Last Updated on April 23, 2021
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 era, we’ve heard warnings about the perils of drinking in isolation1. And it’s true that, stuck at home, many people have been filling their time with alcohol. But through all the pandemic-related self-confinement, what is a person supposed to do? Never drink again? Does having a few cocktails by yourself make you an alcoholic? Why do we drink alone? And above all, what should we do about it?
Drinking As a Social Habit
For many people, getting together for a drink is a way of convening, of celebrating, of catching up with friends and colleagues. On a normal weekday, millions of people mark the end of the day by patronizing a local watering hole. But with bars and restaurants restricted or closed for the past year due to COVID-19, some people have transferred that after-work libation to home. Sometimes, the desire to drink outweighs social factors.
Opening a beer from a home fridge doesn’t generally mean there’s a problem, whether or not another person is in the room. But if one beer eventually becomes an entire six-pack or more, suddenly the evening can dissolve into a blur.
Some people have been holding virtual cocktail parties2 on Skype, Zoom, or other media. But as pleasant as those may be, there is no denying the loss in actual human communication. And further, after the party is over, feeling that loss may be acute, causing more drinking.
Why Do We Drink Alone?
Reasons for solitary drinking are numerous: worry, depression, anger, trauma, or boredom. Some people use alcohol to alleviate pain, but sharing the source of that pain with others—meaning, talking about it—produces equal anxiety. Others are merely ashamed that they want to drink a lot, and would rather have their indulgence—their “weakness”—out of the public eye. They feel better drinking at home, where they can collapse later, with no one else to put the brakes on their behavior.
It’s true that some people drink because they’re bored. (We would politely point them to the Internet, home of millions of healthier distractions.) Others are aware they drink a little too much, but aren’t sure what to do about it.
In a 2016 Vice article3, the writer ponders what the actual damage would be—the damage from overdrinking—and asks a couple of doctors for their honest comments. Addiction specialist Dr. Joel Porter cautions, “You might become dependent in ways you don’t foresee. This is what happens to people. They start drinking to get over a Sunday hangover, then this turns into Monday, and then slowly it starts to affect their personal relationships, and then they have other reasons to drink.”
Drinking Alone vs Drinking in Public
To put it bluntly, a big reason people drink alone is that it’s cheaper. (Not to mention, if it’s at home, you don’t have to get dressed.) Why spend $15 on a Cosmopolitan, when for a few dollars more, you can buy an entire bottle of vodka? And especially now, many people are seeing an uncertain financial future and trying to save money.
For someone drinking alone in public—granted, right now this is less of an issue—safety concerns should be front and center. Those who drink excessively, without a trusted friend nearby, risk being vulnerable to strangers. At best, this might mean losing a wallet or purse. But at worst, inebriation can decrease awareness of someone spiking a drink with a substance like Rohypnol (the commercial version of flunitrazepam), a powerful sedative and so-called “date-rape” drug.
Further, at a bar, one may silently ponder, “Have I had too many? How will I get home?” A good bartender will caution patrons who have had a little too much. But others may or may not be concerned.
Some Signs Worth Noting
If you’re drinking alone, you may not have another person to help you check your behavior (always a good idea). Here are some signs that could indicate a problem:
- Thinking about alcohol excessively during the day
- Increasing tolerance to alcohol, requiring more drinks
- Depression, anxiety, and mood swings
- Loss of motor control or blackouts.
If you live by yourself, it’s not a bad idea to have a trusted friend check on you now and then. Just a simple phone call, e.g., “I’m making sure you’re all right,” can make a big difference.
Does Drinking Alone Encourage Alcoholism?
Solitary drinking doesn’t mean a person will automatically slide into alcohol use disorder (AUD). Most sources will acknowledge that one or two glasses of wine with dinner is generally not problematic.
But people drinking alone are more likely to develop signs of AUD. Why? When drinking with friends, people tend to pace themselves; if a friend says, “OK, one more,” it’s more likely that others in the group will follow. Similarly, if the same friend says, “You know, I’m good,” that example may inspire others to resist ordering another round.
But at home, without others to comment or give feedback, these guardrails are not in place. It’s easier for someone alone to decide, “Just one more won’t hurt.”
Does Drinking By Myself Mean That I’m an Alcoholic?
Not necessarily, though it would be wise to monitor your consumption. Lockdown or no lockdown, drinking two bottles of wine every day is not going to make the world a better place (and your liver might agree). You might observe what time of day you drink—always a key factor—and try to look at what frame of mind you’re in. Are you trying to relieve pain, either physical or mental? Are you simply looking for something else to do?
It’s an understatement to say this has been a stressful year. Many people have been isolated. People who might normally be out and about, filling restaurants and bars, have been coping with that stress by choosing to drink at home. We are not going to begrudge anyone a drink. (You might be interested to know the Queen of England’s drinking routine4—though the reports don’t explicitly say whether she drinks alone, or with friends.) But right now it’s worth making sure that one drink doesn’t turn into a personal health crisis.
What’s To Be Done?
To those for whom being alone produces anxiety—even fear—alcohol can provide temporary solace. At Ria Health, our counselors understand this. We know there are people who have rarely experienced being alone, especially for this length of time. And for some of those people, it’s easy to reach for the wine.
Ideally, a drink now and then, whether with friends or without, is only that—no more, no less. Other people want alcohol out of their lives completely, and we affirm that route for those who choose it. Or, we can help you achieve moderation, and put alcohol back into its proper place: as a part of your life, but not as the reason for living.