Within months of the start of the pandemic, a Connecticut mother was forced to shut down her award-winning yoga studio, losing her livelihood. Her marriage ended. And she worried about the developmental impact the disruption would have on her teenage son. This mom, 52, who goes by the pseudonym Julia in this story, also lost her social connections and, like most parents, faced the challenges of her son’s online learning. Formerly a social drinker, she started ending the day with a glass of wine several times a week to cope with stress.
“As things went on, the pandemic gave me permission to give up and to drink,” says Julia, whose four kids are ages 18 to 28. At the same time, a constant influx on her social media feed showed drinking as a way to cope with the pandemic, such as memes about mothers teaching their kids while drinking wine. In the fall of 2020, her son was heartbroken that he wouldn’t be able to play football in his senior year of high school, he missed his friends and lacked motivation for online school.
Julia drank more because she had “the feeling of hopelessness, losing my business. I had a fully functioning studio and it fell apart. We maintained it as long as we could. As the owner, I was losing my community. It was heartbreaking,” she says. She increased her drinking to numb her feelings. “When your purpose starts to be taken away from you, it’s a license to drink, a license to numb out. Human beings need each other. We’re not meant to be alone.”
There are a lot of women like Julia. The added stress of working through a pandemic while caring for children, overseeing their online learning and running a household has resulted in a 41 percent spike in women drinking in excess of public health guidelines.
In the U.S., research shows that alcohol consumption overall among adults over the age of 30 during the pandemic has increased 14 percent, in line with what researchers expected. Historically, people drink more in the aftermath of traumatic events such as Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 attacks. But what is different is the length of the pandemic and the jump in alcohol consumption predominantly among women, particularly women with children under 18. A Rand Corp. study shows that 41 percent of women report exceeding the public health guidelines on what is deemed a safe level of alcohol consumption, which, for women, means no more than one drink a day and no more than three drinks within two hours, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Women are more likely to be essential workers, and essential workers overall are experiencing more stress. Women also face twice the rate of unemployment as men. They tend to carry the lion’s share of the responsibilities for children and their education, the home and the family’s health; it’s no surprise that women report higher levels of depression, anxiety, loneliness, PTSD and less spiritual well-being than men during the lockdown, reports a study in the Journal of Gynecology and Women’s Health.
Men are drinking less than they did before the pandemic, says Thomas F. Babor, professor of public health sciences at UConn Health and editor of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Researchers attribute that to the decline in social situations in which men were more likely to drink, like sporting events, concerts and bars and restaurants.
Doctors and researchers expect the fallout from this prolonged increase in drinking among women to continue for years. Women and men process alcohol differently, so women who drink beyond the recommended limit are more likely to develop cancer, heart disease, stroke and liver disease, according to an analysis of 34 studies. Alcohol is the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., according to a study published by the National Institutes of Health. Even before the pandemic, women had increased their drinking levels over the past two decades, reports a study published in 2020. Deaths attributed to alcohol were on the rise among men and women in the U.S., and the largest single-year increase was among non-Hispanic white women.
Women with higher levels of pandemic-related anxiety were more likely to drink more, according to a study in the Journal of Gynecology and Women’s Health, including drinking earlier in the day, more frequently and in greater amounts. The past year-plus has packed an emotional punch for moms, says Dr. Ronika Choudhary, an obstetrician-gynecologist with offices in Trumbull and Fairfield. “Women have higher rates of sleep disturbances, frustration and mood issues, and their productivity has changed,” Choudhary says. When she asks patients how they’re handling the pandemic, multiple women have said a version of, “I used to drink a glass of wine at the end of the day; now I finish most of the bottle.”
Julia says it was incredibly stressful to watch her son struggling. Drinking became a way of softening the harsh realities of what was unfolding for her, she says. “You couldn’t get away from it.” The night she went to refill her wine glass and saw she had consumed the whole bottle made her see she was drinking more than she realized. Shortly afterward, she got COVID-19 and didn’t drink for a month. After recovering, she tried having a couple of glasses of wine and didn’t like how she felt, so she quit cold turkey. She joined a recovery support group and has been sober for several months.
Patients are embarrassed to discuss their drinking in depth, and drinking to relax and cope has become part of the culture, doctors say. Women, especially moms raising kids, are bombarded with images on social media — both through ads and their friends’ posts — that the “cure” for pandemic stress is alcohol. Julia mentions a meme with the message, “Your mom is your teacher, and she’s day drinking.” Online memes abound depicting women starting the day with mimosas and bloody Marys and continuing with martinis, wine or gin in the afternoon. It’s called “Mommy juice,” and the moniker is posted on wine glasses, travel mugs and coffee mugs. While people were on lockdown, some moms met for cocktail hour at 5 o’clock a couple of nights a week over Zoom, Choudhary says.
Advertising geared to women exploits them when they’re vulnerable, say experts who study alcohol, including psychiatrist Dr. J. Craig Allen, chief medical officer and an addiction medicine doctor at Rushford Center in Meriden. Since the pandemic caused lockdowns in March 2020, advertisers promote drinking alcohol, particularly to women, as a socially acceptable way to cope, he says.
Why is the pandemic affecting women more than men? Even though most Connecticut schools have reopened, if a child is exposed to someone who tests positive, the entire classroom has to stay home from school for two weeks. With many sports and activities curtailed, kids are home more and are “much more demanding,” Allen says. He adds that women are more social by nature than men, so the inability to socialize makes them feel more isolated and depressed on average than men. Some women were caring for older relatives and kids, so they didn’t feel safe leaving the house for a walk before vaccinations became widespread.
Liberalization of alcohol home delivery, which had been banned prior to the pandemic, have “undoubtedly contributed to the increase in consumption,” says Babor, adding that delivery makes it more convenient for people to drink heavily at home.
“The tragedy is, we haven’t seen the last of this,” Allen says. People who increased their drinking during the pandemic also increased their risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. Hospitals are reporting a 40 percent increase in patients with liver disease and hepatitis. Damage from alcohol happens gradually and can become a downward spiral, where it leads to weight gain, inactivity and a host of health problems that come from being sedentary and overweight. He suggests those with concerns or questions contact their primary care doctor.
“Maybe if they modify their drinking and use the [public health] guidelines as a set point, they’ll never get to the point where they need professional help,” Allen says. If people do need outside assistance, some people who take medications and undergo counseling are able to get back on track so they don’t have to abstain from drinking forever. There are others who, once they get to the point that they have alcohol use disorder, they can’t stop themselves from drinking to excess.
For Julia, a renewal of out-of-the-house activity and social connections has been a key to her recovery. While her studio of 13 years remains shut down, she has been teaching yoga outdoors and working as a massage therapist. Despite being stretched thin financially, she says she has “turned a corner” and is doing “beautifully.”
If you or someone you know needs immediate help, here are other options:
If it is an emergency, dial 911.
If you want to speak to someone over the phone who can help you, dial 211
Text “CT” to 741741 for free 24/7 crisis support.