Quarantini Anyone? When Everyday Drinking Becomes A Problem

By Corinne Purtill.

Original Source: nytimes.com

As weeks in lockdown pile up, what started out as a way to unwind may start to feel like an unexpectedly stubborn habit.

Credit…Anja Slibar

— Kristi Coulter, author of “Nothing Good Can Come From This,” on the wine memes showing up on social media these days

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“Days are now divided by coffee hours and alcohol hours,” the comedy writer Emily Murnane tweeted on March 31, nearly two weeks after states and cities around the United States began to issue stay-at-home orders. “There is no other law.”

Zoom happy hours served as a break from isolation and a consolation prize for canceled plans. Alcohol sales nationwide were up 55 percent the week ending March 21 compared with the year before, according to Nielsen market research.

“During a crisis, you know, cocktail hour can be almost any hour!” chirped Ina Garten, the chef and author of “The Barefoot Contessa” cookbooks, while mixing what appeared to be a bucket-sized cosmopolitan in a video posted to Instagram at 9:30 a.m. April 1.

At a time when boundaries have all but disappeared — home is the office! school time is work time! pajamas are work clothes! — the clink of ice cubes in a glass or the crack of a can may seem like one of the few ways left to distinguish evening from day, or weekend from week.

But as the weeks in quarantine pile up, what started out as a way to unwind may, for some, start to feel like an unexpectedly stubborn habit. And for those who are in recovery, the combination of stress and social distancing can make maintaining sobriety all the more challenging.

Alcohol and drugs light up the neurotransmitters associated with pleasure. They also offer relief from the unpleasant symptoms associated with stress, decreasing fear and anxiety, relaxing muscles, and slowing speeding heart rates, said R. Kathryn McHugh, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Stress, Anxiety and Substance Use Laboratory at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.

“The tricky part is, the higher your stress is, the more that relief is reinforced,” Dr. McHugh said. “When we get that huge relief, that makes us more likely to continue to go back to that substance.”

For most people, experiencing that reward cycle in moderation is not inherently harmful.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, defines “moderate” drinking for women as one drink per day of up to 0.6 ounces pure alcohol — the equivalent of a 12-ounce can of beer or one five-ounce glass of wine, a standard restaurant pour.

The agency defines eight drinks or more per week for women as “high risk” or “heavy” drinking.

The threshold is higher for men, and not only because men tend to be larger than women. Women absorb and metabolize alcohol differently, so if a man and woman of the same height and weight consume exactly the same amount of alcohol, her blood alcohol content will be higher. Nature is sexist like that.

There’s a lot of variation in individual relationships to alcohol, and an unhealthy relationship is defined less by the quantity consumed than by its effect on the drinker’s life.

One way alcohol undermines health in quarantine is by disrupting sleep, said Dr. Una McCann, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Without sleep, it’s been very well documented that our stress responses are hyperreactive, we’re more likely to have panic attacks, we’re more likely to respond poorly to stressful situations the next day. It’s huge,” Dr. McCann said. “Alcohol doesn’t help with sleep.”

If bad sleep results in more stress the next day, followed by an increased desire to de-stress, it’s easy to see how the cycle repeats.

And stress, particularly for women, is in no short supply these days.

Kristi Coulter is the author of the 2018 memoir “Nothing Good Can Come From This,” which chronicles her experience with addiction and sobriety. In the process of recovery, she noticed how often alcohol was marketed to women as a way of coping with the unrelenting pressure of being female in a society that judges women’s choices harshly.

That was before many women were being asked to manage children’s home-learning programs, child care, work and households under social distancing orders that place most meaningful support structures out of reach (including those necessary for recovery and maintaining sobriety).

Ms. Coulter has thought about that a lot while scrolling through social media feeds that alternate between images of cozy families, adorable home-school projects and memes about wine.

“While the memes are meant to be funny, I tend to see anger in them, too,” she said. “I think mothers are saying, ‘I now have three or four full-time jobs, there’s no end in sight, and I’m expected to juggle it all seamlessly and cheerfully. Well, guess what: I have to alter my mind to tolerate the way I’m expected to live now.’”