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I gave up drinking for a month — and what I learned about myself surprised me

I made it through my self-imposed detox without a drop to drink (okay, maybe a drop). But it was harder than I thought it would be.

by Emily Pandise /
Not telling anyone I wasn't drinking was one of the ground rules of Dry January experiment. It was easier said than done. Claudia Miranda / EyeEm/Getty Images
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January is the time of the year to shed old habits and start new ones — it’s a clean slate, and often, we make resolutions that are meant to last an entire year. This year, I embarked on a short-term, but clear and fast change: four weeks, sans booze. Dry January, as the phenomenon is known, is a much-needed break from alcohol after the crazy social calendars that come with the few weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year. Even as a mere social drinker, I was a little intimidated by documenting this challenge — truth be told, I’ve tried it before, with only moderate success. With a fresh mindset, I wanted to give Dry January my best shot.

The Rules

With the help of NBC News health and nutrition Editor Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, I set some ground rules for myself to navigate 31 days without my favorite social lubricant.

My first rule, of course, was that I’d cut out alcohol for the month of January, and for the true month — from the 1st to the 31st (meaning no hair of the dog on New Year’s Day). I needed to call on Dr. Fernstrom to not only navigate the health rules of this challenge, but the social ones as well. She recommended to always have a glass in hand, regardless of its contents.

“You should have something that looks like what everyone else is drinking, but without alcohol. It can be you know a virgin mary, seltzer and lime,” she says. “Just something [so] that you’re blending with the people.”

Another hard and fast rule (and perhaps the toughest one): Keep my experiment more or less to myself.

“The main thing is not to announce it ... you’re only doing this for yourself,” Dr. Fernstrom reminded me. “Tell a trusted friend, or relative, saying, you know, I’m a social drinker, but when we go out, I’m gonna try this for a month ... and tell one or two people but don’t make this big announcement.”

Dr. Fernstrom also kept my health expectations for the month in check. I might lose a few pounds, but since I wouldn’t be replacing my alcohol calories with food, there wouldn’t be any huge health benefits or noticeable changes to my physiology. And when it might came down to social situations with new people, she recommended a little white lie along the lines of taking an antibiotic or finishing up a project for work as a go-to excuse.

Additionally, Dr. Fernstrom assured me that not all hope was lost when it came to social situations: “Is it withholding something if I don’t say, well I can’t have an alcoholic beverage? The answer is no. You’re the same social person if you drink with people or not.”

With these tips, I set out for a month of no booze, fewer Saturday morning headaches, and hopefully the same amount of fun.

You’re the same social person if you drink with people or not.

You’re the same social person if you drink with people or not.

WEEK ONE: SMOOTH SAILING, FOR THE MOST PART

My first day of Dry January got off to a rough start. Although I worked New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, I did indulge in a glass or two of Prosecco on the 31st since I knew I’d be going dry for the month. Lo and behold, I completely forgot to set my alarm clock and overslept. No motivation quite like a panic to get to work on time to make you stick to your booze-free guns.

On Friday, my first weekend of the challenge, I hosted a game night at home, and I was curious to see if I could actually keep this experiment to myself in a room full of people and their cocktails. Although I was bummed to be the only person not drinking (I had prepared by splurging financially on fancy seltzer and calorically by having a slice of pizza for dinner), no one seemed to notice or care, which was a nice surprise in an intimate space. That being said, my roommates were some of the few people aware of my dry month, and since the group was fairly small, no one else pointed it out.

Another perk: I got right out of bed on Sunday, perhaps due to my abstinence from drinking.

After too many holiday cocktails throughout December, I was off to a good start, mentally and physically — no hangovers to impede weekend workouts and only a minimal impact on my social interactions thus far.

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WEEK TWO: DRY DATING EQUALS MORE DIFFICULT DATING

Week two sans alcohol led to a few challenges, starting with a first date, with someone from an app ... in a bar. As Dr. Fernstrom recommended, I told a little white lie about “finishing up some antibiotics,” the logic of which my date jokingly disputed. I ordered a club soda, and he dropped it. He mentioned that he had started Dry January, and had already given up, and I resisted the urge to blurt out that I was doing it too to ease my own social anxiety. He had three beers, I sipped a few club sodas, and lined up a second date —relative success.

Second, I spent an afternoon with a friend from out of town, and she suggested we get a drink. In a moment of mild panic over not being able to adequately explain myself, I went to the restroom to collect my thoughts and game plan. As we were looking up bars, I mentioned I wouldn’t be drinking, and she suggested a manicure instead — a much more worthy use of $12. Crisis averted.

Finally, I was feeling a little stir crazy on Sunday evening, and usually, I’d just run around the corner to grab a drink. It felt silly to go to the closest spot (a slightly fancy wine bar), alone, to have a club soda. I stayed home, and used the booze calories on dessert.

At this stage in the game, I was getting a little tired of going to social events and not drinking. I didn’t really miss the sensation of alcohol, more the social aspect of going to the watering hole. It would be a further experiment for me to see how the final two weeks would go — would I decide to give up booze for good, or perhaps take a turn for the worse?

WEEK THREE: THE REAL TEST OF CHARACTER

After two weeks of a fairly full social calendar, I was not so hot on the idea of continuing to go out without alcohol. By the end of week three, I’d gone on another date and had another cozy night in at a friend’s place.

My date didn’t really buy my little white lie about antibiotics (perhaps he's a hypochondriac?), and started asking how long I’d been sick. He dryly brought up that he couldn’t have a second drink if I wasn’t joining him. I assured him I wasn’t bothered if he got another round, yet he declined all the same — this was my first encounter with my choices making someone else uncomfortable.

A night in with my friend was super casual — we’ve known each other for years, and I don’t think she gave much thought to the fact that I wasn’t joining her for a glass of wine. And, as a fun bonus, I got to drink overpriced seltzer out of a coupé glass, like the fancy person I occasionally pretend to be.

And yet — this experiment still feeling old. I didn’t miss the sensation of drinking so much; the dates and outings themselves were totally fine. It was, once again, the social aspect of participation. Who knew I'd have a major case of overpriced cocktail and crappy beer FOMO?

WEEK FOUR: LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL

For my final (hurrah!) week of "Dry, Mildly Tortuous, January," I had two dates, a birthday party and plans for a February 1st happy hour with an alumni organization from college.

A second date with the guy from week one was a little weird without alcohol, and more so without an adequate explanation. My date did ask if I was still on the meds and needed to skip — I offered that although I’d completed my fake round of antibiotics, I had gotten only a few hours of sleep the night before, and wouldn’t be my usual charming self with alcohol (I’d get too sleepy, and therefore way less engaged). Definitely not a lie, but not entirely sure if he bought it. I also technically cheated a little bit when he offered me a sip of his beer. I figured he’d been drinking alone on two dates with me, the least I could do was indulge his request. We mutually decided there wouldn’t be a third date, but I was curious if it had anything to do with the alcohol.

For another upcoming first date, I was able to suggest a mid-morning coffee and sidestep the issue altogether, which felt like a little victory. I even treated myself and ordered one with real milk in it (a luxury for me).

In week four, I was met with my greatest challenge yet — an afternoon birthday party at a bar. I was suddenly angry that I wasn’t able to fully participate in the social outing — it was my Saturday afternoon, goshdarnit, and I wanted to be holding a beer, not a soda. After complaining aggressively to my roommate on the train ride downtown (she’s a trooper, to say the least), I barely took comfort in the fact that there was another person at the still-small 5:30 pm crowd who wasn’t imbibing. I left the bar feeling annoyed by my surroundings of loud, intoxicated people so early in the evening. It didn’t feel worth it to be jostled around for 10 minutes trying to flag down a bartender for a club soda.

At this stage in the Dry January game, with only a few days left to go, I was feeling exasperated with my social experiment, even if I was still crushing those weekend workouts now that I was headache-free.

Now I can confidently say I can survive dates, parties, intimate get-togethers, dinners out — you name it — without any booze.

Now I can confidently say I can survive dates, parties, intimate get-togethers, dinners out — you name it — without any booze.

TAKEAWAYS, AND A MUCH-NEEDED GIN AND SODA

On February 1, I attended a happy hour event with alumni from my university — finally, an excuse to rejoin the drinking majority. That first sip of my drink wasn’t as liberating as I thought it’d be, but I was glad to be back with a real glass in hand. It was freeing to not have to make an excuse as to why I wasn’t drinking, and to not feel edgy that people might notice my substitute beverage.

Although I didn’t miss the sensation of alcohol itself, I definitely missed the social inclusion — that part of the experiment surprised me the most. I had no idea how important drinking was to feeling at ease — not a realization that gives me great comfort, but something to work on for myself. In the future, I may not limit the number of events where I’ll indulge, so much as the servings of alcohol. Now I can confidently say I can survive dates, parties, intimate get-togethers, dinners out — you name it — without any booze. I certainly don’t think I need to start drinking more at each event to compensate — one or two will ease any social tension, but keep me from going overboard.

The hardest part of this experiment, though, was keeping my dry month to myself. It was definitely a challenge not to just fall back on my excuse, but a worthwhile one to see how it affected my social interactions. If there’s one thing I learned from my Dry January, it’s that my next drink might mean more than I think it does.

More stories from from our "I Tried It" Series

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