July is upon us: the month that strikes fear into the hearts of viticulturalists everywhere as me, and others like me, give up their favourite tipple. Give up all tipples in fact. Despite the fact that this is my third consecutive year of Dry July I still approach it with trepidation. I love wine. I mean I really love wine. It’s my last remaining vice. I kicked the cigs years ago and had a brief and ill-fated encounter with recreational drugs in my early 20s that I was not tempted to repeat. I’ve even wrestled my eight long blacks a day down to three. Only wine, sublime wine, remains of my indulgences. For me, there’s few pleasures to rival returning home of a Friday night after a tough week on the corporate hustings to a delicious meal and bottle of wine. I love the taste, I love that it chills me out and quiets the relentless chatter of my inner voice. So giving it up, if only for a month, is tough.
I have my own take on Dry July. I select a cause and ask friends to sponsor me. If I make it through the month without weakening I ask them to honour their pledge and send me the money. In 2011 I gave the funds to a girlfriend who volunteers in an orphanage in Bali. In 2012 the beneficiary was another girlfriend who volunteers at a safe house for domestic workers fleeing employer abuse in the United Arab Emirates. This year I’m bringing it home to raise money for domestic violence services in Victoria.
The whole system relies on the distinctly old-fashioned concept of honour. We don’t talk much about honour these days. It’s the quaint preserve of Jane Austen novels, fantasy films and misogynist cultures obsessed with women’s hymens. (This last one not so quaint). But my Dry July works because of honour: that I will honour my word and not drink or, if I do, that I will ‘fess up. Honour that people will hand over the money they have pledged in the glorious month of August. That I will donate the money where I said I would and not pocket it. And that the people I give it to use it as intended. Honesty, decency and resolve are required of everyone involved. It asks us to be our best selves.
I find the honour factor incredibly motivating. If I were trying to get through Dry July on nothing but my own willpower I wouldn’t make it past the first difficult day at work. Or dinner out with friends. Or Friday night. But Dry July presents me with two choices: the shame of admitting to my friends that I buckled or take a teaspoon of (non-fermented) cement and tough it out.
Of course, there is a third option. Someone I know, a CEO no less, once asked me what was to stop me drinking in private and just staying quiet about it. The way he phrased it, it was clear he thought this was a reasonable thing to do. I seriously considered lying in 2011 when my publisher rejected my new novel two weeks into July. I was gutted. Three years of my life seemed to dissolve with nothing to show for it but reams of paper that interested no one. The grief smote me. Surely, surely I thought, no one would begrudge me crawling into a bottle until my self-belief began to knit itself back together. I contorted my heart and mind to fit my rationalisation into the rough shape of the honour required by Dry July. Try as I might it was a classic square peg, round hole dilemma.
My endlessly patient husband talked me down from the ledge. ‘You can have a drink if you want,’ he said, ‘But you’re going to have to admit to it.’ Rather than reach for the chardonnay I spent two feverish nights taking copious notes on how the novel could be salvaged. I barely slept. I cried a lot. I imagined myself face to face with the children at the orphanage: ‘Yes, look awfully sorry that I didn’t come through with the goods but my artistic pride has been dented you see. Now run along and do whatever it is that orphans do.’ At work I was so tired and wired that shapes were sparkling at the periphery of my vision. I made it through. It wasn’t pretty, but I made it.
I came calling for my pledges in August with a clear conscience and the feeling that I’d stared something down. It doesn’t rank high in the annals of heroism I grant you, but it was a small personal victory that yielded $1,500 to people I will never meet and who will never know that I nearly failed them.
S.A. Jones is a regular contributor to Kill Your Darlings, author of the novel Red Dress Walking and an Editorial Board member of the Margaret River Press. She’s also keen on chardonnay.