Dry July. Ocsober. Febfast. The number of months of the year in which we’re encouraged to go without alcohol are steadily increasing. More surprising than their proliferation, though, is their popularity, which seems to have recently passed a critical point. Jill Stark’s book High Sobriety, a memoir of her own three-month dry spell—which shortly expanded into both an alcohol-free year and a book contract—has, in its turn, inspired any number of op-ed pieces and short-form memoirs about the virtues of quitting drinking (albeit only temporarily). And for every published piece about these holidays from alcohol there are ten or more blog posts or Facebook statuses, a trend encouraged by Hello Sunday Morning, a soi-disant movement of young people who abstain from drinking and use the provided social media platform to support each other through their voyage of sobriety. Several friends of mine have penned earnest paeans to the joys of quitting the demon drink, uploaded them to their blogs, and shared them on Facebook. It might not ever be cool to be teetotal—just as smoking cigarettes will always maintain a vestigial air of teenage rebellion—but if there was ever a moment in Australia’s history when sobriety was championed in the cultural mainstream, then we’re living in it.
This is, of course, a good thing. The aim of these alcohol-free months is to get us to reconsider both our personal relationships to alcohol and the role it plays in our social lives, and nobody in their right mind would argue that such periods of reflection are unhealthy. Yet if these dry months are the uncomplicated benedictions that their spruikers would have us believe, why do so many of us—myself included—react to them with such ridicule and scorn? (I will admit, with an appropriate sense of retrospective shame, that my first reaction upon hearing about High Sobriety was to think “what a fucking boring idea for a book”.) In some cases this cynicism is warranted by dint of profession: most hospitality workers’ wages are paid for by the healthy profits alcohol sales bring in, as opposed to the lean margins on food. Alcohol-free months, especially popular ones, thus threaten profitability, and therefore workers’ livelihoods. (The Age recently ran a feature about the growing discontent within the hospitality industry regarding these periods of abstention; a bar manager friend of mine informed me that his own business’s bottom line had felt the impact of Febfast, the most popular of these months in Victoria.) Most of the people heaping scorn on the idea, though, are not hospitality professionals.
Why have these booze-free months become such a cultural flashpoint? Since so much of the discourse surrounding these months is about the abstainer’s personal narrative, I realised that if I wanted to write about it, I would need to do something personally unpalatable—I would have to stop drinking for a month.
But which month would suit best? Both Dry July and Ocsober were too far away, and Febfast was out for a number of reasons: my birthday is in February; a friend had also planned an excellent cocktail party for that month; and I had sunk a glass of wine on the first day of the month before realising that I had therefore ruled out that option. Towards the end of February, however, a friend posted a Facebook update to let the world know that he would be taking part in the entirely invented ‘Parched March’. I immediately leapt on board. Parched March had everything I could want from an alcohol-free month: it was unofficial, therefore irreverent; it didn’t have a slick marketing campaign; hardly anybody else was doing it, so I needn’t feel guilt about helping to destroy the hospitality industry; and it didn’t require me to solicit donations from my friends or publicly emote about the difficulties of being temporarily teetotal. In fact, since it was entirely made up, I could freely dictate the rules of Parched March. (Despite the fact that you’d think the rules for booze-free months would be simple—i.e. just don’t fucking drink for a month—Dry July, Ocsober, and Febfast each have their own sets of rules, most of which revolve around purchasing “passes” that enable the bearer to drink for one night.) I settled on three fairly simple ones: 1) that I would have to publicly announce my commitment to Parched March; 2) that I could consume small quantities of alcohol inside food (for example, I wouldn’t deny myself a tiramisu simply because it contained a minute amount of Marsala, but I wouldn’t be able to gorge on a Sherry-laden trifle); and 3) that I could taste alcoholic beverages that were new to me or with which I wasn’t at all familiar (for professional purposes—I do write a booze column, after all), but that I couldn’t consume more than just enough to get a sense of the flavour. Then, armed with those three rules, I set about abstaining for a month.
In case it isn’t clear from this column, from the fact that I sit down to write 2000 words or so about alcohol every couple of months, let me make it plain: I do like a drink. And unlike those mealy-mouthed cocktail connoisseurs one sometimes encounters on the internet, who claim that their passion for cocktail culture has everything to do with flavour and nothing to do with the alcohol content, I’m sufficiently honest with myself to admit that I also drink for the effect. Getting pleasantly buzzed from a few drinks, no matter what kind, is one of life’s great pleasures, right up there with music, food, good conversation, sex, love, the interplay of ideas, and the joy of creating art. And while I admire the ideological purity of those who are committed enough to go without alcohol for a cause—straight-edge punks, for example, or the suffragettes who advocated for prohibition—I wouldn’t want to live in a world without booze. Like most Australians, I derive too much enjoyment from it to abandon it completely.
For these reasons I anticipated that Parched March would be something of a challenge. What I found surprising—and this was one of the few surprises of Parched March—was how easy I found it to abstain. There’s no mystery or special technique to it: all you have to do is make a commitment not to drink and follow it through by, well, not drinking. For the entirety of the month I kept my liquor in its usual spot in the kitchen cabinet; various bottles of vermouth, Sherry and other fortified wines lived in my fridge. And while it’s incorrect to say I felt no pangs of desire for a drink throughout the month, those pangs of desire were ridiculously easy to resist—about as easy to resist as the temptation to pick up a chocolate bar at the supermarket checkout. I simply drank something else whenever I felt like an alcoholic drink, like an iced tea or a glass of mineral water. (By the end of Parched March I became one of those awful people who has an opinion about the merits of various brands of sparkling mineral water; San Benedetto, with its low carbonation and balanced pH, won out as the best option for everyday drinking.) On those rare occasions where I felt obliged to try something alcoholic in order to expand my booze knowledge—like when a Mexican colleague pulled out an impressive bottle of tequila that is unavailable in Australian liquor stores, or a winemaker friend of my girlfriend’s opened an unusual vintage riesling—I didn’t find it particularly difficult to stop drinking after a sip or two.
More interesting, although perhaps more predictable, were the responses of friends and acquaintances. The comments section on the Facebook post in which I committed to Parched March soon turned into a relatively heated discussion between those who thought such dry months were the sign of a creeping puritanism and those who had happily embraced sobriety. Others questioned the need to make a public declaration at all, which I disregarded at the time—after all, isn’t that how everyone commits to these things?—but now, in retrospect, I’m sympathetic to the argument, since the public declaration makes it plain that you think going without booze is a notable achievement that makes you a better person than those who won’t or can’t. In-person interactions were even weirder: an acquaintance I was going to meet up with for a casual chat about some writing-related projects all but insisted we change the venue from the local pub to a café so I wouldn’t be tempted to have a cheeky beer. I had to explain—for the first of several times—that the whole point of the exercise wasn’t to force people to change their behaviour to suit my desires, but rather to come face to face with the difficulties, if any, that temporary abstention posed. For the same reason, I didn’t avoid any social gatherings that took place on licensed premises. You’d be amazed at how easy it is to avoid drinking alcohol at a bar: you simply ask the bartender for a non-alcoholic drink, like a ginger beer or tonic water. They won’t laugh at you or say no; it only ever becomes a problem when you ask for something ridiculous like a Shirley Temple. (Don’t even get me started on the utter fucking stupidity of mocktails.) The only interpersonal difficulties I encountered were at the early stages of Parched March, when I had to explain to friends why I wasn’t drinking. Some took on a subtle but noticeable defensiveness, which disappeared as soon as we talked about why I was doing it—namely, as subject matter for this column. As soon as I made that explicit, those defences were lowered. Which leads me to a completely unoriginal insight: that the reasons drinkers dislike the teetotal have everything to do with their own relationship to alcohol, not the teetotaler’s. They didn’t mind that I was not drinking because they knew I would soon return to the fold.
The unoriginality of that insight—actually, the complete and utter banality of it—characterised my Parched March. All that it did was to reinforce things that I knew were true: that alcohol is a social lubricant, that people sometimes drink to assuage their boredom, that booze is not necessary for a good time. And, thankfully, that I don’t have a drinking problem, which came as something of a relief but was hardly a surprise. Worse still, none of the health benefits that supposedly accompany these dry spells actually materialised: I didn’t noticeably lose weight, as much as I would have liked to; my skin tone did not improve dramatically (in fact, I suffered a bout of perioral dermatitis that only got worse as the month progressed); my sleep was no better or deeper. I did get a lot of extracurricular work done, perhaps more than I would have if drinking were an option, but then again perhaps I would have found that work less stressful were I able to cool off after a night’s labour at the keyboard with a gin and tonic.
My Parched March ended a little prematurely, at a wine show. My partner and I went to Castlemaine to visit her mother on the last weekend of March; it just so happened that there was a big regional wine show on in the park on the last day of March. It was a lovely autumn day—a little overcast, with the sun peeking through clouds; crisp, but not cold. The mood was festive, and my partner wanted to check out the wine and food stalls. At the entrance, after paying a relatively stiff fee, we were handed two glasses with which we could sample the region’s finest. I was fully prepared to swirl and spit, in the manner of professional wine-tasters—except there were no spittoons. (What did I expect? Water crackers to cleanse the palate and Max Allen rabbiting on about tar and blackberry characteristics, too?) There are only so many times you can look a vintner in the eye after spitting their produce on the ground in an undignified manner, so I began swallowing the samples—after all, what could another nine hours of sobriety teach me that thirty and a half days hadn’t?
Walking back along the streets of Castlemaine, feeling the slightly unfamiliar but welcome sensation of a light buzz, I realised that many people in my position would have been so excited by the prospect of breaking the drought that they would now be vomiting up all those samples of cool-climate shiraz. Alcohol-free months don’t promote healthy drinking in any way—their solution to the problem is abstention. This is fine and worthy if you are a problem drinker of Russell Brand’s ilk, for whom the call of oblivion is so strong that complete abstention is the only solution, and perhaps these months serve us well by offering such people a necessary circuit-breaker. Yet the vast majority of people who do Febfast, Dry July, or Ocsober will return to drinking. Going dry for a month might be difficult, but learning how to drink properly—by which I mean in moderation, for pleasure, and with a healthy dose of hard-won wisdom—is infinitely harder.