Drugs

The Ins-and-Outs of Binge Drinking in Lockdown

When does slinging cocktails in the daytime or sinking shots on TikTok become a problem? 
October 29, 2020, 9:00am
Drinking in lockdown
Image: Lily Blakely

On a Saturday night in her hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland, Hannah chugs back a shot. Then a spirit and mixer, then another shot. It’s part of a TikTok video with 1.5 million views named “1 shot too many”, where she downs 19 beverages to a backing track of classic clubbing tunes.

Getting shit faced is now a TikTok trend. Hundreds have replicated Hannah’s video with the same sound, each silently cheers-ing their audience before sinking drink after drink. Its popularity isn’t surprising – 2020 has already seen Drake downing shots on Instagram live, Zoom happy hours and endless #quarantini memes.

“I don’t usually drink as much as I did that night,” Hannah tells me over Instagram DM. But in a post-COVID world rife with uncertainty, one in five people are drinking more often and 15 percent have admitted to drinking more per session. We’re only too aware of the lingering threat of lockdown round two, so we’re making hay while the sun shines. As Hannah puts it, “Everyone tends to have a couple more now so they can get the most enjoyment out of the night”.

What Gen Z share on TikTok, millennials are experiencing off-screen. In July, Rob*, 28, and a group of 15 friends sank beers in a South London park until sunset, when they moved the party to a friend’s house for tequila and Jagermeister, breaking the government rules as 29 percent of us (including Dominic Cummings) have done.

“Things got out of hand quickly,” he admits. “There was a lot of dancing, people taking their clothes off and doing mad stuff like chugging beer from a shoe. I think everyone was wound tight with worry and felt nervous this would be our only chance to do this for a while. So people fully committed to getting really, really drunk.”

Across the city, Anita, 27, and two colleagues enjoyed six bottles of wine over an evening in the park. She can’t remember how she got home. “We didn’t plan for it to get that heavy, we just got carried away,” she says. “Seeing each other again felt like such a treat. It really hit home not to take any of these meet-ups for granted.”

Pre-pandemic, Rob’s nights didn’t climax in communal shoe drinking and nakedness. Nor did Anita get blackout drunk with her deskmates. But the long, lonely lockdown nights have left people with an insatiable appetite for the sesh. As Rob puts it, “No one wanted to be the buzzkill on our last party before the apocalypse.”

The shared sense of impending doom, brought about by the ongoing pandemic and the looming threat of a second lockdown, has only fuelled our desperation to feast on fun (and alcohol) while it’s still permitted.

You can see it in photos from the now-eponymous “last weekend of freedom” before the new COVID rules came into effect of girls in bodycon dresses strutting through the streets of Leeds or Newcastle, their fallen comrades slouched at their feet beside pools of vomit. You can hear it in the cheers at an impromptu cricket match on Peckham’s Rye Lane, where revellers loitered after the 10 PM closing time to soak up the last dregs of Saturday night. And you can practically smell it through the screen on TikTok, where Hannah downs drink after drink. In 2020, nights out have taken on a “last days of Rome” edge.

Getting deliberately pissed as a national pastime is hardly a new phenomenon in the UK. In fact, we have the most prolific binge drinking habits in the world, with the average British person getting drunk 51.1 times a year.

But how much is too much? When does getting blackout drunk with your friends in a park, liking a meme about slinging cocktails in the daytime or sinking shots on TikTok become a problem?  What’s “normal” drinking and what’s just normalised?

Holly Sexton, a recovery worker from the addiction charity We Are With You, tells me it depends on the individual, but there are some clear red flags.

“Drinking even though it doesn’t make you feel good is where it starts to become a problem,” she says. “That includes things like someone drinking regularly on their own, drinking because they need to rather than they want to, to help their mental health or because they’re bored.

“We all have an idea of what an alcoholic looks like – it’s usually an old man on the street with a bottle of Frosty Jack’s, but that doesn’t necessarily give a real picture of alcohol abuse. It doesn’t matter how much someone is drinking – it comes down to how alcohol is affecting them.”

When drinking to oblivion becomes a meme, problem drinking becomes more difficult to recognise as a problem. Owen O’Kane, a psychotherapist and author of mental health manual Ten Times Happier, tells me: “[Drinking in lockdown has] become a joke, which is understandable, and I think there’s no human being on the planet who hasn’t struggled this year.

“But it’s worth considering that if we stay in extended lockdowns and hypothetically the pandemic is on going next year, someone might have been drinking heavily and consistently for a year. The kidneys, liver and heart aren’t going to cope well and there will be lots of psychological impacts from altering your brain chemistry.”

The increase in alcohol consumption over lockdown was enough to alarm the Royal College of Psychiatrists, who recently estimated 8.4 million people in England were drinking at “higher risk” levels – more than the recommended maximum of 14 units of alcohol (equivalent to six large glasses of wine or six pints of beer) a week. This figure is up by 3.6 million since February.

Prof Julia Sinclair, the chair of the Addictions Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, voiced fears that addiction services for adults and young people, which were already overstretched before the pandemic, will struggle to cope with the influx of new problem drinkers.

On the other hand, in the seven months since lockdown, many people have re-examined their relationships with alcohol and decided to sober up or take a break from drinking. In the three weeks proceeding the start of lockdown, Alcohol Change UK’s website saw a 335 percent increase in traffic to its “get help now” page compared to last year. Meanwhile, pro-sobriety Instagram accounts @fuckingsober and @soberandsocial said they’ve seen a huge spike in interest since the pandemic began.

Emily Syphas, who organises alcohol-free online and IRL events for Sober and Social, thinks the pandemic’s cataclysmic effect on people’s booze intake has led many people to reassess their relationship with booze.

“Some people who classified themselves as ‘regular drinkers’ have been able to drink every day because they’re furloughed or have lost their job, or because they’re lonely. As a result, those people have been able to recognise unhealthy drinking habits faster than they would under normal circumstances,” she says.

With an austere winter ahead and many parts of the UK already in local lockdowns, many people will be heading to the offie in search of a quick way to take the edge off Boris’s latest doomsday broadcast. According to Owen, the key to creating a healthier relationship with alcohol is to identify other ways to cope with adversity.

“What I’ve found in therapy, even in normal times, is that most people who are anxious or stressed don’t have mechanisms to comfort themselves. Right now, externally, people’s health, jobs and lives are in chaos, we can’t control any of that. But if you look inwards, you can learn to regulate your emotions, quiet the mind and get an internal sense of control. There’s an opportunity for people to think about the way they treat themselves and how they manage life when it gets tough.”

@chubblecreative