Alcohol’s legality has long promoted a sense of normalcy around its use, while illicit drugs are demonized as harmful, dangerous, and addictive poisons that turn their users into amoral, selfish monsters.
This dichotomy ignores the reality that alcohol can be just as harmful as many of those substances society has labeled “extreme,” and sometimes even more so. For example, repeated, long-term alcohol use will lead to a physical dependence similar to opioids like heroin and fentanyl.
Unlike opioids, however, alcohol withdrawal can produce life-threatening seizures and other symptoms in otherwise healthy adults. Alcohol poisoning can likewise be fatal, or produce debilitating short and long-term side-effects. Alcohol consumption is associated with a host of health issues, and contributes to more than 10,000 automobile deaths per year. Yet despite these obvious harms, alcohol continues to enjoy a reputation as a safe and socially acceptable form of stress relief. Now, it is even being touted as a balm for coronavirus and other issued related to lockdown.
From in-store promotions to targeted online advertisements to memes, wine and liquor are being celebrated as heroes of the pandemic. Of course, alcohol advertisements are nothing new, nor are memes celebrating wine and spirits (particularly in the context of white, upper-class parenting stress). And hey—during a time period when bad news and extreme anxiety have become our daily baseline, isn’t humor a good thing? The answer is yes; laughing and finding the humor in a situation in which we have very little control is much healthier than wallowing in despair. But addiction is no laughing matter and it is particularly harmful to make alcohol consumption the brunt of the joke right now.
Pandemic Parenting is a Major Problem for Everyone—but the Difficulties are Not Equally Distributed
All you have to do is look at some of the alcohol-fueled homeschooling memes floating around to be clued into the problem: these memes are populated by upper-class middle-aged white people smiling covetously around glasses of spirits. These memes showcase a deeply harmful disparity that causes real harm in the lives of parents around the United States: upper class, typically Caucasian, are given license when it comes to the consumption of substances to mitigate parenting stress. Low-income parents, especially low-income parents of color, are subject to child services investigations on mere allegations of substance use—much less for joking online about balancing their newborn on their legs during redwine yoga, or for chugging whiskey 11 minutes into the homeschool day.
Alcohol Addiction Is No Joke
Despite what popular media would have us all believe, alcohol addiction is no laughing matter. Although most people who consume alcohol are able to moderate their use and enjoy it in a safe manner, there are some who seriously struggle to moderate their use. For those who develop an addiction to alcohol, it can cause serious damage to their life, bodies, and mental health. The coronavirus era memes and grocery promotions around alcohol use go beyond mere advertising—they are actually joking about addiction. Some making the choice to stock their fridge with wine instead of buying toilet paper, or choosing to drink at 11am to cope with the difficulties of homeschooling, or labeling liquor a “school supply” are all behaviors that, were they serious, would indicate an unhealthy relationship to alcohol and likely an addiction. Joking about behaving like someone with an addiction isn’t really funny—it’s hurtful, shame-inducing, and it contributes to stigma.
You Might Be Triggering Someone Who Is Genuinely Struggling
It’s difficult to know exactly how the pandemic has impacted our relationship to substances, but some preliminary data from several counties indicate that substance use has gone up. That includes alcohol sales. And some predictive algorithms, including a projection from Well Being Trust, are providing a grim glimpse into a possible future outcome that includes increased deaths from alcohol and other drug consumption. People are genuinely struggling right now. And while it’s important that we all learn to recognize and take charge of our own triggers, we also need to collectively recognize that this is a high stress time during which many people have decreased access to addiction and mental health support. So instead of making things harder on those who are struggling because we want a quick, cheap laugh, why not just exercise some empathy and avoid the triggering memes?