Vodka in the coffee cup: Pandemic drinking gone too far

Vodka in the coffee cup: Pandemic drinking gone too far

New Yorkers are reevaluating their relationship with alcohol, whether it’s by cutting down, joining support groups or stopping completely

Representative Image. Credit: iStock Photo

Martha Duke, who has been sober since January 1, 2018, didn’t set out to become an abstinence guru during the “what does it matter anyway” drinking frenzy of 2020.

Until it started to matter.

All of a sudden, Duke, a vocal critic of “mommy wine culture” and a member of the Sober Mom Squad, a virtual community created during the pandemic, was fielding questions about alcohol from friends and acquaintances. Was two bottles of wine a night a bit over the top? How much was too much? Many of the women seeking her out were high school connections she hadn’t spoken with in years, and with whom she mostly communicated through social media.

“No one is talking about glasses of wine anymore,” said Duke, who works for a dog grooming app and lives in New York City with her two teenage sons. “People are measuring by the bottle,” she continued. “That scares me. I know too many women who went from one or two glasses to two bottles of wine to vodka in your coffee cup.”

During the pandemic, alcohol has become an easy way to self-medicate, aided by the fact that liquor and wine stores were deemed essential services from the start. Many even offer delivery, with apps like MiniBar filling in the gaps. New Yorkers who ache for fresh air and company have been able to order cocktails to go from restaurants and enjoy them on the sidewalk.

But as a new year approaches, many New Yorkers are reevaluating their relationship with alcohol, whether it’s by cutting down, joining support groups or stopping completely.

Loosid, a sober social and dating network, saw more than a 3,000% increase in messages and posts this year, rising from about 500 in February to over 16,000 in November. Its hotline has been just as active. In February, the hotline received 84 messages. Last month, it received 3,205.

Women, in particular, have been vocal about curbing their heavy drinking, the frequency of which increased by 41% this year, versus 7% for men, according to a RAND Corp. study published in September.

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“It’s been understood that women are more likely to drink to cope with isolation issues or problems with relationships,” said Sharon Wilsnack, a retired professor of psychiatry and behavioural science at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine. “The pandemic prevented us from connecting with others. If we’re deprived of these relationships, which causes more stress, it might make women turn to drinking as a way to deal with that deprivation.”

This might be one reason Wellbridge Addiction Treatment and Research in Calverton, New York, on Long Island, has already seen a surprisingly large number of women seeking treatment since opening in May. Dr Harshal Kirane, the medical director, said that in his experience, only around 15% of addiction patients are women in their 40s and 50s. Yet three months into the pandemic, 70% of those admitted to Wellbridge came from this demographic.

These days, there is a general, distorted sense of what healthy and acceptable drinking is, Kirane said. “Responsible drinking is reinforced by structure in people’s lives — going to work, taking their kids to school, interacting and maintaining a home,” he explained. “The pandemic has turned such boundaries on their head and created more space for alcohol.”

That’s what happened to Natalie Silverstein, a marketing manager in media, who is planning an alcohol-free January. Before the pandemic, she was a self-described social drinker, who mostly had a glass of wine on a date or on the weekend. But this year, she started drinking every day.

“Being inside all these months was extremely confining,” said Silverstein, who lives in the East Village neighbourhood of New York City. “I needed something to relax. I looked forward to drinking because it broke the barrier.”

For her, a glass of wine signalled the end of the day. Anxious, tired and stressed, it helped her sleep. It also helped her socialize and connect.

“In New York, drinking was an activity. In isolation it helped us gather,” she said. “My team would do Zoom happy hours, and everyone had wine or a cocktail. That became habitual. It felt like drinking was the one thing holding us up.”

For Andrea Morgan of Long Island, a publicist and mother of two children who have been in remote school this year, drinking helped ease boredom. She knew it was becoming an issue, so she stopped drinking for November, as did her husband. “No one wants to teach their kids virtually with a drink in their hand,” she said. Now Morgan is considering doing a dry January. “It was great to have the discipline during this time, when so much is out of my control, to prove to myself I can control this.”

For her own dry January, Silverstein is thinking up ways to continue the ritual of pouring a drink at the end of the day, just one without alcohol. “That’s easier than removing the habit,” she said. “I’m excited to try alternatives. I want to develop positive behaviours.”

For some, the solution to stop self-medicating with alcohol is actual medication.

“I was never a big drinker — I had one or two glasses of wine at dinner — then I became a pandemic drinker, having three to four glasses of wine a day,” said Jennifer Rubenstein, an annual fund manager at a synagogue who lives in Stuyvesant Town on the East Side of Manhattan. “I was depressed and anxious. I missed my colleagues. I started drinking nightly, then it was drinking at 5, and before you know it was a Bloody Mary at 10 am. I was having hangovers and little blackouts.”

In September Rubenstein asked her therapist for help.

“I started Naltrexone, which reduces alcohol cravings, in an effort to severely cut back on my drinking, which I’m taking in tandem with an antidepressant,” she said. “The effects were immediate. It’s made a profound difference. My head feels clear in the morning. Now I only have 4 ounces of red wine at night. The craving for more is gone.”

Hilary Sheinbaum of Queens, the author of The Dry Challenge: How to Lose the Booze for Dry January, Sober October, and Any Other Alcohol-Free Month, offered a few practical suggestions on how to cut back or stop completely. “Remove it from your home by giving it to a neighbour or friend to hold,” she said. “Or pour it down the drain.”

She also emphasised the importance of a support network when quitting alcohol, and of speaking honestly with friends and family about the process: “The ones who care about you will support your efforts.”