Super sober me: part one
In the first part of a personal odyssey into sobriety, Jonny Garrett asks the experts what he can expect from a month of abstinence.
Sunday 14 February 2021
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January is bleak enough without giving up alcohol.
That’s what I’ve told myself every year since the term Dry January was coined in 2013. Every year except this one, which in case you’ve lost track – and I’d understand if you had – is 2021.
So that’s seven years of rolling my eyes at people giving up drinking for the first 31 days of the year. Seven years of saying we should be supporting pubs, throwing our weight behind breweries, and challenging the hand-wringing prohibitionists. Seven years of continuing my self-justified habit of drinking around 40 units a week.
In retrospect I was prejudiced. If life has taught me one lesson, it’s that you never know what someone else is going through, and you shouldn’t judge until you do. After drinking DIPAs in my pyjamas for much of the COVID-19 pandemic I came to the same realisation as millions before me: you really can have too much of a good thing.
So at about 11.55pm on 31 December I saw out the worst year in living memory with something special from the stash, and toasted to what we have all been screaming for in whatever form it came – a goddamn break.
Of course, taking a break isn’t the endgame of Dry January. Several studies have shown that even short-term abstinence can be healthy for you if you’re a moderate or heavy drinker, but any benefit might be moot if you go back to your old habits or increase your intake. Since its inception and adoption by charity Alcohol Change UK, the idea has been to give people the support and information they need to reassess their relationship with alcohol. According to Andrew Misell, a director at the charity, staying sober for 31 days is just a challenge that helps you start that journey.
“We’re trying to offer to people an opportunity to find their feet and themselves again,” he says. “Any of us who have used alcohol to cope will know the effects are short lived. Usually you end up feeling worse.”
The real goal is to understand why we drink, what we miss and what we don’t, and to make the adjustments that make our consumption healthier both physically and mentally, if you can actually separate those two things. Misell says studies show 70% of people who do Dry January are still drinking less than they used to six months later, and was keen to point out that going completely dry during January was not as important as examining our intake in that time.
70% of people who do Dry January are still drinking less than they used to six months later
Which was a relief to me. Given everything that’s happening in the world, I am fairly certain I’m going to have a “fuck it” moment and crack a beer during the month. To help delay that moment as long as I can, I’ve decided to continue my habits as usual, but replace the alcoholic beers in my fridge with non-alcoholic ones. I hope I can find some beers that help me in the darker moments in the way that a full-strength beer can.
The odds look good. After spending around £60 in bottleshops and online I have managed to fill my fridge with Pilsner, Helles, Pale Ale, West Coast and New England IPAs, Porters, Stouts, fruited sours and even a Pastry Stout. None of them go over 0.5% alcohol, which is roughly how much alcohol you’ll find in some slightly old orange juice.
So my odyssey into sobriety includes two great tests. The first is whether low-alcohol beer has come along far enough to both satisfy the alcohol craving side of me and the beer geek side of me, long and short term. The second is what happens to my body when I go from drinking around 40 units a week to essentially zero.
The government says that drinking 14 units or less in a week puts you at “low risk” of health issues, if you spread it over three days or more. I’m sure I am not alone in putting that away in one night regularly, so I’m not underestimating this change. According to Dr Tony Rao, a consultant at the Royal College of Physicians and an expert in alcohol misuse, I can expect to sleep better, concentrate harder and find more energy. I should also see a drop in weight, cholesterol and blood pressure, though those studies weren’t done mid-pandemic.
“If you feel better on the inside, you are bound to feel better on the outside,” says Dr Rao. “Giving up alcohol for a month could mean a new you. Only you will know.”
As I write in early January, just over a week into the challenge, I’m not sure yet. I am already feeling some effects, but they are not all positive. Getting to sleep is significantly harder, as my mind races with flashbacks of the day and worries about the future. The sleep I eventually achieve feels deeper but accompanied by wild dreams. I used to dream almost exclusively about work, and woke my wife up several times with sleepy admissions that emails had been missed, videos not uploaded, deadlines passed. Suddenly I am on the beach as a child queuing for the public toilet that keeps getting further way; or I’m getting booed on stage at Glastonbury with Taylor Swift.
I’m told the reasoning is that alcohol disrupts our sleep patterns, meaning we spend less time in REM, the state in which we mostly dream. Without that effect, I’m simply dreaming more and sleeping deeper. In the morning I am disorientated and groggy like I’ve slept for a lifetime, but for the rest of the day I’m wide eyed and alert. I don’t need a coffee to sharpen me, or a shower to shock me, or sugar to fuel me.
Of course, it could be confirmation bias. I’m aware of all the research I’ve done, the education I’ve received, the cliches I’ve been told. Do I feel more awake because I am, or because I should? My smart watch tells me my average sleep, heart rate and stress levels are the same as the month before – save for an elevated heart rate in dealing with my New Year’s Eve hangover. In fact, dreams aside, the only surprising change is that I don’t really fancy a beer. Removing the opportunity to drink has in part removed the temptation too.
That’s bound to change, though. While I haven’t given up alcohol since an unlikely tilt at the Brighton Marathon in 2011, I have taken a week off on numerous occasions. It’s only a few more days until I am into truly uncharted waters. I’m lucky that lockdown has come at a time when I don’t have to socialise with friends who are drinking, but even without peer pressure there is plenty of reason to drink right now – if only to help divide the days spent at my desk and evenings on the sofa right next to it.
It’s then that I’ll be relying on the progress of non-alcoholic beer to keep me interested. I have over 30 different non-alcoholic craft beers to try out when the need for beer really bites, and I’m intrigued to see how much of that pint-shaped hole they can fill.
Next issue, Jonny will report back on the results of his journey. We’re hoping for super powers, but time will tell...
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