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The Worrisome Trend of People Binge Drinking During COVID-19

As the coronavirus rages on, it is dangerous and enticing for recovering alcoholics like myself to pick up the bottle again. So it’s important to remember why we alcoholics quit in the first place, what’s at stake and what we can do to stay sober.

It’s a tough fight and our numbers may have increased. While stay-at-home orders were in effect, online sales of alcohol grew substantially — jumping 243% during the first months of the pandemic. There has been a spike of alcohol purchases: beer, wine and liquor sales are up in some states anywhere from 40-75%, according to Dr. Lantie Joranby, chief medical officer for Lakeview Health, an addiction treatment center in Florida.

When I talked to Dr. Joranby, she said the pandemic is even ushering in a new wave of PTSD, depression, anxiety and addiction, among other mental health ailments. 

Dr. Brian Wind is a clinical psychologist and professor at Vanderbilt University, as well as an executive at JourneyPure, an addiction treatment provider with 18 locations across the country. 

“Right now, people are dealing with copious amounts of stress, anxiety and uncertainty about the future. Not to mention the toll that social distancing can take on mental health,” he told me. “All of these aspects combined are leading people to drink more. While stuck at home with more time on your hands, it’s easy to chalk up your increasing drinking habits to ‘coping with boredom,’ but these drinking habits can be dangerous.”

I was a bored bachelor newly diagnosed with bipolar at the peak of my drinking. As I write in my memoir “The Bipolar Addict,” I would imbibe two six packs of beer every night or two bottles of wine. Sometimes more. I’ve been in the trenches of alcoholic madness, gone to rehab and come out the other end better than ever. I have eight years of sobriety.

I don’t know about you, but my Facebook feed is filled daily with, “What are you drinking tonight?” status updates and cocktail porn. “Quarantini” anyone?   

“We’re seeing pictures of Quarantinis and jokes about stockpiling vodka or beer,” says Nicole Arzt.

Arzt, who has worked in addiction therapy, is a marriage counselor as well as an adviser for Family Enthusiast, an internet portal for family lifestyle content. “People are isolating; they’re drinking alone, and they feel anxious, ashamed or depressed,” she adds. “They don’t have anyone ‘watching’ their drinking, and so it’s easy to keep going.” 

There’s even a myth out there that drinking alcohol helps fend off the virus. The World Health Organization had to go on the record to debunk that falsehood.

“People who are drinking more are likely not sleeping or eating as well — causing their immune health to suffer,” Dr. Jorandby says. “This could create a greater risk of infection.” 

Before the pandemic, alcohol pervasion was already out of control, invading spaces that previously never served adult beverages. 

At the swanky bar in the men’s department of the downtown Chicago Nordstrom, soon you will be able to once again order a Scotch and soda while taking a breather from browsing the latest fashions.

Movie theaters are already reopening in some states — albeit with undersold screening rooms to accommodate social distancing — and they will continue to serve martinis and fancy-pants cocktails. 

And IPAs, Hefeweizens, Pilsners and other craft beers will flow freely at new breweries, which were and will be popping up faster than the rodents in a game of Whack-a-Mole.

You can have wine, beer or spirits delivered to your door from a variety of apps. Additionally, along with food, restaurants now offer alcohol delivery and pickup. 

Enter the dry bar. Dry bars are establishments where you can find cosmopolitan adults swilling sophisticated “zero proof” cocktails. They were springing up everywhere from Manhattan to Montreal before the shut-down serving craft beverages made with non-alcoholic bitters, exotic juices, fresh herbs, spices, muddled ingredients and fancy ice. 

In Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a bar called the Getaway has offered up $13 exuberant zero proof elixirs like the Ginger Spice: spicy ginger, cucumber, grapefruit juice, bitter tonic, club soda and blackberries, for example. Hopefully these bars will be reopening. 

So, don’t let anybody tell you that you have to drink alcohol even though alcohol has never been more popular. For a select few, it has been falling by the wayside and hopefully this trend will continue.

Many bartenders jump at the challenge of creating zero proof libations, which often substitute soda water for alcohol and are turning up at upscale restaurants and bars throughout U.S. cities. Fizzy and refreshing, these nonalcoholic masterpieces are all over Instagram, filed under the hashtag #mindfuldrinking.

This trend is identified in “Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol.” Author Ruby Warrington sings the praises of the sober life, one in which we ponder, “What would life be like without alcohol?” To that, Warrington responds, we are more alert, well-rested and practicing self-care. 

The sober curious are tired of hangovers, they want to lead healthier lifestyles, and they’re sick of peer pressure.

You would think the sober curious movement is being spearheaded by alcoholics who want to stay sober. But it’s not. These are regular, everyday professionals choosing not to drink, much like they would decide to try out a paleo diet or go vegan. For them, sober curiosity is merely a lifestyle change. 

There is a group in New York called Club Söda (Sober or Debating Abstinence), founded by Warrington as an alternative to a social life that revolves around drinking. Söda hosts workshops, events, retreats, has a 14,000-member Facebook group and a podcast.

There have been alcohol-free nights at glitzy bars and early morning dance parties for those who don’t sleep in, opting to seize the day without a hangover. These parties are not unlike the raves of the ‘90s but sans ecstasy or other mind-altering substances. The Daybreaker website proclaims “Wake Up And Dance” and touts wellness, community, music, and mischief. It contains listings of upcoming sober dance parties and events. And during COVID, it has been hosting parties online. 

Sober Movement is a 19,000-strong Facebook group that offers fellowship for those who choose to live sober. While I am not “sober curious” — I am 100% sober — I find this trend to be absolutely refreshing. 

But for non-alcoholics, the binge drinking that has occurred during shelter-in-place may have consequences. Even though I abstain from alcohol, I don’t shy away from going to bars, especially if there is dancing involved. Usually I order a San Pellegrino with a twist of fresh lime. It looks like a gin and tonic, so no one will shame you for not drinking. But a sparkling water or club soda leaves something to be desired. 

When I first got sober, my fear was that I would not even be able to enjoy nightlife or worse even participate in it. And while I have never shied away from going out with friends to traditional bars, the new trend of dry bars makes it quite easy for the sober to enjoy the nightlife, drink something special, and stay out late, relishing our time where the music’s loud and the company sober. 

But what will become of the new binge drinkers that have emerged from coronavirus? “For people who have been consistently drinking excessively since the lockdown started in March, it is likely that they will continue to binge drink,” says Dr. Joseph Volpicelli, a psychiatrist and 25-year veteran of addiction treatment. “My fear is that for some people during this lockdown, what started out as binge drinking to cope with stress or boredom will develop into a vicious drinking cycle… It may not be easy placing the genie back in the bottle”

The good news is the sober life is coming into its own. There are more organizations to join for support, more choices of non-alcoholic beverages and increased acceptance of those who don’t drink.

This is the sober life in 2020. Welcome to all who wish to join.

Getty image via kmk-vova