Some do Jello shots at noon, others stay on the wagon

Drinking. Most of us are drinking more, but recovering alcoholics have other ways to cope.

14 May 2020 | 05:11

Two months into quarantinis, Zoom happy hours, and to-go cocktails, it’s hard to remember there was ever such a thing as Dry January.

“I feel like I’m making more drinks that are kind of fun drinks,” said Erin Clark, bartender at Mattingly’s in Florida, N.Y. People are ordering a $49 family meal, which comes with two cocktails in Mason jars, “then getting a Bay Breeze or a Dirty Shirley, all the fancy drinks.”

“I’ve made more margaritas since this thing started than I’ve made in my life,” she said, laughing.

She’s not serving more alcohol by volume, but the pattern is wildly different from before the pandemic, when regulars sat at the bar and drank beer or vodka-cranberries. “It’s all times of day,” she said, and it’s new faces, too. “People that don’t usually drink – or that don’t normally come to a bar – are drinking,” she said. “They have kids, they’re working, it’s not as convenient. Now they’re just coming in droves.”

“The other day I made 20 Jello shots – at like noon,” she said. “So I think that people need a vacation.”

As the quarantine drags on, alcohol sales keep booming. Even with bars and restaurants closed, in the seven weeks ending April 25, total beer sales were up 15 percent from a year ago, wine was up 27 percent, and spirits were up 32 percent across all outlets, according to the analytics firm Nielsen.

“We did see a big bump the first week that the shutdown started,” said Jamie Blanchette, owner of Goshen Plaza Liquors, “and it has tailed off a little bit, but not a lot. I keep thinking it’s going to end, but it doesn’t. People keep coming.” The store posted its best month ever in April, with sales split 50-50 between hard liquor and wine, he said. Tito’s vodka and Josh Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon have been popular sellers. “I think people are playing bartender at home," he said.

This may just be us decompressing, but some experts are worried. “The only way to drink alcohol these days (at home, often alone, in lieu of normal, healthy activities like going to the gym) almost constitutes as risky drinking,” said Dr. Jonathan Avery, director of addiction psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College. “And with all the stress and trauma that exists in COVID-19, one worries about self-medicating mental health issues,” which usually only serves to make them worse.

Recovery is not cancelled

There is at least one slice of the population that’s not counting down the hours ‘til 5 p.m. It’s the folks in addiction recovery who have already gone through the wringer and come out the other end.

Corey Hennings, a construction manager who lives in Lafayette, N.J., does not want a drink right now. Sure, he finds quarantine to be plenty challenging: working from home, wearing multiple hats, including teacher to his kids, bearing up under 60 days now of monotony. It doesn’t help that “there is this onslaught” of drinking messaging, coming from such unexpected corners as Oprah and all sorts of health brands. “Yoga class with a beer? There’s just this very strange mixed message that’s being sent,” he said. “I get it through work, too. I mean everything I get invited to is a Zoom happy hour, a wine down Wednesday. I just got one as I was sitting here. So it’s sort of pervasive.”

But it doesn’t make him want to join in anymore. Hennings had his last drink seven years ago, at age 35. “I can play that tape through now. It wouldn’t end at one, and typically that day would spiral out of control, then that day would spill into the next day, then it would just compound – for me,” he said. “I’ve made it through some really hard times and not picked up a drink. I know that I’ve dealt with them better sober than I ever would have if I had been drinking.”

Since quarantine began, he’s had a chance to dive deeper into his online recovery community, posting on Instagram and exploring the bottomless trove of recovery-related podcasts. After five years of regular AA meetings, he had already transitioned gradually to engaging online. “I had really found a home on Instagram,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who write about their day-to-day” experiences in recovery – “here’s what happened today, here’s how I handled it,” he said. “And I found a lot of people reaching out to me, saying hey what you wrote helped me through my day, or hey I was thinking about drinking again then I read your post and it was enough to make me stop. That really made me think, well if I stay here I can help people all over the world, really, instead of just in my community.” Hennings is also a volunteer recovery coach at the Center for Prevention & Counseling in Newton, N.J. “That’s probably the most real-world thing that I do in recovery these days,” he said.

Hennings even checked out a few AA meetings since they went online, which he hasn’t done in years – because why not? “Local meetings and some meetings in other states that people have posted on Instagram and I’ve thought, ‘Oh I’ll jump on that, see what’s going in Maine and Massachusetts or wherever.’”

A silver lining of online meetings is that anyone with a phone and an internet connection can now dip a toe into the waters of an AA meeting, he said, even turning their video off until they get comfortable.

There are drawbacks, of course, to not being in the same room, where you can hold hands and hug – and everyone keeps their phone in their pocket. “We’re in our homes, so we’re just distracted,” said Hennings, whether by email or family members walking around. “So maybe the focus isn’t 100 percent there? But I think right now people are so craving connection that I feel like some of the interactions are even a little bit better.”

“I was reluctant at first with the Zoom meetings,” said Kate Imparato, an executive assistant who lives in Wantage, N.J. “The last thing I want to do is be on my computer at the end of the day. I’m a people person, you know? I’m not a technology person. However, I was so pleasantly surprised.”

The platform provides the human element that she finds lacking when she texts with her 29-year-old daughter in L.A. “Sometimes you have freeze frame or whatever, but you can see me smiling, you can tell if I’m joking, you know. I just think that human piece is beautiful. The benefit of seeing faces – it’s as good as being in the room with you.”

Imparato, who’s been sober for six years and also volunteers as a recovery coach, struggled with generalized anxiety and OCD throughout her adulthood. Her “fast and furious downward spiral” of drinking and prescription drugs left her so wound up that after she got well, her grown daughter observed, “Oh my gosh, Mom, you don’t shake anymore.”

“Now I think I’m addicted to recovery, quite frankly,” she said. And then there’s the Haagen-Dazs chocolate ice cream that she gets on sale at ShopRite. It sounds funny, she knows, but that dependency got worrisome enough that she took her pint to a meeting, “left it in the church garbage, and then I told on myself.” She recognizes the behavior as stemming from the same addictive tendency that had her hiding empty wine bottles in the bottom of the garbage from her "health-nut" husband.

“It’s just the acceptance of, we’re human. Whether it’s eating too much, spending too much, worrying too much, trying to be a perfectionist, workoholism was a big -ism for me, people pleasing -ism, and the drinking and the prescription drugs – yeah they had more serious consequences.”

She started going to AA six years ago, and now she’s also active in the church-based Celebrate Recovery. “Because I’m older, I didn’t do podcasts, but I had books. I wanted to read about Elizabeth Vargas,” the TV anchor who opened up about her anxiety and addiction in her memoir Between Breaths. “I wanted to say, 'You too?'”

Wisdom from the wagon

These days, the prospect of getting sober starts with shopping around. There’s AA of course, but the 12-step model has branched off in many directions, like the secular, science-based SMART Recovery. Some prefer a self-guided journey that might not end with giving up alcohol completely. Everyone gets to do recovery the way they want to do it, said Annmarie Shaffer, director of recovery support services at the Center for Prevention & Counseling in Newton, N.J. Harm-reduction is the goal, she said, not necessarily quitting cold turkey.

"I love the hashtag #sobercurious," said Shaffer. "It’s about people who never had a problem with addiction who are finding a recovery lifestyle really a better way to live."

Imparato has found ways to calm her obsessive mind and be gentle with herself. She journals regularly, and takes a self-inventory at the end of each day, thinking about what she’s grateful for, and whether she owes any amends. “I can start my day over any time,” she said. “So instead of obsessing over what I did this morning, what I could have done better, I let it go. I made my peace with it. I’m imperfect, perfectly imperfect. I’m going to start over now.” With her more forgiving outlook, she’s getting along better with her husband of 40 years, “who’s perfectly imperfect too.”

She’s embracing the quarantine as a chance to tap the brakes on her busy work schedule, to read, spend time with her grandkids, who live three miles down the road, and just be quiet with herself, “which is hard because I’m a talker.”

For Hennings, seeing a therapist and working out regularly have become bedrocks of his routine. “If I don’t get out and work out a couple times a week, I don’t feel right,” he said.

Whether we’re sober or drinking our way through quarantine, our routines have gotten constricted. “We were starting to notice it in our house,” said Hennings. "We’d wake up, we’d have a bagel for breakfast, we’d do schoolwork, we’d turn on the same radio station. Everything was the same. It became a very monotonous lifestyle. And I think that our minds, just as humans – not even as addictive humans – we’re not really programmed for that. Even with the biggest piece of property, we’re sort of stuck.”

Reaching for a drink is one way to change the channel, but there are countless others. “Have something different for breakfast, maybe take a walk on a Monday and a bike ride on a Tuesday," said Hennings. "Or if you’re somebody that watches crime shows all the time, turn on a comedy and let your brain sort of get something different in there. Yeah we can’t go on vacation, but I think just those little changes, even in what type of media we’re taking in, can be a huge change.”

Essential or outlawed? Alcohol state by state
Most states deemed the sale of alcohol "essential" and loosened rules around things like selling alcohol to-go, except Pennsylvania, whose residents poured into neighboring states to stock up after their liquor stores were shut down. Pennsylvania instituted curbside pickup in late April.
“Yoga class with a beer? There’s just this very strange mixed message that’s being sent. Everything I get invited to is a Zoom happy hour, a wine down Wednesday. So it’s sort of pervasive.” --Corey Hennings