So We’re Drinking Our Way Through the Pandemic? It’s What Drugs Are For.

October 8, 2020

People are drinking (and using marijuana) more during the pandemic. Alarms have predictably been raised, but anxiety is misdirected.

RAND Corporationthe organization that in the late 1970s was vilified for reporting that most recovery from alcohol dependence was due to reduced drinkinghas conducted another highly publicized study in 2020. Published by JAMA Network Open last month, it found that people are drinking more alcohol lately. This has led to alarmist headlines, like this one from ABC News: “Alcohol consumption rising sharply during pandemic, especially among women: An ‘effective pain killer’ in a time of trauma sparks concern among experts.”

Oh, wait—that’s why we’re drinking more. And we’re largely better off for it.

I have been around the commotion raised by both RAND studies. Only this time, the lurid headlines don’t come from AA, recovery and anti-alcohol public health factions. That’s not necessary; RAND is doing this PR itself:

RAND Press Release, September 29 

Alcohol Consumption Rises Sharply During Pandemic Shutdown: Heavy Drinking By Women Rises 41%

“Alcohol consumption can have significant negative health consequences, so this information suggests another way that the pandemic may be affecting the physical and mental health of Americans,” [said lead study author Michael Pollard.]

Forget the West Coast burning, Donald Trump permanently taking over the reins of government and spreading COVID, and your children never leaving the house.

Oh, wait—that’s why we’re drinking more. And we’re largely better off for it—or for smoking cannabis or using our other drugs of choice. “Whatever gets you through the night, it’s all right,” as John Lennon put it.

We and our ancestors have perpetually used psychoactive substances for two key reasons: to enjoy them, and to enable us to endure rough spots. In most cases, our drug use doesn’t become a destructive long-term habit, but instead enhances and supports our lives.

I have noticed what is being detected nationwide in my own neighborhood liquor store. Starting early in the pandemic, Time reports, “national alcohol sales increased 54 percent … and online sales leapt a staggering 262 percent” compared with the same period last year.

Time’s take offers far better insight into the RAND data and increased drinking in the pandemic than, say, NPR (“The Coronavirus Crisis: Hangover From Alcohol Boom Could Last Long After Pandemic Ends”) and USA Today (“Drowning our sorrows? American adults are drinking more alcohol amid COVID-19, study finds”).

Jeffrey Kluger’s Time piece seeks to lower the heat: “Americans Are Drinking More During the Pandemic—But Perhaps Not as Much as You’d Think.” It begins:

Humans, like nature itself, abhor a vacuum—and there’s been no vacuum lately quite like the tedious months of Covid-19 quarantine. In nature, air rushes in to fill the empty space. In the time of pandemic, it’s been alcohol. That, at least, is the finding of a new survey of American adults conducted by the RAND Corporation. . . . But the study bears close reading. 

What is Time doing—trying to be reasonable? The piece points out, regarding the RAND data:

Overall, men reported drinking heavily just 1 day (.95 days) per month in 2019; that increased by just one-tenth of a day (.07 days) per month this year. Women drank heavily on just half a day (0.44 days) per month in 2019; that increased by two tenths (0.18) of a day this year. So overall, men are still drinking heavily more than women are, and in both cases, the numbers factor out to just one bender per month. 

“Bender” is the wrong term, however, to apply to people identified by RAND as heavy drinkers. “Heavy drinking” women have had four or more drinks in two hours—five for men. It’s more accurate to say that they get drunk (if even that) once a month. 

Time continues:

Clearly, no amount of heavy drinking is healthy, and the overall increase of 14% among adults is an undeniable cause for concern. But for the moment at least, it appears that even in time of pandemic, both men and women are holding the worst of their imbibing to a comparative minimum.  

While I would dispute the negative construction of even this degree of drinking and health, Time’s conclusion (which I have italicized) is justified.

Of course, such data must always be filtered through a social prism. Deprived, marginalized, unemployed people, those who have the most reason to seek the compensations or anesthesia of substances, are not experiencing the pandemic in the same way as most readers of Time.  

People with the least resources and the most life stressors are, quite logically, the people who are most susceptible to risky patterns of drug use.

This is true, for starters, with deaths and illness due to COVID, which are highly segmented by race and zip code, as the New York Times explored. The Times found, consistent with all such data, that COVID deaths follow the same path as drug deaths: People who are already disadvantaged suffer the worst, by far.

With drugs, this is because social supports for moderate substance use are most available to people with the most resources. People with the least resources and the most life stressors are, quite logically, the people who are most susceptible to risky patterns of drug use. (The answer—contrary to American impulses—isn’t to deprive people of the substances on which they rely, but to enhance support and reduce stress. But that would require structural changes that Americans have consistently failed to make.)

Thus, amidst the moaning and grieving that middle-class people may be getting drunk or stoned occasionally, when we read about their stressed-but-privileged lives, that picture doesn’t reflect our era’s mushrooming deaths of despair.

The six states with the highest drug death rates (measured in 2018) are in impoverished Appalachia (West Virginia is No. 1 by a wide margin); are home to a troubled inner city (Maryland); are in rural New England (New Hampshire); or are impacted by post-industrial decline (Ohio, Pennsylvania and Delaware). Indeed, drug death rates have increased sharply during the pandemic, to new record levels in most states.

But we shouldn’t conflate these situations, as so much of the media does, with increased substance use by middle-class moms.


The “Mother’s Little Helper” Trope

The latest New York Times contribution to this discussionMother’s Little Helper Is Back, and Daddy’s Partaking Tootells us how “after the kids go to bed, the grown-ups are drinking and smoking pot to distract themselves from the hellscape that is pandemic parenting.” The article describes a privileged group of parents:

7:51 p.m.: It’s exactly 125 days tomorrow. I am pretg drink.

7:52 p.m.: Drunk.

7:52 p.m. I can tell. 😂

I have a years-long WhatsApp message group with a handful of fellow mothers of small children from across the United States and Canada. Since the pandemic began, what I refer to as “mom chats after dark” start at around 7:30 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. That’s when the children are asleep, and a wave of inebriation begins on the shores of the Atlantic and crashes across the continent. The above message was from July, when we hit 125 days of lockdown.

Another message, in September:

12:10 a.m.: I’m really high and eating this cake right now and it’s sooooo [expletive deleted] good.  

The horror! While the piece paints something of the landscape that prompts such a “wave of inebriation” (that last message was from a mother in California, trapped inside by smoke-filled air), the substance use itself seems nothing more than casual relief.

As one quoted expert notes:

The increase of substance use among parents is “just kind of understandable,” said Jonathan Metzl, the director of the department of medicine, health and society at Vanderbilt University. “This is an incredible, once-in-an-epoch stressful situation, and the kinds of outlets people usually have in their lives are just not available. We can’t go to the office, we can’t go to the gym, we can’t really see friends or family, and we never get a break.”

 To her credit, the author of the piece recognizes:

And we’re the lucky ones who can meet our children’s basic needs. Somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of parents of children under 5 have worried about their children getting enough to eat since the pandemic started, and many who cannot work remotely are scrambling for coverage with the fitful reopening of day care centers and schools.

Those parents tend not to be the people writing to a WhatsApp group about eating “[expletive deleted] good” cake after the kids go to bed.


Seniors Can Get in on the Act!

I’m in my 70s, my kids are in their 30s and 40s, and I live alone. I compared myself with a woman who wrote about her experiences in my University of Pennsylvania alumni magazine (I know, I’ve had a tough existence).

The woman, in her 80s, is depressed about spending her twilight years in the pandemic. She also lives alone. Although she has attentive family and old friends, she rarely sees them. She worries because she drinks a couple of glasses of wine in the evening, listening to music and watching Netflix and cable news.

Yes, I confess: I am one of those besotted heavy drinkers spotlighted in the RAND study!

My activities are similar to those of my counterpart. I differ from her in that I drink more bourbon, vodka and rum than wine. My daughter in New York gives me booze as presents. I too drink mainly at home, but sometimes at restaurants and bars, which are open for outdoor dining and drinking. I occasionally meet friends and colleagues at these establishments. I ride my bike there. I limit myself to one drink outside my home.

Overall, I have 2-4 drinks a day, which I believe, based on the data, to be a healthy level for me. I generally don’t become inebriated. I make sure I drink in a safe space. Once in a while, I have 5-6 drinks. Yes, I confess: Age 74, I am one of those besotted heavy drinkers spotlighted in the RAND study!

I actually attribute my relatively good health and productivity in part to alcohol. Our president doesn’t drink or take other recreational drugs. Which raises the question of whether he would be a better, and healthier, person if he drank and smoked cannabis. While he made more than one emergency visit to Walter Reed over the past year, I listened to Lou Reed.

I’m okay living this way for the foreseeable future. In fact, it seems pretty [expletive deleted] good, considering the alternatives.



Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele is a psychologist who has pioneered, among other things, the idea that addiction occurs with a range of experiences and recognition of natural recovery from addiction. He developed the Life Process Program for addiction. He has authored many books since the 1975 publication of Love and Addiction (co-authored by Archie Brodsky); his latest is A Scientific Life on the Edge: My Lonely Quest to Change How We See Addiction.

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