The following is a guest post by Melanie Warner Spencer, an award-winning lifestyle reporter, editor and photographer. She’s also the founder of the Drink Fit Club, an online community dedicated to helping people navigate alcohol free challenges via motivation, inspiration, alcohol-free drink recommendations, recipes, and bringing the party without the booze
Your social media feed is likely crowded with pandemic drinking jokes and Dry January fails. In fact, you’re probably posting them yourself. If we weren’t laughing, we’d be crying, right?
Those ubiquitous research surveys corroborate what you are seeing on social media and Zoom happy hours that seem to start earlier and earlier. According to a September 2020 report published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, national alcohol sales increased by 54 percent the week of the first stay-at-home order in the United States in March of 2020, compared with one year prior.
The report indicates a 14 percent overall increase in drinking for Americans, with the largest increase among women at 41 percent over baseline. This is consistent with data published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which states “research shows that alcohol use and misuse among women are increasing,” in a report updated in October of 2020 and goes on to say “studies show that women start to have alcohol-related problems sooner and at lower drinking levels than men and for multiple reasons.” Among a few other, happier motivations, it’s terrifying reports like these that have helped keep me mostly alcohol free throughout the pandemic.
It feels strange to say it, but alcohol-free challenges like the Eat Fit #AlcoholFreeFor40 Challenge have become a bit of a hobby for me over the past year. I was in the middle of the 2020 challenge when the pandemic struck and while it was tempting to join my friends in leaping off the wagon with abandon, I stuck with it. No one could believe it. Least of all me! I love my champagne. And wine. And craft beer. And craft cocktails — you get the picture. Like countless New Orleanians, I live for happy hour, love a tipsy night out or a boozy brunch and relish day drinking during parades. But six years after moving to New Orleans, 35 pounds and many hangovers later, I was so ready for a break. I wasn’t about to give up giving up when the pandemic struck. I’m not that kind of quitter! In fact, it turns out, I’m an even bigger quitter than I realized.
On Easter when the challenge ended, I sipped a couple of glasses of champagne. Ever mindful of my lowered tolerance, due to learning the hard way about it in 2016 when the challenge was first launched, I re-entered the drinking arts with caution and — I think — admirable restraint. For perhaps the first time in my adult life, I adhered to the CDC drinking guidelines for women — seven units or less per week.
My lowered tolerance was part of the equation, but I was also greatly influenced by a Lenten deep dive into the effects of alcohol prompted by #AlcoholFreeFor40 Challenge founder Molly Kimball’s podcast about the effects of it on the body and mind. Once I learned that alcohol can increase a person’s cancer risk and sorted through its other potential effects, I just couldn’t unsee that information.
Some of what I learned was based on more recent research, but there was of course a lot of it I’d known all along, and, like many people, I waved it off as overblown. I’m a mostly moderate drinker! This doesn’t apply to me. I’m a successful lifestyle journalist with a beautiful home and have never missed giving my diabetic cat his insulin. I’m responsible! Pffft!
Well, that all might be true, but I couldn’t ignore what my gut was telling me. There were plenty of mornings over the years when I awakened feeling sluggish or downright hungover. A hazard of my job is a seemingly endless gauntlet of wine-infused media previews, cocktail tastings and open bar networking happy hours. While my level of drinking wasn’t problematic for me and I could and did certainly attend work events and gatherings without imbibing, I knew that time off and assessing my relationship with what is a highly addictive substance would be good for me.
So, I jumped into multiple challenges over the course of 2020, continued to explore my relationship with alcohol and, as of the writing of this post, am over seven months alcohol free with no plans to revisit the issue until July, when I hit one year.
Taking a year off of booze isn’t for everyone. But the benefits for me have been undeniable (softer, clearer and smoother skin, healthier weight, more energy, better sleep, lower resting heart rate and feeling happier and calmer overall, to name just a few) and, it might surprise people who like me love their tipple, there are zero downsides.
I don’t miss it, even at parties (I attended a few sans booze prior to lockdown); even during holidays and vacations; and even on my birthday. There are so many delicious alternatives out there these days with no- and low-proof beverages representing one of the fastest growing areas of the market and sober curiosity, as well as teetotaling growing in popularity, particularly among the younger generations, the only way a person could feel deprived of a special drink is if they aren’t even trying to find a replacement. I’ve found that it’s quite fun to taste-test the myriad beverages out there and, I’ve rediscovered my obsession with fine coffee and tea.
So, while I realize most people reading this won’t take a year-long break, I would like to suggest that a break — even a few days or a week — will benefit you in more ways than I can fit into one blog post. One big one is that, since alcohol can cause or exacerbate anxiety, the pandemic will be a little less stressful if you give up your nightly sip for a while. Trust me, no one on the office happy hour Zoom will realize that what’s in your glass is actually a mocktail mule and you can giggle at the irony of keeping your non-drinking a secret.