sober questioning

Hear Me Out: Don’t Get Sober on January 1

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

I don’t like to give prescriptive advice, but as we are winding up my year here at the Cut, I’ve decided to go out with a directive or at least a plea: Dear friends, do not start your sobriety on January 1.

It has, obviously, always been a popular date for wagon hopping. With the growing popularity (and marketing) of Dry January, even more so. And, sure, if you are someone who is merely toying around with quitting drinking, who thinks Dry January just sounds like a fun challenge or interesting experiment for you, go for it. But if you are someone who suspects they have a problem and the prospect of going dry for a whole month fills you with anxiety, then maybe reconsider your start date.

I understand wanting to quit on New Year’s Day. As a culture, we’ve weighted January 1 down with almost unbearable pressure to change, to be “better.” The resulting anxiety almost single-handedly fuels the market for fitness equipment, gym memberships, and productivity apps. Miserable hangovers from celebratory binge-drinking the night before can further prod thoughts of personal betterment. My own dismal post–New Year’s Eve mornings often spurred thoughts of putting the bottle down.

That’s my point: I attempted to make January 1 my sobriety date a half-dozen times. Lots of alcoholics do. At 11 years sober, I’ve attended a few thousand AA meetings, and I’ve heard countless people recall a January 1 recovery resolution in meetings — and I’ve been at several New Year’s Day meetings during which multiple people collected a “desire chip” to symbolize their first 24 hours.

And yet. Want to know the number of people I know who have actually kept New Year’s Day as their sobriety date? Exactly one. One!

As my friend tells it, getting sober on 1/1 wound up being an accident. Even the night before, she hadn’t planned on stopping the next day. New Year’s Day just happened to be the morning she realized she couldn’t do it anymore. It wasn’t the first time she’d realized that. It was, she says, just the first time it stuck. She went to an AA meeting — not her first — and she’s been sober ever since January 1, 2010.

Now, in all fairness, I haven’t yet met every sober person on the planet. I also imagine there are January 1 starters I’ll probably never meet: people who really needed to quit drinking and then just did and have never spoken of it again. Sincere congratulations to you!

But among those of us who sit in rooms and talk about our sobriety on the regular, there appears to be an inverse proportion between the level of importance assigned to a date and the likelihood of that particular date being a lasting recovery anniversary. I have heard lots of stories about people attempting to stop — but not staying stopped — on their birthday, on their child’s birthday, on their anniversary, on the first of this or that month, on the 15th, on the last Friday or the first Sunday or the always popular “Monday.”

Why are these dates so hard to hold on to? I think it’s because they have something else in common besides the import assigned to them: They are usually not today. They are usually not right now. Those of us who struggle to control our drinking pick a special date to dry out not because we want to stop drinking but because we don’t want to. We are not deciding when to quit drinking but negotiating how much longer we still can. A symbolic date just ups the pressure and heightens the anxiety that comes from knowing every drink you take is one closer to your last. What’s more, that special day you pick might be genuinely dear and worth staying sober for — but then there are all those days after.

Once my hangovers cleared up, I never seriously considered New Year’s Day as the beginning of continuous sobriety; I counted it a success to make it to brunch before I started again. I think I tried to stay sober after my birthday once. But there was at least a year of “on Mondays” for me — I was forever trying to figure in one last hurrah even after there was absolutely nothing left to celebrate.

In fact, my last hurrah ended in a suicide attempt. I’ve told the story of waking up in the hospital afterward here before; it was my first moment of genuine surrender.

But the binge that led to the ER wasn’t my last drink. It’s a great kicker to the story when I can say the ER was my rock bottom. Editors love it. That’s the climatic scene in the the movie, right?

So I usually leave out (as I did in that first column) the part where I found a bottle with just a couple of swallows left when I was home for a day between the psych ward and treatment. I couldn’t even make the date of my suicide attempt the true start of my rebirth. Instead, it’s a few days after.

That I was able to scratch just a little further beneath that bottom — the depth of an ounce — speaks to the inherent messiness of both alcoholism and sobriety. Trying to keep the narrative neat and your journey tidy will always fail. The surrender I felt in that hospital laid me out flat. I felt the presence of a higher power! It still didn’t keep me from gulping a pitiful amount of warm hard liquor the first chance I got. The only reason I hesitated to put the bottle to my lips was I wasn’t sure it would be enough for me to feel anything.

How have I resisted all the other half-finished bottles and abandoned wine glasses since then? (Trust me, I still notice them all.) It’s not because I finally experienced “true” surrender the morning after my sad little last drink; it’s because I’ve conjured up surrender every day since then. None of those admissions of powerlessness has been as cinematic as waking up in the ICU; I hope to never have another one that is.

Recovery has helped me to recognize it’s my sobriety that makes a day special. And that’s true for every day, not just the first day I didn’t drink.

Because if January 1 is the worst day to get sober, today is the best.

I’ve loved writing this column for the Cut, and I appreciate everyone who shared their story with us. I’ll continue writing about recovery as long as I have something to say, so keep your eyes peeled elsewhere. You can keep up with me at my website:

More From This Series

See All
Hear Me Out: Don’t Get Sober on January 1