How Do You Feel About Your Pandemic Drinking?
- Interview By
- Marnie Schwartz
- Rob Wilson
New research shows what we all know—that people are drinking more often and more heavily during the pandemic. Why do you think the “quarantini” habits have persisted?
All humans have needs that have to be met on a regular basis, including feeling connected to others. When the world shuts down like this, a lot of those needs aren’t being met. Instead of going into an office and connecting with coworkers, we’re at home, where we’re doing more work than ever. We used to have escapes, like going to a yoga class, or for me, taekwondo twice a week, and those are now gone. So we’re turning to something we’ve seen meet our needs in the past.
With mommy wine culture… I have three kids, and I was drinking heavily through the early childhoods of my first two. My drinking would increase after each kid was born, after those 9 months of giving it up. It’s that forbidden fruit syndrome. And all of a sudden you’re in this intense life change, and this is the tool society tells us will help us deal with it. I really grabbed on to that tool. I was doing the best I could with the tools I had. And that’s true for all of us right now. We just don’t realize that they’re not the best tools for us until after the fact.
The pandemic has revealed cracks in how we take care of ourselves, how strong our relationships are, and more. We can’t hide from these things as much when we’re together all the time. And what’s the quickest bandaid we can reach for? As a community, we’ve told ourselves that alcohol works to fix our problems. And it does work in the short term. But in the long term, it doesn’t solve anything.
And then, unfortunately, if we start to question that… it becomes such a stigmatized conversation. If you realize that social media isn’t serving you and you quit Instagram, everyone applauds that. But if you start to open up about or question drinking, everyone is like are you an alcoholic? It’s hard for a lot of people to have that conversation safely without feeling like the other person is going to worry about them or pity them.
Have you seen a rise in enrollment in your classes during this time?
It’s going in waves. At first it was almost crickets in terms of people who wanted to change their drinking. Then people were saying, just not right now, being curious about it but not signing up. People who were early in their journey were abandoning ship. But within 8 weeks, we launched an Alcohol Experiment Live, and it was the largest one ever outside of January, which is always the biggest. People are starting to realize that when they let the guardrails off, like with day drinking, it doesn’t work. There have been renewed waves of that as people process all of this differently. However people are using alcohol during this time… it’s almost guaranteed that when you use it to self-medicate, to numb yourself, that your need for it will increase at a more rapid rate, and the negative effects will increase too. It can be relatively benign when it’s used socially. But when you use alcohol to self-medicate, the brain responds differently. Sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better, and we’re seeing a lot of the getting worse right now.
When is it time to reflect on your own drinking and how do you know if your pandemic drinking is a problem or not?
If the only question you’re asking is do I have a problem? then the answers are just yes or no. And we’ll do anything to keep it a no, because we’ve been taught that if it’s a yes, we have to go to daily meetings and stay sober forever. We will rationalize to the end of the earth to keep it a no. So I think it’s the wrong question.
The default questions of do I have a problem? or am I an alcoholic? are more harmful than helpful. They present a picture that things have to get really bad before you look at changing them. The more helpful questions are ones like is this good enough for me? or am I happy with the way things are? Those should be the benchmarks. The number one tool that we have is curiosity without judgement. The earlier you get curious, the easier it is to change and the higher the likelihood will be that you don’t have to give it up forever. We have a picture of 100 percent sobriety as success, and I think that’s a problem. There’s so much fear of “having a problem” and having to be sober forever, that we push off thinking about it until it truly does become a problem. But we can back the conversation way up by just asking is this serving me?
There are some very specific things to examine. Mentally go through your day and calculate how much time you spend thinking about, recovering from, or actually drinking during the day. One thing I have noticed, though, is that when it gets its hooks in you, you spend an inordinate amount of time with it on your mind. You start to have this inner dialogue all the time that gets loud.
Look at a clock and time how long a glass of wine makes you actually feel good. Scientifically, it's about 20 minutes. Time how long it is until you have your next drink. Write down your reasons for drinking, and your feelings before you drink and how you feel the morning after. That in itself can be mind blowing; you can see huge amounts of your day are spent with alcohol on your mind, combined with less than an hour of really positive feelings. It makes you think about the tradeoff. Curiosity without judgement lets us see what the benefits are and ask ourselves if it’s worth it.
So if you do this sort of self-examination and find that you want to cut back or experiment with sobriety, where’s a good place to start?
When you realize you’ve gotten into a territory of being unhappy, the question becomes, is there a possibility that life could be better drinking less? That question allows room to not commit to a life of sobriety, although people are often surprised about how good they feel that they do stop. But I actually encourage them not to say that they’re never going to drink again, because that forever is a real mental burden. I say that I drink as much as I want, whenever I want, I just haven’t wanted to in 6 years.
Ask yourself if you want to try something different and get more data points in your information. Do you want to cut back and see how that goes? Do you want to skip it for three days? My book, This Naked Mind, helps you educate yourself about the science of alcohol dependence. And what’s so cool about the human mind--we don’t do things if we don’t think they provide a benefit. So if you learn that even though you thought you were drinking for stress relief, that every glass causes the release of additional cortisol that’s actually compounding your long term stress, it becomes so easy to say no. But that mindset shift takes work and research. My program The Alcohol Experiment can help. It’s free, and 180,000 people are going through or have gone through it, so there’s a huge community there.
What were some of the benefits you experienced, or your participants and readers have experienced, from cutting back on drinking or stopping altogether?
I lost 13 pounds in the first 30 days. That was front and center for me and I was really stoked about it. My eyes got brighter, and the reddish blotches on my skin just went away. And it took a few weeks, but around week 3, I started sleeping so much better. Alcohol would put me to sleep really quickly, which felt like a benefit, but I was always waking up in the wee hours of the morning feeling all this adrenaline. Sleeping through the night and drifting to sleep naturally was blissful, and I hadn’t experienced it in a decade.
My anxiety did get worse before it got better. For the first two weeks it was more intense, but after week three--it was like night and day. In fact it was so different that after about a year of not drinking I realized I didn’t need my antidepressants, and ended up getting off of all three of them within a year.
The flip side is that you really do feel all of your emotions, all the ups and downs. Once you learn to navigate them, it becomes a gift. They’re there to tell you something, and when you’re numb, you’re not hearing that inner guidance. But it is intense to suddenly feel everything when you haven’t for so long.
How can people be more mindful about their drinking during the holiday season, especially coming off this unusual year?
I actually think that the holidays are a good time to apply the principles of not necessarily changing your behavior, but just getting curious. Ask questions like, what am I going to do this holiday season with alcohol? With everything going on, how am I using it? Decide that you’re just going to gather information, and in January, maybe you’ll take a break and see if anything gets better. Maybe your first goal is curiosity and self-compassion. Then your second goal is to revisit in January and take a small break. The Alcohol Experiment is built on this idea of building on successes. All change happens on the other side of awareness, and to be aware, you have to become courageous. You have to find a place where you can be curious without being judgemental.