In 2015, Grant Cook was arrested before 8 a.m. for driving under the influence. He spent several weeks detoxing and rehabbing at a McLean-operated inpatient facility.
He was also a forty-something Arlington dad with two young kids, hardly a stereotypical falling-down drunk. He was busy at work, he was busy with his family, and he was drinking to achieve that blissfully untethered catharsis familiar to anyone who wants a buzz after sending that last afternoon e-mail — especially now, when drinking feels less like a vice and more like a survival skill.
“It was a way of cutting loose from the day, and in some ways, a way to be out of control at a time when my mindset was demanding that I control everything,” Cook says.
These days, everyone lacks autonomy, and alcohol use is rising: According to September 2020 JAMA research, frequency of US alcohol consumption was up 14 percent from before the pandemic, and heavy drinking among women was up 41 percent.
In Cook’s case, addiction was short-circuited by police intervention. Many alcoholics talk about incarceration, institutionalization, or interment as the inevitable outcomes of alcohol use disorder.
But what about the legions of frazzled people who want a glass of wine after a day of devastating sameness, of remote schooling and doom scrolling? Alcohol confers a mental weightlessness, and unlike other drugs that produce similar euphoria, it’s legal and celebrated. During a time of isolation, drinking cements our collective identity, like rooting for the same sports team or group-watching a presidential debate.
“There’s that need for release and relief, a mutual shared experience, when a lot of what people have shared in has gone,” says Sarah Wakeman, MD, an addiction specialist at Mass General.
Case in point: A few months ago, the writer Susan Orlean crafted a tipsy stream of Tweets. Her misspelled missives went viral; they were seen as ingeniously relatable, and followers swapped tales of their own drunken debauchery. It was like an online wake. She has since referred to herself as the “patron saint of pandemic drinking.”
I laughed and retweeted — glass of sauvignon blanc nearby! — but, you know, I was also uneasy about it the next morning. It felt like a risky normalization of behavior that can sabotage people at worst and make them tired, cranky, unproductive, and craving McDonald’s at best.
“There’s a media culture around drinking, especially a lot of parenting stuff. ‘Kids drive me crazy: Wine!’ It reinforces this idea that, in order to relax, you need wine. There’s no other discourse out there,” says Acton’s Laura Barrett, a 39-year-old mother of two who went on an alcohol hiatus three months ago.
She doesn’t think she has an addiction; she drank roughly three days per week, maybe three glasses at a clip. But she suffered from anxiety and depression, and booze didn’t help.
“My anxiety went into hardcore overdrive the first two months of the pandemic, and I was drinking more to manage it,” she says. She discovered “Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice Not to Drink in a Culture Obsessed With Alcohol.”
“It reframed my thinking around alcohol,” she says. “You don’t have to be a rock-bottom person to have your life improved by stopping.”
Now, she says, she’s less irritable. Her anxiety is under control.
“I wasn’t drinking in a way that would be medically qualified as a problem, but it was interesting for me to see how much things have improved and how much less my anxiety has been,” she says.
In Somerville, Aine Blanchard found herself racing through bedtime routines so she could sit down for a drink — what she calls “nightly, low-level” drinking. Like Barrett, she doesn’t consider herself an alcohol abuser, but the ritual was becoming too important.
“[Drinking] was like drawing an imaginary line in my sand. It shut my brain off for two hours before I went to bed,” she says. Now, she’s doing a One Year, No Beer Challenge.
“I’m a better parent,” she says.
OYNB focuses on mini-challenges and frames quitting as a “break.” Another popular movement, This Naked Mind by Annie Grace, focuses on drinking less and reframing relationships without terminology such as “alcoholic” or “getting sober,” enticing users with a 30-day “experiment” phase. These burgeoning movements reach people like Blanchard and Barrett, who don’t identify as addicts but want to change their habits nonetheless.
“This is a time of really making different decisions around substance use,” says Wakeman.
And yet, the prospect of white-knuckling through this isolating chaos is grim. Wakeman suggests finding replacement activities for times when you used to drink. Respect that it served a purpose and a place in your life. It actually felt good, and it doesn’t make you weird or weak to enjoy it.
“It played a role in your life; it served a function and filled up space and time. What takes its place? It’s not just a matter of giving up alcohol. It’s how to fill those needs with something different,” says Wakeman.
Maybe it’s yoga, walking, or going for a hike. Maybe it’s a virtual book club.
“In the beginning, I had to be really busy, even with stupid stuff like reorganizing my closet or going through my kids' summer clothes,” Blanchard says.
Also, make the commitment out loud, Wakeman suggests, to hold yourself to it — more people will understand than you think. If it’s hard to keep going, jot down your feelings next time you wake up with a hangover.
“Maybe you were crankier with your family or kids than you wanted to be. Write it down. We amplify the positive things and forget the negative things. Cement them in your mind,” she says.
Lots of us exist in a gray netherworld of iffy but pleasurable drinking, waking up with the occasional headache, popping some Advil, and plodding along. Alcohol use exists on a continuum, and even if you’re not getting arrested or passing out drunk, you could be doing real physical harm.
“We don’t realize how much alcohol impacts our physical systems: our heart, our organs,” says Monika Kolodziej, program manager at McLean’s Addiction Treatment Center at Naukeag. “We may feel more fatigued” — guilty! — “and we may not realize it’s the physical impact of alcohol.”
A recent article from McLean authors in the Journal of General Internal Medicine terms increased alcohol use during COVID-19 a “growing public health crisis" that can lead to health issues like high blood pressure, stroke, liver disease, cancer, depression, intimate partner violence, and sleep problems, to name a few.
Kolodziej says that people who use alcohol to quell anxiety might find it harder to cut back versus those who use it for mere pleasure. If you’re questioning your intake — and even if you’re not quite ready to make a change — Kolodziej suggests visiting https://www.rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov/. It’s written in an accessible way that speaks to everyday and heavy drinkers. (The NIAAA defines heavy alcohol use as more than four drinks on any day for men or more than three drinks for women.)
And be honest about whether you really can’t cut back at all. If your primary source of solace comes from altered reality, even if you don’t consider yourself addicted, take stock.
“The definition of an alcohol-use disorder is continuing to drink despite negative consequences. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or weak or lack willpower. You need some support, which comes in lots of forms,” Wakeman says, from therapy to rehab to treatment with drugs such as naltrexone, which curbs the desire to drink by binding to the body’s endorphin receptors and blocking alcohol’s pleasurable effects. Talk to your primary care doctor — and don’t minimize your intake for propriety’s sake.
Take it from Cook: He has five years sober, and that includes the pandemic.
“Now, I do projects around the house. I decorate for Halloween,” he says. “When I take the kids somewhere, it’s not, ‘Oh, my God, how do I get alcohol? How do I get to the liquor store before it closes without my wife knowing?’ The amount of energy I put into drinking, and hiding the drinking, was enormous. The burden of maintaining an alcoholic lifestyle was far more stressful than anything that’s come since.”