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COVID Drinking, Unmasked

Floating Through Pandemic on a River of Booze?

I’ve never been a big drinker. Up until March 2020, I’d sip maybe three small glasses of wine per week.

Since then, I’ve done shots with my 22-year-old son while standing in my kitchen. I’ve poured Bailey’s in my coffee at 2 pm on a workday. And I’ve polished off a Costco bottle of Malibu Rum. 

Never mind the amount. Malibu Rum, you guys. 

These are desperate times. And millions of us are hoping to float through them with a merciful little buzz on. One study found that by May, the average American was already drinking 27 percent more per day than in the previous year, and binge drinking had increased 26 percent. Numbers were highest in households with kids (which will surprise no one in households with kids).

A friend of mine is a sales rep for a wine merchant. “I can testify for COVID times creating a massive increase in demand, straining the supply chain. April saw more company growth than all of 2019!” she says — and confesses to having consumed much of her own inventory during quarantine. “Sorry, not sorry. I’m a single mom to two ADHD teen boys not suited for distance learning. I’ll drink to that — and boy, do I.”

Some, working remotely for the first time, have found a quarantini helps to establish a “line in the sand” between worktime and home-time. “I struggled with separating from the computer,” admits another friend who marked the first five months with a nightly margarita. “It helped me reconcile and delineate the end of my workday.”

Psychotherapist Galen Garbarino-Wilson, LMFT, says a lot of her clients are seeking comfort at the bottom of a glass. “People just want to soothe. It’s stress. It’s fear of the unknown. And people are sad,” she says. Drinking is “an easy way to not have to be present. When you get that little buzzy feeling it’s easy to not connect to the fact there’s a raging pandemic out there in the world.”

Isn’t this precisely why booze was invented? Haven’t we been taught that it’s “liquid courage” for steeling ourselves against life’s most godawful bits — like those guys in the movies who take a swig before gritting through anesthesia-less stitches?

“My two-plus glasses of wine a night are my own little essential workers,” says another mom I know. “They come with me to the kitchen to cook dinner, they are there when I watch the nightly news of despair, and they sometimes accompany me late into the night. I look forward to taking the edge off it all.”

The problem is we’re surrounded by edges just now. And they’re sharp: Economic devastation, intolerable isolation, capacity hospitals, ignorant and irresponsible citizens, the shuttering of businesses and industries, a screeching halt to life as we know it, a mutating planetary invader hellbent on killing us all … just a sec, I left my glass in the other room.

But must we feel guilt for our gulping? If we’re not driving and it no longer matters if we fit into our work pants … is it really so wrong to dull our bedeviling dread to a more manageable sort of … vague apprehension? Even if it takes coconut-flavored frat-party hooch to do so?

Okay, okay, excessive drinking leads to countless health problems — and the last thing we need is anything else threatening our well-being. Plus, there’s the future to consider; when we finally kill this pesky virus … will your hard-to-break habit live on?

Mission Harbor, a substance-abuse recovery and treatment center in Montecito, saw a 47 percent increase in people reaching out for help between 2019 and 2020. “We’re treating more substance abuse disorders than we were six months ago,” says Clinical Director Melissa Flanigan, “and we do believe it’s a representation of how people are feeling right now.”

For healthier mood-boosters, she says, try connecting with family and friends, exercising, getting outside into nature, and remembering that we’re all going through this together. Honestly, just typing those last six words felt good.

My own motivation? My kids are watching me — all the damned time now — and I want them to have better coping skills than I’ve been demonstrating. Failing that, let’s pray they have better taste in liquor.

If you need help with addiction or mental health in Santa Barbara County, dial 2-1-1.

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