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Unhappy Hour: When Pandemic Drinking Becomes Problematic

Alcohol consumption during COVID is on the rise. Sean Paul Mahoney is here to talk about how to catch the signs of if you should quit drinking alcohol.

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In my long and dramatic drinking career, I developed a talent for day drinking. Okay, it’s not really a talent as much as the ability to drink during daytime hours without shame and with stamina.

Naturally, this “talent” would lead to my drinking demise and me getting sober in 2009. Still, I would be lying if I said I don’t sometimes in the back of my mind romanticize day drinking. Particularly right now. This for drunks only or Sunday Funday justification posts on Instagram activity has become mainstream since coronavirus. I now see photos of people sipping wine outside in the sunshine or on patios and think “aww. That’s the life!” It’s easy to romanticize day drinking especially as it’s stepped into the spotlight as something cool that seemingly everyone is doing.  Until I remember that me drinking during the day usually wound up with me drinking all night long and using cocaine and probably yelling drunkenly at my boyfriend in a parking lot. Yikes. I’ll stick to ice coffee.

So how do we know when enough is enough or if it’s too much in a world that seems to be at a non-stop happy hour?

Nevertheless, all-day drinking since quarantine is officially a thing and our former boundaries with alcohol consumption have gone the way of buffets and making out with strangers. This is all well and good if you don’t have a problematic history with alcohol or substances. But if you struggled with alcohol in the past or had tried to quit before, this new normal of endless drinking could be potentially disastrous. So how do we know when enough is enough or if it’s too much in a world that seems to be at a non-stop happy hour?

First, let’s look at the facts, alcohol consumption has actually increased in the United States considerably since the pandemic. This isn’t like shooting up bleach or sunshine to cure coronavirus. It’s a real trend happening now and the numbers support it.  A study from Jaffa reports that Americans have been drinking 14 percent more often than they used to. “The increase in drinking frequency has been higher for women (up 17 percent) and for those ages 30 to 59 (up 19 percent). The findings stem from a study by Rand Corp., a research organization, that involved a nationally representative sample of 1,540 adults ages 30 to 80 and compared their self-reported consumption of alcohol this past spring with drinking habits for the same time the previous year,” according to the Washington Post. 

This is, one can imagine, great news for big alcohol companies and little liquor stores alike. But not fantastic for people who use booze as a way to cope with stress, anxiety, and depression. Sure, health organizations are urging folks to keep their drinking down- 1 drink per day for women, and 2 for men is what is currently being recommended as healthy drinking. This is a laughable suggestion for anyone who drinks the way I used to. That wouldn’t even start to make a dent in my anxiety or an overwhelming sense of dread that I woke up with on any given day, much less during a pandemic.  Grimmer still are the recent numbers that show how alcohol-related deaths have 43% in rural areas between 2006 and 2018. Given what we know now about what coronavirus has done to those communities it wouldn’t be surprising if those numbers were even higher. As it stands, the US had about 88,000 alcohol-related deaths last year.

How can you tell if your pandemic drinking has fallen off the rails?

Next, so how can you tell if your pandemic drinking has fallen off the rails? One pattern I see almost universally working as a recovery mentor with folks who are having issues with substances is an admission that substances have disrupted their daily living. Whether it’s less serious but still concerning things like more frequent blackouts and hangovers to larger issues like losing a job or housing, everyone I’ve worked with has noticed that their drug of choice has taken its toll. In the halls of recovery, you often hear the saying that drinking started out fun, then it became fun with problems, then just problems. That’s a pretty simplistic but accurate barometer to measure if my relationship with any substance has become more problematic than fun. Other things to consider are if drinking has taken a toll on your mental health or physical health, if it’s become the focus of events instead of the event itself and if you find yourself doing it more than you used to- pandemic notwithstanding. Finally, if you’ve tried to stop and can’t that’s usually a good indicator that your festive, doing it to pass the time quarantine drinking has drifted into the lane of something more serious. The world can currently be a dark and helpless place and if drinking has become a constant activity simply to cope with daily life, it might be time to get some help.

But speaking of help, this brings me to my last thought about pandemic drinking. Sure, while the opportunities to get your drink on have certainly increased so have the opportunities to get help. Most definitely my professional world has been faced with immense challenges during this time due to places being closed, treatment beds being even more scarce, and overloaded emergency rooms. At the beginning of the pandemic, I saw dozens of people we worked with relapse partially due to intensive outpatient services and in-person meetings no longer being an option. However, I can say now, seven months into this way of life,  that the recovery communities across the globe have risen to the challenge. Whether it be online support groups in Zoom meetings, therapy is done with telehealth, or recovery groups on Facebook, seeking the help anyone needs can be done safely and from their living room. 

So much of what I always sought with drinking was the social aspect and connection and believe it or not, I can get that all with other sober people online. I know it sounds lame and crazy. But that’s okay. Because just for today it sounds better than day drinking boxed wine and watching Judge Judy and that’s progress. 

Sean Paul Mahoney is the author of the new collection of essays Now That You’ve Stopped Dying and the co-host of the LGBTQ recovery podcast Queer Mental Condition. He also works as a recovery mentor and peer support specialist in Portland, Oregon.

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