January can be long, bleak and very dark in all manner of ways; 2015 has been no exception, with news headlines dampening spirits further. With many of us struggling through this post-festivities period, giving up booze may seem like an added pain. But for those taking part in Alcohol Concern's Dry January, they are already discovering the pleasures.
If you've ever stumbled over the figures when your GP asks you the number of units of alcohol you drink in a week, then you'll have no doubt had a small epiphany regarding your drinking habits and health.
Whilst I believe I'm not an alcoholic, I am addicted, insomuch as I feel having a drink unwinds me after a stressful day - and that I 'need' this relaxing effect in order to be more chilled, happier and easier to live with. I also think my passion for road cycling, my long dog walks and occasional weight training, together with a well-observed healthy diet, counteract this daily overindulgence of alcohol. And I am definitely happier with a G&T in my hand.
I'm wrong on all counts, of course.
So, in typical 'new year-new me' spirit, I ditch the alternative meaning of the word and go alcohol-free, along with the thousands of others who signed up at the start of this month for Dry January, committing to 'a holiday from booze' as sold by the campaign.
It's a bid to reduce my alcohol intake forever - not just this month - and now in week two, my email from the organisers, Alcohol Concern, further motivates me.
'Welcome to week two of your break,' it says. 'You might not see it immediately, but slowly some of the benefits of taking a month off booze should come through, like feeling fresher in the morning and your sleep slowly improving.'
In the interim between New Year's Eve and today (14 January) I've fallen off the wagon once - sharing a Rioja or two with my husband whilst enjoying the Epiphany celebrations in Spain. Now, isn't that an irony? But I clamber back on and continue my pledge.
I begin to wonder if it's the process of preparing a drink I enjoy rather than the drinking of it - the pouring of the dry gin, the tonic, the clink of the ice, the slicing of the lemon and the scattering juniper berries into a heavy round-bottomed glass. I replicate this with lime and tonic and it makes my sobriety easier to swallow.
Although I am nursing dull headaches and my insomnia continues, the upside is that I am staying awake past 9pm. Although my teenage daughters' many demands challenge me, I no longer forget small areas of the minutiae of their lives the day after it's shared over dinner.
I am not alone in enjoying these small but significant improvements to my life and health. Here, three fellow abstainers share their experiences as they lose the booze.
Chris Baker is 41 and lives with his wife, Sam, in Wiltshire. They have two cats, a horse and no children. He is the owner of a healthcare PR and marketing agency. In his spare time, he 'torments himself by supporting Tottenham Hotspur'. This is the second year Chris has 'gone dry' for January and did much the same 15 years ago during the summer.
He says: 'I do drink too much and, once again, felt a break would do me good. I probably overdid both the food and drink at Christmas, so was looking forward to a health drive. I've replaced the red wine and beer with lots of water, tea and long walks in the afternoon. I am also trying to read more in the evenings so am concentrating on that.'
There are no hangovers, he has lost more than half a stone in the two weeks, and gets a lot more done in a working day. He also acknowledges that he 'perhaps has a more positive outlook'. So far, so good - and he has had little in the way of people tempting him back to booze along the way. He says: 'I find January is a month where many of us hibernate and keep our heads down with work so temptation hasn't really been an issue. I have given up in June before and that is much harder socially what with the better weather, etc.'
He says he misses the relaxation that having a drink brings and admits he still feels the need to have alcohol to 'have a good time'. He adds: 'I also tend to think too much about the fact that I'm missing it.' But he's positive for the coming months, saying: 'I think it is important for people to test themselves and I now want to try to drink less, but better. So my deal with myself is that if I drink fewer glasses, I can have a better quality wine. I think I will succeed this time.'
Break the habit
Sharon Broom is 45 and director of operations for the British Dental Health Foundation, an oral health charity based in Rugby. She is a weekend respite carer for children with special needs. Married to Gary, with two daughters and 'three adored grandchildren', Sharon loves cooking, reading and hot sunny holidays.
Sharon says: 'I saw the need to break the habit of getting in and opening a bottle. Sometimes, we'd drink a bottle of wine just catching up in the kitchen and cooking dinner. Then would open another bottle …' Worried about how easily she could 'finish a bottle of wine to no ill effect', she has gone alcohol-free for January for health reasons. She is also committed to a 28-day juice detox. She is replacing her daily wine intake with water and lime or lemon slices, has lost weight, is sleeping 'much better' and has found she has a lot more energy in the evenings. Last Friday, she arrived home to discover a bottle of champagne chilling in the fridge, with her husband promising to order a curry. She declined both.
She explains: 'I'm going to do another month. Our wedding anniversary is on 28 February and we are away for the weekend, so I plan to celebrate with THAT bottle of champagne. After that, my husband and I have already decided we'll ditch the drink again come March.'
Marianne Matthews is 49, lives with her partner Steve and two teenage sons. She works as a customer service representative in an insurance company in Hertfordshire. So, what are the positive changes for her so far? She's noticed she's 'less groggy in the mornings and more alert in the late afternoons'. Her crunch point came last Saturday whilst sat with Steve who was sipping a gin and tonic, but she overcame it and appreciates that he still offers her a drink albeit alcohol-free. This is her first Dry January. She says. 'What don't I like to drink? I like white and red wine, cava, gin and tonic, scotch and coke, Bailey's, brandy, ginger wine, sherry, beer and lager - but not all in one night, obviously! Although, when you list them, it does looks horrendous. I think having a glass or two in the evening was just a habit I needed to break.'
Initially, Marianne had difficulty getting to sleep, but that's improved. She also had a 'muzzy headache' for a couple of days, three or four days into the month, but this, too, subsided. For her alternative to alcohol, she went retro. She explains: 'I decided to purchase some "fizzy pop" this week to help divert my attention. I have finished my ginger beer and am about to start on the dandelion and burdock. My teenage sons asked me why I had bought "wartime" drinks. I was a little upset as we used to have these drinks at Christmas for a special treat! I'm not doing this to lose weight at the moment. Quite frankly, that would be a complete waste of time, given the amount of chocolate, crisps and biscuits I'm still eating up from Christmas! But, come February, I do intend to stay off the drink during the week and treat myself on Friday and Saturday evenings. And, I will definitely drink less on these nights, too.'
So, for those of us who took up the challenge, it's halfway through the month and I can only say that it does get easier. If you have partners on board, too, then it must surely help your resolve. If giving up alcohol means I complete the Sunday newspapers in a day, find the time and energy later into the evening to watch some films on DVD with my family, and have my conscience and guilt eased at having one more drink than I should on a school night, then cheers to all of that!
• Alcohol Concern is a small national charity with a big vision - to change the drinking culture in the UK. It's not too late to go dry for January. For more details, visit https://registration.dryjanuary.org.uk.
Julie Bissett is a freelance journalist.