Dry January is now part of our national parlance. It dominates New Year’s Resolutions, saturates social media feeds, and kick-starts many a wellbeing calendar. According to a YouGov study, more than four million Brits will be attempting to give up alcohol this month. But what does this preoccupation with ditching booze for 31 days say about our relationship with alcohol? Substance awareness trainer Davyd McNamara thinks we need a more sustainable shift – one that accepts our basic human needs.
Now in its eighth year – and despite hostility from much of the alcohol industry and associated interests – ‘Dry January’ continues to garner column inches and draw eager participants. Introduced by the charity Alcohol Change UK, it is designed to help drinkers ‘ditch their hangovers, save money and improve their health and wellbeing’.
The invitation to abstain for a month certainly offers some opportunities. It is a chance for people to re-boundary and re-ritualise their alcohol use – essential components in any respectful relationship with a substance of choice. It can also help us gain greater awareness of the fact that alcohol-use is a paradigm, and one in which overt and covert pressures are brought to bear on those who try to opt out. The non-drinker is often exhorted to “go on, just have one”, and made to feel they are somehow missing out – either a killjoy or a bore.
Such notions can be easily internalised, thereby compounding ambivalence and serving as another barrier to change. But equally, framing mixed feelings as ‘denial’ helps no-one. Many of the ideas underpinning a ‘common sense’ understanding of what constitutes a problematic relationship to alcohol, and what should form any response to it, are a reflection of a particular philosophy (the abstinence-orientated disease model), time (1930s) and place (the USA). They are not a set of ‘facts’.
Such notions can go hand in hand with the belief that it is other people who ‘use’, or ‘abuse’, or ‘misuse’ alcohol. Alcoholics, along with others labelled addicts, are always ‘one of them’, never ‘one of us’. Instead of seeing alcohol use as learnt behaviour which has become maladapted (not least as a result of the alcohol industry’s positioning of alcohol as a drink, not a drug), individuals are framed as being psychologically fragile, vulnerable, over-sensitive, unhappy, weak, self-destructive, disadvantaged and/or misinformed, the victims of an illness or a particular personality type. Communities are encouraged to see the problematic drinker as other – a threat from outside – as opposed to someone ‘just like them’ – their brother, sister, friend, neighbour, colleague or acquaintance. What scope does this leave people to be understood, by others, or by themselves?
Despite recurrent tabloid reports which focus on young people’s problematic drinking, all the available data shows that it is actually an older, professional middle class demographic that consumes the most alcohol per head. Data also shows that the harms associated with this level of use are often happening outside of conscious awareness. Excessive drinking is a major cause of the 20 per cent increase in deaths from liver disease over the last decade. Public Health England estimates the number of alcohol-related fatalities in 2017 at 24,202.
Ultimately, a more sustainable shift in how people relate to and use alcohol is what is needed. This should be informed by an exploratory, integrative and nuanced approach that moves away from shaming and blaming, ‘all or nothing’ thinking, and incorporates greater appreciation of:
• The rules and rituals that are necessary to reduce alcohol-related harms: not drinking on consecutive days; having at least three non-drinking days per week; not drinking when depressed, lonely or bored; using alongside food and water.
• The important role played by an individual’s mood, beliefs, attitudes, assumptions and past experiences (set).
• The social and environmental context (setting) in determining the experience an individual has when consuming alcohol.
Because while the fact of alcohol and its ubiquitous availability cannot be changed, many of these other aspects can be. It is also vital to remember that, while anyone can choose not to drink, choosing not to be human is not an option. It is not drinking, but the function that alcohol has – the needs being met through its use – that cannot be abstained from. This includes the healthy and absolutely necessary requirement to periodically transcend the limitations of everyday, ordinary, ego-based consciousness and to experience an altered state (what Ronald K Siegel calls human life’s ‘Fourth Drive’).
Finding alternative ways to meet those needs is an essential component of any sustainable change process. If you, or your client, wants to address their alcohol use this month, accepting and exploring the needs alcohol is meeting may be a better place to start than signing up to Dry January.