Lockdown made me realise I had a drinking problem

·7-min read
Mel Sims: ‘I wasn’t wetting the bed, I wasn’t drinking with breakfast - but did I have control? No. And that meant I had a problem’
Mel Sims: ‘I wasn’t wetting the bed, I wasn’t drinking with breakfast - but did I have control? No. And that meant I had a problem’

If you asked most people to imagine their pre-pandemic selves, they’d probably look back and long for that carefree time. But I wouldn’t. Because the pre-pandemic me usually had a drink in her hand, and it’s only in lockdown, aged 48, that I’ve realised what a problem that was.

I’m not the only one. Yesterday, the Royal College of Psychiatrists warned of a spike in the number of people suffering from the effects of alcohol misuse and dependency as lockdown ends and the pubs reopen. The number of people seeking help, it said, has more than doubled since the beginning of the pandemic. Alcohol Change UK, meanwhile, has found that one in three adults are drinking more than before, while the Royal College Psychiatrists has reported a sharp rise in people asking for treatment for conditions associated with heavy alcohol consumption.

When we talk about drinking problems, our language tends to focus on two extremes: people who are at rock bottom, or those who have recovered. But between the two is a vast grey area containing so many of us, particularly in midlife.

I’ve long had an intense relationship with alcohol, having worked in advertising in London. The culture amounted to: if you wanted to get the best deals, you never said no to a drink and didn’t go home until the client did. I was good at it, and coped with the groggy mornings by never being more than eight hours from the next drink to top up my dopamine (the “happiness hormone”) levels. Eventually, after a decade of that life, I got sick of the commute. So, ten years ago, I quit to set up a children’s hospitality business in Essex, where I live as a single mum to Olivia, now 10.

I loved my new work and quickly became successful, but my drinking habits were still unhealthy. Rather than long client lunches, it became a glass of wine at 6pm as I started cooking. Before I knew it, most of a bottle would be gone. By the time I began experiencing the perimenopause three years ago, I was drinking 50 units a week - not realising quite how far above the recommended number of 14 that was.

Then came the pandemic. When the lockdown shuttered my business, I took Olivia and moved to my grandmother’s flat in Hampshire. There, I homeschooled, spent time by the sea and re-evaluated. Like many people, I was drinking more out of boredom and anxiety. But one night I was sitting on the sofa holding a glass of wine when I thought, “ There must be more to life than this.”

From that day, I started to reconsider my relationship with alcohol. I wasn’t wetting the bed, I wasn’t drinking with breakfast - but did I have control? No. And that meant I had a problem. Alcohol, I realised, had been a crutch I used to help disassociate and draw a line between work and play; between being ‘Mum’ and being an individual.

So I made some changes. Soda in my wine. Whole weeks off. I began to understand just how reliant on alcohol I had been, which led me to some other significant discoveries.

I had always been impulsive and a multitasker – someone who “takes too much on” – and, a few weeks ago, I was diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). The ADHD means I struggle to switch off and slow down, which is where drinking helped me to dissociate. The perimenopause is related, too. When women experience this change, our dopamine levels drop, which can explain things like brain fog. Given that alcohol increases dopamine release, who can be surprised that we might be inclined towards an extra glass of wine?

It took lockdown for me to realise all this, and now I am urging others to think about their relationship with alcohol. I’ve put my energy into creating a lower-strength (12%ABV) alternative gin, called Mooze Booze, and, by and large, I’m going to avoid pubs from now on. Watching my intake is one reason. But after a year of meeting friends to walk in nature, I have also realised how much of a con alcohol is. You can have a much more intimate chat strolling outside for an hour - and it will boost your dopamine, too.

As told to Guy Kelly

Your lockdown re-entry drinking plan

Worried about pubs reopening? Here are some tips to keep you on track when you start socialising again…

For the suddenly sober

Avoid temptation: The first 30 days after quitting are the hardest. Sobriety coach Simon Chapple says: “When you feel strong enough, carry on as normal but in the meantime swap any boozy nights for something different – maybe a nice meal out with your partner instead.”

Plan something for the day after your night out: Schedule a tennis match, facial or family brunch, “so if your mind starts wandering to the thoughts of having a drink, you can focus on feeling great and fresh the next day instead,” says Kate Baily, co-author of Love Yourself Sober .

Find a sober role model: Ask around and it won’t take long to find someone you respect who doesn’t drink and who you can use as inspiration. “Sober people love to share how great it feels – suddenly you will see all the benefits of living a sober, healthy lifestyle,” says Claire Owen of sobriety coaching service Soberholic.

For the sober curious

Keep a drinking diary: If you’d like to drink less but not quit completely, measure how much you’re drinking and use it to work out by how much to cut your drinking. An app such as Try Dry can be good for setting goals to reduce your booze consumption, by limiting the days of the week on which you drink, for example.

Know your ‘social window’ and stick to it: Often we drink out of boredom, so learn where your threshold is and when to leave. “We don’t sit drinking coffee for five hours as we would drinking in a bar. We have a catch up for a couple of hours and then generally change activity,” says Mandy Manners of LoveSober.

Practise ‘mindful drinking’: Instead of matching your friends drink for drink, notice what you’re drinking and how much you’re enjoying it. Aim to drink more slowly than those around you, putting your drink down at intervals. Likewise, take time to choose a drink you really enjoy and savour every sip.

For the party person who doesn’t want to overdo it

Try low-alcohol and alcohol-free drinks: If your life demands lots of socialising and you don’t want to burn out, mix up hard booze with softer alternatives. It can help to choose a shortlist of three non-alcoholic drinks you like. “If you ask for a ginger beer with fresh lime and they say, “Sorry, we don’t have that,” you can immediately say “cranberry and soda” or “virgin mojito” That way you won’t get tripped up,” Baily says.

Eat while you drink: Food slows down the rate the drink enters your bloodstream. To enjoy a night out without a binge, meet friends in a restaurant instead of a pub, order a bar snack, or eat before you go out.

Ask for help: If you feel your drinking is out of your control, ask your GP for help or read the advice on alcoholchange.org.uk. Lots of people struggle with alcohol at some point in their lives and there's no shame in asking for support.

Read more: Our boozy lockdown habits are what led to us piling on the pounds, not junk food

Read more: Why we're drinking more – but better – in lockdown

Has lockdown made you reassess your relationship with alcohol? Tell us in the comments section below
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