Booze and Guilt in the Lockdown

Grant McKenzie explores the paradoxes of living a healthier life in the lockdown.

Like a lot of people, I was reluctant going into the lockdown. I was one of the ones out at the pub, irresponsibly soaking up the last moments of pre-lockdown freedom before my home away from home shut for an indefinite period. Fast forward almost two months and it is now fair to say that the Covid-19 lockdown has been one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Pre- lockdown I was a very heavy drinker, struggling to curtail my social drinking out at the pubs. I was overweight, depressed and unhappy, my eczema was always on high alert, my sleeping patterns were atrocious, I was lazy, short tempered at home and not the best version of myself.

However, lockdown has forced a change. I am a social drinker; I rarely drink in the house because for me it is about staving off loneliness and trying to find some escape and happiness. Of course, it becomes a vicious cycle. I watched Adrian Chiles’ BBC documentary Drinkers Like Me, and I instantly identified. I was am the sort of guy who sinks a ton of lager and gin, stays upright and can do it all again the next day, and the next day, and the next day. That was my life pretty much pre-lockdown, and I could not break it alone.

I know the reasons why. It is because I have very little willpower. Six years ago, it took Champix tablets from my GP to stop smoking because I couldn’t quit through willpower alone. So, when the pub shutdown was announced I was sad for sure. Losing this social hub that is very important to me for good reasons such as positive friendships was hard. However, I was also a little hopeful that it might break the bad cycles. The unvarnished truth, despite the horrors that Covid-19 has reaped on the world, is that it has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

For the first few weeks or so I drank in the house and my sleeping pattern was shocking. Up all night, drinking lots and being incredibly lazy. Then slowly but surely things began to change. I stopped drinking. First, I managed six days, then a week, then 13 days. Now I don’t need any alcohol to get through the day or the week. It feels like a cycle has been broken. It is not like I was the kind of drinker that would get one taste of alcohol and then drink till I passed out, but I could drink for a long time if I wanted.

To give some context I must do something very difficult for me, and that is to lay it out for everyone to see. I track my alcohol consumption rigorously using the Drinkaware app and have done so since January. The week leading up to lockdown I consumed 112.4 units of alcohol with just one drink free day. In the last seven days I have consumed 10.4 units. Within the recommended limit of 14 units per week. The change has been behaviour based because I have been forced. The bars have closed and for drinkers like me it has broken the cycle.

I have lost a lot of weight and am now flirting with a BMI number in the healthy weight category for the first time in about 6 years. I am eating healthier; I am more energetic and better around
the house with no more housework piling up. My eczema has improved dramatically (in conjunction with treatment). I am a better carer for my brother who lives with me. My relationship with my father is good now, and I am better with those I care about and who care about me.

No longer am I getting drunk in a haze of depression and getting into silly arguments with people. No pointless Twitter spats with people for no good reason. I am happier and a better person, but this has all come at a cost. An enormous cost that racks me with guilt. The unvarnished truth is that it has taken a catastrophic event to turn my life around. How am I supposed to live with that? How can I be happy that I am doing better than I have for years when it is so hugely down to the restrictions imposed because of this terrible virus?

Sometimes I feel as if I am like those unscrupulous investors who make a ton of profit when something catastrophic happens. It does trouble me deeply. Am I being fair to myself though? I don’t know the answer. Covid-19 is not my fault of course, it just feels terrible to be doing so well in terms of personal growth out of something so tragic.

I have discovered that the slower life suits me. With modern life slowed down in the lockdown compared to its usual thousand miles an hour pace, I have more contentedness in my life. Which is a vastly underrated feeling. Each day is roughly the same, but that routine has been good for me. Wake up around 8am, have a video call, have some breakfast, do housework, stream on Twitch in the afternoon, prepare my brother’s dinner, make mine and then relax and early to bed. The only variation is the shopping run with Dad on a Tuesday and if I go out on my bike. This routine is so much slower than pre-lockdown life, but it is better balanced and healthier for me. So much so that for the first time since I started taking anti-depressants, I have considered coming off them. I am not there yet, but the progress has been huge for me personally.

The real guilt comes in those little moments when I worry. I lie in bed at night and I wonder what will happen once the ‘new normal’ kicks in. Will I slip back into my self-destructive ways? Will I be able to keep my ‘lockdown normal’ as the ‘new normal’ permanently? As someone with little in the way of willpower I feel like I need this intervention to continue. However, that cannot happen, especially if we tackle this virus and beat it. I hope for the virus to be defeated more than my good fortune to continue, but I also hope the personal gains I have made because of lockdown are not in vain. The guilt of throwing it all away again when so much horror has happened to bring it about would be unbearable.

Comments (9)

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  1. Josef Ó Luain says:

    @ Grant
    Remembering my worst hangovers continues to work for me. I’ll still have a couple of Jamiesons now and then, but remembering those awful hangovers, the physical and mental torture of it all, helps me to keep well clear of my old-ways. Avoiding people, my old drinking buddies, is part of the programme too, I guess. I’ve been on the “programme” so long now that I don’t give a lot of thought to my past excesses unless prompted, as I clearly have been by your piece. Don’t be knocking-yourself-about over things, that’s important.

    1. Grant McKenzie says:

      Thanks for your encouragement Josef.

  2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Well done, Grant. I hail your honesty and frankness.

    The key has always been admitting to oneself that there is a problem. In my view you adopted the correct one-day-at-a-time approach and, because of the discipline of record keeping you now have a lot of days to look back on and to respect yourself for.

    For many of us crises have been the triggers to summon the will to tackle a problem, and, you have shown that you have the will. You have acknowledged that drinking or not drinking is your choice.

    I suspect that the worries you have about post COVID are not so much about the fear of relapsing, but, perhaps, regret for not making the change sooner. From what you have written, I think you have shown you have the will and that you can hold your head up and look yourself in the mirror and nod in approval.

    What is past is past, and it cannot be called back and changed,but you have changed and you can live each subsequent day in a more positive way.

    I salute you.

  3. Indyman says:

    Often tragedies or catastrophes can show the way to a better future. I wouldn’t feel guilty about the pandemic doing that for you, after all it’s not as if you deliberately engineered it so you could get on the wagon, is it?

  4. Malcolm Fraser says:

    There’s naebody with the least vestige o a hert who would begrudge you this happy recovery. Enjoy it!

    1. well said Malcolm, more power to you

  5. SleepingDog says:

    There are things we can control, and things outside our control (like pandemics). In an ethical zone in-between, there are our reactions to uncontrollable. If you feel you have reacted well to circumstances outwith your control, then you have the right to own those reactions. At least, I think that’s a skim reading of Soren Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy in Either/Or. The last paragraph of the article is key to the question of commitment to this change once the imposed conditions (lockdown) end. Will the choice be a hedonistic or an ethical life? Any process of self-discovery has the prospect of finding the good, the bad, the indifferent; but the process has value nevertheless. How should we live? Understanding the choices we have requires openness, reflection, self-examination: which is why the ancients instructed “first, know thyself”. Perhaps one’s will, when wakened, will prove stronger than one imagined.

  6. Jo says:

    Very honest, Grant. There’s a message in there for many of us. Thank you.

  7. Chris Connolly says:

    Keep reminding yourself that the lockdown isnae your fault, Grant. You should congratulate yourself on observing the lockdown restrictions; there’s nothing at all for you to feel guilty about. Most of us have cut down on things; not only alcohol but trips to cafes and shops as well. Fact is, we were going to places we didn’t need to go to and spending money unnecessarily on stuff we can live without and were only doing so out of boredom, and that was before the lockdown began and before any of us had heard of the coronavirus.

    If we have learned some lessons as a result of having some choices temporarily withdrawn, that’s something to feel positive about. It would be throwing the emotional and practical equivalent of good money after bad not to use the emergency to make positive changes in your life if you can do so.

    Sleep soundly in the knowledge that you are a decent person with no reason to deny yourself a better future.

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