them had comments below from people complaining that they didn't want to do Christmas that way, but somehow felt that they were forced to against their will. Why? Now, when Dry January is suggested we either feel we must go along with it as if it's the law or we get angry and ask 'Why the hell should I?'
It's part of the infantilisation of our culture. Being scolded on a regular basis by government, the NHS, and a media that invariably refers to the recommended guidelines on alcohol consumption as limits sits alongside advertising voiceovers that uniformly sound like a parent talking to a toddler, and food packaging and restaurant menus that talk in lower case sans serif fonts about things being yummy and nom.
We buy into this infantilisation. When we nip out for a cheeky scoop, or enjoy food that is tasty but not healthy, we invariably talk about being 'naughty', as if we are children breaking the rules. When everyone else breaks the rules with us we feel like we're getting away with it. When we're given rules we don't like and see others conforming, we start behaving like children who have been caught, or stamp our feet and fold our arms and say 'Don't want to.'
I say all this because I'm guilty of it, as much as anyone. There is an inner child in me saying "Go on, go for a drink. Because you can. You can get away with it." It's not a craving for alcohol per se, more a desire to transgress some rule that is entirely in my own head.
So here's my New Year's resolution, which I offer up for anyone else to share: be a grown-up around alcohol, and take responsibility for your own decisions. If you want a drink, have one, and if you don't, don't. Going dry for January is my personal way of resetting my relationship with alcohol. If you're someone who only drinks a couple of days a week you may feel you don't need to do this. If you're someone who drinks most days to a point where you're vaguely concerned it might impact your health, think about what else you might do to counter it. Or don't, if you don't want to. If you'd rather go dry for a different month of the year, or try to institute a regimen of at least two alcohol-free days a week, do that instead. If you're content that your lifestyle is going to be way more fun than anyone else's but means you'll probably die of heart disease in your late fifties or early sixties, that's fine too.
What's right for me probably isn't right for you, as we have different histories, hang-ups and habits. But we don't have to do anything - or refuse to do it - because others are telling us to. I'm going dry for January not because of some sly anti-alcohol publicity campaign, but because it works for me and has done for years. If we were all to simply do what works for ourselves, and not try to tell everyone else what a good or bad idea their course is, it would be a happy new year indeed.