LatestThe Longest Goodbye

The Longest Goodbye: The Alcohol-Free COVID-19 Birthday Non-Bash!

By April 24, 2020 No Comments

from 16 April                                                                       

a five-minute lecture…oops, I mean, read!


Until this year, I literally cannot remember the last time I had an alcohol-free birthday. I think maybe the year I turned 3. Don’t judge – I’m from an Irish background, remember?

Okay, I know, of course, that I shouldn’t throw my ancestry under the bus by perpetuating cultural stereotypes. But I am quite serious about the fact that I can’t remember the last time I celebrated a birthday alcohol-free. That was like, completely unheard of for me! Sometimes I would even request (or buy myself) a more expensive bottle of wine or champagne as part of my birthday treat. I mean, isn’t that one of booze’s primary functions – to commemorate the good times (that we might later forget!)? There’s reasons why we don’t have an orange juice toast at weddings, right? Alcohol = celebration.

When I think about it though, alcohol has become associated with so many other emotions and events – for me at least. From sad weddings to happy funerals and everything in between, it was a constant – and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. Add to that: the list of emotions for which alcohol is an alleged panacea. It’s a long one. And please: there is NO JUDGEMENT here.  It just is. And it’s totally how it’s sold to us. Annie Grace, in her book This Naked Mind, talks a lot about this. Grace, who comes from a marketing background, admits that she completely bought into the whole ‘work hard, play hard’ ethos of corporate culture – of which alcohol is a huge part. But when she stepped away from that (after waking with one too many hangovers) she came to the conclusion that our cultural relationship with alcohol has become part of our belief system: we’re indoctrinated.

Think about it. Therapeutic booze is associated with so much. Happy? Let’s celebrate with a champagne! Angry? Have a whiskey and go punch something (not a person)! Afraid? Here’s some Dutch courage! Sad: Have a gin, and let your maudlin emotions run free. Stressed? Have a wine. And yet, some research suggests that drinking to reduce stress may be the most dangerous reason of all: while ‘stress drinkers’ don’t necessarily drink more frequently, they do tend to drink more when they do. That was something that gave me pause, as I would probably attribute most of my drinking to stress relief.  Not that I have any real stressors in my life (and by real stressors, I mean Big Things, like a crumbling marriage, unemployment, financial woes or God forbid, a chronically ill child or other family member). But regardless, alcohol was definitely my chosen release valve for my usual day-to-day stressors.

As Kristi Coulter wryly noted when she gave up alcohol: ‘booze is the oil in our motors, the thing that keeps us purring when we should be making other kids of noise.’ I would agree. As women, it seems to colour almost everything in our world. Try watching a tv show or movie without seeing a female character have a glass of wine. The novelty scarves and handbags that boast that they can conceal a whole bottle of wine. (I mean, if you can’t make through Saturday morning T-ball without a little nip from your artfully placed scarf, that *may* signal a problemo – again NO judgement!) There are Facebook groups with names like Like-Minded Bitches Who Drink Wine. There are wine ads in magazines, on billboards, in newsfeeds. And the memes. Oh, the memes. There may actually be more memes about women and wine than about Carole Baskin killing her husband – but I could be wrong on that one.

We’ve probably all seen the meme of the ‘Hormone guide’ for the hapless, buffoon of a husband, who’s asking a series of ‘dangerous’ questions, presented in matrix form: What’s for dinner, Are you wearing that, What did you do all day. The next column of the chart offers ‘safer’ suggestions for conversation, such as Can I help with dinner, You sure look good in brown, etc. The last column of suggested responses by the husband, labelled as ‘Ultra Safe’ is ‘Here, have some wine!’ The answer for every scenario, if you want to be in the good books, gents, is wine. It’s funny; I laughed when I saw it the first time. Since then, I’ve seen it on magnets, kitchen towels, and undoubtedly other Christmas Tree Shop debris.

But now, it is now something that gives me pause: What is the message we are sending women about their relationship with wine, and alcohol more generally? No matter the emotion, or feeling or event or situation, the answer is always the same: alcohol.

Okay, I realise I am getting preachy, and probably becoming an insufferable bore, so if you’re still reading – well done to you!

Now back to my alcohol-free birthday celebrations.

This was certainly an interesting year to have an alcohol-free birthday. In some ways, it was possibly easier: because of COVID-19, there is certainly nothing celebratory happening. Anywhere. The whole mood of the country, and indeed the world, feels stilted. Like everyone is just in a holding pattern, until things return to normal. But we don’t know what that new normal will look like – or even when it’s meant to happen. Cue anxiety spikes. So while going to the pub wasn’t an option this year (yay for easier!), everyone has taken to drinking more at home – and unashamedly alone (ugh for harder). Recipes for Quarantinis are everywhere! Even Pope Francis was tweeting about getting stuck into the Vatican’s wine supply! (Don’t fact-check that last bit.)

For me, all this quarantining without the relief of alcohol has been tough at times. Imma-not-gunna-lie. And it turns out that I’m not alone in this. Alcohol sales have risen dramatically since the coronavirus crisis has started. Here in Oz, there was concern about having to put restrictions on alcohol sales to stop panic buying. In the US, alcohol sales were up 243% as of April 2nd. Wowsers, that is a LOT of Courvoisier.

Alcohol not only offers relief – from both stress and boredom – but also there’s a certain YOLO vibe that is sweeping the world, conditions long associated with wartime decision making. That magic combination of personal recklessness and disregard for consequences usually attributed to sailors on 48-hour shore leave has gripped us all. Remember that thinking that resulted in the baby boom? Yeah, we’re getting a diet version of that right now. YOLO! We could all die from this pandemic! Let’s drink and not adult anymore and eat plates of cake for dinner and binge watch Tiger King! And I totally get it.

Anyway, while the fallout from COVID-19 hasn’t affected us that closely here in regional Australia (and I therefore have NO RIGHT to complain), it has not been without its challenges. Take the whole lockdown thing: really, little more than an inconvenience for us. Yet, I feel like I’ve cooked dinner 1,657 times this month alone. I have asked myself, ‘Did I shower today…or was that really yesterday?’ and ‘When is the last time any of my children have eaten a piece of fruit?’ I contemplated this one while staring at an oversupply of blackened bananas.  It’s now the eleventy-seventh day of April. I still worry and pray daily for my family, and especially my nurse friends, back in Massachusetts where the crisis still has not peaked.  Trying to teach online is a fahghooling nightmare. I put on that headset, and my entire vocabulary seems to dissipate: I start speaking in fluent Trumpian nonsense. I even bore myself. Just as well no one can hear me because the internet connection has dropped out. Again. There is almost no distinction between weekend and weekday because the all the same people are in the house ALL THE GODDAMN TIME.

But, hey, at least the dog’s loving it. We’re all healthy and well. My birthday love poured in from everywhere, always a reminder that 1. I am loved; and 2. growing older is a privilege denied to too many.  I’m still finishing off my best-ever birthday cake in giant slabs, with no regard for calories. And I’m on Day 105. So life is good.