Early on in the pandemic, as the first lockdown dragged on, I relied on daily routines to give me a sense of safety and stability. Waking up at the same time every morning. Writing a post for this blog. Going for a run in the park.
Pouring the first glass of wine after dinner.
Alcohol consumption has risen over the course of the last 18+ months; a survey conducted this February by the American Psychological Association found that nearly one in four adults reported drinking more to manage pandemic stress. The increase is notably higher for women, which is problematic in that because women metabolize alcohol differently; similar quantities of alcohol affect us more adversely than men.
In non-pandemic times, drinking was most frequently a social activity – the happy hour with colleagues, champagne at a birthday party, a bottle of wine shared over a beautiful meal. Covid changed all of that; drinking – and solitary drinking at that – became a coping mechanism.
People drink to alleviate anxiety, depression, the prickling stress of uncertainty. And while it may temporarily calm the fight or flight surges in our amygdala, alcohol is at its core a depressant. We may feel some temporary relief and relaxation, but it ultimately increases our distress.
My relationship with alcohol started quite early. My late father was a wine connoisseur who allowed my brother and I a few sips of wine regularly, starting when I was 9 or 10. Early exposure (and some fantastic vintages) soured me on the amateurish drinking I witnessed but in which I rarely took part during my teen years; for my peers, drinking was an enticing forbidden world. For me it felt old hat – it held no draw, no novelty.
Alcohol was a casual acquaintance through my early 20’s. As any young person, there were of course instances of excess – exuberant New Years Eves, house parties with my music conservatory housemates, overindulging at a favorite martini bar. Occasionally, it was a way to unwind after a particularly stressful day, but even then I was wary of feeling any reliance on that first drink, of feeling that a cocktail was a need rather than a want.
Drinking took on a different tenor in the year proceeding my wedding, particularly as I distanced myself from my father. Perhaps at some point I’ll be able to write about this need for distance itself. For now, suffice it so say that I needed to pull away, and that in itself caused me deep anxiety, and alcohol stepped into a more prominent role in my life.
My husband and I moved to a wonderful little apartment in a lively part of Philadelphia, across the street from a bagel shop, a Peruvian restaurant, and an Irish bar, O’Neal’s. We were both freelance musicians with jumbled schedules and jobs that sometimes took us hours outside the city. O’Neal’s became a comforting source of consistency, a familiar place to frequent on those nights when my husband was out on a late gig. Adding to those solitary hours was the deepening anxiety over my father, and it’s no surprise that the shot of Jamesons and that first pint of Guinness held more and more allure.
10 months after I got married my father jumped off the 16th floor of his office building with a picture of me in his pocket, and my life was forever changed.
To say I was traumatized doesn’t begin to describe the sudden and extreme sense of utter instability into which I felt plunged. The evening I flew to my hometown of Honolulu for the funeral, I remember sitting with my brother in the kitchen of the house we grew up in, drinking glass after glass of wine as we wrote our eulogies. Everything felt out of control, but the feeling of wine as it entered my system – that was familiar, understood, and somehow safe. At one point I felt nearly out of my body, looking down at the two of us at the kitchen table, empty bottles between us. I’m not sure how we could string sentences together on paper, but we did.
Statistically, women more than men are more liable to use alcohol as a means to cope with anxiety and depression, and that was certainly my case; alcohol could temporarily soften the cutting edge of anxiety and briefly fill those hollow spaces of sadness resonating in me. But at the same time, while I’d experienced depression and mild hypomania in my early adulthood, in retrospect it occurs to me that the heightening of those symptoms coincided with the aftermath of my father’s suicide and the sudden escalation of my drinking. Bipolar and alcoholism often present together – both can be tied to genetic predispositions – a complicated topic for a later time.
I spent the first few years after my father’s death skirting the borders of alcoholism; drinking wasn’t a daily ritual, but close. It was a predictable component of my weekends, which often featured binge drinking (generally characterized as more than 4 drinks in 2 hours for women) after concerts. I could easily toss down a six pack, or four vodka martinis (with a twist, not olives), or the second bottle of wine.
I would anticipate that first post-gig drink for hours. At first came the radiating warmth as I gulped to the bottom of the first glass. Then came that loosening of the spot between my shoulder blades, the imperceptible drop of my shoulders. And after that, the soaring sensation of everything around me lifting, gliding upward. And finally, the beautiful numbness, the world fuzzy around the edges, a jumble of sound.
I was put on antidepressants around the same time, and years later the older, responsible me cringes at the bad judgment, and the danger of combining medication with heavy alcohol use. There were a handful of instances in which I was close to black-out drunk, stumbling home on the narrow brick sidewalks of the historical area of Philadelphia. Too ofter I awoke on our couch, my eyes gritty, a half-eaten slice of pizza from Lorenzo’s (open until 2:30 am) on the coffee table, my arm still in a coat sleeve and the steely taste of last night’s vodka in my mouth, on my breath. I frequently didn’t remember how I got there.
Waking up like that, with a headache like a vise crushing my temples, weekend after weekend (and on an occasional Thursday) was unfortunately no deterrent to the binge drinking; more captivating were those moments of blissful numbness when I felt nothing at all, relieved of the burden of my emotions. During those years, when my husband was away on his regular Christmas Eve gig, I developed a solitary tradition; crossing the street to O’Neal’s for a shot and a pint, and then another shot and another pint. And another. And then I didn’t feel so alone anymore.
The bell of the church down the street tolled midnight – Christmas, my father’s favorite holiday – and through my haze I would lay a wad of bills on the bar and crunch across the snow to our apartment, fumbling the keys with fingers that refused to work.
It took nearly five years, but a move to a different city and a more regular work schedule helped disrupt that pattern. We bought a starter home, contributed to our 403(b), established some security in our livers – and bit by bit the binge drinking lessened. The heavy drinking of those first years of marriage, in retrospect, exacerbated the bipolar symptoms that emerged during that time, and pulling back from alcohol tempered both my depression and hypomania. I entered several years of relative stability, both in my drinking and in my mental health.
In 2011 a summer-long tour with Sting precipitated a descent into eating disorders (read more about that story here) which was soon followed by severe depression, punctuated by brief periods of hypomania. I may have been starving myself of food, but I allowed myself alcohol, which I more and more frequently imbibed in increasingly copious amounts.
Drinking of course always made everything worse, even if it seemed a momentary relief. And my chronically empty stomach and withered frame meant that the effects of alcohol were intensified. I would hold off on drinking for days and days (lots of calories in alcohol, after all) as my anxiety rose exponentially. And when it became too much to bear, I would take the precipitous tumble into the comforting pool of inebriation, not realizing that I was slowly drowning.
Depression begat binge drinking which begat depression. My brief periods of mania were frightening in their heightened emotions, so I drank to quash them. My dwindling daily energy was dedicated to maintaining the illusion of normalcy in my work life; few people knew the depths of my despair, and my dread of the uncontrollable punctuations of panicked hypomania.
But yet again a move to a different city marked the beginning of another behavioral shift. I started seeing a therapist that I really liked. I was closer to family. My work became more wide-ranging and meaningful and took me to fascinating cities around the globe. I began writing more, and launched my first blog. Excessive drinking was still a feature in my life, but more and more it felt like a troublesome habit and not a need.
The final nail of the coffin was a correct diagnosis of bipolar (I write more about my experience here ), and the resulting awareness and medication began to mitigate the worst of my symptoms. Slowly, drinking lost its primacy as a maladaptive coping mechanism; I was learning to manage my emotions without it. The pull of alcohol as savior and solution has receded into a past horizon.
Drinking and I have reached an uneasy detente. In times of stress, and when I sink into depression (which, while far milder, is still a permanent fixture in my life) I begin to hear the distant siren call of excessive drinking, the insidious enticement that if a drink or two is kind of nice, then 5 or 6 will definitely make me feel better. I acknowledge the impulse, and on most days reject its fallacy. Now I aim to drink to celebrate, not obliterate. I don’t drink alone.
The post-dinner glass of wine in those early days of lockdown mostly stayed at a single glass, even as my husband and I, together on our couch, tried not to doom scroll, in near paralysis over the crushing anxiety of that initial uncertainty. But I didn’t need it then; I don’t need it now. It doesn’t solve anything. And tonight, as I contemplate an evening cocktail with friends, it occurs to me that I haven’t had a drink in nearly two weeks .
And tonight, I know that I’ll be OK. That I don’t need a drink to shut out my life. That I’ll never need just one more.