Dear Dry January, we need to have a talk

by Naomi Ishisaka

A lot of people I know are weeks into what has now become an annual tradition: Dry January.

The concept behind Dry January is that with the revelry of the holidays behind us and the new year beginning, the consumption of alcohol is reined in for a month of sobriety.

While it might seem like a healthy way to start the year, the prevalence of Dry January glosses over some deeper conversations we should have about the role of alcohol consumption in our society — particularly for women.

The normalization of alcohol use as a social lubricant or coping mechanism is often treated as an innocuous, self-deprecating joke: “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere!” But the underpinnings of the joke aren’t always funny.

Alcohol is the only drug that is socially acceptable to have in our workplaces, our homes and our work and social events without giving a second thought, which likely contributes to alcohol use disorder being the most common substance use disorder in the country.

Even the language we use to talk about not drinking speaks to the primacy of alcohol in our culture. Terms like “Dry January,” “sober curious” even “mocktail” assume that the consumption of alcohol is normal, and to abstain is not. And now you can find alcohol in all kinds of unexpected places, from hard seltzer to hard coffee to hard kombucha and even hard ice cream.

The risks of alcohol are great for everyone and growing, with the National Institutes of Health reporting in 2020 that alcohol-related deaths overall doubled between 1999 and 2017. But women, in particular, are increasingly suffering the consequences of our alcohol-drenched culture.

While men still drink more, women are catching up. Alcohol-related deaths between 1999 and 2017 increased 85% for women versus 35% for men, leading the head of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to call it a “growing women’s health issue.” Kaiser Health News reported that women see negative health consequences more quickly than men and at lower levels of consumption.

Part of the reason for the increase could be the popularity of “wine mom” culture, where the stressors and impossible expectations we place on mothers has led to alcohol being used as a coping mechanism.

Wine glasses emblazoned with “mommy’s sippy cup” or “mommy juice” exemplify this trend. But “wine mom” culture also serves as a touch point for a sort of gallows humor, a weary recognition of shared struggles between women who are doing more invisible labor at home, working and trying to survive without getting the actual support they need.

As you could predict, this has all worsened during the pandemic. One study reported in The New York Times found that mothers with children under 5 increased their drinking more than 300% in the first year of the pandemic.

I know some of you are reading this with steam coming out of your ears. “With everything we have all gone through the past few years, now she wants us to stop drinking?”

You can put down your pitchforks — I am not arguing for a second Prohibition. I am arguing for more awareness and more intention for our loved ones in recovery, for our Muslim family — for everyone.

This issue is deeply personal to me. I am only in my 40s and I have already lost two close loved ones — both brilliant Black women in their early 40s — to alcoholism. I know how insidious and pervasive our drinking culture can be and how devastating the consequences.

But there are already some glimmers of change on the horizon. Drinking rates for Gen Z are lower than previous generations, though still high. The nonalcoholic beverage sector is booming.

There are now restaurants and bars in the Seattle area that have taken care to craft thoughtful nonalcoholic mixed drink menus. There are a number of local companies that have developed nonalcoholic beverages as alternatives to alcohol. As emerging sectors, they could use our support and encouragement.

Alcohol-free wine, beer and cocktails are an improvement, but a better change would be to consider ways to decenter alcohol or faux alcohol from our social activities altogether.

When offering someone a beverage, you could start with something without alcohol. If someone refuses an alcoholic drink, you don’t need to ask why or press them to accept. After-work happy hours or get-togethers can be at spaces that aren’t primarily for drinking. Alcoholic drinks can be just one of several free beverages available at a fundraiser or reception. These are just a few of the small cultural shifts we could easily make to create a world more friendly to sobriety.

Whether you know it or not, people in recovery or people abstaining from alcohol are all around you. They are often fighting a lonely battle — one that the most well-intentioned host might be undermining when they pressure guests to consume their drug of choice.

We can make a shift from a Dry January to a full year of mindfulness, care and intention — for all of us.

Naomi Ishisaka is The Seattle Times’ assistant managing editor for diversity, inclusion and staff development.