Check-in on your relationship with substances


For many, the beginning of a new year signals a clean slate: a time to refocus on goals or commit to healthier habits. This year, however, feels a little different. Maybe you’re still processing (and recovering from) 2020, or even mourning the feeling of not accomplishing as much as you’d hoped to. Despite the past year’s challenges, lots of us are still doing ‘Dry January’ or ‘Dryuary’ – a movement that challenges folks to abstain from alcohol for the entire month of January. For some, living sober for a month can be an opportunity to reassess their relationship with alcohol or other substances. For others, it may just be an approachable way to challenge themselves and start the year off with a clear head. On the other hand, a month of sobriety can also feel like a contest of moral superiority to some who would rather sit the challenge out. 

Taking a break from substance use can be a wonderful and healthy thing, but sometimes the messaging surrounding Dry January can inadvertently trigger shame in those who don’t want to participate. Whether you’re participating in Dry January or not is totally okay – you don’t have to feel pressured either way. Either way, checking in with yourself surrounding your substance use is never a bad idea, new year or not. 

Before we dive in

Ever heard of a mental health self-test? A self-test is a tool that can help you better analyze your own mental wellness, and in this case, behaviours and attitudes around substance use. They provide guiding questions that can help you identify common symptoms of different mental health struggles or underlying patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that could be warning signs for other underlying issues. Self-tests can be incredibly useful in providing a starting point from which to explore our overall mental health. Self-tests can give you a better sense of what kind of support you may or may not need, but they are not a substitute for professional evaluation or medical diagnoses. If you’re concerned about your mental health or substance use, it’s important to reach out to a doctor or mental health professional. 

How do I know if my substance use is even a problem?

One easy way to remember the distinction between healthy substance use and substance abuse is an acronym called the Four C’s, which stand for Craving, loss of Control of frequency or amount of use, Compulsion to use, and Continued use despite negative consequences. The acronym can also be used to inform some questions you can ask yourself if you want to take a closer look at your relationship with substance use.

The Four C’s of Substance Abuse


  • Do you find yourself craving the substance or the intoxication that comes with it?

  • Do you find yourself counting down until it’s an “appropriate time” for you to consume the substance?

Loss of Control of amount or frequency of use

  • Do you feel the need to use substances regularly?

  • Do you find it difficult to stop consuming the substance once you’ve begun, or do you regularly end up using more than you had planned?

Compulsion to use

  • Do you find yourself using substances almost out of habit, rather than making a conscious choice to use them?

  • Do you want to stop using the substance, but can’t?

Continued use despite negative consequences

  • Has substance use negatively impacted your work or school performance?

  • Has substance use put strain on your personal relationships?

  • Have you ever caused yourself physical harm because of substance use?

If you answered “Yes” to 3 or more of the above questions, it’s probably a good idea to talk to someone about your substance use. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a substance abuse problem. Remember, self-tests can only provide a snapshot of your experience, and can’t make any definitive conclusions about your situation. One important question that many self-tests leave out is: are you worried about your substance use? If the answer to that question is yes, no matter your result on the self-test, then it’s definitely worth reaching out. Even if your substance use doesn’t seem like a clinically significant mental health concern, if it’s making you worry, then you deserve to feel supported through that. Reach out for professional support sooner than later to get the help you need.