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Cheers -- I'm three weeks off the booze

TS Eliot reckoned that April was the cruellest month, but that can only mean he'd never spent January in Ireland. If he'd had to contend with the combined challenges of snow, ice, torrential downpours, howling gales, a post-festive hangover and a bank account bled dry by an excess of December parties, he'd quickly have conceded that April wasn't so bad by comparison.

Given the unrelenting grimness, the temptation, traditionally, has been to drown your sorrows in a pint of the black stuff or a nice glass of vino. But for increasing numbers of guilt-ridden partygoers, January has become the month of the all-out detox, a chance to give overworked livers and bank balances a break.

Broadcaster Louise Heraghty (27) downed her last glass of wine as December drew to a close and has now been three weekends on the dry. But it hasn't been easy.

"It is really hard. That first week I was dying for a glass of wine. I looked back and worked out that, what with one party or another I'd had a drink -- even just one -- almost every single day in December. So it was a big change."

And what's the hardest thing about giving up? Is it the withdrawal symptoms? Is it the damaging effect on your social life? Is it the absence of a little bit of escapism at the end of a hard day or week? Nope -- the toughest thing is the horror with which other people greet the news.

"Definitely one of the things that makes it hardest is the attitude of other people," says Louise. "That shouldn't affect your consumption of alcohol, but it does. People make remarks -- a few have said to me, you're a dry shite, but I think it's more for themselves that they try to make you feel bad."

The young broadcaster spent large chunks of last year off the booze as she trained for her first marathon in Chicago in October.

She soon found that she needed to be on her guard when preparing for a night out with the gang when she knew in advance she wasn't going to be joining in with their drunken exploits.

"You'd almost feel guilty. I'd find myself thinking, what am I going to tell my friends to explain why I'm not drinking? You'd have to think of an excuse."

And once she'd got to the pub, trips to the bar for a diet Coke were invariably prefaced with a Mrs-Doyle style chorus: 'Ah sure have a drink. Go on, go on, go on, go on . . .'

"It's the people around you who are the problem," agrees Eoin McDevitt, a Newstalk presenter who, along with Louise -- and hundreds of others -- has given up alcohol this month as part of the Drop the Drink charity challenge.

"You could be perfectly happy on a night out without drinking, but the people around you will keep reminding you you're not drinking and that therefore you can't be having a good time. And then you think, do I look miserable? Because I don't feel it."

Just why are we so suspicious of people who choose not to drink, be it for a day, a month, or a lifetime?

Once, a very long time ago, I dated a teetotaller. He was handsome, clever, funny and charming, but I couldn't focus on any of those things because I was too busy wondering why he didn't drink.

And because we were both sober -- dating a teetotaller inevitably leads to far more alcohol-free conversation than might normally be expected at the start of a relationship -- I never plucked up the courage to find out.

Curiosity gave way to suspicion -- did he have a murky past as a raging, out-of-control alcoholic? Would one drink turn him from Mr Perfect to Mr Pissed-off-his-head?

Planning an outing became a nightmare. I was anxious to avoid alcohol at all costs. So we went to the cinema. We met in Starbucks. We went for walks. Eventually, on what turned out to be our last date, we went -- at his insistence -- to a bar. Predictably, it didn't go well:

Him: Have a drink.

Me: No, I'll just have a coffee, thanks.

Him: Seriously, have a drink. I don't mind.

Me: (reluctantly) OK.

Him (eyeing my elaborate cocktail): Is it nice?

Me: Oh for God's sake why don't you just taste it yourself and find out?

He didn't call again. And I have to admit, I wasn't sorry. Although I knew it was immature, unreasonable and unkind, I couldn't banish the feeling that there was something weird about him.

We're particularly adept at demonising non-drinkers, according to addiction expert Daniel Regan, a researcher at the psychology department at NUI Galway, who has just completed a study on this topic.

What the researchers found was that our overwhelmingly negative attitude towards non-drinkers is one of the biggest motivating factors in excessive drinking.

In other words, we drink too much because we are terrified by what might happen if we didn't drink. We might find out that our fun-loving, exuberant friends are in fact nothing but drunken bores -- or worse, we might find out that without the happy gloss of mild intoxication, we are terribly boring ourselves.

As well as viewing non-drinkers with suspicion, the language we commonly use betrays our respect for the really hard drinker -- the ones who just keep going until they pass out.

"When you hear people say I was wrecked, destroyed, or in bits, then that means it was a good night," says Daniel, who is himself a non-drinker for the best part of a decade.

"Those are negative words, but we tend to ascribe positive views to them. There is almost a national pride element to this. We are not world-beaters in anything else, but we are top of this field."

So how best to overcome the tirade of abuse from the beered-up masses and steer an alcohol-free course for the rest of the month? You could, obviously, stay in and talk to no one, but that wouldn't be much fun. Far better to take a leaf out of the book of the late singer Tommy Makem, a non-drinker who, reportedly, deliberately slurred his words in order to put the drinkers around him at their ease. Seemingly, no one ever noticed he wasn't as hammered as everyone else.

Or else you could take Eoin McDevitt's advice: bring your car with you, not just occasionally but every single time you go out with the intention of not drinking, even if you're just going down the road. If you don't have a car, borrow someone else's keys and pretend you do.

"If you tell people you're driving, that's OK, they'll just want a lift," he points out.

And of course, allow yourself a bit of self-congratulatory gloating at your hangover-free status. After all, you've earned it.

"It's so nice to get up at a normal time on a Sunday without a hangover, go and buy the newspaper and be focused enough to actually read it," says Eoin.

"You definitely feel a whole lot better about yourself."

Irish Independent