The Not-So-Happy Happy Hour
When drinking to de-stress during a time of crisis gets out of hand.
COVID-19 turned everyday products — items we never considered particularly valuable — into sought-after commodities: toilet paper; cleaning supplies; puzzles; and after just a few weeks, root cover-up. And, for tens of millions of us, alcohol.
Not that the latter was that hard to find. Illinois, one of the first states to institute a shelter-at-home order, allowed only “essential businesses” to remain open — and those included liquor stores among grocery stores, gas stations and hospitals.
Package liquor sales shot up by 55 percent in one week in March alone and have continued to be strong even while people shelter — and drink — at home. I’ve certainly been doing my part to keep the industry afloat, and many of my friends are doing the same. “I can barely make it to 5 o’clock every night,” I confessed to one of my neighbors one morning, and she laughed and agreed.
Between the ongoing swirl of anxiety, uncertainty and dread that seems to permeate these “challenging times” (and how sick are we of hearing that phrase?), and the ongoing stress of working from home, home-schooling a teen and tween, checking on my 76-year-old mom who just finished radiation for breast cancer, and everything else, I feel … overwhelmed. Then I feel guilty, because I have it better than millions. No one in my family is sick. I still have a job. My kids, though not happy at being home 24/7, are handling it OK. My boyfriend sheltered at home with us the first couple of months, which meant I had an actual adult in my house to commiserate with.
But I’m tired of reframing. Sometimes I want to forget about the state of the world, and a Netflix series won’t do. Sometimes I — a normal glass-half-full — find myself sliding into a type of chronic, unfocused malaise where I hate everyone and everything. And so I fill my half-full glass. With booze.
By a month into our shelter-at-home, I realized I was drinking every night. I quit buying wine by the bottle to hide my consumption from my boyfriend — and from myself. Swinging by the liquor store every Saturday morning to get a box of wine for $17.99 seemed like a good value.
I just craved that gradual unloosening that a drink provides, the sense of a long, deep exhalation after a day of working and reacting and helping the kids with their homework and trying (but often failing) to stay off of social media — which inevitably makes my anxiety worse — and wishing that I had something, even one thing, to look forward to, besides bedtime.
That drink was my reward for surviving another day, or at least most of it, and it helped me get through the next few hours of figuring out dinner, a sometimes joyless affair when the four of us would sit around the table and shove food in our mouths and have little to say to each other. We have seen each other pretty much all day long.
That gradual loosening of one drink, though, soon morphed into two drinks on most nights. No biggie, right? It’s COVID! We’re all doing what we can do to get by. I started adding some tools to my stress management toolbox. I started walking more. I took time to list what I was grateful for and to celebrate small wins. I reached out to friends to foster connection, even though what I miss most is the physical company of others.
But I still drank. And then inevitably I would end up eating chips or ice cream or other crap that is in the house, because it’s COVID and I’m bored and why not and I hate everything, remember? And yeah, I’m gaining weight but who even cares at this point? Will I ever put on actual grownup clothes again? And then I would climb into bed and feel grateful that my kids were OK (and best of all, asleep) and that I had a house and kids and animals and a job and a large, warm human whom I love in my bed. And I’d get up in the morning and think, I’m not going to have a drink tonight. And then, well, I would.
I’d had a conversation with a girlfriend a few nights before. “I’m off alcohol,” she admitted. “It’s been more than a week, and I feel so much better. I don’t even think I realized how depressed I was until I gave it up.”
I sipped my wine, listening to her. And I thought, I don’t even know if I can do that.
A few nights later, I started my happy hour at 4:30, because I was finished with work for the day. Why wait until 5? How arbitrary, I reasoned to myself. I talked to a friend for a while, made dinner and hung out with Walt. The kids were at their dad’s, and Walt and I played pool for a couple of hours. I drank some more. He beat me several times, like he usually does, and I found that irritation start to build.
One of my neighbors was hosting a socially distanced wine night for the moms on my street, and I walked over, sat down and poured myself a (well, another) glass of wine. We joked about “corona divorces” and how our kids were driving us crazy. I drank some more and realized that I was way over my limit. The irritation I’d felt with Walt now spilled over into being irritated and fed up with everyone, including the women around me — women who are lovely and fun and wonderful neighbors and whom I really like … on any other occasion. So I got up and left, without saying a word to anyone, and crossed the street to my house. I got undressed and climbed into bed and slept, poorly, yet another night.
The next morning I felt sick and exhausted — and embarrassed. Did anyone notice? Did Emily realize I didn’t say thank you for hosting, or even goodbye? Should I send a text, apologizing and blaming COVID … again? I did nothing except decide to give up alcohol for … I don’t know how long. At least until I don’t need it so much.
Because COVID — and its all-encompassing impact on the world and my tiny part of it — is far from over. I thought I was making it easier on myself with my nightly wine ritual, but I was making it more difficult. Alcohol helps, in only the shortest of short-terms. It’s a depressant, after all. Once I cross the line into the second drink, I’m left feeling more irritable, or more depressed, or more hopeless (or all three) than I was before. That’s the real price I’m paying, not the $17.99 plus tax.
When happy hour becomes the not-so-happy hour, it’s time to stop.