What Dry January Taught Me about Alcohol, Mindfulness, and Shame

I successfully did Dry January this year but it taught me a surprising lesson about shame. No, I have not been living under a rock. I know about Brene Brown. I watched the Netflix special. Yes, it was amazing. I’ve read many of her books. I know that the research says that shame can steal our power and keep us in a box. But it’s one thing to read or hear about a concept and another to live it, feel it, and understand it as you do.

I had experienced shame before this year, so it was not necessarily a new thing for me. But in general, the feeling was so intense and unmistakable that I could not ignore it. The shame I learned about after doing Dry January, however, was different. It was subtle. It was like a ghost in a haunted house that left signs of its presence but would disappear into the ether when you looked for it. It was not a big, bold feeling for me, but instead the faintest of senses that told me that I shouldn’t think too deeply (or even at all) about my drinking. It is for this reason that I had to try Dry January before I could properly diagnose my own condition: I had been ashamed that my use of alcohol had become so habitual.

For months before January, 2021 rolled around, I had been bored with alcohol. Literally bored. Still, I kept finding myself going to the fridge to grab a beer at the end of the day as if by compulsion. Like most people, I had come to associate alcohol with fun and relaxation. Those things being in short supply during the pandemic, my consumption of alcohol increased to fill this gap. Since I hardly ever needed to drive, there were usually very few reasons to say no either. So my habit became regular and stayed regular even after I started to be concerned about it.

But to be “concerned” about one’s own consumption of alcohol raises all kinds of issues, doesn’t it? If one is “concerned” about one’s use of alcohol, then it raises the question about whether one needs to stop. And we know that if one needs to stop, then they have a ”problem” with alcohol and they must stop totally and forever, full stop. Right? Furthermore, if I—a meditation teacher who espouses the values of mindfulness at every turn—could not control my own use of alcohol, what kind of teacher would I be? And don’t even get me started about what kind of lawyer I might be if I can’t even control myself.

As it turns out, I am just the human kind. Despite eight years of meditation, I’m not enlightened yet and I have cravings just like everyone else. My meditation practice certainly helped me maintain stability during the pandemic but I don’t think anything could make living through a pandemic easy for any of us. Ultimately, though, it was my meditation practice that helped me get out of this mess.

Though shame and anxiety about alcohol kept making my mind force concerns about it to the side, basic awareness helped me wake up. I love beer, but I started to notice that it didn’t seem to taste as good. That helped me to see that I wasn’t really getting the enjoyment I was seeking when I went to grab one from the fridge. I also noticed that many days I would make a secret goal not to get a beer, but find myself walking to the fridge anyway. This helped me see that I was not a terrible out of control mess, but rather just someone who developed less than ideal habits while stuck at home social distancing.

When I started to examine my beer drinking nonjudgmentally as a habit, rather than an inherent character flaw, it made me curious. Rather than worry about having to quit for all time and what that might imply about me, I instead started to wonder whether I could just change what I was doing. I had never tried Dry January before, but found myself in a Dry January Facebook group in December. Reading the posts and stories of other members helped normalize what I had experienced and it actually made me excited to try. As it happened, I had already signed up for a virtual meditation retreat for the weekend of New Years Eve. Having done this retreat before, I knew that I would refrain from drinking during the retreat. That was an ideal time to start, since the first few days of any new habit program are always the hardest.

To my surprise, when I returned from the retreat, it was easier than I had expected to just not drink. I had helped myself out on this by removing all the beer from the fridge because I knew I would be very unlikely to be so desperate that I drank a warm beer. Even so, I only occasionally had thoughts about drinking and I was able to avoid it by just doing something else, like playing with my kids, meditating, or working out. I also found other tasty things to drink, like hot tea with honey or seltzer water to satiate my hankering for bubbles. In other words, I learned that I wasn’t totally out of control when it came to alcohol. Rather, I had just needed to disrupt my habit of not exerting any control when it came to alcohol. Dry January gave me the chance to experiment with that and see what happened when I just gave myself a reason to say “no” for a while.

Did this experience drastically change my life? Not really, but it improved it. The most significant change was that I slept better. Sleeping better, in turn, helped me get up earlier, focus better, have more energy, and get more done. I liked that so much that, before the end of January, I committed to 300/65 – which means that I would only consume alcohol on 65 days for the rest of the year. In short, while I had been previously afraid to put restrictions on my use of alcohol before, because I didn’t want to think about that might mean, the reality was that the restrictions supported me and improved my life.

I was so surprised by this that I found myself doing something else entirely surprising: I wrote about my experience with Dry January on social media. Not only were people not judgmental; they were supportive and curious. In response to this, one contact reached out and told me to read Quit Like a Woman. I started it soon after and it helped me better understand my own experience. In the book, the author traced her own struggles with drugs, alcohol, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders and how she used a gradual approach coupled with self-care practices, including yoga, meditation, and therapy to eventually lead a sober life.

I was not surprised in the least that meditation was among the author’s toolkit, but I had never heard anyone before suggest that one could adopt a reducetarian approach to alcohol. Everything I had ever heard about sobriety before was that you either were or you weren’t and there was no in between. In the same way, I had never consciously considered the possibility that a life without (or with less) alcohol might be better. As the author argued, I saw that I perhaps had been unwittingly affected by the negative and one-sided portrayals of recovery in TV and movies and the marketing efforts of the alcohol industry.

I did not think the book was perfect. I disagreed with the author often but it shared something about alcohol that I was finally ready to hear: a new way of thinking about it. Rather than considering whether alcohol and I just don’t mix, I learned that the better question was whether I was living my life the way I really wanted to live it? As it turns out, I already had everything I needed to make a change. Just like QLAW recommends, I got curious and let myself experiment and observe how alcohol affected me, I was open to a gradual approach, and I had already established a toolkit of self-care practices, including meditation, to help me deal with stress or cravings or bouts of self-doubt. In short, neither Dry January nor QLAW convinced me that I needed to entirely quit alcohol but they both made it clear that if I was going to examine my habits and build a better life I first had to quit shame.

To learn more about this subject, check out our IG Live on Friday 4/23 at 1:30 PM EST. You can find us on IG @brilliantlegalmind.

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