As cities and states started shutting down in March and the realities of shelter in place set in, many looked for ways to handle the feeling of four walls creeping in while a global pandemic spread outside. Sales of home goods and exercise equipment in the U.S. shot up as people prepared to hunker down. But it wasn’t only redecorating and new online workout routines that people looked to for relief. Many also started leaning hard into that old favorite pastime — drinking.
Though people in the U.S. aren’t the heaviest drinkers in the world (many Central and Eastern European countries consume more alcohol per capita), alcohol is a big part of our culture. It’s present at most social gatherings, and saying you “need a drink” is a completely normal way to talk about stress. As the panic about the spread of COVID-19 rose, so did alcohol sales — by 55% to be exact, in the week ending March 21.
And it’s not surprising. We’re all dealing with abnormally high stress levels. People are spending A LOT more time than usual at home, trying to pass the hours, or at least look for ways to differentiate their workday from their personal life. For many, it seems only natural to drink to take the edge off big feelings, or to socialize on Zoom happy hours with “quarantinis.”
But for Jen and Sarah, drinking during quarantine doesn’t work. Drinking often leaves Sarah feeling like crap, and Jen’s always had a problematic on-again, off-again relationship with alcohol. So they both decided to cut way back.
That choice certainly isn’t for everyone. But Jen and Sarah are both finding that the emotional rollercoaster of this time is dramatic enough without booze-induced meltdowns or hangover blues.
Examining our relationships with alcohol
Earlier this year, I thought a lot about breaking up with alcohol.
I’d always thought that alcohol and I were in love. We had fun together and made each other feel good. We inspired each other.
But I started to realize that (a) alcohol doesn’t care about me and (b) for me at least, it’s a pretty abusive partner. I’d been roiling from low-grade depression for what seemed like months or longer, and a drunken cryfest in December made me wonder if it was time for a change.
I’ve been a heavy drinker (sometimes heavier than others) since the first time I blacked out in high school. (If you’re lucky enough to not be familiar, blacking out is when you drink so much that your brain stops recording memories.)
I’d sworn off drinking a handful of times before. Always as sort of a punishment after screwing something up. I’d tell myself that I couldn’t handle alcohol, so I needed to stop. But I found that mentality hard to stick to.
My resolve would be strong for a little while, but then I’d lose sight of the reason not to drink and rebel against my self-imposed rule. Or the rule imposed by people around me: My therapist in college told me it was good I wasn’t drinking because I couldn’t be authentic if I were. I rolled my eyes and showed up to our next appointment still drunk from the night before.
My desire to drink always won out.
About five years ago I cut way back on drinking. I haven’t been a heavy drinker since college (when a blood alcohol test on the weekend would have read “Tap the Rockies” instead of a number), but a bizarre night was enough to scare me off alcohol for a while — two whiskeys over the course of three hours on a full stomach left me so drunk and sick I had to stay home from work the next day. Subsequent attempts to drink produced similar results.
Looking back, I’m still not exactly sure what happened. I was going through a really rough year (a heart-wrenching breakup, almost losing my job and having to break my lease and move in with a friend were a few lowlights), and booze was honestly the last thing I needed. Maybe my body was so full of overwhelming emotions it didn’t have room for any toxins — that sounds like science, right? Anyway, after my scary whiskey night, I all but quit.
Deciding to drink less (or not at all)
After feeling too shitty for too long, I decided in January that I needed to take my mental health more seriously. I started using mental well being as a litmus test for all my decisions — asking myself a simple question: Will this make me feel bad? And when it came to being even a little hungover, even from one or two drinks (I’ve tested this), the answer was yes. Turns out I don’t have the emotional resilience to handle even the tiniest of hangovers.
So I stopped drinking not as a restriction or punishment, but as an experiment to see if it would make me feel better. And it did.
I found that not being hungover was actually pretty amazing. But it wasn’t just that — I also felt generally better sober than I ever had drunk. I’d always thought I was happier, more outgoing and more creative with a drink in my hand. When I started this sobriety experiment, I was instantly more of all of those things than I’d ever been.
Annie Grace, author of the book “This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness, and Change Your Life” explains in this interview on The Cut, “…alcohol is an interesting substance, in that it’s both a stimulant and a depressant. For the first 20 to 30 minutes after we drink it, it acts as a stimulant. It gives us that tipsy, euphoric, kind of high feeling. That’s pretty quickly countered when our blood alcohol content goes down, at which point it becomes a depressant. Those mood swings don’t feel good, but we don’t necessarily associate them with alcohol, and so we think, ‘Oh, it was a stressful day’ or whatever, and we reach for the next glass.”
Reading Grace’s words, I started to feel like alcohol had tricked me for years. I can think of countless times when, striving to get back to those fleeting first-drink moments of euphoria, I drank more and more until I was slurring my words or blacked out. As I said before: alcohol was an abusive partner for me.
Prior to cutting back, a typical weekend night for me was two to four drinks, and I never thought twice about having a glass of wine with dinner if I felt like it. I wouldn’t consider three to 10 drinks a week to be significant, but the difference in how I felt when I went down to zero or one drink a week was remarkable.
I’ve always been a naturally energetic person, but without alcohol, I felt like the Energizer Bunny. I also tend to be incredibly hard on myself, and sometimes after a totally banal night with a few drinks, I would feel an inexplicable sense of shame. It turns out this is a common hangover symptom — sometimes referred to as “hangover anxiety,” “hanxiety” or a “shameover,” it’s caused by, essentially, alcohol shocking and disrupting your neurotransmitters. After I cut out drinking, I felt freaking fantastic every morning.
A few things surprised me about my decision to drink less: (1) No one cared. If anyone asked, I told them drinking made me feel bad and they were supportive. The few times people reacted with surprise or disappointment, I assumed it had more to do with their own relationship with alcohol than mine. Now my friends and family are very used to seeing me with sparkling water more often than not. (2) I don’t know why it took me so long to experiment with not drinking to see what it felt like. The physical difference I felt from cutting back made me realize how much even moderate drinking was affecting me.
Life in moderation
When I started this experiment, I thought there would be many activities where I might still drink, or when it would be hard not to. Maybe I could be like Sarah and just have one or two drinks on those occasions. I couldn’t fathom being sober at parties (how could I possibly socialize?), on date nights (where I’ve always loved picking out fancy cocktails and drinking too much wine), at work events (when social lubricant feels critical to my schmoozing game) and even at book club (where I feel braver and smarter when I’m buzzed).
But then I went to a friend’s birthday party sober and it was fine. Then I went to my book club sober and that was fine too. In fact, both were great. And I started to consider some of the times when I said things that must have sounded decidedly unsmart. Or the mornings after date nights when I didn’t really remember the expensive food we ate.
And actually, maybe it’s better for me to not drink on those occasions.
The last time I had a drink (two, actually) was Saturday, Feb. 1. So it’s only been a few months. Maybe this resolution will crumble like all the previous ones. But for now, here I am in quarantine, not drinking. My co-isolators and most of my friends still drink, and I get that. We all need to cope with this however we can. But I know what my ability to handle alcohol looks like, and it’s not something I want to add to the mix — I’m juggling too many crisis emotions as it is. And I don’t feel like I’m missing out.
I’m less scared of being violently poisoned by two drinks than I used to be, but my body is still wildly inconsistent in how it processes alcohol. Sometimes I can have three drinks in a night and feel fine. Other times half a beer leaves me so buzzed I don’t want more. I still rarely have more than three drinks a week and often go weeks without drinking.
Before, alcohol was a mindless part of many meals and hangouts with friends. I now view alcohol as a special treat, sort of like having a decadent dessert. The truth is, this has made me enjoy the drinks I do have even more.
My physical and mental health are my number one priority in quarantine, so I’ve only had five drinks in the last two months (I know exactly how many because it’s the number of beers a friend left in my fridge when she came to visit a while back). I’m thinking a lot about the warnings from public health experts about the effects of alcohol on my immune system in case I’m exposed to COVID-19.
Plus, I’m not sleeping great and my mood fluctuates a lot, and research shows that more often than not, drinking actually compounds anxiety and makes it worse. I know from my own experience that that’s true.
The other night I had a beer with my dinner and it left me feeling so tipsy it was comical, but it was also a reminder of how close the hangover gods are to striking me at any moment.
Like Jen, I hate being hungover more than almost anything in the world, and I REALLY don’t want to spend any of my precious resilience in social isolation recovering from lightly poisoning my body. I doubled my grocery order of LaCroix the next day.