Nov. 23, 2021 — Beth L (not her real name), a children’s book editor, used to enjoy her evening cocktail with her husband after they both got home from work and the baby was asleep. But everything changed during the pandemic.
“Suddenly, there was no ‘getting home from work’ because I was working from home, and also trying to take care of an 11-month-old,” recalls Beth, who continues to work from home most days of the week.
She began having drinks earlier in the day.
“I just needed some liquid courage to get me through the day as I tried to juggle the baby, editing deadlines, and housework,” she says.
Beth is not alone. Several studies have pointed to an increase in drinking alcohol since the beginning of the pandemic.
And although alcohol use has risen in men and women, a growing body of research points to a growing trend of alcohol use in women — especially young women, according to a report conducted by Ria Health, an online alcohol addiction treatment program.
“We surveyed our participants because we wanted to see how drinking patterns changed over COVID-19,” says John Mendelson, MD, chief medical officer of Ria Health.
“We found that the largest increase occurred in women with children under the age of 5, who were at home. This population doubled or tripled drinking quantities. We looked at our population of patients and also found great increases in women under age 40 who were enrolling, which is a substantial number,” he says.
Drinking to Cope
“Drinking was once seen as primarily affecting men, but that has changed,” Mendelson says. “Grandma’s drinking universe was more constrained. Women weren’t allowed to vote or have jobs — that was a ‘man’s world’ — and the expectations of women were different in those days.”
Today, not only are women a key part of the labor force, but they “also are typically the ones who are in charge of the house and the children, which increases their stress levels,” he says.
Much of the alcohol use in today’s women is driven by stress.
“There is a myth that heavy drinking takes place primarily in social situations, but most of our patients drink alone,” Mendelson says.
During the pandemic, the combination of isolation, work-related stress, and parenting fell most heavily on women.
“The combination of trying to figure out what to do with the kids, keeping on top of the job, being socially isolated, and having increased responsibility is a really tough thing,” he says.
“There is evidence that the prevalence of women’s drinking was already increasing prior to the pandemic,” says Katie Witkiewitz, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.
But, “it seems that the pandemic hit women the hardest, in terms of experiencing more distress, and since drinking to cope with distress is associated with heavier drinking, we could expect that more women are drinking to cope with distress,” says Witkiewitz, who is also a scientist at the Center on Alcohol, Substance Use, and Addictions (CASAA) at the University of New Mexico.
The stress “became close to unbearable,” Beth says. “One day, the baby was crying, I was cooking, I dropped the jar of spaghetti sauce, and I had an article to edit. So what if it was 10 a.m.? I needed a drink now.”
She says, “There’s a great cliff between 5 p.m. and 10 a.m., where you can’t call it a ‘cocktail’ anymore, and I crossed that cliff.”
‘Mommy Juice’ Culture
Gillian Tietz, a biochemist who is recovering from alcoholism, says alcohol use became more normalized during the pandemic as a way for women — especially young mothers — to cope with the stressors of being a parent, and often a wife and working woman, during the pandemic.
“In my experience, women typically drink for negative reasons — to avoid anxiety, stress, or cope with bad marriages, rather than for positive reasons, such as socializing with friends, and that type of drinking is typically done alone,” says Tietz, who is the host and creator of the Sober Powered podcast.
She notes that during the pandemic, you could find more wine glasses, coffee mugs, and similar merchandise with memes such as, “My kids whine, so I wine.” One television commercial depicted a mother opening a secret mini-fridge in the bathroom to sip juice and champagne.
“Hiding in the bathroom to drink is a warning sign, and there’s nothing funny about it,” Tietz says, noting that normalizing secret drinking as a way to cope with motherhood-related stress might make women less able to realize that they have a problem with alcohol and to get help.
“One of the common myths in alcohol use is that most people deny they have a problem or refuse to get treatment,” Mendelson says. “In fact, epidemiological data and our observations show that if people know they’ve developed a new problem and are aware of it, and there are good treatment options, they will pursue them.”
People acknowledge their problem and seek help for a variety of reasons. For example, Mendelson says some patients sought help when they stopped remembering conversations with family members.
Beth recognized she had an alcohol problem when she dropped the baby.
“Fortunately, it happened on the carpeted bedroom floor, and the baby is fine, but it shook me up, and I had to admit I had a problem and needed help,” she says.
Witkiewitz suggests beginning with “self-evaluation and monitoring drinking” and recommends information from the CDC.
“I suggest setting limits and reducing alcohol consumption — for example, reduce by one to two drinks per occasion, or reduce the number of days of drinking each week,” she says.
Other reduction tips can be found at: https://abqresearch.org/tools-for-drinking-reductions/.
Acknowledging a problem is the first step. The question is where to turn next. Fortunately, there are many options.
Medication and Coaching: The Ria Model
When Debbie K (not her real name), an IT project manager, wife, and mother of a preteen daughter, began working from home during the pandemic, she began drinking earlier and earlier during the day and would continue to do so until she went to bed.
“That pattern happened often, and I realized that I needed to stop that habit,” she says.
Debbie turned to Ria, which uses telemedicine, evidence-based medication, recovery coaching, medical counseling, support groups, and digital tools — including an app and a mobile device to test blood alcohol level — and customizes its approach to the needs of each client. The program is fully remote and is covered by some insurers, Mendelson says.
Debbie liked the individualized coaching, the group sessions, and the medical component.
“Having a check-in with a coach and medical supervision makes it more of a structured program, a system, which is what I needed,” she says.
She also liked that she did not have to aim at abstinence.
“One of the reasons I didn’t want to go to Alcoholics Anonymous is that you have to stop drinking right away, which may be best for some people, but I liked that I could slowly reduce my drinking over time and can continue taking my medication and having just two drinks. It isn’t cut and dried,” Debbie says.
Reduction and moderation don’t work for everyone, Tietz says.
“I tried moderation for 5 years, and it clearly wasn’t the path for me. Some people have to fully quit,” she says.
Free From the Ball and Chain
Beth found AA and SmartRecovery — both of which she accessed online — to be helpful.
“I like knowing alcoholism is a disease, and thousands of people have been able to get over it and be free from the ball and chain of alcoholism,” she says. “I went to online meetings and got a sponsor. I have a new community of people like me, and we understand each other.”
Tietz also found AA to be helpful, as well as the Luckiest Club, an online support forum.
She also mentions an important resource, Sober Mom Squad, which offers “mom-to-mom support.”
More resources and support groups can be found on the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s website. Witkiewitz recommends several options, including Ria and Checkup & Choices.
Tietz says that psychotherapy helped her the most.
“I told myself for years that I never drank to cope with anything, that I wasn’t trying to escape traumas or failures; but when I finally quit for real, I was angry, and all kinds of feelings popped up,” she says. “I realized I had used alcohol to numb these feelings and that I had never learned strategies to deal with anything. Therapy has helped me understand why I feel as I do, what sets me off, and how to handle it.”