"What started as more regular, but still casual, drinking at the start of the pandemic now feels like a nightly ritual. Cue the alarm bells in my head that I will likely be pushing down with a heavy bong rip." Credit: Kirk Williamson

I used to drink so rarely that my doctors considered me a nondrinker. I used to safely estimate my drinking to be around one drink a month. I used to joke that I wanted to drink more, wanted to be able to appreciate fancy cocktails and fine wine.

But that joke turned into my not-so-funny reality when wishful thinking was crushed by the realization that a lockdown was not going to be a quick solution to the pandemic, but a long, difficult one that has no end in sight just yet. What started as more regular, but still casual, drinking at the start of the pandemic now feels like a nightly ritual. Cue the alarm bells in my head that I will likely be pushing down with a heavy bong rip.

My relationship with alcohol has always been a little complicated. I often wake up at least a little anxious after drinking, and roughly six months ago, I stopped being able to remember anything I did after I drank. Not just when I drank to excess. Any time. It could be a single drink or it could be 12, and I’d similarly forget what happened that night. More alarm bells.

Thankfully, my partner informs me I would nearly always end up snoring loudly next to him on the couch; but regularly occurring blackouts haven’t exactly been good for my anxiety either.

But I’m not alone in this journey. I have friends with eerily similar experiences, friends who have started regularly drinking at 3 PM, others who are nearly constantly stoned during the day. We all agree that we got caught up in the culture of winding down after a long day of work with a drink or a smoke.

But when the last year—or longer, depending on who you ask—has been long day after long day after long day, at what point does relaxing turn to dependence? To quote Vic Vela, a Colorado Public Radio journalist who celebrated six years sober from cocaine this week, that question is an individual one. And it takes what he said is an “honest inventory” of our lives.

“It’s examining ‘OK, how many drinks did I have today? Am I drinking more? Am I just flat out drinking more during the pandemic? Am I OK with this? Is my partner OK with this? And just kind of go from there,” he told me. And truthfully, some answers to those questions are “yes.” And some are “no.”

For folks who are similarly examining their own substance use, particularly during this difficult time, local photographer Sarah Joyce said that finding alternatives—like running, meditating, or hiking—could be an avenue worth exploring.

“Using this opportunity to come up with different coping mechanisms isn’t a bad thing at all,” she said.

But even before the possibility of sobriety pops up in my head, more alarm bells sound, this time prompted by the fears that abstaining from alcohol leaves me and others like me out of social circles. Am I going to be the boring sober person, sitting in the corner while my friends rage in front of me? And with so much queer culture centerring on substance use in some capacity, whether it’s a mandatory mimosa at brunch, a bump in the bathroom, or some G at a circuit party, there’s also a real fear that sobriety is a death knell to queer social life.

But as Vela and others told me, sobriety isn’t the barrier people think it is, and much of that isolation is fabricated. In fact, he said, sobriety has helped him feel and experience life more deeply, though I admit I’m not sure if that’s exciting or terrifying in the year of 2021.

Vela wasn’t alone in that sentiment either.

Steven Strafford, a Chicago-based actor and playwright, said that he didn’t feel like he was missing out on life because of his sobriety; in fact, he said it oftentimes made him more present and more himself.

“Living your life as an unadulterated you, is exceptional,” Stafford said.

But the actual science of substance use is another thing. Take alcohol for example. According to Dr. Daniel Fridberg, a University of Chicago psychiatry professor who studies addiction and impulse control, said that technically, no level of alcohol is safe.

Admittedly not what I wanted to hear, but a strong argument in favor of sobriety. As for when substance use becomes a problem, the answer to that is less cut-and-dried. Fridberg said substance use becomes a problem when, as he put it, it begins impacting lives. But what level of impact is enough to warrant sobriety?

That, as much as it feels like everything related to sobriety, seems to also be up to the individual person and their using habits. Ugh. More introspection.

But just like everyone’s relationship with substance is different, so is everyone’s relationship with their vice. And it doesn’t always have to be an all-or-nothing approach.

In fact, to be as extremely corny and on the nose as possible, most of the people I spoke with said they take it . . . wait for it . . . One. Day. At. A. Time. And it makes an obnoxious amount of sense.

“If I go to bed saying I didn’t drink as much today, that’s a good day,” Vela said. “Can I go to bed saying that I treated people with respect more today, and I didn’t hurt anyone? That’s a good day. So again, and with each single day of ‘one day at a time,’ that becomes a cumulative thing and you accumulate time; and that’s the only reason why I’m able to celebrate six years of sobriety is because I said those things every single day.”

So, with that in mind, I may not be putting down the weed or the wine just yet; but tonight I’m going to bed having had less to drink and less to smoke. And I think that’s a really good start.   v

Adam M. Rhodes

Adam M. Rhodes is a queer, nonbinary, first-generation Cuban American journalist. Rhodes is currently a social justice reporter at the Chicago Reader, where their work centers primarily on queer people and people of color. Their recent work has examined HIV treatment access in Puerto Rico, racism in Chicago’s principal queer neighborhood, and, most recently, HIV criminalization in Illinois. Alongside the Reader, Rhodes has been published in outlets including BuzzFeed News and The Washington Post. You can follow them on Twitter at @byadamrhodes.