Jan. 22, 2021 -- In January 2020, Sarah Moran tried Dry January -- the trendy monthlong abstinence campaign. “I did it for a reset, after all the indulging from the holidays,” says the Chicago-based food sales rep. “And I did accomplish that.”
But this year, both the motivation and the reset proved more challenging. From the deadly pandemic to the cratered economy to the toxic political campaign season, laying off alcohol was more of a struggle.
“This whole past year, with COVID and the economy and everything going on in the world, it was really hard to not sit down and have a drink at the end of every day,” she says. “It was getting to the point where I was looking forward to it. I’d think, ‘It’s only 4, there’s still another hour until I can get a glass of wine.’”
So she and her husband decided to try Dry January again. They made it until Wednesday, Jan. 6, the day of the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“By 7 that night, I had the worst tension headache. I thought, ‘If there’s any day it’s OK to have a drink, it’s going to be today,’” she says.
She told her husband she was pouring a drink. He joined her.
Moran and her husband were far from alone. In the days after the attack, social media was filled with posts from people announcing their Dry January fails. U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Democrat from Philadelphia, tweeted: “So is an armed insurrection at your workplace a legitimate enough reason to break Dry January? Asking for a friend.” Actor Zach Braff tweeted a photo of a martini, captioned, “Dry January’s not working out.” On Instagram, the hashtag #dryjanuaryfail has nearly 7,000 posts. Even the official James Bond Twitter account got in on the action.
The Effects of 2020
Given the year we’ve all lived through, some addiction experts aren’t surprised by our struggles with Dry January 2021. “We’ve been in a year of incredible strain and stress. For many people, there’s been more than that, [there has been] actual trauma,” says Denise Hien, PhD, director of Rutgers University's Center of Alcohol and Substance Use Studies. As a result, many people have been drinking more than they might have in normal circumstances. “Liquor stores were considered essential services, even at the beginning of the pandemic. You couldn’t get a haircut, but you could order cases of wine.”
In addition to easy access to alcohol, the circumstances created by lockdowns contributed to an uptick in drinking. “People are at home or not working, they’re not seeing people in the same way they’re accustomed to interacting,” says Carl Hart, PhD, a behavioral neuroscientist at Columbia University. “They can have an intoxicating drink without any consequences. They don’t have the same social structures in place as they typically do when we’re not in a pandemic.”
That lack of structure led Angela Voulangas, a graphic designer from Brooklyn, NY, to become a regular drinker. “It started to be every night I’d have wine, and I never used to do that -- have wine in my house, and drink it alone,” she says. “I just needed it, I wanted to relax, watch the news but have a bit of a buzz so I could handle it.”
Hien says that feeling -- the need for a drink -- is physiological as well as behavioral. “Alcohol activates the reward system in your brain. Once you start having that every day at 4, you’ll start looking forward to it,” she says. “Not everyone will develop an addiction, but everyone will have their physiological reward system activated.”
Uncomfortable with that sensation, Voulangas decided to try Dry January. She, too, made it as far as the insurrection at the Capitol. “It’s the anticipation of what else is coming,” she says. “Seeing the National Guard sleeping on the floor of the Capitol building -- never in a million years did I think it would come to this.”
But not everyone who failed at Dry January did so hoping to calm frayed nerves. For some, missing out on celebratory drinking posed more of a challenge.
“The first week was pretty easy, and you feel good about it,” says Aaron Ahearn, a surgeon in Southern California. “And then you encounter more and more triggers that would prompt you to grab a beer. Playoff football, for example.” He and his wife prevailed through a game or two, but made an exception the night of former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment. “We had champagne. It’s the only drink we’ve had this January.”
For some participants, breaking a Dry January pledge doesn’t mean giving up entirely. Ahearn, for instance, resumed after the night of champagne. Moran and her husband went back to abstinence after 3 days. Others, like Voulangas, are aiming for a Dry February, picking it up after she toasted the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
Hien endorses the idea of starting over, whenever people are ready. “In COVID, we have to pivot -- the word has become part of our vocabulary,” she says. “It’s the concept of being flexible. I can’t visit family this holiday, but I will next time. Dry January isn’t Dry January, but Dry February. Why not?”
Unlike with programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, where participants aim to never have another drink for the rest of their lives, this is more of a harm reduction model, she explains. “You get credit for being able to stop for 1 week,” she says. “Usually, what we see when people make a decision to stop again, they start at a higher level.”
For instance, maybe it took 10 months of the pandemic for you to try Dry January, but you lasted just a week. If you start again with Dry February, you’ll only have been drinking for 3 weeks -- far less than the 10 months it took for your first attempt. “Or maybe you drank less during that time,” Hien says. “It’s all positive. You build on your effort, learn from your mistakes.”