No shade to Ina Garten, but not everyone thought her extra-large cosmo was funny.

By Claire Gillespie
May 13, 2020
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At first glance, the jokes seem pretty harmless: You see Food Network star Ina Garten playfully making a cosmopolitan the size of her face on Instagram at 9:30 a.m., declaring "it's always cocktail hour in a crisis!" Talkshow host Conan O'Brien shares a tweet that suggests "we all agree to temporarily raise the bar for what's considered an 'alcoholic.'" Even friends are playing Zoom drinking games, showcasing what it means to be social during a pandemic.

To be clear: Drinking—even a little more than usual right now—isn't a crime. We're all trying to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic the best we can. But it's hard to ignore the fact that quarantine drinking culture has become a little problematic (to say the least), and that it's a major test to anybody's sobriety—my own, included.

I quit drinking in June 2016, and while I rarely even think about drinking today (I've gotten to a place where I can tune out the near-constant stream of "mommy-needs-wine" memes), I used to use it in almost every situation: to celebrate, to commiserate, to relax, to relieve social anxiety, to avoid dealing with the tough stuff. It got to the point where there was always a reason, always an excuse. But booze was only ever a Band-Aid, and it eventually came unstuck. 

We're all feeling those things—the need to commiserate, calm down, get our minds off of the situation at hand—and alcohol has proven to be an easy way in which many are finding comfort (I mean, almost 40% of New Yorkers report that they’re day-drinking while working from home, because, well, they can). But there's a fine line between moderate consumption and using booze as a primary coping mechanism. 

"The COVID-19 outbreak has been emotionally dysregulating for everyone, and many people have come to the painful realization that they really struggle with sitting still, getting quiet, or otherwise knowing how to calm themselves—or as we would say in the mental health world, self-soothe," psychotherapist Jean M. Campbell, LCSW, who has worked with women with alcoholism for over 20 years, tells Health. "Even the most grounded, centered people I know have had a hard time regulating their nervous systems because they’re not only feeling their own anxiety but also the collective anxiety."

The swell of collective anxiety doesn’t just stem from all the coronavirus-related questions we don’t have answers to. Many of the ways we used to get an escape from—going to a movie or dinner, working out at the gym—aren’t an option right now, Campbell says. "Because there are so few options for ‘healthy escapes,’ combined with an absence of self-soothing skills, many people have been turning—even more than usual—to alcohol to calm their insides," she explains. "If people are feeling trapped, struggling financially, or suddenly homeschooling their kids—with no specified end in sight of when life will go back to 'normal'—it makes perfect sense that they are looking for relief."

The problem is, the "relief" of alcohol always wear off, and the problems and concerns and unanswered questions are still there. "As a counselor, I would suggest substances, including alcohol, are never the best coping mechanisms," Andrew Finch, PhD, a human development counseling scholar at Vanderbilt University, tells Health. "If one’s alcohol intake spirals, it could create stress in relationships and increase the risk of abuse and injury to self or others. As well as weakening our immune systems and putting us at risk of getting sick, it can reduce inhibition around socializing with others."

Not only that, but alcohol can also add problems to your list. "In some cases, there are additional problems on top of it because you’ve been drinking," says Campbell, who points to alcohol's effects on depression, which can ultimately turn into a vicious cycle. "Alcohol is a depressant," she says. "You feel depressed, so you drink, and because you drink, you’re more depressed, and because you’re depressed, you drink more...alcohol is not only not a solution in this case—it’s actually contributing to the problem." 

For a long time, I didn’t think alcohol was a problem in my life because I was just doing what everybody else did. I didn’t drink in the morning, I didn’t have bottles of vodka hidden in the bathroom. I was a responsible parent, I always showed up for friends, I never took a day off work to nurse a hangover. But deep down, I wasn’t coping with life. I didn’t just want to drink wine every evening—I needed to. And, while I can't say this for certain, it seems like many people are dealing with this pandemic in the same way.

Campbell says that having an occasional drink during lockdown—or at any other time—is fine for many people. "[But] if you used to have an occasional glass of wine with dinner, and now you’re having one—or two, or three—every night, that could be a red flag," she says. Other signs that there might be a problem include neglecting other parts of your life because of your drinking, or dismissing other coping mechanisms because alcohol is "easier."

If you feel like you’re relying on alcohol (or any other addictive substance) to cope with the pressures of quarantine—or simply to get through the day—there are lots of ways to get help, even during lockdown. Virtual AA meetings are taking place, and online recovery programs like Tempest Sobriety School offer a range of tools, including lectures, guided meditations, daily mantras, expert advice, and an extensive support system. 

And don’t forget about the simple things, Dr. Finch says. "Building structure into your life can help, as can things that help at any time—getting enough sleep, practicing personal hygiene, getting dressed, contacting supportive peers and family, practicing mindfulness, exercising and eating healthy foods." And if stress and anxiety are increasing, consider tele-counseling—most therapists are offering appointments via FaceTime, Skype or Zoom during stay-at-home orders. 

My own getting-sober strategy was simple: I took it one day at a time. I simplified everything in my life, including my relationships. I spent time with people who supported and celebrated my decision to quit drinking, and avoided those who questioned it. I read blog posts and books written by people who’d been sober for 12 days, 12 months, 12 years. I put my messy, confused feelings down on paper. I took a lot of baths.

And currently, I've also widened my sober circle—both off- and online—and have support from others who believe, like me, that life without alcohol can be pretty amazing. So now, when it comes to virtual happy hour, I can make up my own rules. Mocktail, anyone? 

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