With most of her everyday activities now out of bounds, recovering alcoholic Suzanne Harrington found herself restless and listless and, for the first time in years, contemplating hitting the bottle
Last week, my mood tanked. My head went into a spiral, freefalling downwards. I was not one of those lockdown individuals posting adorable photos of craft sessions with photogenic kids hashtagged #preciousmoments, or snuggling up with a partner in matching onesies. Instead I was feeling a mixture of listless, restless, hopeless. Overwhelmed. Stuck inside the house and stuck inside my head.
There was no logical reason for my mood dip. My kids are 16 and 19 - phew - and I am happily unmarried. I live by the sea, have a decent garden, already work from home, can (so far) pay my bills, have loads of lovely friends, and am healthy as a horse. So are my kids. We have enough loo roll. We all get along. I am not in a tower block with toddlers, or stuck indoors with an abusive partner, or in an even more precarious situation - I am not a refugee, a trapped migrant worker or street homeless.
No. I am in lockdown luxury. And yet it felt like lockdown misery, endless and formless. Would a drink or six help smooth it all out? According to Drink Aware, more than half (58%) of the UK public use alcohol as a coping mechanism. That's a lot of coping, before we'd ever heard of Covid-19. But if you're a problem drinker, using alcohol to cope is never going to be a workable strategy. Hitting the bottle in lockdown would be catastrophic not just for our own mental and physical health, but also for those around us. Nobody wants to be locked up with a drunk, even a nice one.
And yet the drinks aisles in supermarkets are stripped bare. Home deliveries of booze are booming, with drinks sales up 20% in the UK, and 55% in the US (the sale of alcohol has been banned entirely in Greenland and South Africa). Drinking to get through lockdown is being deemed as acceptable as over-walking the dog or bingeing on Netflix and carbs. The internet is one long meme about drinking wine at noon in your pyjamas - which is okay for moderate drinkers every now and then, but not a great daily habit to cultivate. And definitely not one for recovering alcoholics, or anyone struggling with alcohol who has yet to find recovery.
As I write this, my phone pings with a text from someone who has relapsed catastrophically. Active alcohol addiction is all about psychological isolation - add actual physical isolation to this, and a bottle of vodka might suddenly seem like a good idea. It's not.
Although I've been physically sober for years, as any recovering addict/alcoholic knows, it's not about your substance(s) of choice, but about your head. You can stop physically pouring alcohol into your body, but it takes daily work to maintain your emotional sobriety. If that goes, you are vulnerable to relighting the touch paper of your addiction. And because of our current loss of everyday structure and daily social contact, you might find your head running away from you, like those Wild West stagecoach horses galloping out of control without a driver. Although - understatement alert - you probably don't have to be in recovery to feel like this at the moment.
All the things that keep us happy and balanced are suddenly unavailable in their usual forms. All the places we go to for human connection - gyms, yoga studios, cultural spaces, pubs, restaurants, sporting events, spiritual places, other people's houses, support groups - are gone, and because we don't have a timescale outlining for how long, it's harder to manage our thinking. (Our heads go into child mode: How much longer? Are we there yet?)
For alcoholics in recovery, we suddenly have a variety pack of big fat reasons to hit the f***-it button. Boredom, anxiety, isolation, uncertainty, loss of our illusion of control, fear of loved ones getting ill, fear of ourselves getting ill, financial insecurity, existential dread, cracks in our relationships under the microscope - even one of these is a perfect excuse to get hammered, but all of them together is a perfect alcoholic storm.
"Throw everything at it except booze," says my sponsor. "Exercise, structure, routine. Connect with people. Plan your day."
So I begin with a long bracing dog walk, followed by an hour of vinyasa flow yoga on Zoom with the familiarity of my own teacher (not as good as real life, obviously, but better than a random YouTube class). I do an online 12 Step meeting, which is better than nothing, but I worry about those newly in recovery, where human connection is so vital. I bake banana bread, and eat too much of it.
Later, Zooming with various groups of friends - recovering alcoholics, normal drinkers and non-drinkers - it turns out those dealing best with lockdown are the homebodies and the introverts.
Those of us with families don't feel able to voice how we are really feeling, for fear of infecting our loved ones with our own flat mood - as parents, our primary purpose remains jollying everyone along and holding things together.
Those of us who live alone are experiencing far too much isolation and those who have used anti-depressants in the past are thinking about going back on them for the duration. We make individual pacts to be each other's moan-buddies, and acknowledge that it is okay not to feel okay, and to be open about it, rather than diminishing our feelings as first-world problems. (Which they are, but they are still real).
That might all sound really screamingly obvious, but to some of us (people who are prone to addiction and the thinking that goes with it) structure and acceptance and keeping it in the day are huge. This is a time when normal drinkers will drink too much and problem drinkers will drink even more; according to research published in The Lancet last May, women in the UK are the eighth heaviest drinkers in the world. That's when we are not in lockdown. That's when everything is normal.
Now that things are very far from normal - even if we are enjoying the time off, enjoying quality time with our kids, enjoying stepping off the corporate treadmill - we don't know how long this will last, and humans dislike uncertainty.
But drinking our way through this is a terrible idea. Reach instead for the phone and connect with someone who makes you feel as warm and fuzzy as alcohol, but without the physical, psychological and emotional after effects.
Friends, not booze.
This is a quote from 12 Step literature that we can all relate to:
"We need our friends. Not just for the good times but for basic health. In isolation, everything becomes magnified. Without others to help us form our boundaries and perceptions, whatever we can imagine becomes monstrous and whatever is monstrous becomes reality.
"By connecting with friends, we are able to see that our monsters are only knee high, that most of our fears are made of smoke, and that no grey day can hold out against the sunshine of common sense."
See you on the other side.
- Limit or cut out alcohol completely: If you catch yourself reaching for a glass of wine or bottle of beer to reduce stress or fill free time at home, make a change. Have plenty of non-alcoholic alternatives in the house. Keep alcohol off the shopping list for now.
- Create activities: Listen to a podcast or start a DIY project you've been putting off.
- Keep connected: Check in with friends and family as much as you can by phone, video, text and social media. Keeping in touch can have a positive impact on your mood and ability to deal with problems.
- Keep active: Get out for a 2km walk in your local area every day.
- Cook: A balanced, nutritious diet is just as important for mental health as it is for physical health.