‘Dry January’ can be a healthy resolution, but don’t expect dramatic results

The champagne cocktail, from left, the pomegranate mule and the coconut cucumber mint cooler all contain no alcohol, as photographed at Flight Club on Jan. 9, 2019, in Chicago.
(Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)
Chicago Tribune

The first time Autumn Myer heard of some friends participating in a month without drinking alcohol, her reaction wasn’t exactly subtle.

“I was like, ‘How could you do this? How could you not drink for a whole month?’ ” the 40-year-old Lakeview resident said recently, with mock horror in her voice.

But the bar tables have turned. Now Myer has become one of thousands of people who choose to abstain from imbibing alcohol in what’s been dubbed “Dry January,” often referred to by its hashtag, #DryJanuary.

Dr. Stephanie Gorka, associate director at the University of Illinois at Chicago Recovery Clinic, generally has favorable opinions about Dry January, which first was established in 2013 by London-based charity Alcohol Concern. The campaign asks people to sign a pledge to stay sober all month. It’s grown in popularity and reached the United States.

Gorka said any day without alcohol is a healthy choice and choosing to abstain 31 days in a row is generally healthy for most people. It would only be unhealthy for someone who is physically dependent on alcohol. Those people shouldn’t try to quit drinking suddenly, and anyone who thinks they might be alcohol-dependent should consult a doctor before quitting abruptly.

“It’s healthy as long as you’re realistic with yourself, and that means realistic in your goals and your reasoning,” she said. “In the ideal outcome, it would give you a chance to re-evaluate if this is how you want to spend your time.”

Someone who drinks socially should not just try cutting out alcohol for a month on a whim, Gorka said. They should spend some time thinking about how something like Dry January could make them feel — what they hope to gain and whether those changes are realistic. And they should consider how much time they spend drinking and what other activities they intend to focus on instead.

Gorka said people can begin to feel isolated if they haven’t thought of other ways to connect with friends.

Kris Schmelzer, a 29-year-old Lincoln Square resident, fell into that trap the first time he tried Dry January three years ago. His boyfriend was going to try a “comprehensive cleanse” in January with exercise and better food, so Schmelzer decided he’d try to go without alcohol. The digital advertising employee quickly felt lost.

“I didn’t really think about the social aspects of it, like that I have a birthday party I’m supposed to go to or drinks with co-workers planned, and suddenly I can’t participate,” Schmelzer said. “The second time I did it, I went in with, what kind of habits do I want to replace it with?”

He still managed to succeed, but the first year, it was difficult. Now on his third Dry January, Schmelzer said he has learned how to use the time he gains when he’s not hungover or drinking.

“This past Sunday a friend taught me how to sew, I mean, to use a sewing machine,” he said.

Despite Dry January’s positive aspects, Gorka said it isn’t likely a person is going to reap untold health benefits.

“When you read a blog about Dry January, people get this idea that they’re going to feel amazing, and that’s just not true,” she said.

That was accountant Shawn Mangan’s exact experience. The Rogers Park resident, 34, said by the time he read about Dry January last year on a blog, he had missed January. But when Lent came around — and his alma mater Loyola University Chicago was tearing it up in basketball — he decided to stay sober for the month of March.

“I didn’t notice a huge difference except for probably eating a little better. ... I lost four pounds,” he said. “It’s also easier to go to the gym and to do other healthy things.”

January is the perfect month for the challenge, because it offers the chance to evaluate your relationship with drinking and whether you have just been on “auto-pilot,” Gorka said. People who go out drinking with friends may lack creative ideas of what to do, more than actually feeling the need to drink.

Also, people generally indulge from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve and look for a way to take back some control of their health in the New Year. But the actual health benefits for most people aren’t going to be obvious, she said.

Mangan, Schmelzer and Myer all said they noticed they slept better when they quit drinking. But Gorka said people should not assume that 31 days of any practice is going to produce miracle results.

“This is not going to turn back the hands of time,” she said.

And, if anything, there is some evidence to suggest people will just go right back to their typical level of indulgence once Feb. 1 rolls around.

“I have friends who have tried it, and they’ve gone back to their regular alcohol use in February,” Gorka said.

Myer, who works in real estate, mainly likes the idea of setting a goal for herself and sticking to it. But it was more difficult in Chicago than when she lived in Asheville, N.C.

“Being in Chicago is kind of different, it’s harder,” Myer said. “Chicago is a drinking town.”

She appreciates the self-reflection that comes with depriving yourself of something, to better understand why you make the choices you do and how that plays into your personality, she said.

“You realize how much other people around you are drinking. You realize what they look like when they’re starting to get drunk. And you wonder, do I look and sound like that?” she said. “You realize how much it’s in your life when you take it away.”

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