What Does Getting Sober Look Like in 2020?
When I got sober three years ago, it took a small village. A therapist, regular recovery meetings, hot yoga classes, and a lot of cappuccinos made by a surly but gifted Brooklyn barista all helped me get through those first few months. They say connection is the opposite of addiction, and in my experience, connection of all forms was crucial in kicking my blackout drinking habit.
But as Covid-19 took hold earlier this year and Americans began sheltering in place, connection (and toilet paper) seemed to be in short supply. Phone calls and video chats replaced in-person hang-outs, and social distancing guidelines kept loved ones apart. Recovery meetings migrated from basements to Zoom, but even those with years of continuous sobriety struggled to adapt to this new model.
Outside of Zoom rooms, many continued to drink: a Nielson survey found that alcohol sales rose 54% at the start of the pandemic in early March. And last month, a new study published in the JAMA Network Open found that alcohol consumption had increased by 14% compared with a year ago, including 17% for women. The study also showed a 41% increase in heavy drinking for women (defining heavy drinking as four or more drinks within a couple of hours). I get it: I used to drink socially to cope with stress, and a global pandemic is about as stressful as it gets. Had I still been drinking in 2020, it likely would not have been cute.
But despite the stats about increased alcohol consumption, many women have still chosen to get sober this year. So what does early sobriety — and forming new connections — look like in a largely virtual time?
Jenny, 24, from New York, says the first few months of quarantining at home with her parents allowed her to ignore the blackout drinking she had been concerned about before Covid-19. Without events or work happy hours, she found herself drinking less — and hoped the break might correlate to a more successful relationship with alcohol on the other side of lockdown. "I knew the underlying issue was still there, but I was able to push it aside."
But once summer started and quarantine restrictions began lifting, Jenny started seeing friends at outdoor gatherings and found herself blacking out again. "My issue with drinking became just as prevalent as it was before lockdown and within a few nights of drinking, I knew I had to stop."
Initially, she worried that access to twelve-step meetings would be limited because of the pandemic. Once she discovered Zoom meetings, however, she was surprised at how accessible they were. Because she was working from home, Jenny logged onto multiple meetings a day and formed connections with other women. "People were just as friendly over Zoom and extended their phone numbers. It's been odd getting to know so many people on such a deep and personal level without ever meeting them in person, but technology has made it possible."
Lauren, 24, from New York also tried to use quarantine to "fix" her blackout drinking. "I fought so hard not to be an alcoholic because I didn't want a label and I didn't want to feel different. I figured quarantine was a good time to try to control my drinking because I wasn't going anywhere or seeing anyone that I could embarrass myself in front of." Like Jenny, once Lauren began seeing friends at socially distant, outdoor gatherings, her blackout drinking proved to be unchanged. She finally asked her mom and a sober relative for help.
For Paige*, 28, the early months of quarantine looked a little bit darker. In isolation, her drinking and drugging escalated and a close friend passed away. "I woke up one morning and I was genuinely sick and tired of being sick and tired." She reached out to a friend she knew was sober and he invited her to log onto a virtual meeting with him.
"Because everything is on Zoom, I was able to go to a meeting multiple times a day," explained Paige. "In the beginning, I was trying to get through hour by hour, and the ease and accessibility of virtual meetings allowed me to really throw myself into sobriety. It's not like I was in an office all day and could only get to a meeting after work."
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In addition to traditional twelve-step programs, virtual communities like Tempest are providing increased support for newly sober women. Tempest offers an annual membership program that uses an integrated approach to address the root causes of alcohol use through education, community, and peer support.
"Not only are folks without the more traditional in-person support that they were relying on in recovery, but the stress of COVID-19 and now the election is proving to be especially triggering," shares Whitney Combs, Director of Coaching at Tempest. "With the rise of Zoom happy hours, and liquor stores being deemed essential businesses, COVID-19 era drinking patterns have pivoted in a drastic way."
These changing circumstances have driven new users to Tempest at a rate they hadn't seen before the pandemic. "The challenge most often mentioned is how much folks miss an in-person community, because community is such an important piece of folks' early recovery process. People who are starting their recovery in quarantine are getting all of these societal messages through Zoom happy hours and social media posts about drinking that they should be coping with the pandemic through alcohol," says Combs.
Women utilizing recovery models aren't the only ones re-examining their relationships with alcohol. Olivia, 30, from Arlington, VA doesn't identify as sober but says quarantine reframed the way she thinks about her social drinking. "I think we all feel so pressured to drink at dinner or brunch with our girlfriends. But during Covid, when the social aspect of drinking was removed, I found I wasn't interested in doing it."
In quarantine, Olivia found herself reevaluating why she was previously so quick to reach for a cocktail with friends in the first place. "I know my friends wouldn't judge me for not drinking and I don't even crave a drink; it's more like self-pressure." Full sobriety isn't in Olivia's future, but she's excited to continue finding new and inventive ways to socialize and connect without alcohol in the picture.
Alicia, 24, from Philadelphia described herself as being "sober curious" before 2020, but couldn't imagine her social life without alcohol. Like many, most of the "fun" things she did involved drinking. In March, she decided to stop drinking for a few months and says spending the first 60 days in quarantine allowed her to gain confidence in her new sobriety. Her virtual communities came from Instagram and podcasts, and she discovered a new love of hiking and running. "I don't think I would have stopped drinking if Covid didn't happen," she says.
Devin, 26, from New York, works in advertising and also saw quarantine as an opportunity to take a temporary break from social drinking. "Drinking plays such a big role in my work industry, so not having to deal with happy hours gave me a sense of relief." She did a 90-day sober challenge this summer and has started drinking again, but with a renewed perspective. "Covid ultimately gave me a pause on my life that allowed me to look at my drinking and try to change things."
As someone who struggled with blackout drinking and getting sober without a pandemic to contend with, I'm in awe of the women utilizing virtual resources to reexamine their relationships with alcohol this year. Whether it's a permanent change or a dipping a toe into the sober curious pool, these shifts are an opportunity to regroup and ask ourselves who we want to be on the other side of this hellish year. And if nothing else, we have enough on our collective plates without adding a hangover to it all.
*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.
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