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Tackling Dry January from a different point of view

It is January, and for more and more people each year, that means it’s Dry January. The trend to give up alcohol for the first month of the year has been gaining popularity in recent years. And Annie Grace has been a part of many of those conversations. 

Grace is a bestselling author and founder of "This Naked Mind" and, she advocates for a less conventional — and sometimes controversial — approach to re-evaluating your relationship with alcohol. The Show spoke with her more about it — beginning with her own journey with alcohol. 

Full interview

ANNIE GRACE: Yeah, I didn't even really drink much in college, but I found myself in New York City, and I was told by a boss that going out to happy hour was kind of like the golf course. That's where the deals were done. So I made myself a literal plan to go out and have a glass of wine, a glass of water. And over the next decade, alcohol just became part of my life. It started to replace all of my coping mechanisms. And fast forward a decade, I was very successful in my career, but I was also drinking two bottles of wine pretty much every single night.

Wow. Wow. What was it that kind of pushed you over the edge and made you think, like, I don't want to do this anymore?

GRACE: There was one moment, and one of many where I asked my 4-year-old son to come sit on my lap, and he told me, oh, mom, I don't want to, you smell bad, and your teeth are purple. And that was one of these tiny little moments that started to kind of pile up. And I thought, all right, Well, this is costing more than it's giving and I'm just going to cut back, which should be easy. The reality is I didn't find it easy. At least not at first. I found it kind of like being on a diet for alcohol. It was, I felt like I was deprived and I was missing out when I was trying to stop drinking with the traditional sort of willpower method.

So, right. You, you take a somewhat controversial approach to sobriety, right? Like you don't tell people they need to quit cold turkey or not drink anything in order to sort of re-evaluate the way they think about alcohol, right?

GRACE: Yeah. In fact, the first step of my approach is exactly what I did in my own life, which is I stopped trying to stop drinking. I stopped with the rules and the blame and the broken promises, because I was just digging myself this hole of making rules for myself, like no drinks till Thursday or only two glasses of wine. And I keep them for a few days, but then I'd break them.

And so when I really changed, I actually stopped trying to stop drinking, and I did something very different. I looked at alcohol and I said, why, why does this have such a hold on me, and in my life, when it didn't used to. And I actually spend the next year researching the why and through that discovery, through that information, I was able to very easily let it go. And that's what I teach people to do.

Yeah. So talk a little bit about your work and, and the way that you address this with other people, I mean, it sounds pretty simple to sort of say to yourself like, you know, why am I doing this? Not for any good reasons, and therefore I won't anymore, but there's, I'm sure a lot more to it.

GRACE: Absolutely. Well, I discovered that our desire is really buried in our subconscious. And so we have been more or less programmed since before can remember that alcohol is beneficial, that it relaxes us, that it helps us have a good time, that it helps us be better at work. And all of these things combine to this feeling of deprivation and missing out when you try to take a break or stop drinking.

And so when I was discovering, wow, actually alcohol, the net result of it, is more, not less, stress. It's actually making me less happy over time because things without alcohol are more of a bummer. And I was looking at like what is happening neurologically in the brain, all of those things started to really unwind my subconscious belief systems. And so I very naturally just felt like I didn't want to drink anymore.

And it is a process that did take me a long time, and it takes people some time. But it's amazing how many unquestioned beliefs we have around alcohol.

So, for you, it was about research more than anything. Like you had to prove to yourself, there was a good reason not to do this and then did something switch in your head at some point? You said, well, I don't want this anymore.

GRACE: Well, the first big switch was recognition that I wasn't broken. And I think that's where so many of us don't even start the conversation, because we think if we even want to look at our drinking, it means we have a problem. We're an alcoholic, we're broken. There's something wrong with us.

And the first thing I discovered is that like very few people are actually chemically addicted to alcohol, less than 10% of excessive drinkers, according to CDC. And most of us are just doing the best we can with the tools we have. We've just been given this tool called alcohol to medicate literally everything in our lives.

And so from that premise that I wasn't actually broken that there was nothing wrong with me. It awakened this curiosity of, OK, well, why am I doing this more than I think I should? And that ignited the research which yes, eventually changed my mindset, which made it easy for me to stop.

Yeah. Yeah. I've read that, that people in the AA community often don't like your approach to this because it is not about cold turkey quitting or not doing it all together. How is that different? Like you change the mindset. But are you telling folks, you know, just cut back and that's also helpful?

GRACE: Any amount of drinking less is super helpful. Now, if you've been drinking for a long time, that might result in you feeling very deprived and missing out. One of the things about AA, the pushback I got is you're telling people they don't have to go to meetings. But for me, when I was drinking and I was faced with, OK, I'm gonna actually in some ways make alcohol more important when I'm not drinking it by going and meeting about it and talking about it and staying entrenched in this "alcoholic lifestyle" even though I'm not drinking alcohol anymore, that didn't feel like freedom to me. I really just wanted alcohol to be small and irrelevant in my life. And that was what I ended up attaining, and again, not through meetings.

So you're sort of talking to the, not the 10%, right, who have a chemical addiction to alcohol, but the, the rest who maybe just have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

GRACE: Exactly. And I think one of my big goals for myself and, and for the people who, you know, come to my work is to back up the conversation, right. We, we don't need to have sort of broken our arm if our wrist hurts to go into a doctor. We don't need to have to become, you know, rock bottom alcoholic for us to start asking a far better question, in my opinion than, am I an alcoholic, which is, would my life be better if I drank a bit less?

And if we remove the fear of that question, then a lot of us can actually look at our relationship with alcohol more mindfully, you know, we know more about Ibuprofen or Advil than we do about alcohol. And so all I'm suggesting just education before you decide what you're going to do and how your relationship with alcohol is gonna look.

That's a really interesting approach. So tell us a little bit about Dry January, which I know you have talked a lot about, I'm sure this month and every January for many years now. But I mean, why do you think it's taken off in recent years? Like why do you think at the beginning of the year, everybody says, oh, maybe I'll try this.

GRACE: Well, the beginning of the year is just obviously such a mental reset for people. And when we overdo it over the holidays, you know, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the heaviest drinking day of the year in the United States. And so when we have all of that kind of hangovers and lethargy coming into the new year, a lot of us are starting to think, well, maybe this would be a good move, you know, a lot of time.

So we go into a Dry January without looking curiously at our behavior or if we're going into it as almost proving to ourselves. OK, if I can make it 30 days, then I don't have a problem. We're, we're entering into it and we're really setting ourselves up for being on an alcohol diet for the entire month of January and just like diet rebounds and weight gain that can rebound in more drinking.

So I suggest like more of an experimental approach and more, more mindful approach to saying, OK, I'm going to try to, you know, maybe not drink as much or drink nothing for January, but I'm really going to look at the reasons I'm drinking in the first place. Like, and is it helping? Is it doing the things I'm, I'm thinking that it does for me?

That's really interesting. What's, what's your advice for people who might be thinking about this? You talk about the sober, curious folks, right. Like, where do you start?

GRACE: First of all, let yourself off the hook if you have any shame or guilt or blame or inkling, maybe I'm broken, just realize you're not. And from that place of self-compassion, you can really awaken curiosity. And I even recommend that people go and time a drink, right? Have that drink, time how long it makes you feel good. Chances are, it's less than 20 minutes because of how the brain works with your blood alcohol rising for less than 20 minutes and then it starts to fall and it makes you feel bad and when you start to notice, oh, actually the net of this drink is that I feel worse than before I had it. Just those little experiments that level of curiosity in your own life can really change your mindset around alcohol pretty effortlessly.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.