Is Dry January Harder In Vegas? A Very Serious Investigation

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For most of my life, January has meant two things: a cold start to a new year and a month where people try to cleanse, detox, and drink less alcohol — or none at all — in the name of wellness. Although I’ve never really subscribed to the whole “new year, new me” thing, this past year has changed something for me, specifically when it comes to drinking. Call it maturing or just experiencing one too many debilitating hangovers in 2022, but quitting alcohol for a month could lead to a new year, new me, if I really tried.
But Dry January has always felt like a guaranteed failure for me. Most of my social activities involve heading to weekday events for work, happy hours, and bars on the weekend — all of which involve alcohol and a good amount of FOMO if I'm not drinking like the people around me. Even if I’m not planning on a rowdy brunch or a late night out, I still like to enjoy a glass of wine or two with dinner or a hot toddy on a snowy Saturday, and I’m surely not alone. But still, there’s room for concern when it comes to alcohol — especially when we’re participating in a culture where binge drinking is the norm.
The number of women overdoing it (and even dying from alcohol consumption) has grown rapidly in the past couple of decades and especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the CDC, almost half of adult women report drinking alcohol in the past 30 days, with 13% of them participating in binge drinking. Among them, 25% do so at least weekly, and 25% consume at least six drinks during a binge drinking occasion. The CDC’s recommendation for women drinking is to consume one or less drinks a day to avoid risks such as high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, liver disease, cancer, memory and learning loss, and more.
While the term “binge drinking” may sound extreme, our pro-alcohol culture has made excessive consumption acceptable and sometimes encouraged. If someone’s drinking without being intentional about it, an early dinner leading into a late night can easily turn into six beverages or more (trust me, I’ve been there).
As I’ve been interrogating my relationship with alcohol more closely, I’ve been wondering if I even have the ability to cut myself off for an entire month. What if I failed? What if I’m not as strong as I think I am, or if my FOMO-prone self will feel more anxiety from missing out than my hangover?
When Kirvin Doak Communications, a Las Vegas-based PR firm, reached out to offer to fly me out and show me a myriad of wellness offerings of Las Vegas, I knew this would be a chance to put my willpower to the test. Could I try a Dry January run by staying sober in the one place designed to make you give in to your vices? I mean, what better way to test myself than to head to a city that’ll test me in return?
In a promise to no one but myself, I was to spend the entire trip, from Las Vegas and back, sober. Although my experiment might have been be a bit unusual, Peg O’Connor, PhD, addiction expert, professor of philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College and author of Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering, says that we should all be examining our alcohol use regardless of whether we have a problematic relationship with drinking or not to see what kind of role it plays in our lives. She points out that many of us have become unintentional with our drinking, meaning that we often don’t give a conscious thought to how this behavior is affecting us and our health on both a physical and mental level. If you find it hard to cut back or even incredibly easy, Dr. O’Connor says that’s information we can use on how to move forward with our level of consumption, or whether or not we need more help than we thought.
Dr. O’Connor also tells me that people say willpower is a muscle we've got to exercise, and that it can become fatigued if we’re always deflecting temptations — like, for example, a person attempting a Dry January run through in Las Vegas. “I think it's quite a challenge that you have set yourself, and I think you could do it,” she tells me over the phone, just two days before my trip. “I think you're going to learn a ton about yourself, I really do. I think that this is a bold experiment for you and that you’re undertaking it says you really are taking this seriously and you really are looking to learn about yourself and learn about what role alcohol and drinking plays in your life.” What have I got to lose?
For this sober curious test drive, I brought along my roommate who would be free to drink during our quick two-day trip to Sin City. Not only is having a companion a far better way to travel, but I also wanted to see what the experience would be like in the “real” world (aka, around others who would be tempting me to indulge). Soon, we came across my first hurdle: the airport bar.
Our first flight was at 7 a.m. which thankfully removed any temptation of airport drinking. But once we landed for our connecting flight, the vibe shifted. We were in St. Louis, Missouri with around an hour to kill before our next flight. There was, for lack of a better description, a party at the terminal. The bar by our gate was lined with men in cowboy hats shouting in the thickest southern accents I’ve ever heard, as well as a rowdy bachelorette party, and a tangible excitement in the air. I couldn’t figure out what they were all heading to Vegas for until I overheard one cowboy hat-wearing man ask another, “Are y’all headed to the rodeo, too?” Although I wanted nothing more than to sidle up to the bar with my friend, order a drink, and eavesdrop on the conversations around me, I couldn’t let myself give up so easily — and the layover was less than an hour, anyway.
We landed at our destination in the early afternoon and had zero down time before our plans began. As soon as we checked in at the Bellagio, I rushed to the hotel spa. As I sat there, enjoying the free tea, chocolate truffles, and bubbles after a facial, I truly believed that staying sober in the biggest party city in the U.S. would be a breeze. But leaving the spa, on the other hand, was where I met with another temptation: the crowded casino.
I weaved through throngs of people gambling, smoking, and enjoying espresso martinis at the many, many hotel bars as I walked back to the guest elevators. And, there it was. The FOMO had finally, really hit. If this were any other trip on any other day, I’d be right there with them indulging in a mid-afternoon snack, a glass of wine, and partaking in my favorite activity, people watching. But alas, I was in my sober era — and had reservations to get to.
We headed to Vanderpump à Paris for some appetizers before our dinner reservations, and I settled on a virgin margarita just to feel something while my friend ordered one of their intricate mezcal cocktails (like, presented to her in a glass replica of the Louvre museum with smoke billowing out kind of intricate). We had crudites and charcuterie and crab croquettes, all of which were unsurprisingly better at satisfying my palette than the tequila-less margarita was. Then, we scurried across the Strip to our dinner at Scarpetta, an upscale Italian restaurant — and possibly my biggest test of all.
We had been set up with a six-course tasting menu, and each dish was to be paired with wines. I had to interrupt our waiter, who was explaining how our meal would go, to explain that I would not be drinking the six (six!!) glasses of wine during our meal. I didn’t offer an explanation and was met with an actual, open-mouthed guffaw. “Are you sure?” our server asked, confused at my request. I wondered if every non-drinker in Vegas was met with this much skepticism. I didn’t experience much questioning anywhere else, but FYI, people shouldn’t be interrogating someone who declines alcohol for any reason.
As the food came out, I watched as my friend enjoyed different kinds of chardonnay, sauvignon, and cabernet while I sipped on my non-alcoholic beer (which ended up hurting my stomach, go figure). Although I did eat some of the best food of my life, I felt the jealousy creep up as my friend became more buzzed with each passing glass. But what am I jealous of? I asked myself. One answer, I thought, was that I really do enjoy the taste of wine (and it was probably good wine, at that). Another answer was that I, too, wanted to be tipsy with my friend in Las Vegas, to enjoy this experience together and to giggle and have fun like we always do when we drink wine together. I realized I wasn’t not having fun, of course — this was just a new kind of experience.
The next morning I was up at 7 a.m., but for a much different reason than one would be up at 7 a.m. for in Las Vegas. We had scheduled an early workout — another vacation first for me and something that wouldn’t usually be possible, mostly due to the fact that my hangovers hit hard and I like to sleep in. We headed over to the gym at the Cosmopolitan for a full body interval workout class made up of me, my friend, and just one other early riser (I’m guessing that an early morning workout isn’t exactly the norm here). Normally, I’d be horizontal until at least 12 p.m., cursing my actions and wishing I could rewind my morning.
There were a whirlwind of activities following our time at the spa: another meal with a virgin Bloody Mary, a visit to the Bellagio fine art museum, a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower at sunset, ice skating on the roof at The Cosmopolitan, some gambling (and losing), until finally ending our night at the Mayfair Supper Club, which is a dinner-and-a-show situation with, again, incredible food and performers. And by the end of it all, I didn’t even care if I had an alcoholic beverage in my hand or not. By being busy and letting myself fully enjoy the activities, it became clear that alcohol was just an additive to having fun — not the reason behind it all.
A couple of days before I hopped on the plane, Dr. O’Connor told me the story of her mother, who was incredibly afraid of flying but wanted to see the world, so she faced her fears and became a flight attendant. I’m not saying that her mother and I have any kind of bravery or boldness in common — I simply refused a few Miller Lites at the roulette table while she went up miles into the sky — but the fact that we both went into the so-called “belly of the beast” to face something we were unsure of is something Dr. O’Connor calls admirable.
So, I did it. I went to Las Vegas and back without having a sip of alcohol. But I will say this: Although there was temptation at every turn and an endless carousel of possibilities to indulge myself in, being busy and distracted helped keep any desire for an alcoholic beverage out of my thoughts (and subsequently out of my hands). Now, I beg the question: Is the rest of Dry January in the cards for me? I’m still not so sure I want to go an entire month without an alcoholic beverage, but what this experiment taught me is that I probably — no, definitely — could.
For those who are spending the month skipping alcohol, Dr. O’Connor says it’s important to ask yourself how you respond when you disappoint yourself — no one is perfect, and not drinking for an entire month when alcohol is a present part of your life can be hard to achieve. Are you one to shrug it off and move on if you falter? Or do you take your failure more personally and beat yourself up over it? Prepare yourself and decide how you’re going to discipline yourself after.
For those looking to really, truly test themselves and unpack their relationship with booze, it’s kind of a perfect experiment. And realizing you have more willpower than you previously thought kind of makes it all worth it.
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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