I Tried Dry January—and It Saved My Life
Every year people participate in Dry January, a challenge to completely abstain from alcohol for a month, both as a way to detox from Drunk December and to start off the New Year on a healthier note.
But unlike other social media challenges—Movember, for example—getting sober for 31 days can actually change (or maybe even save) your life. This is exactly what happened when Traci Shoblom, 53, a wellness coach in Los Angeles, California, decided to do Dry January in 2019.
Why try Dry January?
“I hate the word ‘alcoholic,’ it’s not a helpful label,” Shoblom says. After growing up in a family of alcoholics—her mother died from complications of the disease in 2017—Shoblom was sure of two things: First, that she could recognize an alcoholic when she saw one and second, that she wasn’t one. “For years everyone told me I wasn’t an alcoholic and because I wasn’t like my mom and my life was going well, I assumed I didn’t have a drinking problem,” she explains. “And since I wasn’t an alcoholic there was no reason to ever give up drinking.” (Find out how to treat an alcohol addiction holistically.)
And why would she even want to give it up? Drinking alcohol, particularly good wine, was a favourite pastime she shared with her boyfriend, Larry, and the couple often bonded over long weekends of hunting down the perfect bottle to share over dinner.
“But somewhere along the way, I’d slipped into the habit of drinking too much,” she says. “Instead of going to a restaurant we liked and choosing a nice bottle of wine, we would leave multiple restaurants in a row because they didn’t have any wine we liked,” she says. “We were going to restaurants only for the alcohol.”
How to tell when your drinking has become a problem
What started out as a fun hobby eventually felt like a compulsion and by December 2018 she found herself drinking nearly a bottle of wine a day, on her own.
“I told myself that I wasn’t drinking because I was addicted, but because it was relaxing—a reward for getting through another stressful day, a way to smooth over awkward social situations, and a way to have fun,” she says. One of the first signs that her drinking had moved past fun was when she found herself having a hard time going more than a day or two without drinking.
Her turning point
“I remember wondering if that’s how it was for my mom. I realized that there had to have been a point for her when one day she could have quit drinking but then the next she couldn’t. I wondered when she had reached the point where she couldn’t stop—and then I wondered if that’s where I was,” Shoblom says.
You have to have a plan
The thought scared her enough that she started looking up resources on the internet, eventually finding the 30-day plan The Alcohol Experiment, by Annie Grace, a proponent of living alcohol-free. With the new year just days away, Shoblom decided that she was going to commit to doing Dry January 2019 and she would use Grace’s method as her guideline.
This is a great strategy for improving your relationship with alcohol, says Keith Heinzerling, MD, MPH, internist and addiction medicine specialist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center and the medical director of the UCLA Center for Behavioral and Addiction Medicine. “Doing a ‘trial quit’ for a short period of time is easier for many people than going straight to total abstinence,” he says. “Taking time away from drinking, even just for a few weeks, gives you a fresh perspective and the opportunity to break bad habits you may have with alcohol.”
“I didn’t know I wasn’t sober—until I was”
This was Shoblom’s whole goal: To be able to step back and really look at the different ways she used drinking in her life. “At first I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it, not even Larry, because I wasn’t sure how I was really going to do it and how long I’d stick with it,” she says. But after just a few days without alcohol, she realized how much her body had become dependent on it and it scared her. “I didn’t know I wasn’t sober until I was,” she says.
How to deal with withdrawal
Shoblom’s surprise at her withdrawal symptoms is actually a pretty common reaction to Dry January, Dr. Heinzerling says. “People don’t understand that you don’t have to be ‘an alcoholic’ for it to cause issues in your life and health,” he explains.
She confessed her feelings to Larry and he immediately decided to join her in doing Dry January—a moment she cites as a real turning point for her. “I honestly don’t know if I could have done it if he didn’t do it with me,” she says. “Having his support was so important.”
For the first three weeks, she suffered through withdrawal, having daily headaches, mood swings, sugar cravings, and extreme exhaustion. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are no joke and need to be taken very seriously, Dr. Heinzerling says. While Shoblom was able to manage the detox process on her own, not all people will be able to do the same, he cautions.
Not everyone should attempt Dry January
Abruptly stopping alcohol if you are a heavy drinker can be potentially dangerous, so talk to your doctor if you may be at risk for alcohol withdrawal. “If a person has been drinking a lot of alcohol for a long period of time they can become physically dependent on it. Going cold turkey in these cases can be very dangerous, causing seizures, delirium, and in some cases, death,” he explains. “Talk to your doctor before you start Dry January, and don’t be afraid to ask for medical help if it ends up being harder than you thought.”
Is Dry January right for you?
If you’re not sure if you’ll be able to handle a month of not drinking on your own, Dr. Heinzerling says a key sign is how you feel when you wake up, first thing in the morning. “People who wake up with withdrawal symptoms, like irritability, sweating, tremors, and a strong need for a drink should not do Dry January or any detox program without medical supervision,” he says. It’s so important to never lie to your doctor about how much alcohol you really drink.
Getting through the withdrawal period was incredibly difficult but doing the daily exercises in Grace’s book helped Shoblom get through detox and stay focused on her goal. “It really helped me understand all the reasons I drank and to challenge all the assumptions I had about alcohol and the role it played in my life,” she says.
“Every single thing in my life got better”
Then, after day 21, it was like a switch flipped. “I woke up and felt amazing, better than I’d ever felt, it was this perfect morning,” she says. “Everyone told me it would happen and I didn’t believe them until I experienced it, it was incredible.” By the end of week four she decided that she liked this new feeling so much that she wasn’t going to start drinking again after Dry January ended.
The health benefits of quitting alcohol
Shoblom says she became more emotionally stable, her skin became bright and smooth, her eyes were clear, her energy was through the roof, and she dropped 25 pounds without really changing her diet. (Larry lost 50 pounds!) Alcohol is full of empty calories, and drinking makes you hungrier, so ditching the booze may help you lose weight, Dr. Heinzerling says.
“One of the great things about this challenge is how quickly you can start to see positive health changes,” Dr. Heinzerling says. “Within just a few days of not drinking you’ll have lower blood pressure and heart rate, improved blood sugar regulation, better sleep, and less anxiety and depression.” Another bonus is that quitting alcohol often makes other good habits—like exercise and healthy eating—easier to start and maintain, which in turn leads to even more health benefits, he says.
Shoblom noticed that not only was her mood better overall without alcohol but she was no longer worried about things she may have done or said under the influence, which reduced her stress levels overall.
Falling back in love
In addition, she says her relationship with her boyfriend was transformed. Before Dry January she says their relationship was often contentious and centered around unhealthy habits. Now that they were both sober, however, they found new, healthier ways to communicate. “That feeling of rage was just gone,” she says. “We could decide to walk away and talk about things when we were calmer—something we hadn’t been able to do before.” The romance returned to their relationship as they bonded over the experience.
Life lessons learned
It’s now been almost a whole year since Shoblom gave up drinking and she says that while there have been some incredibly tough moments, she couldn’t be happier about the journey. “I’ve learned so much from this,” she says. “I learned that I actually do have a lot of self-discipline and I can do really hard things when I want to.” But perhaps even more importantly she’s learned that she doesn’t have to repeat the mistakes of her parents and that her life is her own to live.
It’s all about your mindset
The trick to having a positive experience with Dry January is to not see it as a month of gritting your teeth and getting through it until you can drink again but rather the start of a better relationship with alcohol and a healthier lifestyle overall, Dr. Heinzerling says.
“I would encourage anyone to try Dry January,” she says. “At the very least you’ll learn something about yourself. Everyone thinks they can stop drinking any time they want and this way you’ll see if that’s really true. At best, it will change your life, like it did mine.”
Now that you know quitting alcohol can be a positive experience, next find out what experts have to say about drinking while pregnant.