When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, I responded to the news of a deadly virus approaching the US the same way that many parents did; I watched some news reports, I talked to some friends, and I drank some wine. Seems like a normal response, right? My kids’ schools had switched to virtual learning and my husband’s job had switched to remote. All extra-curricular activities and travel came to a screeching halt. For a lot of parents like me, these were big changes that impacted every aspect of my life, and I didn’t quite know how to deal with them.
During the first few weeks of the stay-at-home order, I found myself joking with my mom friends about having to drink more wine in order to deal with our kids and spouses being home all the time. It was a big joke on social media within my mom groups. Funny memes were texted back and forth with moms starting to drink at noon in order to be able to finish the school day. News outlets were telling us to stock up on toilet paper, paper towels, and alcohol. It’s like they were telling us to batten down the hatches, and we’ll be just fine as long as we have wine on hand.
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I went along with it at first but, underneath all the funny memes that masked the actual anxiety about the pandemic, I knew that it wasn’t going to work for me. There’s no way that drinking most evenings is healthy, nor was it sustainable. I found that I was exhausted all of the time, I was impatient with my kids and with myself, and I only felt relaxed when I was alone with a glass of wine and Netflix late at night.
I wasn’t really relaxed, though; I was just numbing my stress temporarily and I knew I had to stop this unhealthy way of coping with the stress of the pandemic. I knew that my relationship with alcohol was getting tangled with my heightened emotions over the pandemic and I needed to address it before it got way worse.
So, I decided to give sobriety a try. These three things have helped on my journey:
1. I started reading quit lit.
If you had asked me what quit-lit was six months ago, I would have had no idea what you were talking about. Turns out, there is a whole world of novels, memoirs, essays, and how-to books on sobriety that is geared towards women. I only just started reading books from this genre and let me tell you: They’re nothing short of amazing. I’ve already learned so much about my relationship with alcohol and my emotions through reading a few of these books, and I’m excited to keep adding new titles to my bookshelf.
I’m finding that I really enjoy reading about other women’s journeys to and through sobriety because so many stories are both relatable and inspiring. I was late to the party and just finished the #1 NY Times Best Seller Untamed by Glennon Doyle. Though not entirely about sobriety, Untamed is a really incredible collection of stories and powerful realizations on how to come out of hiding and step into your true self—free of cages that may have at one time kept you quiet.
The most empowering quit-lit book I’ve read so far, however, is This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol by Annie Grace. This book goes a step further because the author combines her personal stories with research on how alcohol affects the body and, particularly, the brain. The science-nerd in me loved this combination. This Naked Mind has the reader examine how their unconscious mind has been conditioned about the benefits of alcohol. Grace’s book takes the time and space “to outline what alcohol does to your body, so you see why it wreaks such devastation on your health and life.”
In fact, it addresses exactly how and why an increase in anxiety and depression can be directly linked to drinking alcohol. Grace writes, “No, alcohol does not relax you. It does not fix the stress in your life. Rather, it inebriates you, which covers the pain for a short amount of time. As soon as it wears off, your stress returns and, over time, multiplies.”
This is a fact that was corroborated by Dr. George Koob, Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Koob is a widely known expert on current alcohol research and the neurobiology of alcohol addiction. When discussing my own struggle with anxiety and how I have noticed how my anxiety has improved greatly since I stopped drinking, Dr. Koob shared, “Anxiety is like Dante’s inferno; when you’re drinking alcohol, it will come back with a vengeance.”
According to Dr. Koob, “We know that drinking in an effort to cope with stress (such as the pandemic) increases the odds of developing an alcohol abuse disorder, and stress is the predominant trigger for relapse.”
2. I joined an online community for sober moms.
For many parents across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic altered the way we parent. For a long time, we didn’t know when our children would return to the classroom or extracurricular activities. The places and spaces we’d taken our children for social interaction—the library, indoor and outdoor playgrounds, museums, etc.—were no longer an option. The isolation affected us as much as it did our children.
And in many places across the country, closures are still a part of this ever-evolving pandemic. As disruptive as it has seemed, the pandemic has also allowed for some really amazing online communities to form during this break, because we do want to remain connected during this weird time.
A few weeks into my sober journey, I learned about The Sober Mom Squad, one of these amazing online communities that formed at the beginning of the pandemic. Led by a group of five sober moms, the group was founded by Emily Lynn Paulson, author of another quit lit book, Highlight Real: Finding Honesty & Recovery Beyond the Filtered Life and professional recovery coach. The Sober Mom Squad welcomes moms who are years into sobriety, those who are sober-curious, and everything in between. The group offers daily virtual meetings on Zoom and a members-only discussion forum, both of which provide incredible peer support to moms during such a tumultuous time in parenting.
Paulson and the other four moms who lead the “Squad,” Jen Elizabeth, Michelle Smith, Celeste Yvonne, and Jessica Landon, have brought so much positivity and support to me and other moms in just a few short months that I’ve been involved. I’ve found myself learning about my relationship with alcohol and being provided with amazing support through both group meetings on Zoom, and in an online forum that’s full of helpful resources to those new to sobriety.
“We have done a very poor job of allowing the mommy wine culture to be normalized in our society,” says Samantha Zipp Dowd, LGPC, a psychotherapist at a private group practice in suburban Maryland. Dowd, who focuses on maternal mental health, transitions, and parenting support. She says that her clients’ concerns with alcohol use have increased ten-fold within her practice since the summer of 2020. “We know that women are more likely than men to seek help for their relationship with alcohol. So far, 10 out of 12 of my clients have noted an increase and they recognize they need to address it,” says Dowd. Beyond tele-health with a therapist, I encourage you to seek support from a similar online community that feels right for you. There are many that have recently formed from the increase in the number of people who are looking for support during the pandemic.
3. I spent time alone in nature, reflecting on my journey.
One of the biggest struggles that I’ve had during the pandemic has been finding time for myself. With two kids at home all the time doing virtual school, and my husband working from home permanently, I have had very little personal space—and I’m someone who needs that space in order to feel calm and grounded. Before the pandemic, I’d get a parenting break when my kids were in school and I’d be able to run errands alone, take a spin class, or get lunch with a friend.
During COVID restrictions, I started taking several hikes a week (with my dog and sometimes, a child, in tow) to get outside and get a fresh perspective on what has been a very trying period of time for so many of us. In doing so, I found that I feel healthier and have a much more positive outlook on everything in my life when I spend some time outside with just myself and my thoughts.
According to a 2018 study by Harvard Health Publishing, taking a walk in the woods can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, and it may even improve your memory because being in nature helps your brain relax. Spending time in nature can have a very significant and positive impact on our mental health—it can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which will calm the body’s fight-or-flight response. I
Taking solo hikes has become almost meditative for me; I let my anxiety take a backseat while I just focus on my steps and my breath and I allow myself to enjoy the beauty that is the wilderness. Sometimes I listen to podcasts while I hike, while other times I just like the peace and quiet. It helps me clear my head and give my brain a break from over-analyzing everything we seem to be bombarded with on a daily basis as parents right now. It allows me space to just breathe.
I’ve always loved being in nature, ever since I was a young child. Although I’ve lived in and traveled through large cities in my life, I’m always more comfortable when I have more space and have easier access to natural elements. Being in nature not only grounds me, but it also awakens my senses and it allows me to reflect on the fact that we’re all connected to something that’s much greater than our own individual lives. I encourage you to consider adding some nature to your sobriety toolbox, as well. Your brain will thank you for it, believe me.
Knowing what I now know about alcohol, I’ve really examined how I was using alcohol to numb uncomfortable feelings and stress that has been brought on by the pandemic, and I know that I’m not alone.
“Everyone’s impression is that there is an increased need out there for additional mental health support since the pandemic hit,” says Dr. Rocco Iannucci, Directors of the Signature Addiction Recovery Program at McLean Hospital. “We know that alcohol sales have gone up since the pandemic has started—and many people who didn’t have a problem previously have been trying to cope with anxiety, depression, work-related problems, and social isolation,” says Dr. Iannucci. “During COVID, people have given themselves permission to self-medicate in a way that can actually leave us more stressed and more depressed.”
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This is exactly what I was doing and I’m so thankful that I recognized that it had to change. Maybe it has always been my destiny to choose sobriety—I just didn’t know it until now. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted my growing issue with using alcohol to handle my anxiety. It brought to the surface my issue with trying to be the best parent possible and feeling the enormous societal and emotional pressure that goes along with it. I didn’t know to the extent that alcohol fuels anxiety and causes depression. I now know that the only way I can be true to myself and be the best parent to my kids is without alcohol. This mama doesn’t need to stock up on that wine after all; with some new knowledge, a supportive community, and some fresh air, I’m better poised to handle whatever the future throws at me.