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Doing Dry January transformed my life and mental health

Cara St John, 30, an occupational therapist for the NHS, lives in London with her boyfriend Michael. She realised her drinking was becoming a problem when her nights out ended up with her passing out or getting into rows. It prompted her to give up alcohol for Dry January 2023 and a year on, her mental health is better than ever.

When Cara St John realised her drinking was spiralling out of control, she tried Dry January to stop the cycle. (Supplied)
When Cara St John realised her drinking was spiralling out of control, she tried Dry January to stop the cycle. (Supplied)

I’ve always enjoyed social drinking, and my friends and I would drink a lot at bars, pubs and bottomless brunches. On a big night, I’d drink six double vodka and cokes a night, but often I would lose count. It was seen as totally normal behaviour and because I wasn’t drinking to excess every day, and I wasn’t regarded as an ‘alcoholic’ nobody thought I had a problem.

Yet over time, I came to realise that my drinking was seriously impacting my mental health. I’d go out with friends and the next day would be a complete write-off. I would be physically unwell from the hangover, but worse was the constant anxiety, where I’d be worrying all the time that I’d done something wrong or said something to offend. I couldn’t focus on anything for a couple of days, my thoughts would go round and round, it was a horrible feeling.

Because I couldn’t remember the evening, I’d be constantly asking my friends and boyfriend if I’d said anything offensive, and they’d usually say, "Oh you were just a bit over-friendly," but I couldn’t remember being over-friendly, and I thought, if I can’t remember that, what else can’t I remember?

Part of the reason for the anxiety was a time back in 2018 when something bad did happen and I had no memory of it. I’d gone to watch the rugby at a local pub with my boyfriend at the time and his housemates. I’d been having issues with one of his housemates, who wasn’t a very nice person. I had far too much to drink, and when I woke up the next day there was blood on the pillow. I looked in the mirror and my ear had dried blood all over it.

Cara St John, pictured in Bordeaux for the Rugby World Cup 2023, wasn't an alcoholic, but her binge drinking was affecting her mental health. (Supplied)
Cara St John, pictured in Bordeaux for the Rugby World Cup 2023, wasn't an alcoholic, but her binge drinking was affecting her mental health. (Supplied)

Drinking to excess

I had no memory of what had happened so I had to be told that I’d essentially fallen down the stairs and on impact, my ear had split. I also discovered that I’d clashed with my boyfriend’s housemate and told her to f*** off.

Sometimes things aren’t meant to be said, and if they are said, they should be said constructively, when sober. As a result of that evening, there was quite a bad feeling between us, and my boyfriend was annoyed. It was also scary that I couldn’t remember hurting myself.

I had no memory of what'd happened so I had to be told that I’d essentially fallen down the stairs and on impact, my ear had split.

Then in the summer of 2022, I went for a bottomless brunch. I loved bottomless brunches and often I’d go with a group of friends and it would be an all-day drinking affair, but this one was relatively tame with just one colleague. That said, we had a fair bit of Prosecco but I didn’t feel drunk.

We finished our brunch and decided to have one more drink before going home. I stood up to go to the bar and suddenly felt dizzy. I sat down on an empty booth, and I fell to the side, hit my head and knocked myself out.

I think I was only passed out for a few seconds, but when I woke up it felt like I’d been out for ages and I was surrounded by worried staff. I called NHS 111 but ultimately I was fine and I went home. But that moment was pivotal for me. Passing out was scary and horrible, and in a way it was the final straw, I just thought I can’t get drunk anymore and from that moment on I started to moderate my drinking.

Cara St John, pictured in New Zealand, says her hangovers became unbearable. (Supplied)
Cara St John, pictured in New Zealand, says her hangovers became unbearable. (Supplied)

Trying Dry January

Alcohol is so ingrained in our culture, that even when you acknowledge it’s causing you problems, the natural thing isn’t to stop but to try and drink a bit less. I would keep track of how many units I’d had and plan which days I would drink. But often someone would say, "Oh just have one more" and I just found moderating my drinking mentally tiring.

By December, I was beginning to think it might be easier not to drink at all and trying Dry January seemed like the answer.

By December, I was beginning to think it might be easier to not drink at all and trying Dry January seemed like the answer. If people asked me if I wanted a drink the answer could just be a simple 'no'– also lots of my friends were doing dry Jan, so I wouldn’t have to explain to people why I wasn’t drinking.

Right away, I felt this huge sense of relief. It might have been because I’d been moderating for a while, but I found Dry January relatively easy. Then my boyfriend started doing it too. He’d seen how I was so much happier and had more energy, and also he was training for an ultra-marathon, so it worked for him.

A new social life

My social life started to revolve much more around food. I’m vegan so I enjoyed trying out different vegan restaurants in London with my boyfriend and friends. We went on lots of walks, and I started to go to the cinema. Not drinking meant I suddenly had a lot more money, I hadn’t realised how much I’d been spending on alcohol.

The work nights at the pub did reduce, partly because I’d been the main instigator, but I went out with smaller groups of colleagues for meals and got to know them better as a result.

When dry Jan finished I gave myself another goal – not to drink until lent. That came and went and then I decided not to drink until July. The goals appealed to the competitiveness in me, but by the time I got to July, I realised I didn’t need a goal in place anymore to avoid temptation. I haven’t had a drink since.

Not drinking has brought me closer to my friends. It has led to some deeper conversations and I’m more available as I’m no longer cancelling plans because I’m hungover.

My friends were broadly supportive. Some were surprised, but I also noticed that some were kind of relieved, and often they’d have the mocktail too. When I took a step back, I realised that we’re all turning 30 now, and a lot of people are cutting down, and it’s become less of a taboo not to drink.

Some social occasions were hard, but I realised I needed to find my sober confidence otherwise I wouldn’t be able to live my life. So I swallowed my fear and over the last year, I’ve danced sober at weddings and done sober karaoke.

Not drinking has actually brought me closer to my friends. It has led to some deeper conversations, and I’m more available as I’m no longer cancelling plans because I’m hungover. I usually drink Coke or alcohol-free beer, and many places have good non-alcoholic options.

Cara St John says she's become closer to her friends since she gave up drinking. (Supplied)
Cara St John says she's become closer to her friends since she gave up drinking. (Supplied)

Achieving more every day

I thought drinking was my social crutch, but actually, it made me less confident. I suppose when you’re regularly feeling anxious it’s going to rub off into the rest of your life. If I went out on Saturday, I’d still be feeling the mental health effects on Monday and as a result, I was less confident at work and less sure of who I was.

I have all this free time now as I’m no longer hungover. I get up early every day and I’m currently doing a Masters alongside my job.

I have all this free time now as I’m no longer hungover. I get up early every day, and I’m currently doing a Masters, which I’m able to do alongside my job, and that is giving me new opportunities and self-belief. I think before I would have told myself I didn’t have time – not drinking has made me more ambitious and goal-focused.

I’ve also started to exercise, I do a Zumba class and a yoga class. I used to be someone who avoided exercise, but I’ve got so much more energy now.

A healthier mindset

Nowadays I experience anxiety in the same way as most people do – I have good and bad days – I don’t expect to feel happy all the time. But when I was drinking it was hard to distinguish between genuine anxiety and irrational ‘hangxiety.’ Now if I get anxious I know something is behind it and I can think about why I’m feeling this way – I’m much more in touch with my emotions.

Over the last year, I’ve realised that my demographic of drinkers often goes under the radar. All you hear about are horror stories of people being completely dependent on alcohol, and hitting rock bottom. It wasn’t like that for me, but if you break it down drinking was affecting my mental health, and it was a problem.

I don’t expect to feel happy all the time. But when I was drinking it was hard to distinguish between genuine anxiety and irrational ‘hangxiety.’

I read a couple of memoirs about extreme drinking and they didn’t resonate. It wasn’t until I read The Sober Girl Society Handbook by Milly Gooch that I found someone relatable. She had all these nights she couldn’t remember and it was affecting her mental health. That was the click for me.

Not everyone quits drinking forever as a result of Dry January and I would never advocate for that. My boyfriend still drinks a bit, but much less – Dry January enabled him to take a step back and his relationship with alcohol is much healthier now. I would say to anyone that Dry January is worth trying, not necessarily to give up drinking for good, but just to see how a month of not drinking makes them feel.

Forever is a long time, but my resolve not to drink just gets stronger every day. There are so many benefits, and once I’d realised that alcohol was making me anxious and affecting my mental health, it could never be worth it again.

For more details see Alcoholchange.org.uk