Drinking and the Pandemic

There are ways around it.

Posted Sep 17, 2020

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain Dedication (CC0)/PICRYL
Wine Bottle
Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain Dedication (CC0)/PICRYL

Several of my patients have put on weight during this pandemic—less exercise, less discipline, less distance to the fridge. Their jowls fill my screen a little more each week. We talk about sensible diets, but I’m not sure they really care. They prefer the pop psychology that counsels, “Reward yourself. This is no time for deprivation. Keep up your spirits however you can.” Short of telling people to go rob a bank (“You deserve it, honey!”), such advice can still do lots of damage. It lets people off the hook.

Of course, any decent advice would cite the difference between having fun—which is necessary for staying sane—and the unbridled self-indulgence that leads to grabbing at whatever one feels like. In the latter case, some self-restraint is required ... but where is it when we’re still working from home and barely socializing? That is, for many people such restraint as they experience is externally imposed: peer pressure (“Hey, are you pregnant?”), or maybe just the logistics of heating up a ramen cup on company time. Now that they’re home, all bets are off.

I thought about the more pernicious temptations that come with sequestering when I spoke to my patient George. George was always a social drinker, and would knock back a few with the guys after work on Friday. But then he knew when to stop. He’d get home, sleep it off, and be himself again when it came to partying on Saturday. “I never thought I was an alcoholic,” he said. “I never drank alone.”

The pandemic, however, made him think about drinking in a new way. “I was feeling sorry for myself. I was so lonely.” It would start after he signed off his computer around 5:30, wondering what to do with himself. “I got bored, so I drank.” After a while, he’d nurse a beer, maybe starting around 4:00, and once he even had it by him during a later afternoon Zoom meeting. It got so that he stopped making excuses for himself, and just drank starting after lunch. By dinnertime, he was sloshed—“and of course, I had to have wine with dinner.” Usually, he’d finish the bottle.

So, we spoke about his increasing need for drink. Was it the effect of the pandemic (the loneliness, the boredom), or was there something else that the pandemic aggravated? It’s often the case that a low-grade persistent stress can get much worse when we become more inward-directed—as we do when we’re lonely—and then set off behaviors that we usually control because we’re actively engaged with others.  

As it turned out, George’s isolation had aggravated fears that he’d been unwilling to face ... fears that he was now trying to submerge in drink.  

George was in his late 20s, and had a solid job as a computer programmer. Work from home? No problem. Flex-time? Choose your hours. It was great. But for the past couple of years, he’d wrestled with being gay. He’d always known it, actually, but now he’d hated it. In college, he could hang out with a small crowd of gay men, and nobody cared. But now, in New York and in a professional setting, he resisted the club scene (“I hate that whole Pride thing”); he resisted what he thought was a kinky aesthetic; and he didn’t want to be hit on by other gay men at work. “I want to be a straight gay, if you know what I mean.”

What he meant was that he wanted to live with someone like himself—quiet, conservative, just going about their business. He’d hoped to meet someone like that at the parties he went to, but he never did. “I never wanted to look gay, and I never gave off the right signals, I guess.” The pandemic now just made that impossible, and he couldn’t bear meeting anyone on a website. “Have you seen those websites for gays,” he asked? “They’re hardcore.”  

So, George just drank, with no one around to stop him or keep him from getting lonely. “I have all the problems of someone trying to date in this environment, with a whole bunch of added problems as well.” I had to agree.

But I also wanted to help. I understood that eventually we’d have to deal with the underlying problem—George’s need to express his sexuality on his own terms—but most immediately, we had to address the drinking. George didn’t want to attend AA meetings on Zoom. “I’m not a spiritual person, and I’m not interested in other people’s spiritual journeys,” he said. So, I suggested that there were ways to deal with the loneliness, still short of intimate companionship but more along the lines of hanging out with the guys at work. Less loneliness, less drinking.

“I’m thinking,” I said, “that you could join some online groups—maybe work towards something that you care about.” I feared he was too deflated to care about anything, but you never know. So, I was surprised by the vehement response: “I’m interested in giving prisoners a fighting chance on their release.” It turns out that during college, George had participated in a program that brought students into prisons to teach inmates marketable skills. The inmates loved the human contact, and learned much more quickly than they did online. George had become a convert.

More to the point, he realized that if he was an outsider—a semi-closeted gay—so were the guys he was teaching. He developed enormous empathy for them, and felt that he was “changing the world in advance.” He said that he felt part of something important, and loved the team meetings where the students drafted lesson plans in coordination with a professor and the Deputy Warden. “I taught them programming, of course, but it was like I was in the army and we were planning an assault on some beach. There was great esprit de corps.”

He might have gone on about his experience for the remainder of the session if I hadn’t said “Okay, then let’s see if you can do something like this again. Remotely, of course, but still in a group.” We discussed how he might recruit a few of the guys from work, who were probably as bored as he was. “You’ll have their company, at least on Zoom, and then you’ll all be involved in the teaching.” I pointed out that now, he could even give advice from the inside—“you can tell them what it’s like to program, not just show them how it’s done.”

He said he’d give it a try.

So, my takeaway from my conversation with George is that as we continue to emerge from this pandemic, part of the New Normal will consist of figuring out ways of recovering from the pandemic’s outrages. George felt imprisoned by the pandemic, until helping others who were literally imprisoned brought him some measure of relief. It wasn’t going to be a perfect means of recovery since it wouldn’t check all the boxes (sex being one of them). But we’ll have to accept imperfect, provisional fixes that ameliorate vexing problems. If George stops or at least decreases his drinking when he starts making lesson plans, that will be big progress.