The Bars Are Open, But I'm Staying Sober Post-Pandemic
In April 2020, the New York Times declared, 'You Can Be A Different Person After the Pandemic.' The headline was immediately skewered by social media, but my initial reaction was different. I sighed in recognition and relief.
While the majority of Americans increased their alcohol consumption over quarantine - women reported that their frequency of drinking increased 17% overall according to a study conducted by the RAND Corporation - I decided to get sober. Though I wouldn't have asked for as much alone time as I received, the solitude of living single in a pandemic gave me space to practice my sobriety and acknowledge its importance to me.
I'm not the only one. Zari, 27, a program administrator living in New York City, had been considering quitting drinking back in January 2020, two months before the pandemic hit in earnest. "I don't get the best feeling from alcohol," she says now. "I get the 'Asian glow' to a whole new level. I don't just get red. I get headaches and symptoms that resemble a fever. I only drank in social settings before and have completely stopped drinking since COVID hit."
Katie, 29, lives in Boston and works in higher education. Even before the pandemic began, she had a strained relationship to drinking, mainly because of how expensive a night out could be. COVID caused her to reevaluate how she wanted to spend her time and money.
"My friends and I are all entering our thirties and our priorities have shifted from going out, getting drunk, and meeting people to wanting to spend quality time with each other," Katie says. "We've also realized we don't need to spend $100 to drink in a loud bar when we're only talking to each other."
The country is opening back up now, which is absolutely cause for celebration. But it's also cause for those of us who have changed our habits during the pandemic to worry about maintaining those changes as we return to another new normal.
What determines how sobriety sticks?
I'm a longtime nail biter and I've always told people that nothing has been able to prevent me from biting my nails except my own willpower. Since my nails are bitten as I type this, either I don't have much willpower, or breaking bad habits isn't about willpower at all.
As it turns out, it's kind of both. None of us really has much willpower, or rather, we aren't great at accessing that part of our brains when we get stressed. Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., executive medical director of behavioral health at digital health company Sharecare and the author of Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind reveals in his book that learning new habits isn't determined by willpower, but by the rewards systems in our brains.
Willpower is actually located in the youngest and weakest part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, whereas reward value is located in the orbitofrontal cortex (oFC) - where emotional, sensory, and previous behavioral information gets combined into a reward value that we can quickly access.
Dr. Brewer elaborated on this in the context of someone being asked out for a drink after becoming sober during the pandemic. "I see this with people in rehab where their cravings drop because there's no alcohol there. Why would they drink? It's not that simple when they're outside a treatment center," Dr. Brewer tells InStyle.
"Similarly," Dr. Brewer adds, "if you stopped drinking during the pandemic, when someone asks if you want to get a drink, your brain is going to fall back on the reward value of drinking as you experienced it in the past. You'll remember the parties, the people, the good times you had."
But of course, you can reevaluate and change how rewarding an experience is, based on new information. Being mindful of how drinking actually makes you feel is something you can (and should) practice doing before you go out to the bar, so you can be prepared when someone asks if you want that drink.
"The thinking brain doesn't hold a candle to our feeling body," Dr. Brewer says. "I tell people struggling with impulse control to really feel into their experience. What was it like the last time they drank? What were the results? How did they feel the next morning? And then I tell them to feel into what it was like when they were sober and ask themselves the same question. When you tap into that visceral place, it makes it easier to return there than to regress to the previous place you were in."
One of the main things that helps me say no to drinking when temptation strikes is thinking about 'tomorrow morning.' Mornings were something that used to be lost to me the night after drinking. During my months of sobriety, I woke up well-rested and without any vague regrets over what I could not remember from the previous night. My mindset has switched from "what will I lose if I stop drinking?" to "what will I lose if I start back up?"
Get vulnerable with your friends. They can take it.
Many, like me, worry about being judged for our decision to stop drinking. So what's that about? is a question I still fear getting. But Elaine Skoulas, MA, AMFT, an LA-based therapist who is also sober, says that in answering those questions, it's best to just put yourself out there.
"You can't really ever go wrong when you speak from the heart," Skoulas says. "And I think it can be really difficult to be vulnerable, but that's also the time where it makes it the most challenging for someone else to react in a negative way or dismiss you."
When I revealed to my friends how awful drinking made me feel in a 2-minute voice memo which I conveniently let fade from my phone's memory, they responded to me with paragraphs (paragraphs!) of support and appreciation for how close we'd become - which I did not delete. Apparently, when you make yourself vulnerable to someone else, it permits them to do the same.
Skoulas adds, "I think the only times I ever really hear about negative responses is when the other person has their own problematic relationship with alcohol, because then they have to reflect on themselves and that can be really difficult. But for the most part when this conversation happens, most people just don't care that much."
Here's how you can ask your friends to hang out-without drinking.
Lauren, 25, a nanny and museum worker in Memphis, is three years sober and stresses the importance of pausing before making any decision early in sobriety. Even if it's just a few seconds, pausing after a friend asks you a question beginning in "Would you be okay with…?" makes it more likely that when you answer, you'll be answering honestly. Pausing gives you time to catch up with the sensation that their suggestion provokes in your body rather than just answering immediately so as not to pose an inconvenience.
"I think those times when I don't feel comfortable being around alcohol, it's empowering to be like, 'Hey, actually, can we just have a night without?'" Lauren says. "And then it's affirming to have my friends be enthusiastically on my side."
People also may be more willing to try something new, post-pandemic. Dr. Brewer suggests framing a sober night out as an experiment so that your friend feels like they're actually playing a part in your success. "'Do you want to help me try to do this thing?' works more like an invitation for them to participate in your sobriety," Dr. Brewer says.
Make a game plan before a night out.
For everyone post-pandemic, getting back into the cycle of socializing is going to take some getting used to, especially for those who have spent over a year isolating at home.
"People are having all sorts of reactions to the 'post-pandemic.' Even if someone isn't necessarily struggling with the same challenge of going out with friends that are drinking, they still might be struggling with something else," Skoulas tells InStyle.
That means you probably won't be alone in wanting to ditch the party early if it all becomes too much. Skoulas recommends planning "an out" if you need it. "The first time you go out, maybe you only stay for 20 minutes, and see how that feels. And if you start feeling a desire to drink, plan on calling one of your friends who isn't out with you and have them talk to you or come get you," Skoulas says.
Plans like these are best made in advance, to avoid possible awkwardness or unintended feelings of guilt that may crop up among friends who might feel as though you're upset with them because you left early. You can tell your friends ahead of time that if you leave suddenly without making a big deal out of it, it's not about any of them. It's about taking care of yourself at that moment.
When in doubt, remember why you quit drinking in the first place.
At the start of the pandemic when anxiety was at an all-time high, Katie's vice of choice was a bottle of wine each night.
"I would wake up groggy with a pounding headache and just feel so down about everything. My self-image was probably the lowest it's been in a while. I had no sex drive, I was irritable, and my partner and I fought constantly," she tells InStyle.
Since cutting back on her drinking back in September 2020, she feels so much better about herself mentally and physically that she wants to keep down her drinking as much as she can.
"I am hoping my friends and I can get more creative in terms of what we do to hang out," Katie says. "We've generally always done dinner and drinks, but I want to start doing new things like going to museums, playing a round of golf, walking around and finding thrift shops, etc."
Kelsey, 27, a server and podcast producer who lives in Philadelphia with over four years of sobriety under their belt, told InStyle that it may take sober newbies some time to figure out what makes them happy and how they want their lives to look on a day-to-day basis. But taking that time to rediscover your interests is part of the fun.
"Whether it's taking a spin class or going rock climbing or, you know, signing up for a pottery class, you're going to have all this available time that used to be filled by drinking and the aftermath of drinking. You get to fill that time differently now," Kelsey says.
Reframe your slip-ups as learning opportunities.
Dr. Brewer mentioned something called the "abstinence violation effect" during our phone call to explain why when someone slips up - either during sobriety or some other prolonged attempt at habitual change, like a diet - rather than see it as a bump in the road, they take it to mean that they simply lack the willpower to permanently change a habit.
"Relapse can really be a teacher," Brewer tells InStyle. "It only takes 10-15 times of someone really paying attention to their bodily experience in order to change a habit. You can't change the past, but you can learn more from having screwed up than not. Slip-ups give you more updated information, and recency helps us remember things more easily."
Kelsey adds, "I can have a martini after work or whatever, but then I'm going to give up all this stuff that I worked for. Relapse is part of a lot of people's stories, and that's okay. People who like drinking, like drinking, you know? It's what we want to do. But I just always try to remember when I do have an urge or something, I don't want to give up the peace that I have in my life today which is a direct result of my sobriety."