People keep reminding me it is January. I consider this an act of aggression. I keep writing “October” on all my checks. I also keep writing 1997. I also keep writing checks? What the hell is even going on with January, anyway? How can a January ever possibly feel normal? The year just started; the opening credits for it are still rolling, people are still looking for their seats. And yet here we are, already mid-way through the first month of the year, 1/24th of the way into 2024. All of us collectively trying to ignore the fact that Januarys are really just a leftover of the year that preceded it. There are extremely important dates therein (MLK Day, Inauguration Day, Insurrection Day, Everyone Being Mad at Taylor Swift for Showing Her Face in a Sacred Men’s Space Day(s)), and some of us just aren’t in the right mindset to give them their due. We’re too dehydrated and too tired. We are wading through a calendarial hangover, the remnants of 2023 we never really addressed. We shouldn’t have to start a new year until mid-February. Or, let’s be honest: June.
In Seattle, Januarys are a bleak thing – the sun sets at roughly 4pm, the sky is heavy and if you stand on tip-toe you can reach the bottom of the clouds. The earth is forever wet. The weather forecast is invariably 33 degrees and raining. Everywhere around me I hear people talking about how they are embarking on a Dry January – giving up alcohol for the month, shifting to mocktails and sparkling water under some guise of starting anew and taking better care of themselves. Of being “healthy.” I’m guessing, anyway. I’ve never asked people why they decide to stop drinking for a month. It’s none of my business. It’s none of anyone’s business. But unfailingly, no matter why they chose to give it up, everyone comes to the same epiphany, just in time for the Epiphany: this was a terrible idea. Because January is a time of year that would drive anyone to drink.
But Dry January, for me, is just another month.
I do not drink. Not really, anyway. This is not out of some pious resolve. I am not a beacon of health or morals or self-restraint. Any dietary ethical high-ground I could lay claim to washed away years ago, on a tide of Mountain of Dew. There are a thousands reasons why I don’t drink. A few bad experiences, a tolerance so low I can’t finish a single cocktail, a tendency towards feeling dizzy and nauseated even when my blood alcohol level is zero. And, to be blunt: I just don’t enjoy it that much. I don’t mind a sip or two of wine, a watered down cocktail prepared by someone who understands that I can’t handle more than half a shot over the course of an evening. But when people talk about needing a drink? I suddenly become a pillar of restraint. I’ve driven carload after carload of people home after holiday parties, New Year’s bashes, birthdays. Of painfully clear mind, I’ve awkwardly stood by while people made drunken confessions to me and dissolved into hot messes. I’ve discretely sipped my club soda and wondered if I was unfun. As everyone giddily ordered brunch mimosas and bloody marys, as the zeitgeist switched to gendered jokes about “rosé all day” and how it was “beer o’clock”, I wondered if there was something fundamentally wrong with me. If I was physiologically programmed to be the stick-in-the-mud. Biology had made me everyone’s Designated Driver; it was a role that was appreciated, but not one anyone wanted.
To be a woman of a certain age who doesn’t consume alcohol is to invite all sorts of intrusive questions about your life and your body. People would comment, in states of alarm or smugness (like they were the only person who had noticed) that I wasn’t drinking. I would tell them that liquor angered my blood, that I only drank if it was absinthe in 19th century Paris, that an unfortunate deal I made with a pixie prevented me from consuming alcohol. They would roll their eyes and give me a knowing wink, then would loudly theorize how far along I was.
To have your body and life choices suddenly scrutinized because of what you are imbibing is a horrible thing.
The questions have slowed over the years, and now have stopped altogether. There are times when it’s been painful. There are times when it’s been angering. Always, it’s been intrusive. At times like these, I think of a family member who answers inappropriate questions with a single, biting retort: Why do you want to know? I am in my early 40s. People no longer assume that my teetotaling is hiding some secret pregnancy. It took longer than I would have liked, but in the end, I was always vindicated. I am not sober because I am pregnant; I am sober because I want to be.
We live in a world where people assume that drinking is a given; to deviate from it is an abnormality. There has to be a reason for not drinking. Curiosity is instantly stoked. People can’t leave well enough alone. I used to find ways around this. Rather than refuse a wine glass at a restaurant, I’d ask for just a small sip – it seemed my like my constitution was just too delicate to handle more than that. I shouldn’t have felt any pressure but it is there – this perpetual feeling that my choices are a silent judgement of everyone else. That things would be better if I could just loosen up and have a drink. And on those rare occasions when I did drink (because, though not often, I sometimes do), people were either scandalized or oddly triumphant. We have to live in a world where it’s all or nothing. Where you either giving up drinking entirely – for your life, or for a month, or you drink. There’s no “sip or two” option here.
It is easy for a non-drinker to hide under the cover of a Dry January. It also makes me wonder what, exactly, I’m hiding from. Let us put aside addiction and alcoholism (that’s another discussion, one that deserves a more informed touch than mine). Why are we more tolerant of someone’s choice to cut out drinking when it’s done in the name of health, or if it’s a temporary abstinence, rather than because they don’t really like alcohol all that much? No one gets shit for skipping out on drinking for a month. But string those months together in a line, and suddenly you’re in some weird grown-up version of an afterschool special about peer pressure and drinking. Tourists enter my world and talk about how difficult it is. They are praised for their restraint. I do it all year and, somehow, feel like a killjoy.
It’s gotten better with time. You get older; you surround yourself with people who understand. “I don’t drink” is met with the same respect as any other restriction. A friend doesn’t eat beef. Another keeps kosher. Another has a list of allergies so extensive we all keep a running tab of them. A friend mixes me a drink – no alcohol, or very little – and pours it into a high-stemmed glass when I arrive at his home.
“If you don’t like it,” he says, “I can make you something else.”
You marry someone who makes you concoctions (I hate the word mocktail, because it immediately defines the drink in terms of what it is not, rather than what it is) – ones he knows you would like. They taste like lavender and citrus, because these are your favorite things.
Your life isn’t missing anything.
And in that grey, damp, hangovery month that never really gets its due, the same words leave your mouth, again and again.
“This? No, it’s non-alcoholic … I guess I am doing a Dry January. And a probably a Dry February and March after that … Ha, god, no, I hope not. I just never do … Believe me, willpower has nothing to do with it. Why, do you need a ride home?”