Drying out after lockdown



Cheers or tears? Counselling and support services have received more requests for help this year due to COVID

It’s a Thursday afternoon, just gone past 5:30, and the sun is going down. Relaxing at the table on an outside patio, Rob White and his friendly neighbour Ross sip their stubbies of Toohey’s and Great Northern, while Rob’s wife Sylvia has a glass of white wine with her sudoku pad in front of her. Before being interrogated about his drinking habits, Ross would like to insist that he’s not an alcoholic.

Rob jokingly dubs this sunset ritual a “thirsty Thursday”, a casual afternoon drink to unwind. When asked if during the COVID epidemic their drinking had increased, both he and Ross came clean with a simple yes.

“When it first started was the initial lockdown,” Rob says. “You end up going to Dan Murphy’s and buying more beer and everyone was more stuck at home and decided to have a beer a bit earlier.”

As some people have been more negatively affected by alcohol-related issues than others throughout the pandemic, rehabilitation services have never been more vital. Over the past several months, non-profit organisation Lives Lived Well reported that inquires for their services had increased. Grace Thomson, a team leader for the group, says this is due to people choosing the wrong handling techniques to deal with the fallout of COVID.

“It is widely known that alcohol and other drugs is used as a coping mechanism, particularly during times of stress and traumatic experiences, so I think this is a large predicator for why people are reaching out for support right now,” she says.

For a lot of Australians, the earth stopped on the night of Sunday, March 22, 2020. Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that public spaces like pubs and clubs would have to close their doors the next day as the threat of COVID took a hold. Australians was locked indoors, and the once bustling streets that carried these venues became ghost towns.

As the majority of the country’s retailers began to close, there was a question on the lips of so many Australians, “what about the bottle shops?”

Almost overnight our culture mimicked the scenes of an apocalypse, with people coming out in droves to stock up on their essential items. While most famously we saw the endless fights for toilet paper when walking down the supermarket aisle, but as the threat loomed, we also saw massive lines across Dan Murphy’s stores. Retailers even had to place limits on purchases. During this period, our country’s obsession with alcohol became clear.

Rob and Ross say their beer drinking peaked over the epidemic, estimating that they were drinking two cartons a week. These numbers have become more of a normality for some people in recent months, but the Australian Guidelines recommend no more than 10 standard drinks a week if alcohol-related harm is to be avoided.

While people have hidden indoors to protect themselves from one threat, they have theoretically exposed themselves to another. “You have more money as well to spend on alcohol because you didn’t have to pay for an Uber to go anywhere and you eat at home,” Sylvia says. Rob also emphasises the cost effectiveness of drinking at home. “The beer here is $2 out of a carton, whereas if you go buy a schooner at the bar it’s like $8,” he says.

In order to assist those struggling with alcohol-related issues during the pandemic, the widespread practise of “zooming” has become a huge lifeline for people utilising the organisation’s services, while also being able to comply with social distancing rules. This practise has become more preferable for some clients due to its convenience.

“Interestingly enough, though, we happen to find a lot of clients that would access our services more virtually than they might face to face, based on the reduced barriers, so people didn’t have to have transport,” Thomson says. “We had to adapt our counselling and group services and even our detox programs to be run virtually, which was quite a big deal and a big learning curve for our teams.”

Elsewhere, addiction treatment centre Noosa Confidential has also received regular inquiries regarding alcohol-related troubles. As the clinic is a small treatment centre catering to only five patients at a time, adapting to restrictions has been a smooth process, according to admissions manager Peter Lowit.

“We have noticed a steady volume of inquiries that are alcohol related,” he says. “We’re not a hospital but we have very strict hygiene guidelines and protocols we’ve just had to increase them to make sure we’re compliant.”

As Rob, Ross and Sylvia continue to unwind with the pick-me-ups clenched in their hands, they can admit the “boozing” has caught up with them a little. “The hangovers when that lockdown was on were a lot stronger,” Rob says. “We even started taking Vitamin B tablets!”

As Australia continues to journey out of isolation and back into a familiar territory, it might be time for a celebratory drink, but not one too many.