The lockdown has had quite a profound effect on many people’s drinking. Some people have found that their drinking has increased (often dramatically) and others have found that the lockdown was their key to stopping. People in this second group may have stopped for anything up to a year, but many of them feel that their sobriety hasn’t really been tested. After all, for most people one of the most intimidating parts of quitting drinking is going to social events and not drinking, something which has been largely off the menu this last year.
I thought it would be useful to do a series of posts looking at different aspects of lockdown and drinking (not least because I am off work this week so actually have a chance to do some writing). In this first post I’m going to look at why drinking increased for so many during lockdown.
Why Lockdown Led to an Increase in Drinking
The key to understanding this is craving. I’ve previously dealt with this issue in some detail so I won’t repeat it here, but if you’re not familiar with it, it might be worth reading my post about Craving which you can find here.
Essentially a craving is a conscious thought process whereby we fantasise about drinking and we torture ourselves with the anticipation of having it. If we know we aren’t going to have one, the craving process can be totally disrupted. After all a key part of craving is anticipation. If we know we aren’t going to, or can’t drink, then we don’t sit there torturing ourselves about it. Still less do we sit there agonising over whether to have one or not
In my article on Craving I mention pregnancy as a classic example of where many people can give up drinking fairly easily, but then be straight back on it at the first opportunity, then struggle to give up again. But let me now give you another example.
Let’s say you’re drinking a couple of glasses / a bottle of wine each night. The alcohol is a chemical sedative, so your brain seeks to counter its sedating effects by becoming hypersensitive. When the alcohol wears off, the over sensitisation remains for a period. In practical terms it leaves us feeling uptight, out of sorts, and slightly less able to cope with life’s ups and downs that we would otherwise be (you can read more about this process in Chapter 2 of Alcohol Explained which you can find here). The quickest way to rectify this chemical imbalance is to take another drink. After all, that anxious feeling is caused by your brain being wired up so that it can still work effectively even though it’s under the effects of a chemical sedative, but the sedative has worn off. So take some more of that sedative and you immediately feel way better. This is the great pleasure of drinking for regular drinkers. It’s no more than the relieving of an unpleasant anxious feeling that has been caused by the previous dose.
This is classic drug addiction. The drug causes an adverse reaction in the brain as the brain seeks to counter the effects of the drug. The drug then wears off leaving a corresponding chemical imbalance, which requires another dose of the drug to relieve it.
The reason so many people don’t see regular drinking as drug addiction is that many drinkers don’t drink all day. The classic pattern in fact is that many people don’t drink at all during the day, and only drink in the evening. How can they be chemically addicted to alcohol if they are able to go all day without drinking, and only drink in the evening? After all, smokers and vapers are obviously addicted to nicotine and most of them smoke / vape from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to bed. Most drinkers simply aren’t in that position.
The answer to this is ‘craving’. Withdrawal (that chemical imbalance caused by the previous dose) is not pleasant, but neither is it so intensely painful that it is utterly unbearable. Let’s consider smoking / vaping for a moment.
Imagine a smoker out for the evening with their friends, outside on a warm summer night, with all their friends smoking / vaping away. How long would it be before they lit up? A few minutes? Immediately? Imagine for some reason they couldn’t have one, how miserable do you think they’d be? My point is that they’d be wanting that cigarette pretty badly, almost immediately. The desire would be strong and it would be there instantaneously. Yet how long to smokers and vapers sleep for at night? 6, 8 10 hours? Many smokers don’t smoke indoors anymore and wait until they leave the house before lighting up. They can go 8 or ten hours without smoking as part of their daily routine, but put them in a pub garden with their friends and they can’t go 10 seconds. It’s not that the withdrawal isn’t there, it is simply that they aren’t torturing themselves with the conscious thought process of craving.
This is absolutely the same dynamic as regular drinkers. When a regular drinker gets up in the morning, that extra layer of anxiety is there, they are tired (for more detail on how alcohol impacts sleep there is an article here), they feel heavy and lethargic (alcohol increases the heart rate which makes us feel like we just want to sit down and rest). All of these things would be massively eased if they had a drink. So why don’t they wake up craving a drink?
Because they don’t drink in the morning! No one but alcoholics drink in the morning! It wouldn’t even enter their realm of comprehension to do such a thing. When their alarm goes off and they lie their feeling tired, heavy, lethargic, anxious, they’re thinking about getting up, having a shower, getting the kids up, and whatever else they have to do. They don’t even consider taking a drink, still less do they lie there thinking how much better they would feel if they had one.
So they drag themselves up, they have a shower, they get the kids up, they head to work, they do their spreadsheets and emails and meetings, they shuffle bits of paper and take calls, they have lunch then do the same again. All the while they don’t feel as good as they would have if they’d never drunk. They’re more tired, lethargic, and anxious that they would be if they’ve not drunk. And through all of this, if they took a drink they would feel ten times better. But taking a drink is just not on their mind. Sure, they may occasionally think about the evening and how nice it will be to finally sit down and have a drink, but they’re only thinking about it in the abstract; they’re not entertaining the possibility of sneaking out of work for a crafty drink to keep them going.
Eventually the day ends and they head home. And THAT is their drinking time. That’s when the craving kicks in because now they CAN drink. It’s moved from something that’s so alien to them that they don’t even waste time thinking about it (like drinking first thing when they wake up, or sneaking out of the office for a quick one to keep them ticking over). So the craving kicks in and is in full swing. This is where is becomes impossible to resist. The drinker is now like the smoker who is in the pub garden with his or her friends. Now we not only have the physical withdrawal, but we also have the craving.
This is one of the key strands to understanding alcohol addiction. Being compelled to take a drug is part physical (the withdrawal) and part psychological (the craving). This latter part, the craving, isn’t there all the time, only when the possibility / anticipation of taking the drug is there. Alcohol is in many ways unique because so many drinkers have such hard rules (either consciously or subconsciously) that govern when and where they can and can’t drink. It’s perfectly normal for smokers to have a cigarette on their way into work, but it would be totally unacceptable for a drinker to be having a can or two of Special Brew on their way into the office.
The trouble is that these hard and fast rules are themselves variable. Many drinkers would never even consider the possibility of having a drink in the morning before work, but if they’re going on holiday and have an early flight, or at Christmas, they may well have a morning drink. In fact the drinker who will quite happily go all day at work not drinking, will suddenly find that they’re unable to say no when the champagne is being poured on Christmas morning, and may spend two weeks on holiday drinking virtually all day every day. But then when they go back to work again, they’ll happily (or reluctantly) revert back to not drinking in the morning.
What lockdown did for many people was to blur these hard and fast rules. It’s pretty easy when you’re heading to a worksite or office every day in that when you get home you can drink. It’s simple and it’s clear. But what happens then when you’re suddenly working from home? What if ordinarily you finish work at 5.30 and get home at 6.30 and have a drink, do you have your first drink at home at 6.30? Or 5.30? What if you have a quiet day and you’re done with your days work at 3? Or what if you’ve done all the difficult stuff by 4, and the remaining stuff is just processing that you can just as easily do with a glass of something next to you? The key is that there is uncertainty. Where there is uncertainty the decision is no longer unconscious, it becomes conscious, we have to give it thought, and when we are suffering withdrawal and thinking about our drug of choice, we are craving. So our drinking constantly increases. Lockdown for many has been a cross between Christmas and the end of the world. Those lines that keep us on the straight and narrow have been erased and the natural course has kicked in, which is to want more and more of the drug as we become increasingly immune to its effects.
This is also why things like morning drinking can be so dangerous; once we cross these lines they’re crossed. When we remove these barriers the unconscious decision not to do something is replaced with the possibility of doing it, which introduces conscious thought and therefore the likelihood of craving. Drink first thing in the morning for a day or two and forever after when you wake up feeling awful from the previous night’s drinking you’ll be thinking about whether to take that drink, and the craving the craving will only be a step way.