When is a craving for an ice cold beer not a craving for an ice cold beer? When the craving is taking place in the head of an alcoholic, in which case it is more likely a craving for ten ice cold beers, followed by whatever can be found in the back of the kitchen cupboard, or down in the basement, or in the off licence that is miraculously still open. Then it’s not really a craving for an ice cold beer at all – it’s actually a craving for complete and utter oblivion.
I was reminded of this the other day when, for the first time in a couple of years, I was hit by my own craving for utter oblivion. A craving that had been neatly packaged by my alcoholic brain as a desire for a single glass of Peroni in the back garden on a beautiful spring evening, as if I was a normal drinker or something.
So powerful was this deceit that I could almost taste the beer, despite the fact an alcoholic drink has not passed my lips for almost three years. I sat on the kitchen floor and I let the craving pass. I realised, at some point, that I was crying. I got up, called a sober friend, and realised how lucky I was, to have an infrastructure of support that had been put in place long before the coronavirus crisis appeared. Getting sober is hard at the best of times, and I have no idea how addicts and alcoholics in their early days are managing it now, during a global pandemic.
Like all mental illnesses, alcoholism thrives in a culture of isolation. Experts in recovery often argue that addiction is the opposite of connection, and boy oh boy are we all lacking connection right now. Twelve Step meetings – the absolute backbone of many people’s recovery – have had to move online, and some have fallen victim to so-called ‘Zoom-Bombers’, who hijack rooms by projecting porn onto screens and loudly proclaiming their love of alcohol (we must hope that these troubled souls find the help they so clearly need, and soon).
For people trying to navigate the herculean – not to mention dangerous task of getting sober, there is nowhere to go unless you have pot loads of money – though, truth be told, there was nowhere to go even before Covid-19, due to a lack of mental health provision in this country, and deep cuts in particular to addiction services. Things have got so bad since the spread of coronavirus that the drugs and alcohol charity We Are With You have been forced to publish advice for people on detoxing safely at home, something that would have been unimaginable just two months ago, given that alcohol withdrawal can kill.
Figures from global data analytics company Nielsen suggest that the sale of alcohol has increased by 291 per cent during the pandemic. Now doctors are warning of a ‘second health crisis’ caused by drinking, pointing to the fact that alcohol misuse is one of the leading causes of preventable death (it is also, sadly, often a significant factor in cases of domestic violence). The University of Portsmouth has launched a study in an effort to understand how many people are turning to alcohol to handle the stress of lockdown. Dr Matt Parker, from the university, has said that “this period of isolation might lead to a spike in alcohol misuse and potentially, development of addiction in at-risk individuals or relapse in recovered addicted patients, therefore placing further strain on drug and alcohol services, and the health service in general, during and after the pandemic.”
I don’t want to spoil the already limited fun of those who can drink responsibly – this column is not meant for you. It is meant for the countless people who can’t drink responsibly, no matter how hard they try: the people who feel they are somehow failures because of this. I want these people – and I include myself in this – to remember now that for them (for me) alcohol is an incredibly dangerous drug that is not made any less dangerous by the fact it is readily available to buy, legally, on your once a week trip to the supermarket.
I want those of us who cannot drink sensibly to remember that this does not make us weak – that alcohol is a powerful depressant that masquerades remarkably well as a relaxant. And I want us all to remember that as this awful virus rampages across the globe causing untold devastation, there are other illnesses causing similar destruction to people’s lives. Alcoholism and addiction have not gone anywhere, and in many cases, they may even have got worse.
I hope that the inevitable economic crash caused by this crisis does not lead to further cuts. We know that alcohol misuse is one of the biggest risk factors for death, ill-health and disability in this country, and yet addiction services have been cut back to their bare bones. Let this pandemic be a wake-up call, a reminder of how absolutely crucial all healthcare is, both physical and mental – for one does not exist properly without the other.
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