By Brittany Hailer
Pittsburgh Current Managing Editor
In response to a social media call for this story, Pittsburghers sent messages and emails, offering to share their recovery experiences. But, a trend emerged. Folks wanted to know if they qualified for a story about alcoholism during the pandemic.
“But, am I an alcoholic? I should probably talk, it’s been really hard.”
“Does a box of Franzia a day count?”
“I’m struggling with what alcoholism even means in this context. I’m certainly drinking too much (6-7 beers and at least as many shots every other day) but trying to hold onto the notion that this is “ok” because it’s a weird/bad time for everyone and that’s an excuse for this. The thing is, it’s not all that different from my pre-pandemic behavior.”
According to Lawson Bernstein, MD, Medical Director for Behavioral Health at UPMC McKeesport, you couldn’t have designed a better paradigm, a more perfect situation, than the current pandemic, if you wanted to augment the number of people returning to drug and alcohol use. UPMC McKeesport is a 27-bed unit dedicated to detoxification and rehabilitation services for patients with substance abuse disorders and it is the only location in Allegheny County that combines the two services in one inpatient unit.
“It’s the perfect recipe: isolation, despair, lack of financial resources, enforced proximity without respite to other family members—it’s a pressure cooker,” Bernstein said, “You stress the individual, you increase the risk of the dormant disorder becoming active again.”
It’s no secret alcohol sales and consumption are on the rise across the United States in 2020, the year that has become synonymous with grief and isolation. Google Trends revealed a major uptick in the rise of searches related to anxiety, panic attacks, and treatments for panic attacks. Researchers noticed, too, that individuals also searched for therapy techniques for dealing with anxiety symptoms.
As our stress increased, so did the line outside the liquor store.
Nielsen CGA reported a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol the week of March 21, 2020. Compared with 2019, online sales increased 262 percent.
According to a study published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, every week of lockdown increases binge drinking: “The findings show the odds of heavy alcohol consumption among binge drinkers — those who, within two hours, consumed five or more drinks for men and four and above for women — rose an extra 19% for every week of lockdown.”
When asked if she’s noticed an increase in alcoholism in patients during the pandemic, Dr. Julia D’Alo of Gateway Rehab, said, “Oh my god, every day. It is out of control, a perfect storm. What people don’t realize is that alcohol is a drug.”
However, Gateway’s census right now is down.
“And it is always down around the holidays, but I am afraid people are afraid to come into the center,” said D’Alo, “We have worked so hard to keep COVID out of Gateway. Everyone is required to wear a mask, we’re testing and rigorously screening.”
Gateway’s main in-patient campus is in Aliquippa, but the non-profit also offers outpatient rehab options in areas like Squirrel Hill, the North Hills, Fox Chapel and Greensburg. D’Alo said,”Don’t underestimate outpatient programming. Group meetings and programs occur at all hours every day.”
Many folks miss physically seeing their community in-person at 12-step meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), but the accessibility for newcomers is unprecedented. Telemedicine has also enabled Bernstein to access first-time patients or with individuals who may need speedy intervention.
“Today I saw over 20 patients entirely on telemedicine What that has introduced–you can now get healthcare through your cell phone Accessing addiction treatment, or acute intervention, or an early interview with someone who can help you. That will never go back to the way it was. That type of access is here to stay,” said Bernstein.
C, 27, who chose to remain anonymous because she is a performer and works in local media, relapsed in September after over two years of sobriety. C drinks when she’s alone. She drinks into the night, bottle after bottle until she vomits. In the morning, she goes to work on her laptop. No one knows she’s drinking again. She is working remotely, so she can turn her camera off if she is hungover or queasy. On screen, her room is hidden, which she says is trashed with bottles and discarded food.
“There’s no one to hold me accountable,” she said, “It screws up my life. Even though I’m not getting plastered all day, I can’t stop at night. I hate what it does to me. I can’t sleep through the night. It’s been really, really bad.”
C started drinking when she was 14 years old, after navigating a childhood of abuse and neglect. The first time she got drunk she thought, “Oh, this is it.” When she went to college her drinking snowballed, partly because of the intense drinking culture at a big state school. C was sexually assaulted when she was 15 and later developed bipolar disorder and a dissociative disorder as a result. She said she detaches from reality as a coping mechanism, but after treatment with a psychologist and psychiatrist, she found a regime of medication that worked for her.
It was then, when her medication treatment started, that her doctor told her she needed to quit drinking. So she did. After a month-long bender. C did not work a 12 steps program. She quit cold turkey.
“I had the shakes at night,” she said, “But I don’t know if that was from the anxiety or if I was going through withdrawal.”
C reached out to The Pittsburgh Current after a call on social media. She said the story was really important, and she wanted other people who are dealing with alcohol use to know that it “isn’t your fault.”
“I hate that it makes you feel ‘less than.’ I hate the word alcoholic. It makes it sound so dirty. And I don’t want this for my life. I know I need to quit, but I don’t want to right now. I would really have to fully accept that I have a problem.”
Hannah Donovan, 29, said she’s often told she is too young to be someone with a drinking problem. (She quit drinking when she was 25) This idea actually stopped her from getting sober at first.
“I thought that was too much life to live. One, not being able to drink, and two, being labeled this thing, because people don’t trust alcoholics. So, by taking a step that would have been positive and responsible and difficult, I was going to be stigmatized, rather than staying where I was. Drinking and sometimes abusing alcohol could be somehow more socially acceptable.”
Donovan works in commercial, film, headshot, and fashion makeup, told The Pittsburgh Current, “There is so much fucking drinking in media.” Donovan, who grew up in the South Hills, described a city and town steeped in drinking culture. On set for movies, she was surrounded by alcohol, too. Everything deserved a beer: a good day, a bad day, a short day, or a day when the crew worked overtime.
“Part of why I think we need to be more open about alcoholism is because there are infinite types of alcoholics. And there are people who have such different needs and triggers than I do…There are so many sober people. And a lot of people don’t talk about it, but our generation, the Millennial and Gen Z generation, is talking about mental health. We’re talking about depression and stigma and self-medication. We’re talking and not just accepting this thing that is harmful to you and the people around you,” said Donovan.
D, 32, who asked to remain anonymous for this story, worked in the brewing industry for most of his adult life. Within a couple of months, D lost two friends to suicide this year. That grief coupled with unemployment and the isolation of the pandemic has created a cycle D can’t break. One drink is never one drink. He will drink five beers and then he will drink five shots. Next thing he knows, it is almost 5 AM and he is still listening to music on his porch.
The next day, the hangover rattles him. Diagnosed with generalized anxiety, D is familiar with the feeling of an overactive internal alarm system. Sometimes he feels so awful, he can’t even think about alcohol; other times, alcohol is the only thing to stop the sick-stomach dread.
There’s been weeks when he’s on a good streak: five days without drinking, he’s working out, he’s cooking healthy homemade meals.
“And then I’ll have a drink to celebrate,” D laughed.
And the cycle starts over again.
But D said, time, not alcohol, is his greatest enemy right now. When he’s not drinking, he says it is not the alcohol he misses, but “having a way to make the hours disappear.”
“I am confronted with this seemingly endless expanse of totally meaningless time. I want to annihilate it somehow,” said D.
When his childhood friend died by suicide, D underwent the motions of ceremony. He dressed in black. He wrote a eulogy. He bought flowers. For a moment, the motions of preparing for a funeral took D back to “normal.”
“This is something I know how to do,” he said, “I’ve been to a funeral before. The ceremony was the thing that grounded me. And so does the ceremony of drinking.”
D had called drinking the “great time annihilator” during the lockdown, but then later admitted that he’s called his friends from his bathtub at 3 in the morning so that he didn’t attempt suicide. He also doesn’t believe 12-step programs are for him, “I’d rather pull out my teeth before surrendering to a high power,” he said.
D.J., 28, a local writer and poet, who has been sober for two and one-half years, said that she’s aware that the assumption that 12-steps or AA is “heavily God-focused” is a deterrent for folks, but, for her, it is the community of AA that has helped her quit drinking for good.
D.J.’s friend took her to her first meeting. D.J. had called her “one sober friend” and said she needed help. In the LGBTQ+ community, drinking and drugs are common, and D.J. had been trying to get sober for a year on her own before asking a friend for help. Her first meeting changed the course of her addiction.
“The first time, I felt like being sober was something I could do, because I was surrounded by people who were doing it,” D.J. said.
D.J. said you’re never too young or too old to get sober. And you don’t have to go through the 12-steps. And you don’t have to meet some sort of standard to get help. She said, too, if you relapse or “have a slip” it doesn’t mean recovery is over for you.
“If you think you have a problem, that is enough to want to get better. You don’t have to meet some sort of goal post of ‘I’m drinking this much a day.’ One of the problems I had when I was thinking about getting sober was, ‘Oh, I am too young to be an alcoholic.’”
SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP (4357)