Dry January canceled? Jokes, memes making light of sobriety are hurtful, harmful

·5 min read
Photo: @sarahlememe/Twitter
Photo: @sarahlememe/Twitter

Thinking of giving up on Dry January? There’s a meme for that.

Each year, folks from all walks of life decide to hit pause on drinking alcohol by participating in Dry January, an annual challenge that involves staying sober for 31 days (or longer, should the participant choose). Some do it for potential health benefits, such as improving sleep and lowering cholesterol. Others do it because they simply enjoy a good resolution. And still, others do it because they’re actually interested in perhaps taking the leap into lifelong sobriety.

While sobriety is serious, Dry January’s tone is light. There’s nothing official about it. Rather, the challenge is mostly associated with New Year’s resolutions, which only 8 percent of individuals actually stick to. So it comes as no surprise that meme accounts and internet jokesters use Dry January as a punch line.

Memes joke that participants will give up their sobriety within days, or that there’s no use in giving up booze, or that they’ll be off the wagon 10-fold come February. But are these kinds of internet memes totally harmless? Or could they end up making those who already struggle with alcohol feel like their attempts at sobriety are useless?

“These memes and ‘jokes’ are harmful to those who are really wanting to take a look at their drinking and re-evaluate their relationship with alcohol,” says Irina Gonzalez, Managing Editor at The Temper — an online publication for sobriety, addiction and recovery. Gonzalez has been in recovery for more than 5 years and says these types of memes are mean and unnecessary.

“Why do people feel the need to make fun of those who are tackling life changes? I often feel that these Dry January memes come from people who are insecure about their own alcohol consumption,” says Gonzalez, who is also the creator of the Pandemic Mama podcast. She says she’s noticed many memes pop up in recent days alluding to quitting Dry January due to the terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol, and feels those are just as detrimental.

Hilary Sheinbaum, author of The Dry Challenge: How to Lose The Booze For Dry January, Sober October, And Any Other Alcohol-Free Month, agrees. “Jokes and memes against Dry January can be insulting to those who are actively trying to make beneficial changes, especially when modifications don't come easy.”

Sheinbaum says that because alcohol consumption is so entwined with our culture, through socializing, dating, or other events, it’s important that friends and family find ways to support those who take on a challenge such as this one.

But not everyone feels they’re too detrimental. Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, Chief Medical Officer at American Addiction Centers, says he doesn’t feel these types of “jokes” are hurtful enough to deter someone completely from their commitment to the challenge.

“Though we still have a long way to go, the stigma of addiction, particularly among the young adults who tend to participate in Dry January, does not evoke the level of shame that it once did just a few years ago, says Weinstein. “In the not-so-distant past, someone attempting to stop their alcohol use could have been ridiculed or mocked for making that choice, but as we continue to learn about the complexities of addiction and have high-profile people speak out in detail about their own struggles, many are coming to understand the fact that addiction is a powerful disease.”

Earlier this month, Chrissy Teigen revealed that she’s now committed to staying sober. Other notable celebs who have publicly spoken about being sober include Elton John, Natalie Portman, Bradley Cooper and Kristin Davis.

While Dry January (or other month) challenges aren’t necessarily a replacement for recovery, Sheinbaum feels it can “offer individuals a new perspective about their drinking habits and allow sober-curious individuals to see if life without alcohol is something they’d want to commit to long-term.” She points to a study by the University of Sussex which revealed that 72 percent of Dry January participants end up consuming less alcohol for the rest of the year.

So what should participants tell loved ones who are posting memes like these?

“Depending on the relationship, something as simple as saying, ‘This isn't funny or helpful,’ and offering an alternative suggestion, ‘Instead, I'd love for your support by participating in a non-boozy activity with me,’ can create dialogue,” says Sheinbaum.

Gonzalez reminds those who are struggling with their sobriety that finding support is crucial. “There are so many inspirational sober folks out there to follow (young folks, women, LGBT+, women of color, Black folx) and that's a key step in getting sober — finding your community. ...You need to connect to others who are going through what you are going through or who have gone through it.”

“Maintaining sobriety right now is understandably difficult because some relapse triggers are inescapable,” adds Weinstein, who wants folks to remember to use all the resources they can, from hotlines and forums to speaking to loved ones, to get the help they need. “Addiction treatment facilities are still treating patients because addition doesn’t yield to a pandemic. If you find that you are struggling to maintain sobriety or become sober, reach out to someone who can assist in getting you the help you need.”

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