Staying sober in the pandemic is both a blessing and a curse

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It’s easy to think of booze as the solution. But for me, it’s the problem.

This December marks 13 years since I quit drinking. I was in my mid-20s, working 50-hour weeks in a high-stress job and trying to establish a career, so I used alcohol to cope.

I used alcohol to cope.Credit:iStock

Booze is culturally seen as a normal way to de-stress after a hard week, so it was easy to rationalise weekend binge-drinking, which quickly turned into Friday knock-off drinks. It soon began on Thursday nights, then Wednesday, until I was drinking almost every night.

The more stressful my job became, the more I drank. I masked my feelings with alcohol, and developed anxiety and panic attacks for the first time.

My relationships with my partner, family and friends became unstable and I was feeling physically and emotionally broken.

It had reached the lowest point of my life, so I made a complete lifestyle change. First, I quit my job and went travelling. Once I returned home, I quit drinking and started exercising.

The more stressful my job became, the more I drank.Credit:Arsineh Houspian

It was the best decision I’ve ever made; I gained control of my life and started to live again.

I realised being in control of my life was a gift. In my sobriety, I felt invincible.

Flash-forward to 2020 where the pandemic shook me out of that safe place. No longer having control over what was going on around me is a new feeling, and I’ve not been able to cope.

The anxiety and uncertainty of the past 18 months has taken a toll on my mental health to the point where I have recently been diagnosed with depression. For a control freak like myself, not being in control of my brain is a tough pill to swallow.

For a control freak like myself, not being in control of my brain is a tough pill to swallow.Credit:Shutterstock

There have been moments during the pandemic where I’ve considered my sobriety both a blessing and a curse. I have fantasised about getting blackout drunk just so I didn’t have to face the world for a little while.

But I know that masking my feelings with alcohol hasn’t worked for me before.

The problem is that alcohol abuse – along with drug abuse – go hand-in-hand with depression and anxiety. People who experience mental health issues tend to lean on substance use to manage their condition, but this can only aggravate the underlying issues, according to Beyond Blue.

I’m not alone in turning my back on the bottle. Studies have found a steady drop in alcohol consumption over the past decade, with Generation Y leading the dry charge.

As modern culture shifts towards embracing a healthier lifestyle, it’s not uncommon to go to a bar or party these days where people are drinking zero or low-alcohol beers or spirits.

It’s also true though that spending on alcohol jumped last year amid the stress of lockdowns and pandemic restrictions.

Instead of relapsing and masking my mental health issues with booze, I decided to seek help by seeing a psychologist.

Aside from seeking professional help, I’ve coped with lockdown stress without booze by simply being kinder to myself. Going for a walk and breathing the fresh air is great, but might also I have cupcakes delivered to my house when I need a real pick-me-up. I’m getting better at prioritising my head over my waistline.

Depression is common in people who are high achievers and perfectionists, so I’m learning to not be so hard on myself.

Not having a spotless house is not a crime! Neither is ordering takeaway when I don’t have the energy to cook. Or spending an entire weekend on the couch watching reality TV.

I’m connecting with my partner more and discovering new board games we love. We even got engaged in the pandemic (just don’t ask about wedding plans!).

Checking in with friends and family has helped, too. Doing group video calls and playing online games together always lifts my spirits, so we’ve done some online escape games, trivia, and even drag bingo.

Above all, I find self-care works a treat. I drop a bath bomb into the tub and relax with a good book and a cup of tea.

Mel Buttigieg is a freelance writer.

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