There was nothing extraordinary about the weekend that Charlotte Davies decided to stop drinking. The 47-year-old office manager, from the Berkshire village of Warfield, watched TV with her husband. They cooked. On the Saturday evening, Davies drank two bottles of red wine. Fetching the wine from the garage, where she stores it, she realised with dismay that the 36 bottles she had ordered online had almost gone. She made a mental note to order more.
On Sunday, her hangover was “horrendous”. “I was really ill, I had such a headache and I felt incredibly depressed,” she says. She held out for as long as she could, before cracking at about 5.30pm, and drinking another bottle of red wine. That day, Sunday 14 June, was the last on which Davies would drink alcohol. Enough.
It was not that that day was a particular low: there had been plenty of others. There was that wedding, last year, when Davies had been lurching all over the dance floor. There were photos on Facebook the next day and, mortified, Davies begged the guest to take them down. Then there was that time in Manchester, a few years ago, when she went to watch the marathon with friends. As she left the restaurant, drunk, she fell. She still has the scar on her arm.
What changed for Davies was not a particularly bad hangover, or a wince-inducing social faux pas. It was Covid. “I don’t know if I would have quit without Covid,” she says. After she was furloughed, on 1 April, she says: “It was like, all bets are off. Normally, when you have a 9 to 5, you can’t drink, because you have to work. But with that taken away, there was nothing stopping me.” Left to her own devices, Davies realised that, for years, her drinking had been out of control. “What Covid did was give me free rein to let me drink as much as I wanted,” she says, “but it also made me stop. It was a wakeup call.”
It has not been easy. “I love red wine,” she says simply. “I miss it.” Alongside the temptation has been the physical withdrawal. “Because alcohol has so much sugar in it,” she says, “when you stop drinking, you go into withdrawal. I was getting intense headaches and cravings for sweet things, plus I was extremely tired.” And then there was the psychological impact. “I drank to numb the pain in my life,” she says. “Three weeks in, I couldn’t stop crying.” But Davies is adamant that she will stay alcohol-free. “I could see where my path was heading. My relationship with my husband was suffering, and we’ve always had a good marriage. The future I could see was just awful. And the only person who could change that was me.”
Davies is not alone. A July poll from the charity Alcohol Change UK found that of the 1,647 people in the survey who had drunk alcohol at some point in their lives, 37% had attempted to manage their alcohol intake during lockdown, by reducing the amount of alcohol they purchased, seeking support from their GP, or having alcohol-free days. There was a 355% increase in traffic to the “Get help now” section of Alcohol Change UK’s website in the three weeks after lockdown began, compared with the same period a year previously. For the three months between 23 March and 23 June, traffic to the Alcohol Change UK website increased by 60%.
Although supermarket shelves were stripped bare of alcohol in the early weeks of lockdown, data from the market research company Nielsen shows that consumers drank 1.3bn litres of alcohol from 23 March to 11 July, down significantly from the 2bn litres drunk in the same time period last year. “While there is a perception that lockdown has been a boozy one, and that we’re consuming more alcohol than normal, this is far from the case,” an analyst from Nielsen told the Retail Times.
“As always with drinking in this country, the picture is complicated,” says Andrew Misell of Alcohol Change UK. “Some people used the pandemic as an opportunity to cut back on their drinking, perhaps because it made them aware of the need to protect their health, or they realised they were drinking too much before.” But for a secondary group of people, lockdown posed an opportunity to get obliterated on alcohol from the comfort of their own homes. “People were bored, anxious, they were worried about their jobs,” says Misell. “So they drank more.”
The lockdown meant people who already had a problematic relationship with alcohol found it easier to stumble into full-blown alcoholism. Paul (not his real name), who is in his 30s, lives alone in Glasgow. He was furloughed from his job in sports in May and much of the period that followed is a blur, he says. “As soon as I opened my eyes in the morning, I would open the fridge, take out some beer or wine and start drinking.” He spent £7,000 – his entire savings – on alcohol, and got into debt. He stopped paying his rent and council tax. One evening, he invited some people, whom he hardly knew, back to his flat for a drinking session. His neighbours called the police. He had to go to court, and was fined. “Everything spiralled out of control,” he says.
Paul had been drinking too much for years: he would go for drinks every night after work, and weekends were binges that lasted from Friday to Sunday. Sometimes, he would go into work after a drinking session without having been to bed the night before. “Alcohol was helping me to block out and numb a lot of things I should have been dealing with,” he says, explaining that he recently came out of a long relationship that ended badly.
With the court appearance, Paul realised that he would be likely to lose his job and his home if he did not get things under control. “Lockdown kind of multiplied the problem,” he says, “but it helped me to realise it. I saw that everything was going to shit.” He is now on a payment plan to pay off his debts, and has stopped drinking on his own, without external support, although he would not be averse to accessing support from his GP if he felt he was slipping back into old habits. “I haven’t touched it at all. I’ve not actually found it too hard,” he says. “I can concentrate on things. The only drawback is that I hadn’t smoked for years, and now I’m smoking 20 cigarettes a day.” He sighs. “That’s the next thing to quit.”
When I speak to Jamie Klingler, who lives in London and runs an events company, it is the day after her 42nd birthday. For the first time in her adult life she hasn’t woken up post-birthday to a hangover, a barrage of texts from concerned friends, or her personal possessions missing. “Before all this started,” says Klingler of Covid: “I would say that I was an alcoholic, but hadn’t addressed it.”
Klingler drank a bottle or two of wine every night, usually while out socialising. Friends attempted to talk to her about her drinking, but she shut down these conversations, and her relationships suffered as a result. “Honestly,” she says, “the fact that my friends stuck around at all is pretty remarkable.” When her mother died of cancer two years ago, the drinking kicked up a notch. “I was the drunk girl crying in the corner. I was grieving very loudly, and chaotically.”
When lockdown hit, Klingler ordered three 10-litre boxes of rosé wine. “I was hammered for the first month of lockdown,” she says. And then she fell ill: she is not sure if it was Covid. “I thought: ‘What am I doing? I need to get myself together,’” she says. She spoke to a family friend, a doctor, who advised her to quit drinking, before it was too late. “He said: ‘If you start drinking again, your body won’t bounce back. Your liver won’t regenerate. It will kill you.’” She has found support in a WhatsApp group of sober and sober-curious people in her industry called Spill (Sober Party Industry Lads and Ladies), as well as books including The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, by Catherine Gray.
The fear of falling victim to a life-threatening virus was enough to shock many people into healthier behaviours, says Fiona Measham, professor of criminology at the University of Liverpool. “People saw the death rate going up every day, and were confronted with their own mortality,” she says. “They’d see people being put on ventilators, and think, if I don’t take my health seriously, it could be a matter of life and death.”
When I ask Peter (not his real name), an airport worker in his 50s from Essex, why he gave up drink during lockdown, he replies simply: “For health.” He says: “Drinking a bottle of wine a day takes years off your life. I’d rather be around a bit longer, for my children.” Peter works shifts and his days off were always spent drinking. During lockdown, he was furloughed from his job, so he started drinking a bottle of wine a day, plus beer. He says he was waking up every morning feeling annoyed with himself. “It wasn’t making me feel good.”
So many of us sleepwalk through our days, attending to the business of living – the commute, the chores, the endless admin – without thinking about how we are spending our lives. Covid gave many people the time to reflect on their relationship with alcohol, possibly for the first time. “You go to work and it consumes you,” says Davies, “and then you get home and you’re so tired, you don’t think about things.”
Given the time to reflect on his relationship with booze, Peter realised it had made him a bad parent, and argumentative: a few years ago, he had been banned from his local pub, for punching a punter. “I didn’t notice how much I was drinking before, because I was either pissed, or too busy to notice.”
Covid also helped to expose our society’s confused and contradictory messaging around alcohol. Freed from the rituals that make binge drinking socially acceptable – the parties, pub gatherings and events that add a gloss of respectability to behaviour that might otherwise be stigmatised – people were forced to acknowledge that their drinking had been out of control for years, even decades.
“People lost the rituals around drinking that they’d previously had,” says Measham. “They couldn’t stop off after work for drinks with friends or colleagues.” Paul thinks that he would have continued down the path he was on for years had it not been for the pandemic. “Before, when I was drinking badly, it was always in pubs and with friends, so you didn’t think it was that bad. It was kind of acceptable.”
In times of stress, boredom, fatigue, celebration and despair, the British drink. Davies says: “Sometimes, I’d think: ‘Am I drinking too much?’ But then I’d think: ‘I’m not an alcoholic. I have a nice home, a good job, a good social life.’” Although she would have met the criteria for alcohol dependency, she did not see a problem. Peter says: “There’s this narrative that you’re only an alcoholic if you wake up in the morning and shake until you put a drink inside you. But it really isn’t like that. There’s a sliding scale of alcoholism, and it’s about recognising where you are on it.”
Misell tells me that affluent people tend to drink more: it is the only one of the major health behaviours (the others are smoking, diet and exercise), where the wealthy are unhealthier than those on low incomes. “There’s a certain respectability to drinking,” Misell explains, “particularly if you’re drinking wine, or artisan gin.”
Lockdown gave people the space to quit drinking, but now pubs are reopening, they may be tempted to resume old habits. “My fear of missing out is really strong,” says Klingler. “When you’re outside and everyone’s drinking rosé, it can be tempting.” Davies says she has found support by using the online sobriety movement – she cites Club Soda, Team Sober UK and Sober Girl Society as favourites. “The support you get from other people is great,” she says. “It’s like being in a tribe. You really do need to find people who support you, because while your family and friends love you, they might not understand.”
Dr Cyrus Abbasian, a psychiatrist and a specialist in alcohol addiction, is concerned that the newly sober may relapse. Mass unemployment on a scale not seen since the 1980s seems probable when Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme ends in October. “Economic decline is strongly correlated with alcohol misuse,” says Abbasian. “As we come out of the furlough scheme, there will be a lot of financial pressures. Alcohol is cheap and accessible. The long-term consequences of this may be severe.”
For now, though, Davies is optimistic. “I feel quite excited about the future,” she says. “I am grateful for my life. Although Covid has been a terrible thing for the world, for me, it’s been a good thing.” It has been 80 days since Davies drank alcohol. Her garage, once stacked high with cases of red wine, is full of soda water, elderflower cordial and lime. “Being alcohol-free is lovely,” she says. “I haven’t got that horrible inner voice saying, ‘Go on, have one’, or worrying that I don’t have enough wine. I wake up early. I go for walks. I’m getting joy out of my life again. I feel very peaceful. Calm.”