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Don’t Let January Fool You — I Think Sobriety Is Genuinely Fun

Welcome to Press Pause. This January, we’re asking: What does self-care look like when it’s not all or nothing? What if we simply pressed pause here and there?
Photographed by Kara Birnbaum.
It’s 8 p.m. on a Saturday in 2023 on my 30th birthday and I am standing on my own, stone-cold sober, wailing my way through Robbie Williams’ “Angels” at a crowded Italian restaurant. Up until this moment, karaoke had always been something I would have never done without drinking, in part because of my fear that people would judge me or find me embarrassing. But here I was, a year into sobriety, savoring the mad and euphoric feeling of being fully aware of my actions, surrounded by both loved ones and strangers, and not feeling a shred of social anxiety.
The biggest and most mortifying surprise of my life was just how much fun I could have without drinking. While I wouldn’t say I was addicted to alcohol, I was definitely dependent on it throughout my twenties — it was my social lubricant and tool for emotional regulation in unfamiliar settings. It’s how I celebrated, commiserated, and ended an otherwise banal work day. I’d come to expect drinking to always equal fun and therefore fun to always equal drinking.
There were of course plenty of times when this wasn’t true and the hangover, anxiety, and impact on my debit card showed it was far from worth it. But there was always the hope that this next dinner or night out or post-work drinks would be as glittering as some past one I remembered. Even when I’d tried reducing or stopping my drinking before — especially when I found it was triggering my debilitating obsessive compulsive disorder — I subconsciously held firm onto this idea that any fun I had sober would be even more fun when drinking.
It was only when I started a new medication for my OCD at the beginning of 2022 that I truly began to confront this idea. I stopped drinking and life went on. After a few pub evenings and birthday parties where I felt awkward and withdrawn, I began to embrace acting like a fool and being fully cognizant of it.
Celebrations became riotously fun as I had as much, if not more, fun as I ever did drinking. Two full years on, I maintain that stopping drinking is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my adult life. And more importantly, I’ve experienced all the fun and giddy glee sober that I was inadvertently chasing in a bottle.
This is why I am a firm believer that everyone who drinks should try life without alcohol in some capacity and that if you are considering quitting entirely, there’s no time like the present. But, now, as we roll into another unavoidably grey and miserly January, it is also why I think that for some, Dry January (spending the whole month sober as a mental and physical reset) might not be the way you begin to experience the joy of a reduced or even alcohol-free life.

Celebrations became riotously fun as I had as much, if not more, fun as I ever did drinking.

I want to be very clear that I’m not criticizing Dry January. It’s a really important initiative led by the brilliant charity Alcohol Change UK, who do important work reducing alcohol harm. It also gives people a “socially acceptable” reason to stop drinking if they struggle with peer pressure. Moreover, people’s relationship with alcohol varies greatly — the more dependent or addicted you are, the more you need to consult a professional, like your doctor, before making any big changes, and so the framing that works for me or someone else could be irrelevant for you.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to reworking your relationship with alcohol, and for some people it may mean complete abstinence. Tara Swart Bieber, MD, tells us: “If someone is misusing or abusing alcohol then medical supervision would be necessary if they wanted to stop. If someone stops and gets symptoms of withdrawal then they should contact their [doctor]. If they are drinking socially and not more than the recommended limits, then they can stop without medical guidance.”
My point though is that taking a month off, especially in January’s grim weather and post-holiday-decadence haze, can just reaffirm the idea that sobriety is boring. As Annabelle Bonus, director of research, policy and strategy at Drinkaware UK, tells Refinery29: “Initiatives like Dry January can give people a really clear target if they want to cut down or try to stop drinking completely. While they work really well for some people, other people can find them hard to stick to and that’s completely normal.”
Millie Gooch, founder of Sober Girl Society, a community safe space for sober women changing their relationship with alcohol, agrees. As an advocate for Dry January, she underlines why she supports the initiative. “Where people might have overdone it over the holiday season, Dry January can provide a much-needed break for your body and mind," she says. "On the flip side, not much socializing happens in January and although this can make not drinking easier, it doesn’t give you as much of a chance to flex your sober socializing muscles.” This can mean the idea of a dinner/night out/festival sober maintains a veneer of intimidation.
The way I’ve combatted this is to focus on getting in at least one social activity where you would in the past have been drinking and experiencing it sober. This can be intimidating at first, especially if you experience social anxiety in social situations. But one big secret I only realized when I stopped drinking is that pretty much everyone feels that way in new social situations. I’ve learned that it will dissipate after an hour or so as people relax — whether they’re drinking or not. And riding that anxiety out becomes far less challenging as you keep trying.
“This [technique of riding out the anxiety] is one of the central tenets of exposure therapy,” explains Sheri Jacobson, PhD, a retired psychotherapist and founder of psychotherapy clinic Harley Therapy. “You can track your anxiety on a self-reported scale one to 10, and you will notice the anxiety comes down at each 10-minute interval that passes. Most things will dissipate over time.”

But one big secret I only realized when I stopped drinking is that pretty much everyone feels anxious in new social situations.

Dr. Jacobson emphasizes that it’s psychologically important to make positive associations around not drinking, whether that’s just for one evening or for the foreseeable future. 
“What happens in drinking is that there’s a general lowering of inhibitions, which may allow us to speak more freely and be less anxious,” she explains. “The short-term motivation is that we gain these benefits of maybe being more sociable than we would be and a greater sense of freedom. In order to stop drinking, we have to look at the things that are negative for us, and then switch those into something more positive.”
The positives of not drinking are very clear to me. In my experience, it is not just those to your physical and mental health (though those are significant) but learning to overcome social anxiety in awkward situations, feeling at ease in yourself, having better ability to listen to your body when it says it needs food or rest, and then actively choosing to go home (or stay out). You can feel the crispness of euphoria in high definition without it being clouded by booze, you can dip out of repetitive, drunk conversations without anyone being offended (because they’re drunk), and save money. What’s even more fun is that you channel it into something else, be it something you’ve always wanted to try (pottery!) or silly little treats (chocolates!).
Drinking is fun and for many can be the spark that lights the best night of your life. But it doesn’t have to be. Whether you’re attempting Dry January or not, it’s truly worth trying to have a good night without it — one that’s not just calm and clarified but raucous and silly, if that’s what you need. 
That won’t be guaranteed the first time you order a lime and soda at your local. As Bonus puts it: “With any sort of behavior change, like cutting down drinking, it should be thought of as a journey rather than something that’s going to change overnight.” But if you find a whole month a prescriptive suggestion or you’re worried that losing drinking will hamper your joy, I am proof that it won’t. And don’t let the grim weather trick you into believing otherwise.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for free and confidential information.

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