In late February, 24-year-old James* woke up on his sofa in all of his clothes. His mouth was dry, head thumping and a reluctant glance at his phone revealed that he had half a dozen missed calls. It was 2PM, meaning that he'd missed his morning photography gig. The night before had only meant to be a one-drink thing, but one had turned into two and, before long, he was at his mate's flat until 5AM listening to Kylie deep cuts and telling himself that if he could just stay awake until the photography job, he'd be fine.
“That was the last time I remember getting really smashed,” James says now, over the phone. “It would be okay if that wasn't something I did usually, but I'd been going out nonstop which was starting to make me feel a bit out of control. The fact I'd missed the job made me really resent myself too – because I'm freelance, every job counts. That was the push to stop drinking I think. Then we went into lockdown, which made things easier because I could just carry on being sober. I started feeling better by about week two and each day I'd be like, 'I don't need to drink today.' Now it's like: it's been nearly four months.”
James isn't the only one to have become sober during lockdown. On the 23rd of March, all pubs, clubs and bars were ordered to temporarily close. Some people moved out of their flats, went to stay with their parents. Most weren't able to socialise, other than with those in their household. All of this had a knock on effect for a large portion of the UK population: According to Alcohol Change, by May, one in three drinkers had reduced or stopped drinking entirely, while over a quarter of people who drank two to six times a week said the same.
Dia, 25, actually began the first month of lockdown drinking more than usual. She wasn't alone (in March it was reported that alcohol sales in the UK had soared by 30 percent, and while some reported drinking less by May, more than one in five reported drinking more.) But after the first few weeks, she realised it had gotten out of hand. “Me and my housemates were getting drunk most nights, mainly because we were bored but also anxious about what was happening,” she says. “It got to the point where each morning I'd wake up feeling like shit and the drinking was making my anxiety worse. I decided to have a break, then that break continued.”
“This is the longest I've gone without drinking alcohol probably since I was 18,” she says. “I'd had short breaks in the past but I'd never considered stopping because it felt like I needed to drink to relax and socialise, but since that's been out of the equation, it's been easier to quit.” For Dia, sobriety has been positive. “It sounds like a cliche but I feel really good in my body. My anxiety has definitely improved and I have more time to focus on other more important stuff. I sleep and eat better too so it's like a 'feel good' domino effect. There isn't that same constant waking up with a feeling of dread.”
Hatti, 28, has also stopped drinking. Like most people in their 20s, socialising used to mainly involve going to the pub or alcohol in some capacity. But lockdown put an end to that. “I’ve slowed down to a halt which is weird as almost all of my friends have met me at events involving alcohol. I get super prangy on a hangover and I’ve been really anxious in lockdown, so possibly it was to stop that but I guess also because I don’t live with close mates I’m not as eager to socialise. I’ve tried to have park drinks twice and both times ended in a migraine.”
Most people I speak to say that getting sober during lockdown made them feel better – physically and emotionally – than when they were drinking all the time. But, with pubs and some clubs now reopening and with socialising in groups of people becoming more commonplace, newly sober people are having to adjust. It's easier to avoid alcohol when you're avoiding people. “I have been a bit nervous about lockdown easing because I honestly love socialising and part of that has always been partying which I've never done sober,” says James. “But I also don't want to drink. I like where I'm at right now… I'm not thinking too hard about it and taking it day by day.”
Hatti hasn't decided whether she'll drink again eventually, but she'll be avoiding the pub regardless. “I think I’m going to avoid pubs because I don’t trust that the government allowed enough time before reopening as they only care about money not health,” she explains. “Maybe in a billion years I’ll return to the pub and have a few, but I can’t see it on the cards for me right now. I’ve had a few thoughts about maybe seeing how long I can go on for, which is super weird because in my early twenties I was hardly sober at all.”
For a country so propped up by it's drinking (read: pub, club and cans) culture, lockdown has massively shaken up our usual routines. For drinkers, that has mean reevaluating the ways in which we connect, relax or deal with stress without necessarily getting on the sesh like we used to. But now that things are slowly going to back to “normal”, does this mean our drinking habits will return to how they were before too? Or are we going to experience a new post-covid wave of non-drinkers?
“It's going to take more than a few months to change a drinking culture that is hundreds of years old,” says Dia. “But maybe for a lot of people it'll have shown that having a break from drinking can be good for you and that maybe you don't need to go back to the levels you were drinking before. There was one point where the tiniest glint of sun made me want to crave a cold pint, but now just thinking about it makes me want to gag. Is that progress?”
*Some names have been changed.