Comment: The benefits of a dry lockdown
If we believed the curated images of perfection on social media, we might remember lockdown as universally happy time: characterised by freshly baked bread; arts and crafts; DIY projects; clapping and PE with Joe Wicks.
Underneath the filtered images, we know that the reality was markedly different.
Yes, there was a sense of togetherness and collective effort. But there was also widespread loneliness, deteriorating mental health and acute financial hardship.
A University of Glasgow report showed that during the first few months of the coronavirus crisis, many Scots turned to alcohol as a way of coping.
The report, compiled by the university’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing, showed that the proportion of people drinking four or more times per week increased during lockdown.
Binge drinking increased too, with white women over the age of 25 being one of the groups most likely to drink far more than usual.
A separate study, commissioned by Alcohol Change UK, found that 28 per cent of people thought they consumed more during lockdown.
It’s not exactly a “hold the front page” story, is it? For many, alcohol is the go-to stress reliever: a potion as old as time, used to commiserate bad news and steady frayed nerves.
I am one of the white women over 25 who found myself drinking more during lockdown. When time slowed and ordinary life ground to a halt, I filled my evenings with treats aplenty.
Wine, posh crisps, cheese – it was like the worst Christmas any of us had ever had.
It was nice, for a while. If you can’t enjoy a Monday night glass (or three) of wine during a global pandemic, then when the hell can you?
Then the sluggishness set in, a bone-deep tiredness that coincided with the weary realisation that this wasn’t going to be over any time soon.
We were in it for the long haul and no amount of expertly crafted cocktails would lift my mood.
One of my friends, who loved a boozy night out pre-pandemic, doesn’t drink at home.
His rule isn’t virtuous, he just doesn’t see the point in drinking if there’s not a pub and the camaraderie of outdoor chain-smoking involved.
Whenever I spoke to him during lockdown he’d give me an update on his sober streak. 30 days, 50 days, 100 days.
It sounded miserable. I thought, “I could never do that,” before realising that made me the ideal candidate for an extended period of purposeful sobriety.
I aimed for 30 days. I’m now approaching 70 and plan on continuing through October and beyond. The pubs are shut anyway, might as well.
There’s a lot of pinkified marketing out there for women who want to quit or cut down on alcohol.
The guidance is full of breathy promises about how AMAZING you will look once you put down the prosecco and embrace your “best life”.
Your eyes will be shiny, your hair will be glossy. That pesky wine belly (that is probably the reason for the gender pay gap) will disappear along with your crippling, middle-aged hangovers.
I don’t yet resemble a prize race horse and my eyes are decidedly un-shiny, but there’s still time.
There are other benefits, though. At the risk of sounding overly earnest: I feel great.
The most notable difference I’ve experienced has been a deep sense of calm and contentment.
Gratitude, too, for the most mundane of pleasures and experiences – which is very useful when the world is burning all around us.
Science explains this feeling better than I could.
Repeated exposure to alcohol, even ‘moderate’ amounts, messes up the way our brain processes cravings and rewards.
We associate that first glass of wine of an evening as a reward. Our brains react accordingly and start pumping out the feel-good chemical, dopamine.
But over time, it goes the other way. Its effect is dulled and even bagging a bargain Chateauneuf-du-Pape at Lidl doesn’t convince our defiant brains to respond as they once did.
When we give our bodies a break from the booze, the brain starts firing out all the happy hormones with abandon, as though it resides in the skull of a 16-year-old experiencing the first flutters of young love.
Last month, I went out for lunch and cocktails with my sister. My cocktail of choice was a virgin mojito.
Far from being a poor substitute for the real thing, it was revelatory! Glorious! I asked the (somewhat bemused) waiter what he had replaced the rum with.
“Apple juice”, he replied.
“Apple juice!” said I. “I’d never have known!”
As he politely backed away, I could feel the dopamine pinging around my frontal lobe like a Catherine wheel.
I’m not quite ready to consider quitting for good, though the prospect doesn’t feel as ludicrous as it did before.
As far as I know, there’s no fruit juice substitute for the whiskey used in an old fashioned, my favourite cocktail.
But when I do dust off the wine glasses again, it will be with a greater sense of caution.
With no fixed end date to this unprecedented crisis, I’ve come to the conclusion that happy brain chemistry will be more useful than happy hour.