Raise your glass: a toast to Dry July.

Well, we’ve made it. It’s 2/3 of the way through calendar winter and, for Auckland at least, the climate starts to feel a lot more like spring (despite the deluge of rain this morning). Along with that, we can all raise a glass to those who participated in Dry July. A month without a drop of alcohol is, for some, a big deal. Earlier in the month there was an opinion piece in the Herald regarding Dry July, questioning the utility of it – asking what the point of going one month alcohol free when actually people should look to having a few alcohol free nights per week instead. For those who follow my Facebook page, you’d have seen my initial comments about it. There’s no dispute that choosing to drink moderately throughout the week and including alcohol free nights per week is important; certainly the toxic effects of excess alcohol consumption on inflammation and our organs that contribute to chronic disease are well established. But to my mind, the editorial missed the point. Yes, Dry July is an exercise in abstinence that isn’t a long term approach to alcohol consumption for most. However some people who undertake the challenge, sponsored or not, choose to do it because they are curious as to the impact that not drinking will have on their wellbeing. And these aren’t people who you might consider would ‘need’ it.

A client of mine is just that person. She wasn’t close to the maximum of two standard drinks per day, 14 in total across a week. She enjoyed just one on most nights throughout the week, perhaps two at the most on the weekend. The last time she drank what she would consider ‘too much’ was back in 2008 on a girls night out. And it wasn’t that one drink made her feel drunk – or feel anything other than relaxed – however there was a nagging thought in the back of her mind that the attachment to the glass of wine wasn’t a good thing. She didn’t hang out for the wine from 8am in the morning but it was a little oasis of relaxation in an otherwise busy day that started before 5am with an ironman training session, to move swiftly into her role in a busy insurance firm to another training session to finally arrive home for dinner at around 8pm. It was the only thing that helped her wind down and there was nothing she enjoyed more than that glass of wine as she prepared dinner. We had a discussion about this. While she enjoyed the glass of wine with her partner, she would also take pleasure in drinking it by herself. Her main fear centred less around the physical damage of her drinking but the psychological pull. Her parents are heavy drinkers and have been for years, so alcoholism is something that runs in her family. For her, going alcohol free was as big a deal as the person who has a drink or three after work and then one with dinner four or five nights a week.

What she noticed across the course of the month was interesting. As she reflected back to me this week, she said that the first week was eye opening. She realised that she had been waking up feeling slightly groggy and dehydrated for years without realising it. It wasn’t until she decided to go cold turkey that she discovered it wasn’t a natural state for her to be in. Even the seemingly small amount that she drunk had that effect on her. While the first week was a little strange – as the habit of a glass of wine after work has been ingrained for years – it became easier across the course of the month to go without. In fact, by the end of week four, with just a few days remaining, she realised the main issue for her giving up the wine was the question as to whether or not she would go back to drinking it. The exercise in abstinence proved that she could go without – however to reintroduce it suddenly put her in a conundrum. Would that attachment still be there? Yes, likely – it’s only been a month. The question of whether or not she should drink alone also came up. For some, this type of drinking is a red flag for a more serious drinking problem. However, this isn’t the case for everyone, and I didn’t see it as an issue with this client particularly. The association of guilt here is a lot like guilt around food – I think that in itself can be problematic. If you feel guilty for the drink that you have, you are more likely to drink quickly (almost like it didn’t happen) and not enjoy it. For some, this could also increase the amount being consumed as ‘this is the last time I’ll have a drink by myself.’

The thoughts going around her head were largely related to her family history – which is why she decided to do Dry July in the first place. The one thing she was most concerned about was the possibility that the first drink could open the flood gates and she would be on a slippery slope from one drink a night to two bottles of wine. You’d probably agree this seemed extremely unlikely. She’d been drinking this way for at least 10 years and it hadn’t cascaded into more problematic behaviour. We bandied about ideas that could help her enjoy her wine without the associated (and unnecessary) guilt – but this put rules on it which also didn’t make her feel comfortable. In the end we decided that, if she felt like a glass of wine, she would first have a sparkling water to satiate her thirst, then pour a glass if she felt like it. This solution may mean the end result wouldn’t look any different from what she was doing before Dry July, but it might at least offset the dehydration she felt. Also, for anyone who drinks, this is a good way to slow down how quickly you consume alcohol, especially those who neck the first drink due to thirst. I also always recommend to clients they back up every alcoholic drink with a non-alcoholic, sugar free option. That way they would drink only half as much as they would normally. I’d say I have about a 30% hit rate with that little gem. Those who do it though report feeling a lot better the next day, heavy drinkers or not.

So, raise your glass (of your drink of choice – alcoholic or not) to Dry July, as it creates an awareness around drinking behaviour – for heavy and light drinkers alike. Cheers.

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