By Tracy Brown Hamilton,
Alcohol has always been a regular part of my social life. As a freelancer and mother of three who works from my home in the Netherlands, where neither my husband nor I have family, I have valued getting together to have a drink, celebrate, commiserate and unwind with other people. These connections are vital to my well-being, and have typically involved drinking. Nobody, including myself, expected me to emerge from pandemic lockdown orders a teetotaler.
When lockdown began, I was, together with my husband, juggling work and helping our children with schoolwork, all while managing their fears and our own. We were facing unprecedented stress that required more than wine to leverage. My family needed me fully present. I resolved not to drink alcohol for the duration.
I never felt physical cravings for alcohol, but at first I noticed a lingering instinct to drink, despite there being no socializing to speak of. Drinking had come to represent a division line between work and relaxation, idleness and stimulation. This was a revelation for me: The relationship I had with alcohol was anchored in my perception of time and the feelings I associated with the segments of my day.
But in lockdown, time became more fluid, ambiguous.
There was no clear “responsibility” and “leisure” designation to the day, no “work” and “after work” mentality. We were just getting things done the best we could at a manageable pace. I was busy, but not frantic. Time stretched out in front of me. I had to restructure it, and find more enriching ways to spend it.
And with no wine o’clock, I discovered new paths to relaxation and entertainment — joy in the seemingly mundane. I learned to French braid. I alphabetized my records. One night, my 10-year-old son and I stayed up very late shooting an elastic band into a coffee cup. “We’d never do this, in normal times,” he observed. We also wouldn’t have done it if I’d been gritting my teeth waiting to reward myself with a drink.
Lockdown gave me the impetus to reset certain habits, to get off autopilot. I exercised and read more. I was more spontaneous, more innovative. But when lockdown was lifted, temporarily, last summer, I was really excited to be with friends again. And because drinking for me had always felt paramount to connection, almost immediately I threw a party featuring a piñata full of miniature, plastic tequila bottles.
Then lockdown was imposed again and so was my decision not to drink. Our second lockdown was longer, giving my new habits more time to consolidate. And now I’ve unexpectedly found that, while I had always loved drinking, I also love not drinking — how present and clear-minded I feel, how well I sleep, how unpredictable and fun it is to seek out new ways to be fully engaged each day.
Yet developing new behaviors when shut away from normal life is one thing; maintaining these when re-exposed to old possibilities and situations is another — particularly when everyone is raising a glass to celebrate. I’m happy for the world to reopen, but like many people, I’m not rejoining it exactly the same person I was, and I’d like to sustain these changes in a post-pandemic world.
A friend of mine since my teens, Michael Ellery, who is a clinical psychologist and addictions researcher in Manitoba, equates re-emerging after lockdown a nondrinker to completing a residential treatment program for addiction.
Before leaving a treatment center, he explains over a video call, clients learn skills for managing the temptations or triggers they will face. For example, he practices with clients how to turn down a drink. “ ‘No thanks’ is enough,” he says. But people don’t expect “no.” It prompts questions, because they often assume that if you don’t drink, there must be a reason you can’t. Would people think I was an alcoholic?
“Nobody has to accept a label like ‘alcoholic.’ ” Ellery says. “It’s not even a diagnostic label that’s used. You can change a behavior. It doesn’t have to reflect deep-seated psychopathology.”
Ellery has abstained from alcohol for decades. His last drink was with me, in December 1993. Details are fuzzy, but we spent that night in my car, because its battery had died. We kept warm drinking a bottle of Goldschläger, which we’d taken from his parents’ liquor cabinet earlier that evening.
Other than being stranded, it wasn’t an unusual night for us. We drank heavily and often back then, mostly talking about life and trying to outwit each other quoting poetry. But it was a catalyst for him. He’d begun to understand and tire of the negative psychological effects of drinking — anger, anxiety, depression — and he stopped.
We moved away from each other shortly after and have been mostly out of touch since, until I contacted him recently to talk about strategies for abstaining from alcohol in a reopened world. I recalled that, after quitting drinking, he never avoided high-risk environments like parties. “Alcohol is ubiquitous,” he says. “You can’t avoid exposure to it, so go where you want — and understand you can leave any time.”
I don’t need to avoid being around alcohol, but I’m more skeptical about it and wonder why, in the past, I found it so essential. Often, Ellery says, people don’t think about what they believe the alcohol is contributing, or what function it is serving them.
“Expectations often don’t conform to the actual effects,” he says. “Is it getting you through a difficult situation? Is it making a good time better? Can you still do these things without alcohol?”
People often drink to manage unpleasant emotions. “Substance use is probably part of our evolution,” Ellery says. “Its function is to take you out of your experience, to change your consciousness. It’s probably a normative thing to want to do.”
It’s also common for drinking to feel like an inextricable part of your identity, he says. For example, some people drink to express rebelliousness, and a rebellious nature is something Ellery says people should not give up.
“Just find other ways to serve that function,” he says. “I’ll often frame abstinence as pushing back against societal pressures.”
I drank to feel good — to achieve that “consciousness shift” — right now. But without alcohol, I find new ways to achieve those shifts, like going for a walk, which are less instantaneous — they require more time or effort — but are ultimately more authentic and sustainable, without the negative effects.
“It’s facing life without anesthetic,” Ellery says. “It’s doing for yourself what you think the alcohol was doing for you.”
I’m relieved lockdown is behind us. It’s been a scary, awful time. I’ve missed concerts, travel, laughing at life’s intricacies with friends. I’ve missed the insights these occasions can bring. But I don’t miss the residual effects of alcohol (hangovers, patchy memories, poor decision-making) and I don’t believe the experiences I’ve enjoyed in the past hinged on alcohol’s influence.
Now I look forward to being with people again and appreciating, as Ellery puts it, “how sustained connection is when you’re really connecting, and not through a haze.”
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