Apparently, I’m not alone.
“Do you think we are drinking too much?” I texted my group chat recently. The responses started flooding in. In short, maybe. But if you, too, are reevaluating your current relationship with alcohol post-pandemic (P.S. we are still in it) — you aren’t alone.
According to studies (like this one from Harvard), women’s alcohol levels have increased 41% during the pandemic. And, for the first time in history, women are drinking more than their male counterparts. In the past, alcohol rates haven’t soared like this since the September 11 attacks and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Even The Red Table Talk recently covered the topic: Jada Pinkett Smith revealed drinking as much as three bottles of wine in one night, and called vodka her “kryptonite” before going cold turkey.
“Alcohol is an anesthetic,” explains certified addiction counselor and founder of Recovery is The New Black, Michelle Smith. “It numbs the brain and slows down our cognition. It chemically and temporarily eliminates our current stressors and negative feelings/emotions. Instead of working through difficult and strong emotions which take time, skills, and practice, we're sold the idea that we can drink them away. The instant gratification is immediate and it feels good. Women, especially mothers, were handed the unrealistic role of working remote or leaving their job, and homeschooling their children. Keeping up with the demands of the household, working remote, homeschool, and keeping tiny humans alive deserved a celebration.”
From a personal perspective, in the height of COVID-19, I was ordering $300+ worth of alcohol per month — and I found myself strolling to my local wine store more often than I care to admit. Date night transitioned exclusively into cocktails and walks around the neighborhood — it was a fun, scary, and weird time. But was alcohol playing too much of a starring role? And, now that “outside” is opening up again, would we all drink less — or be driven to drink even more?
The Evolving Language Around Alcohol
According to Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW-R) and Substance Abuse Professional, Denise Delph, “teetotalism is the practice of complete abstinence either by choice or possibly a prior addiction.” Now, more modern terms/lexicon like “sober-curious”, “mindful drinking”, and “alcohol-free” have entered the chat — but what do they mean? “Sober curiosity simply means being more intentional about how, when, and why you drink,” explains Smith. “We live in a boozy culture where excessive drinking is normalized. Slowing down and being more mindful of why you drink, how you feel after drinking, and if drinking is adding value to your life. Or, [it’s considering that drinking is] something you partake in because, as adults, we’re sold the idea that alcohol is a must-have staple in adulthood, even more so parenthood.”
According to founder and CEO of Listen Bar, an alcohol-free experience in NYC, Lorelei Bandrovschi, the most important thing to realize is that the language is evolving and personal. “And, that the choices are nuanced,” she further explains. “The categories aren't as clearly defined, with 'sober curious' on one side and 'sober' or 'in recovery' on the other. It's why we never called Listen Bar a sober bar. Our menu is alcohol-free but everyone is welcome, sober, hungover, whatever.”
Co-founder of non-alcoholic beer and wine brand, Grüvi, Anika Sawni agrees, sharing that many people abstaining from drinking temporarily don’t identify with the term sober. “[The term] is often associated with addiction and recovery as they haven’t necessarily struggled with alcohol,” she says. “Rather, they have decided for themselves that it doesn’t make them feel good or that it doesn’t fit into their healthier lifestyle etc. Sober-curious really means asking ourselves questions about our relationship with alcohol and encourages us to discuss the topic of alcohol without taboos.”
Not to be overshadowed, more and more people are shying away from alcohol to live cleaner, healthier lifestyles or simply look and feel better overall. It’s no secret that cutting out booze can have positive effects on your skin, body, and mind. “People have become a lot more conscious about what they are putting in their bodies and that includes what they’re drinking,” explains Sawni. “As more and more research comes out on the effects of alcohol, the calories, etc. people are starting to question it and look for healthier options.”
How To Navigate Not Drinking
I won’t lie, in the past, navigating social situations sans alcohol has proven slightly challenging for a few reasons including lack of options, incessant questions about not drinking, and peer-pressure to simply indulge. “I actually think the issue is that, culturally, we haven't been taught how to respond, so we go to these knee-jerk reactions,” explains Bandrovschi. “So here's the trick: If someone tells you they're not drinking, just say 'that's cool,' and then don't make a big deal out of it.”
Outside of what has been coined as “Dry January,” we’ve subconsciously turned most holidays into drinking occasions, think St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, New Years Eve — the list goes on. “The underlying theme here is social settings. We’ve grown up in a culture that believes we need alcohol to socialize and it’s become a very mindless habit for many,” Sawni describes. “So the first step is creating that awareness, asking yourself questions like ‘Do I actually want to have a drink tonight? How do I feel when I drink alcohol? What do I like/dislike when drinking alcohol?’ And knowing the answers to these questions can help you create a more mindful relationship with booze. It can also be helpful to have a rough idea beforehand of how many drinks you’d like to consume and hold yourself to that.”
Garnering support (something my friend group does often) is also key. Delph suggests letting your peers know beforehand [that you aren’t drinking] and ask them to help support you in that choice. “Hopefully there is one person in your circle who feels similarly,” she adds.
Ultimately, the choice is yours and you shouldn’t feel obligated to explain yourself, but Smith finds honesty (and vulnerability) can help you navigate this new normal. “Tell your friends you're taking a break. If they are true friends they will support you,” she adds. “You're testing driving sobriety to see if it's a lifestyle you align with. [...] This can simply be an experiment to see how you feel without alcohol. People do this every day with the Whole 30, a three-day juice cleanse, or giving up smoking.”
Best Alcohol-Free Alternatives
So, now that you have committed to not drinking, are you banished to a life of juice, sparkling water, and sugary mocktails? Not quite. In the past few years there have been a surge of elevated alcohol-free (or alcohol-removed) alternatives that don’t feel like a compromise.
“More and more people saying, ‘No thanks, I don't like the way it makes me feel’ creates conversations around the idea that if it's making you feel like crap you don't have to drink it,” says Smith. “Better yet, if you don't like the person you become, ditch it.”
Below is a shortlist of brands that I’ve enjoyed that almost taste like the real thing. Cheers!
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If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).