My first Dry January was dry, indeed. I white-knuckled four weeks alcohol-free with fizzy water and annoyance.
But the Dry January of today is lush.
As more people are attempting a sober month — or a sober life — stores are filling shelves with beautiful buzz-free beverages. Bartenders are shaking up sumptuous zero-proof cocktails. Bookstores are offering a bevy of "quit-lit" stories. There are support groups beyond AA and online communities for any niche, intense recovery-focused fitness classes and serene alcohol-free retreats.
Join our challenge to give up alcohol the month of January and you may gain sleep, energy and even extra pocket change.
And now, you'll have us.
This year, the Star Tribune is gathering all the expert advice and mocktail recipes you'll need to complete Dry January, including a Facebook page where you can check in and enlist support. No white-knuckling needed.
Consider it a wellness experiment. We hope you'll enter February with more energy, better sleep and new perspective around your drinking.
The challenge comes at a time when many of us could use the help. Since COVID-19 hit, Minnesota liquor store sales have spiked. More people in the U.S., and women in particular, have reported drinking more heavily and more often. Nearly one in four Americans say they're drinking more to cope with pandemic stress.
"I have had several patients come in who never had a problem prior to the pandemic," said Dr. Kristen Schmidt, an addiction psychiatrist with Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.
Then the isolation set in. The guard rails came off. The drinking intensified.
"You don't necessarily have to have a severe substance use disorder to have problems when you do use substances," Schmidt noted. "Some people become more depressed, some people become more anxious.
"This is a really good time to reevaluate ... if they like what their life looks like without the substance use."
But she offered a caveat: A person drinking heavily on a daily basis might experience withdrawal, which can be dangerous. If that's you, please seek professional help.
For some people in recovery, nonalcoholic, not-quite cocktails might be a bad fit.
But for the "sober-curious" or "hangover-averse," the recent boon in better NA beers and chic nonalcoholic spirits has helped people take a break from alcohol without losing happy hour.
Back when Minneapolis musician and then home brewer Paul Pirner quit drinking, a decision inspired by a couple of toddlers, bars didn't have other options.
"You have not lived until you've held up a Champagne toast because they're bringing your Diet Coke," he said with a raised eyebrow. "I felt like because of the decision to improve my life and the lives of the people I love, I was punished for it, because I was shut out of society."
During a holiday party, drinks missing from their hands, he and his neighbor Jeff Hollander decided to brew a better NA beer. Eventually, research and development for Hairless Dog Brewing Co. moved from Pirner's garage in Uptown Minneapolis to a production facility in Stevens Point, Wis. Today, liquor stores locally and nationally stock their beer, including an IPA as hoppy and foamy as any craft brew.
Local breweries, too, are making their own low- and non-alcoholic offerings in a greater range of styles, from stouts to sours.
Hairless Dog sells more beer in January than any other month — "by far," said Pirner, chief operations officer. So much so that they now offer a "Dry January Survival Kit," filled with six-packs and pint glasses.
"That month has done more in terms of taking away the stigma and normalizing NA beer than anything else," he said. "It made it fun for people. It made it a social thing."
Studies have long warned of the dangers of alcohol. Drinking too much increases the risk of not only liver disease but heart disease, breast cancer and stroke. Alcohol-related deaths are on the rise, according to a recent study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, doubling over the past two decades.
But wait. Isn't a glass of red wine a day good for the heart?
For years, researchers thought so. Studies seemed to show that moderate drinking — a drink a day for women, up to two drinks a day for men — reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, said Dr. Michael Criqui, professor emeritus in preventive medicine at the University of California San Diego. Criqui himself is credited with helping establish the "protective effect" of alcohol in moderate drinkers.
Research on alcohol use is tricky, because there's "no way to do a clean clinical trial," Criqui said. So experts relied on observational data, which is imperfect. "The more you adjust for other factors for people who drink moderately, the less the benefit is," he said, "and in some cases, it completely erases it."
A 2018 study, which Criqui co-authored, analyzed information from nearly 600 studies across 195 countries to determine the level of alcohol use that minimized harm. The answer: zero. It came as a surprise, he said.
"I can give you no medical justification for drinking," Criqui said. "I do not think one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men is particularly harmful — but I do not think they are at all beneficial."
Taking a hiatus can help. Research by the University of Sussex found that most people who took a monthlong break from alcohol reported saving money, sleeping better and having more energy.
And, months later, they were still drinking less.
Our culture is so seeped in alcohol that "people don't often ask: Why do I drink?" said Sarah Souder Johnson, a therapist and cofounder of Dissonance, an arts and wellness nonprofit that hosts alcohol-free concerts.
If you pair this challenge with mindfulness — by doing daily journaling, perhaps — you can approach it as a chance to look more closely at why you're imbibing, she said. "What might you discover about yourself that you don't notice when you're drinking?"
If you miss a day or mess up, "you're not out," Souder Johnson continued.
In fact, start the month with an understanding that might happen. "How are you going to handle that? What is your plan?" If you do drink, ask yourself: "Why? What purpose was it serving?"
Also: "How do I feel about the challenge? How do I feel about myself?"
The biggest barrier to completing a monthlong challenge is "judgment of self," said Annie Grace, author of "This Naked Mind," a book that spawned a business that includes live events, 30-day alcohol "experiments" and other coaching programs.
"The moment I was able to get curious about my behavior without judgment, everything changed," she said. Instead of asking "What's wrong with me?" Grace began asking: "Why is this substance having this effect on me?"
Liquor companies would have you believe that the problem isn't the substance but the person drinking it, she said. " 'Drink responsibly' is maybe the most shame-laden label."
Grace first encountered Dry January a decade ago while working in the United Kingdom, where it started as a public health campaign and turned into an international cultural phenomenon. Then, many people used it as proof that they didn't have a drinking problem, she said. When happy hour came around, they ghosted.
Come February, they reappeared at the bar, imbibing with new enthusiasm.
Being sober, too, had a different vibe then. "The people I knew who were sober were presenting pretty miserably," she said. Grace remembers one friend sniffing a glass of whiskey with a sad sigh. She herself approached her pregnancy with a "poor me" attitude.
Now, more and more folks are choosing not to drink — but still attending all the parties.
The monthlong breaks of today "feel like a very different conversation," Grace said. "It is a wellness conversation. People are going into it with curiosity.
"Hey, I wonder if I would feel better?"