January 1 has arrived, and with it, the feeling of debts coming due. Today is the day of enacting resolutions, of figuring out how to smooth the crumpled parts of your life. Your promises of starting that good habit at the beginning of the year in the warm glow of twinkly lights now face you in the dim, clear 2017 daylight. It is the day, we are told, to begin regimes of healthful, balanced, organized, frugal living, in order to counteract the excesses of the holidays with austerity and prudence. Perhaps you are giving up salt, or sugar, or fat, or dairy, or gluten, or meat. Perhaps, as has become the fashion in the past few years, you are participating in Drynuary, a booze-free January. And though only you can say what you do with your body, and what regimens and programs and abstinences will work for you, I urge you: Don’t do Drynuary.
January is a particularly miserable month to do away with the necessary comfort of alcohol. It’s freezing out, and the kind of acceptable substitutes you could offer for a casual April beer—a walk outside, a trip to the farmer’s market—are in shorter supply. This grim January in particular, we may need all the small comforts that we can get. But more than that, Drynuary is snake oil served as a solution. If you care about cutting down on your drinking from holiday-party-marathon-level to glass-of-wine-with-dinner every once in a while, it sets you up to fail.
Drynuary stems from the same roots as “cleanses” and “clean eating” and “detoxes.” It has a kind of monastic quality to it that appeals to the Puritanical impulses of Americans. It has the appeal of a late-night infomercial quick fix. Want to cut down on something? Cut it out entirely. Your problems will all go away through a quick burst of willpower. You can right the ship and keep on as you were.
Note that I’m not talking about anyone who has a serious problem with alcohol. If that’s the case, consult a healthcare professional and a supportive community, and not a breakfast journalist. If full abstinence is the only thing that will help you, then, by all means, start immediately. And if Drynuary helps you and you know it, Godspeed, and good luck.
But for many people, Drynuary isn’t going to help you one bit if your goal is to cut down on the sauce. It is part of the all-or-nothing lifestyle industrial complex that has taken over more effective ideas of wellness and self-care. It’s the same reason that resolutions tend to fail. If your goal is to get fit and you go to the gym every single day and only eat steamed broccoli, you will quickly find it unsustainable. There’s a modern American cultural notion that you are either “good,” living a Goop-approved life of 5 a.m. yoga followed by meditation followed by mushroom tea and avocado toast or “bad,” drinking wine and eating pizza cold from the fridge. There are moral implications all over the place, which is why, when you don’t make it to that 5 a.m. yoga because it’s 10 degrees out and your job was rough yesterday, it feels like a profound moral failure instead of a human compromise.
You’re not perfect. No one is perfect, no matter what their Instagram accounts may indicate. We tell ourselves that if you’re not perfect, you’re absolute garbage, and you might as well double down on your garbage lifestyle and guzzle spray cheese while sitting in a dumpster.
Instant change is extremely seductive, but the truth is that many, if not most, good habits are incremental changes. They are about eating one green thing a day, or getting yourself to the gym even just once a week if that’s what you can do, and then working your way up. As Casey Johnston of “Ask A Swole Woman” on The Hairpin wisely advises, “No one wakes up and suddenly starts doing everything the opposite of what they were doing before and sticks with it… You need to start, but you’re not going to keep going if you try to do too much too fast.”
If you actually think that you need to cut down on booze, maybe it’s limiting yourself to a certain number of drinks a week, or only having a drink with dinner, or only one beer when you’re catching up with your friend during brunch. You see what works for you, and you adjust. Part of the lie of New Year’s celebrations is that life-changing events come on schedule. Pretty regularly, they don’t. Deciding to start exercising or get organized or improve your credit score or cut down on something that’s bad for you is a work of incremental progress. If you are committed to it, it works just as well to start that commitment on August 19 or April 2 or October 29 as it does on January 1. Drynuary doesn’t offer any actual change in your life except to make it more unpleasant for a certain spell before you return to your old habits.
So, today, have that hair of the dog if you want it. Decide what the next step is. And forgive yourself if the path there isn’t as easy as promised. It so rarely is.