As the New Year begins, most of us resolve to conquer the cravings that have taken hold throughout the year. If we can’t resist food, we resolve to lose weight; if we’re obsessed with shopping, we resolve to set spending limits. As the annual quest for self-improvement tests our willpower, it can also show that our habits have a greater grip on us than we think.
Consider taking an alcohol-free month, for example. Alcohol Concern, a charity in the United Kingdom, is challenging people to lose weight, save money, and get healthy by abstaining from alcohol for the month of “Dry January.” In a column for the Telegraph, Peter Oborne says he plans to take the challenge. While Oborne says he’s not an alcoholic, he confesses that he drinks well above the recommended limit, loves pubs, and thinks that drinkers make better prime ministers. The thought of an alcohol-free month “fills me with terror,” he says. “I admit that, while not an alcoholic, I am in danger of becoming alcohol-dependent.”
I can attest that in my native England, drinking is integrated with a lifestyle where the pub is a center of conversation and social life. One government survey found that nearly a third of Brits drink more than the recommended amount; meanwhile, alcohol-related hospital admissions have increased 40 percent since 2003. In America, 68 million people are classified as “harmful drinkers” and consume five or more drinks in a sitting. Someone who’s drinking every night may not realize they’re as alcohol-dependent as a college student doing shot after shot on a weekend.
That’s why this challenge is valuable—so people can test their reliance on alcohol and find out if they need to get treatment. If you resolve to go a month without drinking and can only make it two days, you may need help. If you make it 15 days but still can’t resist, you may need help. Social drinkers may protest, “That’s rubbish. Two days between drinks doesn’t mean I have a problem.” But if you resolve to give up alcohol and can’t keep your resolution for 31 days, it’s time to get an assessment and find out whether your drinking is more serious than you thought.
I would go further and suggest that families take an alcohol-free pledge together. When family routines are ingrained, both a problem drinker and his loved ones may be in denial and not realize there’s a problem because it’s simply part of life. By pledging to give up alcohol together, families can take alcohol out of the family dynamic, support a loved one who may be alcohol dependent, and prove that it’s possible to change a pattern that to be seems a permanent part of life.
If you’re thinking of taking the Dry January pledge, consider reviewing the signs of an alcohol problem: drinking alone, drinking more than you intended, feeling bad or guilty about your drinking habits, or having a drink first thing in the morning to get ready for the day. If you agree with Oborne that a month without alcohol “stretches ahead like a desert and fills me with gloom and terror,” maybe “Dry January” is the time to test your resolve.
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