Aiming the Cork at COVID
I quit drinking nearly six years ago. I’d known I was an alcoholic for many years, but it took a long time for me to reach the incomparable demoralization that gave me the courage – no, the need – to put down my favorite chardonnay bottle.
It was an April day in 2015 when I quit. I had been “day drinking,” at home for several months. I worked from home and when I had no deadlines looming that day, my only real responsibility was keeping the dogs fed and picking my son up from high school.
I fed the dogs each day. I had even picked my son up from school, drunk, when hundreds of kids left through a gate at Northgate High School. I could have hit one or many of them, but some higher power kept them safe.
On that April day, I had drunk tequila since 9 a.m. It had become a habit. As I had been going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and trying to stop. I failed miserably in the latter, but was becoming a pro at the former. But on that day, I texted my son and told him he had to walk home or get a ride. He came into my home office, where I had a guest bed and I was “napping,” and asked what was wrong.
“Your mom’s a drunk,” I told him. He was 16.
That afternoon, when I had sobered up enough to make a phone call, I called the Kaiser Chemical Dependency Program and told them I wanted to start an Intensive Outpatient Program. I started the following Monday, having not taken a drink since that one afternoon. I can happily and proudly say I did not have a craving for alcohol for over five years.
One day, when I was quarantining at home during the pandemic, I wished I could drink. I didn’t, of course. I attended one of the hundreds of AA meetings on Zoom that have helped save so many lives. I haven’t had a desire to drink since that day.
But I’m in the minority. Many people have turned to alcohol to help handle the stress of the pandemic, of working from home without the socialization they’re used to, the loneliness, and the extreme stress of working and managing children, either too young for school or trying to help them manage distance learning. Then there’s the stress of trying to work from home with a spouse working there too, without any outside stress-relieving activities. It can be overwhelming. And I am warning you to watch out.
According to the American Heart Association, "There are data to indicate people are drinking more than usual," says Dr. Mariann Piano, a substance abuse researcher. "And there's no question that drinking too much every day leads to an increase in health risks."
Nielsen reports alcohol sales in stores were up 54% in late March compared to that time last year, while online sales were up nearly 500% in late April. According to a Morning Consult poll of 2,200 U.S. adults conducted in early April, 16% of all adults said they were drinking more during the pandemic, with higher rates among younger adults: One in 4 Millennials and nearly 1 in 5 Gen Xers said they had upped their alcohol intake.
"Some people are saying, 'Whoa! That's binge drinking? That's what I drink every night,'" says Piano, a professor of nursing and senior associate dean for research at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
Excessive drinking can increase the risk for liver disease, obesity, breast cancer, depression, suicide, accidents and a wide range of cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, stroke and heart attack.
Piano says alcohol also can lead to harmful interactions with prescription drugs, dehydration and poor sleep. It also affects brain functions such as memory, balance and rational thinking – a key factor when it comes to stopping the spread of the coronavirus, she says. "It can completely impair your judgment.”
Perhaps more scarily, she says “I've seen bars where there's no physical distancing happening, with people in clusters or lined up against each other."
Piano says people who are alcohol-dependent have compromised immune systems, reducing the body's ability to fight off infectious diseases such as COVID-19. And the more you drink, the higher your risk.
Humans have long turned to alcohol to try to relieve everyday stress, and the pandemic has pushed anxiety levels up for many people, says Dr. Adriane dela Cruz, a psychiatrist who specializes in drug and alcohol addiction.
"There are all these uncertainties: 'Will I still have a job? When will my kids go back to school? When can I see my family again and hug them?'" she says. "A lot of my patients talk about this idea that there's a hamster wheel constantly going in their head and that alcohol quiets down the hamster wheel."
Anxiety isn't the only thing fueling pandemic drinking. As people work from home and self-isolate, they experience loneliness and boredom – two more potential triggers for excessive alcohol use, she says.
Theses stats are backed up by the popular website Healthline:
· Researchers say binge drinking, especially among women, has increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic;
· They say that stress, anxiety, and isolation are contributing to the issue;
· They also note that COVID-19 restrictions are preventing people from attending counseling and 12-step program meetings; (This is not entirely true --- Zoom meetings have made attending AA and other 12-step meetings easier than ever.)
· Experts recommend people eat healthy, exercise, and get sufficient sleep during these stressful times.
I’m sure if I were still a drinker, I would have turned to alcohol a long time ago. I have no judgement when it comes to those who choose to drink to relieve the stress of this awful pandemic. But I can warn you, it can become a habit. If you have a propensity to open a bottle of something over any anxiety-producing emotion, you may want to take a look at your drinking. If you need to drink to celebrate, you may want to look at your drinking habit. Especially if you’re bored and you drink, you may want to take a look at yourself.
This is not preaching. I know, because that’s how I lived my life for more than 35 years. For many people, it’s not an issue. They can stop. They can leave half a glass of wine without guzzling it. Weirdos. We in the program call those of you who can do that “normies.” But if you wake up in the mornings – or the middle of the night – and swear you’re not going to drink that whole bottle of wine again, or have that third or fourth drink, yet you do, you may want to look at yourself.
I lost one of my best friends to alcoholism two years ago. Many people I know in the program have lost family members or loved ones, whether to alcohol-related illnesses or suicide. Many people I know in the program have killed people when they were drunk. Many people, like me, could have easily killed people when they were drunk.
I know there was a higher power than me that has allowed me to be sober for 2055 days. The nice thing about AA is it’s like a buffet: we get to create our own higher power. Whoever or whatever mine is has watched over me and my family during this pandemic, and your higher power, if you feel like you have one, will look over yours. As my old friend Hugh, a retired high school teacher, used to say, “My problems make me want to go home and drink. But maybe I’ll do that tomorrow.”
So one day at a time we face this stupid, deadly, dangerous pandemic. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and we will get there. In small, bite-sized pieces, we will get back to normal. Just be careful you don’t come out of this dark tunnel with an even deadlier problem.