Long Reads

Lockdown drinking: 3 women on their relationship with alcohol during the pandemic

Following the latest news that nearly a quarter of adults across the UK have been drinking more alcohol during lockdown, three women speak honestly to Stylist about their relationship with alcohol over the last few months.

Thinking back to those first Zoom calls, nearly three months ago, we all had at least one friend who nervously ‘joked’ about “turning into a borderline alcoholic!” during lockdown. But behind the flippant remark there were some dark truths. 

Alcohol sales rose by a third in mid-April, according to ONS data. Researchers at the University of Portsmouth expressed fear this would result in longer-term health issues for at-risk individuals. And there was a growing need for people in rehabilitation to quickly adapt to accessing support remotely and continue sobriety under lockdown conditions. 

Now, the Duchess of Cambridge has called for addicts to reach out for help, following the latest news that nearly a quarter of people across the UK have been drinking more alcohol during lockdown. With lockdown rules easing, and people starting to understand a ‘new normal’ way of living, the question is: how have people’s relationships with alcohol changed in the longrun?

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“I think we’ll have a rise in new clients after the pandemic, particularly as people have been in isolation and women tend to not reach out for help because they are fearful of losing their children,” Paula Loader, a recovering addict and recovery worker at behavioural change charity We Are With You

“Once alcohol becomes at the forefront of your mind, and that’s what’s driving your day, you need to recognise that your relationship with alcohol might be changing. This includes if the thought of not having any alcohol for a day or two puts you into a kind of panic mode or makes you anxious. Or if you feel the side effects, such as shakes, after trying not to drink. It’s also worth saying that the drinking is usually hiding something else that’s going on underneath.”

Paula and her team are continuing to offer their variety of support programmes through, Zoom calls, video links and check-in phone calls. “We’re getting good feedback but interaction is a huge part of our work – 75% of work is done through body language, we pick up on stuff and you can’t do that over the phone. We can sometimes detect things on video chats but it’s easier for clients to hide any bad behaviour.”

But, ultimately, the services are still vital for anyone who’s in recovery or worried about their alcohol intake. “Just give us a call: we are still working, we are available at the end of the phone,” Paula advises. “Everything is still running, it’s just in a different way. It’s just that outlet of having someone to talk to, especially for people isolating. We’re here, we’re waiting, we’re all doing this job because we care.”

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Stylist talked to three women who have seen their relationships with alcohol change in different ways during lockdown, and asked what their concerns for post-lockdown life are.

“I’ve been doing Zoom support meetings to help with my recovery”

Lisa, 34, had been sober for just over four months when the UK first went into lockdown:

“I was really, really anxious when we first went into lockdown. My head went into a little bit of a meltdown. My normal routines changed, my kids were off school and my group work stopped. I knew it could potentially be a trigger because in the past, when I’ve had anxious feelings, I’ve drunk on them. I panicked at how long I would be stuck in the house because I would usually drink at home in the past, so getting outside everyday is part of my recovery.

“But, after I processed everything after a couple of days, I got my head round it and felt OK. I thought ‘well this is the situation and it might be like this for some time’. I’ve got children but their father looks after them at his home on alternate weeks. This helped my mental health because I thought I might struggle looking after them at home fulltime. I’m lucky because they’re really good kids but in the past, when I’ve struggled, my parents helped me out until I recovered.”

“I’ve been doing Zoom meetings with my abstinence peer recovery group. It’s for like-minded people in recovery and we can access the group each afternoon to talk about how we’re feeling if we’ve been having a bad day. I was a bit shy about video calls to start with because I’d never done it before. There was a bit of a confidence barrier but the people who go on it are the people I’m used to being in a room with so that made me feel more OK about it. I just listened in during the first few sessions, just to get used to how it all worked, but soon started speaking. At this point the only problem is seeing my face all the time!

“I actually feel OK with the idea of lockdown easing and getting back into a ‘new normal’. I’ve been taking my daily walks and I think that’s helped me maintain a sense of pre-lockdown normal life.” 

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“I try to only drink at the weekends with my boyfriend, but we just get so bored”

Amy*, 36, lives with her boyfriend and enjoyed a successful Dry January at the start of the year, which made her realise she finds complete abstinence much easier than moderation:

“For the first four weeks of lockdown I was drinking a lot more. I think it was both the novelty of not having to get up and commute (which is usually a huge deterrent to drinking in the week) and the extreme boredom.  The worst was a very drunken weekend involving a Zoom birthday party that descended into doing shots on camera.

“My boyfriend and I started to notice what we called the ‘Monday malaise’, although to be honest it extended Monday to Thursday: just that real feeling of existential dread and horror at having to get up on Monday in the same flat and stare into a computer screen doing Zoom meetings for eight hours a day with nowhere to go. 

“I think the lockdown really brings you face to face with your own feelings as well. You’re trying to deal with your own personal issues about work and life and relationships, with no variety of experiences to distract you, and then at the same time, you have the dire news from around the world constantly nagging at the back of your mind. It’s not a good combo.

“We agreed to give up for a couple of weeks, which was actually great – it definitely improved Mondays and I slept a lot better. But now we’re back on the booze… It’s supposed to be only at weekends but we did share two bottles of wine in the park the other day with a friend on a Tuesday night (bad, although weirdly I felt okay on Wednesday). I normally drink to connect with people and be sociable, and lockdown has killed that. So if one of us slips and has a drink the other will usually join in. 

“I might stop again for a while even if just for vanity’s sake, my skin looks about 100% better when I don’t drink. Long-term I’m not sure what will happen – I’m dying to go to the pub and have a pint with my friends but that feels like a long way off.”

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“My anxiety would have been much worse if I didn’t give up drinking just before lockdown”

Maddie*, 26, gave up drinking for six months just before lockdown, and thought she would struggle to not drink during the pandemic:

“I gave it up due to a combination of terrible hangovers, poor sleep, awful anxiety and a low mood whenever I drank,” she tells Stylist. “I think I’m now in my twelfth week of being ‘dry’. It’s been hard at times: I’m isolating with my family in the country, and sometimes when my parents are relaxing with a glass of wine in the garden on a Saturday evening, I’d love to join them in that.

“But on the whole I’ve been loving it. My body has never felt stronger or healthier and while my anxiety, like so many others’, has been pretty bad during lockdown, I know it would have been considerably worse if I’d been drinking – even just one glass of wine can easily set it off.

“I’m not sure what my relationship with alcohol will be going forward, but I’m definitely keen to see out the six month challenge I set myself.”

To help lower your risk of “alcohol-related harm”, the NHS has published a number of recommended guidelines online.

These include:

• not regularly drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week

• if you drink as much as 14 units a week, it’s best to spread this evenly over three or more days

• if you’re trying to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink, it’s a good idea to have several alcohol-free days each week

The guidelines add, “Regular or frequent drinking means drinking alcohol most weeks. The risk to your health is increased by drinking any amount of alcohol on a regular basis”.

You can calculate how many units of alcohol are in a variety of different drinks using the Drink Aware unit calculator here.

If you think you or someone you know might be suffering from alcohol addiction, you can find support on the We Are With You website.

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