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The Pandemic Taught Me I Had A Drinking Problem

(Yulia Reznikov/Getty Images)
(Yulia Reznikov/Getty Images)

On day 308 of the pandemic, I’d finally had enough wine.

My dad was an alcoholic, capital A. At my age, 49, he went into residential rehab, took Antabuse for a year, then tried to avoid drinking for the rest of his life. He never believed he had the disease, alcoholism. He said he just liked to drink.

I shunned alcohol all through adolescence. I was the ride to the party instead of the party girl. In college, I was that friend who held people’s hair back over the wastebasket and dragged them into the shower to wash up. Senior year, I started to drink regularly, and eventually, after I had kids, white wine became my favorite treat at the end of the long day. When I confessed to a young mom friend that I lived for my wine in the evenings, she said she didn’t think drinking was compatible with raising small children. I was genuinely perplexed. Would parenting be tolerable without it?

This is what the pandemic taught me: You don’t have to binge drink to have an alcohol problem, and drinking problems can develop very gradually, across years or decades. Over 20 years of nightly imbibing (minus my pregnancies), I rarely had more than two or three glasses of wine at a time, but during the peak stress of the pandemic, that was every single night. My husband and I joked we had somehow managed to stay just this side of alcoholism (never before 5 p.m. or after 11 p.m.), but all that alcohol over all those months had a cumulative effect on me. Three glasses a night was three to four bottles a week.

This is what the pandemic taught me: You don’t have to binge drink to have an alcohol problem ...

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I got bored of so much drinking. One night, I looked down into my half-empty stem glass and sighed, like, "You again?" It became as monotonous as remote learning, and it wasn’t rewarding anymore. After the first few sips, I found myself chasing a feeling that had abandoned me, like trying to feel the heat of the sun after it had set. The second and third glasses just made that wonderful sunny feeling, and all feelings, more elusive. The evening slid by in a haze of sauvignon blanc and streaming TV. In the morning, I would think, "I’m worn out, maybe I’ll take a night off," but by the late afternoon, the message was, "Almost time for my drink."

The negative effects of my drinking were so subtle, it took years to believe they were really there: impatience with my daughter’s bedtime avoidance (reorganizing her t-shirt drawer at 9:30 p.m.); drowsiness (dozing off in her bed while she reorganized); anxiety in the middle of the night (pandemic!); and disappointment with myself the next morning. ("You don’t even want to be drinking anymore.") The process of deciding to stop was a long argument with myself that I lost over and over again.

A person isn’t labeled an alcoholic anymore — she has an "alcohol use disorder." It’s the substance that’s the problem, not the substance user. But maybe my problem wouldn’t be a problem for you. I do not have the problem my father had, with his weakness for scotch in the afternoons. He came from the generation of drinkers that thought if it wasn’t hard liquor, it didn’t even count. Wine and beer were what they drank after they quit real booze.

The next glass of wine was always in the back of my mind, nagging at me. 

Let’s call what I had not a disease but a preoccupation. The next glass of wine was always in the back of my mind, nagging at me. I never forgot to chill a bottle when the open one was getting low.  My efforts to limit my drinking only led to greater fixation.  If I tried to keep it to weekends, I was jubilant on Friday afternoon and resented Monday more than ever.

The easiest way to stop was to immerse myself in the genre known as "Quit Lit." I read books by women who spin sobriety as a form of empowerment and social subversion. This mindset helped me feel like I was making a choice rather than losing a beloved panacea. Going alcohol-free was one concrete action I could take to protect myself under the looming threat of a deadly virus. My skin got clearer, too. The whites of my eyes brightened. My daughter stopped complaining about my sour wine breath and I don’t fight with myself in the mornings anymore.

But it hasn’t all been great. I had to give up one of the most comforting rituals of lockdown with my husband: cocktail hour. I’ve lost the winding down and numbing effect. There’s no off-switch at 6 p.m. My feelings are loud, persistent. I’ve returned to the intensity of my younger self, that too-muchness of being in a busy home, over-stimulated and restless. And there’s grief, too. Watching other people drink cocktails on TV feels like watching two people fall in love after I’ve broken up with someone.

But I can already see how this choice could lead to more decisive action for my own well-being.  It’s exciting, and a little scary, too. This is the first time I've stood alone inside a decision about my life in a long time. I'm more comfortable adapting to the changes around me, riding the ups and downs of the people who depend on me, rather than causing change.

My teenage son asked me recently, “So, are you going to start smoking weed now?” This is what you do when you give up alcohol.

I told him my goal is to have a sober summer, my first sober summer since I was a teenager. Being back out in the world, going to beaches, restaurants, reunions with friends — those will be real tests of my commitment to clear-headedness. Whenever I have a pang, I’ll remind myself, it’s just a choice not to do something harmful anymore. It only took 307 nights at home to decide.

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Erica Youngren Cognoscenti contributor
Erica Youngren is a New York-based writer and the agency coordinator for County Harvest, a food rescue organization in Westchester County.

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