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  • Writer's pictureDamian Kerlin

Dry January and I

Less than 24 hours and that’s it. Finito. I’ve completed dry January without so much as a sip. I took it on as part of my challenge this year to run two half marathons to raise money for Parkinson’s UK, a disease of which my Dad suffers. Yet, why do I, and so many others see giving up alcohol for a mere 31 days a ‘challenge’?

I have always enjoyed a drink, and still do. A large part of my late teens and twenties was spent socialising in pubs, clubs, gigs and festivals, all of which I’d have a glass, or plastic cup, of something in hand. I have always associated alcohol with socialising; a social lubricant, part of ceremonial acts and creating community and celebration. I have a mischievous glint in my eye that my friends, and my *long suffering partner, know me for and haven’t we all met our new best friend Sue in the smoking area, who only kindly lent you her lighter but has now had your full life story and been invited back for an after party, destined to be a vague memory come morning?

Drinking releases inhibitions, creates bonds, breaks down walls and connects us, but is it a false connection? And now that binge drinking is normal drinking, and problem drinking is going unnoticed, where do we draw the line?

Society has normalised drinking as a way to relax, no more so than in lockdown, and for many, as they set up temporary offices in their studies, dining rooms and spare bedrooms, a drink at the end of the day is their way of differentiating working day to home life. It is known to break up the week from the weekend, as days blur into one.

It has been glorified as a coping mechanism as parents across the country were faced with home-schooling and working in lockdown. At the end of each day, we raised a toast to bed time and gave a loud inward resounding cheer for another day complete. It wasn’t only deserved but medicinal.

I know this to be too true, as my partner and I’s alcohol intake slowly started to creep up. At first, after I was made redundant and my partner furloughed, we treated the first month of lockdown similarly to a holiday. We hadn’t had time off together as family for a while and although restricted to the four walls of home and an hour’s daily exercise, we made the most of our time spent together, and celebrated each evening with a glass (or three!). Fast forward to October 2020 and as schools shut with Covid cases rapidly increasing, so did parents weekly alcohol budget.

A survey conducted by Alcohol Change found that parents of under 18s were more likely to have drunk alcohol as a way to handle stress or anxiety during lockdown (30%) than non-parents (17%) and parents of adult children (11%). Of those who drank more heavily during lockdown (nine plus units on each drinking day), 40% had drunk as a response to stress or anxiety.

This casual attitude to alcohol has seen the number of people who drink at levels that suggest alcohol dependence – that’s the equivalent of over a litre of spirits, over five bottles of wine or 25 pints of beer a week, increase from 1.5 million to 2.5 million between September and December last year, according to Dr Tony Rao having calculated figures provided by Public Health England and applied it to population numbers.

Drinking has become our default setting for when things get tough. Not to mention the fact that it’s also widely accepted, even encouraged, within society and no more is this as prevalent as within the LGBTQI+ community.

It has been widely publicised that lockdown has had a 'pernicious impact' on the LGBTQI+ community's mental health with a recent report conducted by LGBTQI+ Mental Health and Wellbeing organisation, Helsa, in December 2020 which found the biggest area of concern is how our community are using alcohol or drugs to deal with mental health issues. Of those surveyed, 47% are drinking alcohol or using drugs more frequently since the pandemic began. Three quarters of those said that they were either ‘somewhat concerned’ or ‘seriously concerned’ about this increase. A third of gay people reported drinking “a few times a week” or “every day” (33%), the highest of any sexual identity. For lesbians this was 23%.

One gay man living in London during the pandemic, commented on the effect that the past year has had on his mental health:

“Before lockdown I would have a glass or two of red wine in the evening after dinner. During lockdown I would start craving alcohol early in the day and sometimes come evening I would have already consumed a whole bottle of wine or other forms of alcohol.”

This is a challenging time in our lives, and as we find ourselves in yet another lockdown, many of us are looking for ways to cope with the myriad of mental health implications – loneliness, health anxiety, financial insecurity. It is, therefore, more important than ever that we address our relationship with alcohol, and seek help if necessary. There isn’t one set way to look after your mental health, it really is a case of trial and error, but essential as it becomes increasingly more clear that the side effects left by Covid will long be felt amongst our community for years to come.

As for me, I will always have that glint in my eye, a look I know only too well, but having completed dry January, and as someone who likes to think of himself as relatively self-aware, I have learned that drinking can dampen my spirit and productivity. It’s not always the elixir of good times as it convincingly portrays, and until the pubs open, and I’m surrounded by the hustle and bustle, and talking everything that isn’t Covid, I’m happy to continue and introduce alcohol when I feel good and wish to celebrate, which for now, is good enough for me!

*he loves me really!

If you think you could benefit from talking with a therapist, Helsa has a network of LGBTQ+ partner therapists that can offer support around many different mental health issues. You can also use Helsa Match to find a therapist that is right for you and your mental health needs.

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