No matter where you stand with alcohol, the concept of committing to a “dry month” can feel daunting. It seems like more and more often, social media’s filled with “Dry January” this, “Sober October” that - but where do you start? And how?
Those questions drove journalist and author Hilary Sheinbaum to write The Dry Challenge: How to Lose the Booze for Dry January, Sober October, and Any Other Alcohol-Free Month. With an extensive reporting background and a sober curious mindset, Hilary created a judgment-free guide to giving up alcohol for a month-long period. She’s earned titles like “The Dry January M.V.P.'' from The New York Times, frequent features on Good Morning America, and a recent TedTalk on dry dating. Basically, we consider Hilary a bit of a nonalc celebrity around here, and we’re not alone.
In honor of Sober October, Hilary sat down with our founder, Brianda Gonzalez, to chat about the origin of dry months, her tips for taking a month-long break from alcohol, and more.
What the heck is Sober October / Dry January?
Sober October and Dry January are month-long periods where you give up all forms of alcohol. That means no beer, no wine, no spirits, no mixed drinks, no champagne toasts for the month. Dry January started in the UK about a decade ago, and it was actually something that a woman who was training for a half marathon just started on her own. Her goal was to set a personal record for her race in February, so she gave up alcohol for the entire month of January. She was working for a nonprofit at the time, and when she told everybody at work how great she felt, they took this idea of hers, “Dry January,” and turned it into a national campaign.
Sober October has a similar idea, and today, they're both benefit! Sober October was more popular in Australia, but now it’s celebrated worldwide with growing recognition and traction each year.
Why a month? Are there any big shifts that happen in 30 days?
Definitely! I'm not a scientist so I’ll speak to the things that I’ve experienced but for example, I didn't see any kind of real shift until maybe 10 days in. I was previously sleeping four to five hours a night, which sounds horrific, and it was. Then after 10 days, suddenly I was sleeping seven to eight hours. Anybody who has a good night's rest knows that having a great night's sleep will elevate your mood, and productivity, and just make you a happier person to be around. I think that's a huge one.
I didn't realize [some of the other changes] until maybe two, three, or even four weeks later. That includes the change in dynamics in my social circle and my dating life (although it was an immediate difference.) I think that it actually took time to really reconcile with how things were shifting in my life. For me, I found that your body has to still get used to things and I think even on a mental level, it kind of takes a while to build a theme in your life and really stick to your goal.
What inspired you to take a break from alcohol in the first place?
This whole thing was an accident - I’ll say that loud and proud.
I'll take you back to 2016: During the day I was a food and beverage journalist, and my night job was red carpet reporting, interviewing celebrities. I would attend events like movie premieres and after-parties, which were serving top-shelf liquor and flowing with champagne. I was very much in the food and beverage world. So that was my life in 2016; just living and working in New York, there are a lot of opportunities to drink.
That December, I went to dinner with a friend and we were talking about New Year's resolutions. My opinion is that if you want to change something, you do it right away; maybe start on a Monday or whenever, you don't have to wait till January first. We briefly chatted about this idea called “Dry January,” which I gawked at and changed the subject because it did not fit into my lifestyle at the time. So ironic. A week later, it was New Year's Eve and I was drinking at a party. I texted my friend, Alejandro, whom I just had dinner with and I said, “Do you want to make a bet?” He agreed to attempt Dry January with me. The bet was that whoever won was going to have dinner paid for. I successfully finished the month without a sip of alcohol and he lost and bought me dinner. To this day he will not bet me anything ever again.
As cliché as it sounds, it really changed everything. It changed my entire life: dating, my job, my social life, my physical health, and my mental health. There was not one part of my life that was untouched.
What were some of the most surprising changes you noticed when you did your first dry challenge?
I didn't realize how my sleep was affected by drinking. And then when I would go on dates, people who were supportive, I wanted to see again. People who were either poking fun or not supportive - specifically trying to get me to drink - I was like “that's a red flag.”
I also found that sometimes if I said I had a “bet” and I couldn't lose, people were more likely to rally behind me. That was peculiar. So yeah, there were a lot of things that surprised me.
How has your social life changed?
I still go to bars, I still hang, I still participate in a lot of the same social activities, it just slightly changed some of my friendships and some of my social circle. For example, with my ride-or-die friends, we’re going to hang out - whether it’s in a bar or a boot camp class or doing something random. But I did realize that I started seeing less of the acquaintances that I didn't fully align with or that I was socializing with. The alcohol was bringing us together and those “friendships” were losing value in my life because I wasn't seeing them as often. That was a big one.
In terms of dating, it was so much easier to spot red flags and be more present. Instead of thinking, “Oh, did I misinterpret something that was said?” It was just very clear to me without alcohol.
It was bananas to me realizing how much alcohol is a part of our daily lives. In activities like going to brunch, it’s the main event - which it doesn't have to be. Going to birthdays or baby showers, sporting events, weddings - all of those things are activities on their own but I didn’t realize that alcohol was always there. Alcohol was becoming the main event for most of the people who were attending.
Any tips / tricks to get through big holidays or events sober?
Whether you're attending an event or you’re embarking on a dry month, I think it’s so important and helpful to have a buddy who's doing it with you. I can tell you that especially in my first year, having Alejandro for those first two and a half weeks was great. We could talk about the highs and lows, like how great we were feeling or if we felt awkward when somebody asked us an inappropriate question at the bar. It was definitely a helpful bonding experience.
Whether it’s a holiday or a different event that’s spent at home or at somebody's place, wine is the “go-to” hostess gift. It’s pretty funny the amount of people who have walked into my apartment and brought wine, even since The Dry Challenge. I think you can replace those gifts with other things like non-alcoholic beverages, baked goods, or even candles. There are so many other ways to celebrate people and share with people; I think that’s really important to recognize.
I also think it's just great to have other activities to partake in. Networking events and celebrations like birthdays, baby showers, weddings - they all have alcoholic components. If you’re just hanging out with your friends, I think it's a wonderful opportunity to do things that you love doing even on your own. That goes for dating too. If you love hiking, go on a hike, go bowling with your friends, or host a video game marathon. Go crazy! It's your life, it's the things that you love. It doesn't have to involve alcohol and it certainly doesn't have to take place in a traditional bar or setting where people are imbibing.
What advice do you have for someone on the fence about trying a month off of drinking?
I'm obviously all for it. I always say you can go back to doing what you do every day, but if you’re curious about how your body might feel, how your social life might evolve, and how your dating life could potentially improve, I really don't see any downsides.
I know that there’s a lot of hesitation and pushback (trust me, I do) but if you have 52 weeks in a year and four and a half of them are spent not drinking, you'll come to realize that even if it's not something you want to do in the long-term or forever, it might be something you partake in once a year, once a quarter, or twice a year. Whatever it is that suits you, it’s worth trying and it's definitely not going to hurt.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve done sober?
I'm currently training for the New York Marathon. It will be my first and I can say that the craziest thing I've been doing is spending my free time on my weekends running, sometimes more than two and a half hours, to prepare for this epic race. I think that's pretty crazy.
Now for (even more) fun stuff…
We asked Hilary to select her favorite non-alcoholic drinks from TNB and, of course, she didn’t disappoint. Shop her curated bundle below.