Under the Influence

A sign says, no beer beyond this point

I staggered into “Sober October” this year. No, not in a drunken stupor, but my commitment was shaky. October 1st fell on a Thursday, a full but pleasant day. I logged into the evening family Zoom with a cup of tea in hand instead of the usual glass of wine. I’ve got this. Then the denier-in-chief got Covid.

As if the world wasn’t topsy-turvy enough. Heading into the weekend, the news and opinions and what-if propositions crackled like the burning red and orange maple leaves outside my window. To soothe my nerves, I quaffed a crisp Vermont IPA from a sidewalk table on what could have been one of the last warm evenings to dine outside. One beer at dinner, to relax and enjoy a simple and waning pleasure, doesn’t count. Sunday is a good day to start, four full weeks until the end of the month.

On Sunday, I saw the Bota box in the cabinet and gave it a shake. Football was on, but I’d forgotten I’d opened the cupboard to find the salsa dish. From the sound of the swish, there was only a glass or two left in the Bota’s plastic bladder. Say, isn’t red wine good for your heart? My blood had been simmering with every new tweet and press conference circus. I needed to calm down.

And so it went for a few days—my estimate of the remaining liquid off by half—until the Bota box ran dry on the night of the Vice-Presidential debates. Did you know a single female fly in your wine can ruin it? It’s true.

I banked two days of sobriety and then, “I guess I’ll try a sip.” It was Saturday again. Who could resist “just a taste, okay a full pour” of a new craft brewed called Floating Helicopters? I sipped it while a storm approached—lightning swathed the sky to neon purple, and propeller-shaped maple seeds whirled and twirled on the wind—Indian summer crashing in a piney glass of ale.

After the Helicopter, I dashed into Rite Aid for mouthwash. Don’t think the errand was some Kitty Dukakis desperation; it had been several months since I’d been able to go to the dentist. You have to take care of your teeth. Past the magazines, makeup, toys, gifts, and batteries, I found the mouthwash, then the ice cream Peter likes, and a bar of salted dark chocolate to satisfy my sweet tooth, and maybe, just one bottle of red. An impulse buy in a store selling health and wellness. “We’ll split it,” I said to myself.  

It’s day ten as I write this. On Sunday, October 11th, I began “Sober October” anew. No more excuses.

I don’t intend to make an alcoholic confession or offer a take-it-from-me lesson. But before I offer commentary, I thought I should provide some personal context.

That’s too much by any measure, and it isn’t just me. Alcohol sales in the U.S. have surged 24% during the pandemic. “Airport Rules Apply” declared social media in mid-March when we canceled our Caribbean vacation and quarantined at home.

Ina Garten making a giant cosmopolitan

Let the day drinking begin with a giant Ina Garten Cosmopolitan.
How easy is that?

I wasn’t always a big drinker— okay, excluding the “Riunite” nights in college and the Tequila incident in Palm Springs. I don’t consider myself a big drinker now, but truthfully—and I’ll try not to make excuses—it’s been getting out of hand. A beer (or two) to unwind after a day hunched over my keyboard, a glass of wine (or two) with dinner while watching the news, and maybe one (and a half) more to pass the time before bed. Every day of the week.

But even before we locked down, middle-aged women like me were knockin ‘em back with gusto. A 2019 study from the North American Menopause Society revealed that our high-risk drinking (four or more drinks per day for women) increased 84% between 2002 and 2012. Women aged 45-54 gave reasons like, “alcohol causes relaxation” and “alcohol is the remedy for a stressful week.” Gee, that sounds familiar.

Well before Covid, incorrigible husbands were replaced by “wine time” as the running joke among women of a certain age. Take the Instagram account WomenWhoLoveWine. Nearly half a million followers check-in for “funny” quotes like this one, “Sometimes you have to have a glass of wine or four because it’s Wednesday.” Drinking buddies aren’t hard to find anymore, even when you are in quarantine.

Encouragement to drink, or rationalization if you’d prefer, is ubiquitous. Maybe it always has been. I remember a plastic clock hanging on the wall of my Grandfather’s house. The hands read 5:05, on a dial where the number five marked all twelve positions. A half-moon caption at the top excused the four-p.m. whiskey, reading, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.”

The T.V. series, Mad Men hardly glamorized the 1960s three-martini lunch, the male characters throwing up and generally behaving badly. As Peggy Olsen said, “Am I the only one who can work and drink at the same time?” In the twenty-first century office, we spritz our instant message threads with wine and cocktail glass emojis, and drink free beer on tap in the employee lounge.

As if we needed more incentives, a 2017 post on the Entrepreneur website offered eleven reasons why moderate drinking will make us “smarter, healthier, and more creative.” Among the dubious motivations for a daily drink: “helps you think more clearly” and “boosts happiness.” My favorite benefit, weight loss. Said the article, “women who drank one or two alcoholic drinks a day were less likely to gain weight than those who didn’t indulge altogether.” Say no more. Waiter, another round!

We hear what we want to hear. Not so coincidentally, when I read the piece online last night, the ads surrounding the article were for credit cards featuring blingy merchandise in shades of pink. Because what’s better than a little boozy shopping, ammiright?  

There are signs, however, that attitudes are shifting. The sober and sober-curious movement is latching with young people. Bars serving only non-alcoholic beverages had opened in New York and L.A. (and let’s hope they re-open someday soon). Mixologists are bragging on social media about their unique specialty mock-tails. And, most importantly (to me), alcohol-free beer finally tastes like beer! I like the hoppy snap of an IPA like the ones from Athletic Brewing Company. More into spirits? Seedslip’s herbal beverages claim to have no sugar or calories, and there are a host of non-alcoholic wines. (note: these are not endorsements, paid or otherwise)

These are good trends given the alarming rise of depression, anxiety, and addiction affecting everyone, young and old, poor and rich—serious diseases exacerbated by pandemic and politics. Forums like One Year No Beer have tens of thousands of followers, and you can find a wide variety of sober influencers on Instagram.

I know better than to drive under the influence but have just begun to think about how often and how much alcohol I consume is under the influence of a popular drinking culture. There is nothing like the juicy snap of a New England IPA on a summery day. The bitter effervescence speaks to the nature of life here in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont—straight forward, not too sweet, balanced. That same beer, gulped mindlessly while scrolling through my phone, falls short. Why bother? “Because, beer,” any number of bad influences, including mine, might answer.

Vermont Beer

Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy, said Ben Franklin.

or maybe he was just a bad influence?

I’m sipping on a cup of Peppermint tea while I try to draw a conclusion to this essay and consider my drinking future. It’s dark outside and raining. The daylight is shrinking, but after only ten days, I feel brighter and lighter in every sense of those words. I’ve got this—for the next twenty days, until they tally the election results, or when we pop the champagne and wish 2020 Auld Lang Syne?

Maybe forever? I don’t know. I have to think about it.

Published by Catherine H Palmer

I used to help big companies tell their stories, now it's time to tell my own. I blog about midlife reinvention and making a new life in rural Vermont. Follow me, I have no idea where I'm going.

6 thoughts on “Under the Influence

  1. Cathy,
    Your writing is most enjoyable.
    I’m afraid I have been more challenged this year than usual. I will plan to reread this again next year for supportive reasoning to do the same….. next year.
    [cid:image006.png@01D6A799.1974ACC0]Ann V. Nutter | CFO
    Energy Management Systems, Inc.http://www.EMS3.com.
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  2. It certainly has been a challenging year. We have also have been drinking a bit more these past several months . Stay positive and stay healthy. Raising my beer glass to you.


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