Two weeks into practicing social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I caved and had a drink.
Relapsing was shameful ― but I felt I had an excuse. I had memorized all of the trivia cards in my deck and had done all of the puzzles at my house. Drinking gave me a sense of relief that no game of Cards Against Humanity or episode of “Tiger King” could provide.
About a year earlier, I’d gone through a breakup that was directly caused by my drinking. My partner and I had been fighting about the way I behaved when I drank. My constant need to fulfill cravings for alcohol ruined our outings. We only dated for six months, but my decline was rapid. My partner could see the way addiction changed my behavior and attitude in a matter of weeks.
Along the way, I also had been shedding friends. From getting carried out of clubs to starting petty arguments with strangers, my erratic behavior scared off a lot of my friends because I didn’t just put myself at risk, I would put everyone around me in risky situations.
I was unreliable and started canceling or showing up late to events. I would rather spend time alone, surfing the internet and drinking by myself. My friends started to give up on me.
After my partner and I broke up, going home with men I had just met — while drunk — became a regular habit. I would leave my friends in the blink of an eye for men I had met 20 minutes before. I would skip out on birthday dinners or work celebrations to get drunk and swap stories with regulars at local bars. The bubbly, playful person I once was had been transformed into a selfish, mean drunk.
Alarmed by losing my relationship and my increasing distance from friends, I sought out a 30-day treatment program. Afterward, I started regularly attending 12-step meetings. I stayed sober for 7½ months.
Before quarantine, I felt I had finally become grounded in my sobriety. I had just reestablished trust with family and friends. I made amends with several friends who had seen me at my worst. I could finally see myself staying sober and being happy that way.
But the isolation of living in quarantine made my obsession with alcohol worse. It was 10 days into quarantine when I ordered a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and drank the whole thing.
“I was using the alcohol to distract myself — from the fear that loved ones would die; from the fear that I would lose my job and might not be able to get another one; from the fear that hospitals were going to run out of their limited supplies.”
I usually call my sponsor when I get the desire to drink. This time, I made the mistake of calling her after I made the choice to drink. She advised me to take it one day at a time. She told me stories of people whose lives had been ruined by relapse and reminded me that by drinking, I was only making things worse.
Despite her advice, I kept drinking. A few days a week, I would order craft beers from exotic locations to make it seem as if I cared about the taste. In reality, I was using the alcohol to distract myself — from the fear that loved ones would die; from the fear that I would lose my job and might not be able to get another one; from the fear that hospitals were going to run out of their limited supplies.
When I first started drinking again, I was under the illusion that I had regained a sense of control. Unlike my previous experience with alcohol, I would start with a glass or two of wine, and then stop drinking. I felt like I had won the lottery when I was able to drink like a normal person.
That quickly changed. Each time I drank, the amount of alcohol I consumed grew.
I soon spiraled into classic alcoholic behavior. I overslept and stopped attending Zoom meetings. I began to put off work, exercise and socialization. I started to lie to family and friends who asked about my sobriety. I would order alcohol from Postmates and hide it under sweatshirts and blankets when sneaking it into my parents’ house, where I was quarantining. A collection of empty wine bottles began to pile up in my closet. I brushed it all off as stress from social distancing.
When another scientist or political figure surmised how long we were going to remain inside, I comforted myself with “just one more drink.” Each time I prepared myself a cold glass of wine, it was an event that I looked forward to —and relied on — for my happiness. A month into quarantine, I finished an entire bottle of wine by the end of a coronavirus news report.
I relapsed in quarantine because I was afraid of what was going to happen to me, the people I love, and the rest of the world in the wake of an international pandemic. The world feels like a scarier place than it used to be. It felt like alcohol was helping me cope with my fear, but actually, it was making everything worse.
Today I have set a routine for myself that has helped me stay sane and cut back on drinking significantly, but I continue to struggle with the occasional relapse. I go for a walk, read poetry, do a puzzle, or call my sponsor. But it does not fully take away the craving to drink. I am encouraged to do Zoom meetings, but for me, virtual meetings cannot replace the camaraderie that comes with getting in a circle and saying “keep coming back.” I speak to my sponsor every day, who understands why I have such a strong desire to drink amid a crisis like this one.
But I also still have the desire to stop drinking. In the coming months, I will continue to try to adapt to this new way of life ― while staying sober. Because while I can’t change the uncertainty of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, I can change how I deal with it.
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