While many are struggling under the influence of 'quarantinis' and Zoom happy hours, others are finding the pandemic is helping them cut out unhealthy triggers.

By Kaelyn Forde
Updated Apr 08, 2020 @ 2:30 pm
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For Christa Lombardi, it started with Dry January. As a single woman working in Manhattan’s PR industry and living just across the river in Jersey City, she regularly drank with clients at dinners, connected with colleagues at happy hours, and unwound with a glass of wine. She also lives with anxiety and depression, and wanted to take a month to recalibrate her relationship with alcohol. “It started as an experiment to see how a month without alcohol improved my mental health,” Lombardi, 35, tells InStyle.

More than 90 days later, Lombardi is still abstaining. But she was surprised by how tough the coronavirus pandemic has made sticking to her goal. “I thought the hardest part would be navigating not drinking in situations like at bars or at work events. But honestly, the most challenging time has actually been over the last two weeks or so as I’ve been solo in my apartment,” she says. “In the moments of uncertainty where I feel a little bit sad or lonely, and when I look online and see people raising their glasses and sharing their quarantinis, it makes me second-guess [my sobriety].”

She’s far from alone. Around the world, people who are either in recovery from alcohol addiction or simply trying to drink less have found themselves up against fear about the virus itself, financial stress, and a culture that’s largely responded to COVID-19 by pouring itself a big ol’ cocktail.

How big? Moderate drinking is considered up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men, according to the government’s dietary guidelines, and high-risk drinking starts at eight or more drinks per week for women and 15 or more drinks per week for men. But many people’s drinking exceeds those guidelines, and 15 million people in the U.S. have alcohol use disorder, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, including 5.3 million women. But while the problem is widespread, treatment isn’t; only 8% of adults with the disorder received treatment over the past year. That is also one reason liquor stores in many states have been allowed to stay open even as other businesses close. “Abruptly limiting access to alcohol could lead to an increase in withdrawal among people with severe alcohol use disorder and add to the burden on the healthcare system,” George F. Koob, the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, told Newsweek.

Stress and isolation can make a relapse more likely for someone recovering from addiction or an eating disorder, says Jessi Gold, M.D., a psychiatrist and an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Some of her 100 patients have had the urge to use alcohol or drugs come back during the COVID-19 crisis.

“When our coping skills are tried, we always go back to things that are not necessarily the best for coping,” Gold tells InStyle. “So it makes sense that if our poor coping skill was to drink a lot of alcohol or use other substances, that’s what we would want to be doing.”

But a total upheaval of life as we know it — and social distance from the triggers that might push people to drink too much — is also leading others to make healthier choices around booze. Some of Gold’s patients have told her that they’ve been able to quit “by being isolated or removed from toxic influences.”

Others, like Lombardi, see it as a challenge. “Having to face such uncertainty in such a raw way has been such a great learning and growth opportunity for me,” she says.

Here’s how the pandemic is changing people’s relationship with alcohol, and how you can use this time to evaluate your own goals.

First, booze — and booze memes — are everywhere.

It’s no secret that in addition to panic-buying toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and Clorox wipes, plenty of people are stocking up on booze during this period of self-isolation. “When we think that we're not going to be able to get hold of something, we hoard it like it's going to go completely out of fashion,” says Laura Willoughby, the founder of Club Soda, a mindful drinking movement. “But we all know that stockpiling alcohol is not quite what happens. What you end up with is a lot of alcohol in your house at a point in time when you're feeling uncertain about events which are outside your control, and at a time when you're likely to be more bored than normal.”

Coupled with those big quarantine stashes are the memes that justify drinking at any time of day, and remote work that may make people less accountable. “Quarantine rules are airport rules, have a drink at 9am if you want to,” reads one. “Kids: screaming, Husband: complaining, me: pours fourth drink before noon,” reads another. The conflation of homeschooling kids and drinking to cope can be particularly triggering for parents in recovery.

Working and homeschooling can be extra stressful.

Before she quit two years ago, Celeste Yvonne, 40, found that alcohol was a big part of playdates and mom friendships, and her world was awash in “mommy needs wine” memes. “Seeing how everyone referenced alcohol as a prerequisite for parenting reinforced my own habits and made me feel less concerned with drinking sometimes three or four glasses of wine a night. I honestly believed that's what everyone else was doing,” Yvonne, a mother of two, tells InStyle.

The Nevada-based writer and marketing professional realized she “could stop at one, but I never wanted to,” so she quit. She felt strong in her sobriety, but when her kids’ schools closed and her feed was once again flooded with references to booze, “all the memes about drinking were triggering for me,” she says.

“When the news of social distancing and self-isolating first hit, I wondered how I would get through this without alcohol,” Yvonne explains. “Everything I use to hold myself accountable: my work, my routine, my exercise, and self-care routines, it was all swept out from under me so fast. I wondered if I could do this sober.”

People committed to staying sober can feel challenged by the bombardment of messages about alcohol right now. “People can think, ‘I'm home, I'm bored, I'm stressed out, and I remember that I felt better when I used to drink and I probably could just have one,’” Gold explains. “If you've been cold-turkeying it on your own, it can be pretty hard.”

And ultimately, alcohol is a depressant, which won’t make the anxiety about coronavirus better. “Right now, a lot of things are out of control, and that’s what substances make you feel. Even if there's some fun in sort of numbing the thinking and worrying, it actually is making you further out of control,” Gold says. “When nothing else is in control right now, it’s nice to stay in control of yourself a little bit.”

Help is out there.

To stay strong, Yvonne turned to online recovery meetings and virtually connected with sober friends for help. Many Alcoholics Anonymous groups have gone online during the pandemic, according to the group’s general service office, which adds that “from AA’s earliest beginning, AA membership and recovery has not been contingent upon meeting ‘in-person.’” Some chapters have used Zoom, Google Hangouts, or regular old phone calls to keep in touch.

Once she got into a routine with her kids and found new ways to practice self-care, Yvonne felt stronger. “I see how hard it would be to manage working from home, homeschooling, and self-care with a hangover,” she says. “And I see how much my kids are looking to me during this crisis. They are watching me and how I cope. I am grateful they see me staying present, and not turning to alcohol to cope when times get hard.”

If you are worried you might have alcohol use disorder, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration runs a 24/7, confidential helpline that can help connect you with treatment.

And quarantine can also be a chance to cut back or quit.

Willoughby gave up drinking eight years ago and, after unsuccessfully trying to find something “that felt a bit like Weight Watchers but with booze,” she founded Club Soda, which helps people take a self-guided journey to cut back or quit drinking. She’s seen plenty of interest during the pandemic so far.

“There's a whole load of people realizing that now's a good time to do all those health things they had promised themselves, so there's a bit of a dry COVID run going on,” she says. “For some people, suddenly, temptation is taken out of the way, and it gives them an opportunity to take a month or more off.”

Yvonne says staying at home can take the pressure off. “With all social obligations and networking events cancelled, there is no social pressure to drink right now,” she says. “And for moms at home with the kids, there are so many recovery meetings online now, the resources for working around a busy family schedule are greater than ever.”

If you don’t have an alcohol use disorder and you’re simply looking to cut back, make a plan first, advises Willoughby. Structure your day and make clear rules about when and with whom you will drink — then stick to them. “You don't want to end up finding an excuse to start opening the wine at midday in your pajamas,” she advises. “Set some very clear boundaries.”

Have a list ready of all the things you want to accomplish, including DIY projects, recipes, courses, books, crafts, or workouts. “So when you're feeling bored, you're not going to slip into, ‘Well, it's just easier to pick up a drink.’”

Instead, pick up one of the many books on mindful drinking, one of the biggest wellness trends of 2020, such as Ruby Warrington’s Sober Curious, Holly Whitaker’s Quit Like A Woman and Laura McKowen’s We Are the Luckiest. Connect with one of the many sober communities online for empathy and support, and stock your fridge with something other than beer. “There are loads of people doing alcohol-free cocktail sessions live on Instagram on Fridays,” Willoughby recommends.

Remember that this quarantine will eventually come to an end, and by drinking every day, “you could come out of this period of isolation feeling wrecked, rather than having used the opportunity to do some nurturing things for yourself,” she adds.

One of those things could be a better relationship with booze.

“You don't need to hit rock bottom to examine the role of alcohol in your life,” Lombardi says. “Often the question is, am I an alcoholic? And that feels like such a big commitment and it's very hard and it doesn't feel like maybe the right fit for people. But ask yourself a different question: How does alcohol impact my life? Does it make me feel good? Does it help support the goals and the life that I want to live?”

The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.