Brow Beat

What a Psychologist Specializing in Addiction Treatment Thinks About Drynuary

Drynuary practitioners on Feb. 1.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Recently, John Ore—who coined the term “Drynuary” and has abstained from alcohol during January for the last eight years—wrote about his adventures in temporary teetotaling for Slate. Ore’s essay came at a time when public conversations about drinking (and not drinking) are changing in response to new findings about alcohol addiction. A CDC study released in November showed that the vast majority of heavy drinkers are not alcoholics, contrary to the conventional wisdom. (To be fair, the CDC defined “heavy” rather conservatively—8 drinks per week for a woman or 15 drinks per week for a man.) Meanwhile, New Scientist published the results of a very small study showing that a month of not drinking has measurable positive effects on blood sugar, liver fat, and blood cholesterol, countering the popular claim that taking short breaks from alcohol “can do more harm than good.”

In terms of public health campaigns, the tide seems to be turning in favor of month-long abstinence periods like Drynuary. In the U.K., the governmental agency Public Health England is supporting a national Dry January campaign, and here in the U.S., the drinking reduction program and support group Moderation Management has launched an awareness and fundraising campaign called Dryuary.

To learn more about all of this, I spoke with clinical psychologist Marc Kern, the chairman of the board of Moderation Management, the co-author of Responsible Drinking, the co-founder of the California clinic Addiction Alternatives, and one of the founders of MM’s Dryuary campaign. A condensed and edited version of our conversation follows.

Moderation Management has always recommended a 30-day abstinence period as part of its program. What was the reasoning behind that?

It’s primarily because we want to reduce the tolerance people have built up over time to alcohol. That’s the first motive. The second motive is to start to get comfortable in your skin again.

What is your definition of a problem drinker?

It’s not a hard and fast amount or frequency, but rather a personal definition: Is it interfering with their quality of life?

Historically there’s only been one option: If you’re seen as having a problem with alcohol, then you have to give it up forever. And so many people are resistant to taking on or even looking at their relationship with alcohol because there’s a notion that you have to stop forever, and attend a self-help support group forever. The entire idea behind Dryuary was to provide a stepping stone to self-exploration about the relationship with alcohol without jumping to the conclusion, “I’m an alcoholic and I have to stop forever.”

I and the other people I know who do Drynuary don’t think of ourselves as having drinking problems, but it just feels good as a way to reset after the indulgence of the holidays and to try to get into a healthier mode. Would you recommend a period of abstinence like Drynuary for anyone, or do you think that it’s just a vanity thing if you’re not someone who’s actually concerned about your drinking?

You know, it’s like doing a cleanse or not eating certain foods during a month. I have no hesitation about recommending a Dryuary each and every year. It is just darn healthy to take some time away from drinking. I’d rather that people who don’t have a problem take time off as much as people that do have a problem.

In the media, there’s a debate around the idea of doing a dry January, and on the anti- side there’s this argument that if you do a 30-day period of abstinence, then you’ve convinced yourself you don’t have a problem, but then you’re just going to jump back into your heavy drinking patterns. Is this an argument that you’ve seen or talked to people about?

If you go into a Dryuary with the notion, I’m going to white-knuckle it, and at the end of that 30 days I’m going to go back to binging, well, yeah, I believe that that does happen. You know, people go on diets and then they go off their diets and binge again. But I think that’s really a shortsighted view of people who are afraid of any alcohol use. I’m not here to pick on AA, but AA says one drink makes a drunk; that’s AA language. Well, if you’re told that one drink says you’re a failure and you’re going to go back and drink heavily, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I signed up for the daily Dryuary emails that you’ve been sending out, and the first one that I got says, “Over the course of the next 31 days, you will be embarking on a journey toward optimal wellness, rejuvenation, health, and vitality.” Having done Drynuary before, I felt like that was a little bit of a hard sell, or that it wasn’t necessarily totally realistic. If you go into a Dry January thinking it’s going to solve all your problems and make you amazingly healthy, you’re probably going to be disappointed. So what is the thinking behind that motivational message?

That is a hard sell, and it shouldn’t have gone out quite that way. But when we were putting this together, we wanted this to be about kick-starting the year. It’s really almost not about alcohol; it’s about doing a good thing for yourself. But as you said, just stopping drinking is not going to miraculously change your life.

Your domain name and your challenge is called Dryuary without an N. One of my colleagues calls it Drynuary, with an N. Did you give any thought to whether or not to include an N? What was the consideration behind the name that you chose?

Availability of the URL—that was it. Really, we went on GoDaddy, and we searched and searched for something that was available and captured the essence of what we were trying to accomplish here. We just kind of plugged in terms, and that was the one we all agreed upon. We said, let’s go with that. Some people hate the name, and some people like the name. That’s the real story of how it came to be called Dryuary.