There’s a persistent hum like an idling engine, as our collective unconscious churns over the unpleasant scenarios that may lie ahead of us. I feel it in my throat and across my shoulders, aching after six weeks braced for a slow-motion impact.
It’s exhausting to be activated for such a long time, trying to move around in a bubble with a heavy heart, without the simple comfort of a hug, or a friend’s company. Old adversaries are surging forward, feeding on our fragility. Mine is alcohol.
Cordial and Facebook: these seemingly inconsequential things have saved my life this week. There are so many heartbreaking stories unfolding during the pandemic. My personal Everest seems silly, maybe even self-indulgent. Aren’t we all being tested at this moment? I’m trying to take care of myself and my loved ones. Trying to stay safe, but I know I won’t be able to do any of that if I can’t stay sober.
Alcohol has always been my escape, a refuge in a crisis. Like so many women, I used it to endure things I shouldn’t have had to put up with. It allowed me to be physically present, but emotionally insulated. When things got overwhelming I pressed the wine button and bailed out, leaving an amiable smiling body behind to go through the motions, a good girlfriend/daughter/employee.
It was the purest form of self-abandonment and it nearly killed me. Last year I cut ties with alcohol, joining an online community of amazing women and non-binary folks who have understood and supported me every step of the way.
When things got overwhelming I pressed the wine button and bailed out, leaving an amiable smiling body behind to go through the motions.
I never classed myself as someone with a drinking problem; it’s more insidious than that. Alcohol is so accepted and promoted as a glamourous reward that I was being undone in plain sight without anybody noticing.
I knew that I drank a great deal less than many of my friends, so comparing it like that was enough to rationalise it to myself for a long time. The difference was that the consequences of my drinking were problematic for me. Chief among them was an inability to feel things completely, trust my own judgement and take the actions needed to protect myself from danger.
Silence is so often the price you pay for acceptance as a woman in a world crowded with reasons to tear your hair out and real situations of peril. Things that demanded action and self-advocacy, not numbing. Alcohol dug a hole, I buried my feelings inside it and before I knew it the accumulated dirt was blocking out the sun.
Then one day as I lay in bed scrolling through Instagram, I saw a post that winded me and within hours I learned that I was by no means alone. There are millions of women like me, like us? There is an urgent conversation happening online, about harm and the role that alcohol plays in enabling us to be subjected to it. There is so much mercy in acknowledgement. So much need for respite from the relentless encouragement to ‘lean-in’ to things that are harmful.
Changing the way I looked at alcohol was my way out of a series of gendered traps that were eating away at me.
Changing the way I looked at alcohol was my way out of a series of gendered traps that were eating away at me. The conversations we shared in my group weren’t about drunken benders, they were about family violence, childhood trauma, workplace assault, abuse and harassment, bereavement and injustice. The things that women are expected to bear silently until the weight overwhelms us. As I exited the habitual loop of feeling awful, drinking it away and going back for more punishment, the romance was gone. I could not see the glamour in my pacifier anymore. The fog began to lift, I finally felt more at home in my body and took the difficult but necessary steps to protect myself. Sobriety delivered what alcohol promised, peace of mind.
I thought I had outrun it, maybe even stopped running, but I’ve never known cravings like the ones I’m experiencing in quarantine. There’s no step program that can prepare you for a global pandemic. Now I’m home alone and being inundated with one thousand times the wine-o-clock marketing and everyone I know is drinking their way through this. Live on Instagram.
Then there’s the fear. Fear for my family. Fear for my community. Fear that I can’t bear the weight and show up as the woman I want to be through this time without alcohol. My nerves, numbed for years are bristling again with a constant warning. It makes me grind my teeth at night. A little voice inside is screaming “the world is ending you fool, press the button!” But I don’t. I won’t. I can’t.
As the waves of anxiety rise and this crisis threatens to unravel us a little more each day, the permission they give me to just feel it, all of it, is a lifeline.
So I stop, breath deep and make another glass of cordial. Then I hop online and talk to the only people who can understand. Not the urge to drink, but the deep fatigue that causes it. The pockets full of carefully folded grief that are now overflowing. As the waves of anxiety rise and this crisis threatens to unravel us a little more each day, the permission they give me to just feel it, all of it, is a lifeline. We share each-others load and it makes the task of believing I can keep going feel possible. We hold it all, together.
Shantel Wetherall is a Melbourne culture writer, presenter and maker. Featured in The Guardian Australia and The Sydney Morning Herald. She produces and hosts Hey Aunty! Podcast and lives as a grateful guest on Kulin land.
Is alcohol a problem? If it’s harming you, or someone you know, it may be time to seek advice from a professional.
There are a number of different free services with trained counsellors across Australia:
DrugInfo: 1300 858 584 (9am – 5pm, Monday – Friday)
Family Drug Support Australia: 1300 368 186 (24 hours/day, 7 days/week)
People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.
If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.
SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.