The wine and gin memes are coming thick and fast on WhatsApp, and god knows we need a laugh at the moment – and probably a crutch to get us through the kind of sweeping changes in our lives that were unimaginable just a month or two ago.
We’re weeks into home-schooling, working from home, social distancing and a non-stop torrent of worrying news from home and abroad, and we’re doing what we can to get by.
The problem, of course, is the uncertainty as to how long this will last, and what we’re facing on the other side of the Covid-19 curve.
Ireland has a long and involved relationship with alcohol. It’s a rare Irish occasion that is alcohol-free, from wetting the baby’s head to drowning our sorrows. We know from studies that 84 per cent of the adult population in Ireland drink alcohol, and the amount in volume that we drink per year is on a steady increase, according to a Lancet study published last year. And that was before we had a global pandemic on our hands.
The habits we form now may seem like a short-term crutch to get us through the shock of this pandemic, and for many of us that will be true. But as the weeks and months wear on, the habits of drinking earlier than usual, more than usual and more often than usual will become harder and harder to break. The reality is that we will be feeling the effects of this pandemic for months and years to come. What we don’t need is to add widespread alcohol addiction to the list of problems we as individuals, families and a society have to face on the other side of this.
Most habits become habits without us really noticing; this is especially true with addiction. When we talk about people living with addiction, we ask: “Why?” Why would you do that to yourself, your family, your career or your future?
Often the answer is that nobody sets out to become dependent on alcohol, cocaine or any other drug – it becomes a habit. A weekly drink becomes daily, the evening wind-down wine moves to the afternoon. Thought patterns change – what was once unacceptable becomes the norm, what was the unthinkable becomes the doable.
Working in Community Response, a primary alcohol and liver health service in Dublin, we meet people on a frequent basis who gradually developed a dependence on alcohol, in the early days without noticing the slight changes that led towards damaged health, relationships, careers and bank balances. Many of these had comforted themselves that they were not an “addict”: what they meant was they were not the stereotypical picture of an addict.
Having an extra glass, bigger home measures, not worrying about hangovers because we are working from home – and who has to worry about drink driving? These all make it easier to justify and slide into drinking more. So how do we stop the slide – and why should we?
No matter how good it tastes, no matter the escape it provides, there is no getting away from the fact that alcohol is a depressant. That’s its function. Alcohol is classified as a central nervous system depressant, meaning that it slows down brain functioning and neural activity. Initially, after one or two glasses, this provides relaxation, even some much-needed giddiness and a release from the anxiety many of us are feeling right now.
But over time – even months – excessive alcohol consumption can bring with it a long list of health problems, financial costs and relationship issues. Studies have also shown that even moderate amounts of alcohol and binge drinking can have a negative impact on our immune responses.
Now more than ever, it is vital that we think before we drink. Rather than acting on habit, ask yourself: “Would I usually drink at this time?” “Am I drinking more than usual?” If so, put the glass down and do something else. Call someone, check in on a friend or family member. Go out for a walk (keeping a safe distance). Drink a glass of water in between alcoholic drinks and avoid drinking every day. Your liver works hard for you every day, so be kind to it and give it a rest now and then.
Our healthcare workers are currently going above and beyond in the fight against Covid-19. They are asking us to stay at home so that together we can slow down the rate of infection. We can also help by thinking ahead and not shoring up problems for ourselves and our health services down the line.
Nicola Perry is director of Community Response, a HSE-funded service for people with addiction problems. See communityresponse.ie for a list of resources