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If You’re Attempting A Dry January, What I Learned When I Gave Up Alcohol For Lent
I’m seeing lots of people vowing to observe Dry January, and posting their misery at how hard it is to stop drinking.
I’ve been there. Last year, I gave up alcohol for Lent, and it definitely opened my eyes.
My revelations weren’t so much about my own drinking. They were about how people react when they hear that you aren’t drinking. And, you might be surprised to learn that some folks take your choice very personally.
The decision to give up alcohol for Lent had nothing to do with an indulgent Mardi Gras, or a holiday binge.
It came after a funny result on a liver function test. My doctor told me not to be alarmed, but to stop drinking for four to six weeks, and then repeat the test after my body was completely free of alcohol.
A friend noted that Lent was coming up, a time when I usually give up something like coffee or chocolate. Why not skip alcohol for Lent, he suggested, and have the test right after Easter?
I’m a one-and-done drinker anyway, so I figured that an alcohol-free Lent would be a simple matter. My first step would be to have just one drink a day until Ash Wednesday arrived.
Then, I would quit completely until Easter.
Even a drink a day is more than I usually have, but I was spending Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and I wanted to be able to imbibe a little.
Trying to limit my drinking in the Crescent City foreshadowed what I was in for when I didn’t drink at all.
Here are some of the things I discovered while cutting back and then going cold sober. They may be some of what you notice as your Dry January gets underway.
Alcohol is everywhere. To be sure, New Orleans is a drinking town. You can start at breakfast, and seamlessly carry on through noon, happy hour, dinner and afterwards.
You can walk around town with a plastic cup of beer and nobody blinks an eye. New Orleans is ringed with drive through daiquiri spots, and bars often welcome you between sunrise and, well, sunrise.
When a bartender heard I had ridden in my first Mardi Gras parade, he served me up the quintessential New Orleans treat: beer and King Cake, the coffee cake that everyone eats during Mardi Gras.
Driving down to the bayou to visit a friend’s camp (the Cajun term for cottage), the first thing my friend suggested was to get 16 ounce Bloody Marys to take on the boat.
When I took a seafood gumbo cooking lesson, the hostess got out a gallon sized bottle of Costco wine, pouring glasses that were three times the size of what the British call a unit.
Now, the rest of the country might not party as hard as New Orleans. But, I discovered that there’s alcohol in places where you might least expect it.
Alcohol is in a lot of things. Joining my brother for dinner one evening during Lent, we ordered from a prix fixe menu that included desserts. One was coconut cheese cake. I took a bite and immediately recognized that it was soaked with booze.
“Is there liquor in this?” I asked the waitress. “Oh, yes,” she replied, “it’s our rum sauce, isn’t it great?”
Reading the ingredients of dijon mustard, I discovered that one of them is wine. Watching The Great British Bake Off on Netflix, I noticed the multiple times that a contestant included an alcoholic ingredient in hopes of currying favor with British baking legend Mary Berry, who likes her tipple.
If I wasn’t trying to stay dry, would I have noticed how ubiquitous alcohol has become? Not likely.
Some people get really upset if you don’t drink. I never knew about “sober shaming” while I was taking part. But as soon as I gave up drinking, I was subjected to it. And, there are times when it isn’t pleasant.
So I’ll say it right now. Stop giving your non-drinking friends a hard time.
I thought people would simply shrug at my decision not to drink during Lent. I didn’t see a need to tell anyone that there was a medical reason behind it. But to my surprise, some people that I encountered simply did not like the fact that I wasn’t joining them.
I turned down a drink at one party in favor of a glass of sparking water. “You don’t approve of our wine,” the hostess snarled, to my surprise.
I sipped plain water at another gathering, while others were downing beers. “That’s right, you don’t drink. Well, I do,” another person said, in a resentful tone.
At a business function, where waiters were keeping wine glasses topped up, my seatmate said, “We’re about to have a toast and you can’t toast with water.”
I was rescued by a work colleague, who explained I wasn’t drinking. “Well, put some in your glass anyway,” my seatmate said.
Avoiding the side eye. Non-drinking friends shared some useful tips with me. Always have a glass in your hand, so drinkers can think you’re keeping them company. Order something from the bar, even if it’s just ginger ale.
I began ordering full-sized bottles of San Pellegrino as a decoy, and offered to share with anyone who looked askance.
My encounters made me wonder: why would anyone care?
I wasn’t telling anyone else not to drink. I wasn’t tut-tutting and saying, “You might want to skip that fourth glass,” or taking away anyone’s car keys.
All I could think was that I might have run into people who had tried to quit drinking, only to give up. They might rue their hangovers and headaches, but they didn’t want any reminders of how to avoid having them.
Drinking, it seems, is a pretty touchy subject among some people.
They just expect you to drink, period, unless you’ve been to rehab and publicly confessed your problem to your social circle. (Spoiler alert: they probably didn’t have to be told.)
I don’t pretend for a second that my six-week experiment is anything like the challenge that recovering alcoholics face in dealing with sobriety. They have my deep admiration and support.
But, not only did I learn something about peoples’ reactions, I learned the role I wanted alcohol to play in my life.
I love a good glass of champagne — one glass. I like a cold beer on a hot summer day — one beer, or even half a beer is enough. It’s fun to have a bartender custom create a craft cocktail after hearing what you like to drink.
However, I’m also fine with water, or an Arnold Palmer, or some agua fresca. And I’m happy to see that a number of places are rolling out zero alcohol drinks that put an emphasis on flavor and refreshment, rather than buzz.
Definitely give Dry January a try. Just understand that your decision to detox after the holidays might be seen as a personal slight by some of your friends.
But it’s not you. It’s them. Maybe, to be honest, they’re a little envious. Good luck!
Oh, how did I do? I got through Lent just fine, although I had to detour and back away when alcoholic opportunities unexpectedly popped up, like some liquor filled chocolates that I was gifted with.
And, the next liver function test I had was completely clear. Whether the first one was a fluke or not, my sobriety experience was a useful lesson.
Follow Micheline Maynard on Twitter @mickimaynard