Stop Drinking Alone
Did you find yourself drinking too much during Covid shutdown? You’re not alone. Well, metaphorically at least. From mid-March to mid-May 2020, during the initial phase of the pandemic, alcohol sales around the world skyrocketed, increasing anywhere from 40% to 60% over pre-pandemic levels, with distilled liquor sales increasing more rapidly than sales of wine and beer. Some analysts argued that this retail surge merely reflected a shift from drinking at bars and restaurants to imbibing at home, but this in itself is a serious concern.
That is because, even if we were not alone in drinking more or drinking at home, we were literally alone. Even those of us lucky enough to have podded with family or friends remained extremely socially isolated. Many of us have been trapped for over a year now with kids getting schooled on laptops in the kitchen and endless Zoom meetings in sweatpants. Cracking open a bottle of wine at the end of the day was a welcome respite from the tedium and stress. There is a good reason why, in midst of the debate at the beginning of the pandemic over what constitutes an “essential service,” almost no one questioned the inclusion of liquor stores on the list.
Humans have been drinking alcohol for about as long as we’ve been doing just about anything in an organized fashion. At sites in eastern Turkey, dating to perhaps 12,000 years ago, the remains of what appear to be brewing vats, combined with images of festivals and dancing, suggest that people were gathering in groups, fermenting grain or grapes, playing music, and then getting truly hammered before we’d even figured out agriculture.
Some archaeologists have argued that alcoholic beverages were not merely a by-product of the invention of agriculture, as standard accounts would have it, but actually a motivation for it. In other words, the first people to deliberately plant and harvest grains were after beer, not bread. The rare cultures around the world that have not traditionally produced alcohol have inevitably substituted some other intoxicating substance, such as kava, hallucinogen-laced tobacco, or cannabis, in its place.
For almost all of our long history with alcohol, however, its production and consumption has been strictly regulated by ritual and tradition. Before modern times, no one ever drank alone or completely at will. The hosts of ancient Greek wine gatherings carefully regulated their guests’ imbibing by altering the timing of toasts and the strength of the wine-water mixture being served.
Traditional Chinese banquets surrounded alcohol with a strict, elaborate code of ritual and etiquette. Even informal modern social gatherings, like house parties or sessions at the local pub, require us to consciously or unconsciously adapt our pace of drinking to those of our companions. In most cultures — American college fraternities and some Northern and Eastern European countries excepted — strong norms against public drunkenness help to rein in excess.
All of these safeguards disappear in a world where I can load up my SUV with liquor from a drive-through store and take it to the privacy of my own home, where I can drink to my heart’s content — or more. And the Covid-19 pandemic greatly exacerbated this problem. Even worse than drive-through liquor stores were the alcohol delivery services that flourished in the pandemic. During Canada’s recent third-wave lockdown, I ordered a take-out meal from my local taqueria, and the do-it-yourself margarita kit that came with it included enough tequila to knock an entire Greek wine party on its back.
As Kerry Jang, PhD, an addiction researcher at the University of British Columbia, notes, during life in a pandemic shutdown “our normal social cues have all been lost.” Boundaries between weekday and weekend, home and work, even a clear sense of the time of day are obliterated. We no longer worry about drinking and driving (where would we drive?), and the radical shrinking of our social networks translates to a weakening of social constraints on drinking. “My mother,” as Jang wryly observes, is no longer around to give me “that look from across the table.”
The speed bump normally provided by having to order (and pay for) another round from a waitperson or bartender has been removed these days, making it perilously easy to splash another few ounces of wine into our glass every time we pass the fridge. The social vacuum of the pandemic provides the perfect environment for unhealthy drinking practices to take hold and flourish.
Now that pandemic shutdowns are lifting and social drinking beginning to revive, some of this damage will hopefully be undone. Even once the pandemic has completely passed, however, we need to beware of permanent structural changes Covid-19 might leave in its wake. Many of us may well continue working remotely, and others will likely make their relocation from cities permanent. Let us avoid allowing these changes to entrench our unhealthy Covid drinking regimens. Let’s go back to the pubs and bars, and make an effort to enjoy the warm glow that comes from socializing in person again. Humans evolved to drink in the company of others, and we are long overdue for reconnecting with friends and extended family over a pint or glass of wine.
So, as restaurant and bar patios open up, and Zoom calls are gradually replaced by in-person meetings, put your do-it-yourself margarita kit where it belongs—in the bottom of the closet with the selfie ring light and webcam—and head out to meet some friends for happy hour. Your liver will thank you.
Partially excerpted from Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization (Little, Brown Spark, June 1, 2021).