Lockdown, or Lock-in?
Socialising may be banned, but our booze culture remains front and centre in quarantine. Jennifer Crichton ponders our collective thirst…
What time is wine ‘o clock around your place these days?
It used to be that 5 pm was the accepted time for boozing, beyond a number of notable caveats – at brunch or Christmas, before weddings, or when passing through an airport, for example. But morning boozing any other time? Well, that’s a sign of a problem, my friend.
In isolation, however, it seems all bets are off. Our usual life rules have gone out of the window, we’re struggling to remember what month it is, let alone what day, and time is an abstract concept – why wouldn’t a nerve-soothing glass of Chablis, taken at noon in a little patch of quarantine sunshine, make sense?
It’s certainly a standpoint the British Government agrees with. The UK was barely 48-hours into lockdown when it amended its list of essential businesses to include off-licenses.
But while I don’t want to rain on anyone’s socially-distanced parade, I wonder what message our leaders are sending with this. More to the point, is this a lockdown, or a lock-in?
I understand that sobriety is an acquired taste. You only have to turn down a drink at a party to see that abstinence is as well received by drinkers as alcohol is by teens embarking on their first shot – not well at all.
But if sobriety remains a controversial standpoint, a thirst for booze most certainly isn’t. Just look to social media to see how parched we all are in these weird, anxious times.
My own feeds are awash with memes about day-drinking. Among my fellow parents, the idea that anyone can homeschool without a stiffener suddenly seems downright blasphemous. And when The Independent suggested its readers try ‘dry-COVID’, Twitter quickly proved we Brits have no truck with temperance.
But as someone who chooses to be sober, this anything-goes attitude is serving me anxiety on ice.
I gave up drinking in January 2019, with the full intention of returning to the bottle as soon as I’d completed my self-imposed dry-month challenge. Feeling a little better, I kept going on the basis I would drink again when I felt like it. That day has not yet come, and while I have given up counting, a research dive into my diary tells me that I am now 440 days sober.
I have attended near every type of social occasion without succumbing – weddings and funerals, parties and gigs, festivals and fancy galas, even first dates – and in truth, I have never missed alcohol as much as I have revelled in the better sleep, clearer head and clearer skin that abstinence has brought me. Until now.
Because all this talk of day-drinking? It’s making me feel isolated.
As we continue to live in isolation from those we love, with no end date in sight, we are, more than ever, looking for a connection online. We seek solace for our anxiety and sympathy for our struggles in the digital space. But right now it seems, no matter what question we throw out into the ether, the answer that comes back is booze.
Struggling with home-schooling? Open that bottle mama. Is home-working getting you down? Your hangover is so much less noticeable on Zoom. Easter? Well, it’s a holiday, whether you’re cooped up at home or not. We’ll drink to that.
But what troubles me isn’t that people are drinking. I could care less about what you imbibe and how often – you do you. What worries me is that we are actively promoting alcohol as the balm to all of our isolation troubles when, as anyone who has ever suffered from hangxiety will tell you, it may very well be the cause of them. We are sending out the message that boozing excessively is normal. Required, even. And that’s a dangerous game to play.
We like to see alcoholism as a black and white issue. We set out checkpoints at which drinking becomes a problem – before noon, during work hours when you can’t stop at one, or two, or six. But dependency is far more nuanced than that. A better measure would be: do you feel you need alcohol to cope with life?
I am not an alcoholic, and I am in no place to comment on the struggle of breaking a true addiction. But as a bog-standard social drinker, it was only when I stopped that I realised what a crutch alcohol is to so many of us, how hard-wired it is into our social culture. We drink when we’ve had a bad day. We drink when we celebrate. We drink when we’re happy, and when we’re sad and now, increasingly, when we’re lonely, or stressed, or both. And we never stop to ask ourselves why.
In this time of health crisis though, ‘why’ is a question worth asking. Why do we continue to turn to the bottle? And what is all this drinking doing to our health?
Both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and NHS have warned repeatedly that too much alcohol can damage our immune systems. They insist the best course of action right now, amid the COVID-19 crisis, is to cut down on drinking, or stop altogether.
Yet, as we distance ourselves from everyone we love in order to stop the spread of coronavirus, as we sanitise and wash our hands until they bleed, as we queue outside the supermarket at a two-metre distance from others to avoid contamination, we continue to stock up on alcohol in complete denial of that advice. And why wouldn’t we? Even our own government is normalising our collective dependence.
But despite off-licences’ categorisation, for most of us, alcohol is not essential. Unless you are an addict, you do not need alcohol to survive quarantine. You need food. You need a support network. You may need medicine.
You do not need a beer.
And none of us needs another meme to tell us we do.
Whether you’re sober-curious, or struggling with alcohol use in quarantine, these online services can help:
Hello Sunday Morning promotes the benefits of cutting back and drinking more mindfully.
One Year, No Beer offers a guided 12-month programme to reset your relationship with booze.
Drink Aware offers helpful facts and advice on using alcohol safely, as well as guiding those who want to cut down or quit towards support.