A few months into 2017, my partner was looking for ways to tighten our budget. “Let’s cut back to one six-pack a week between the two of us,” he suggested.
“Okay,” I replied—it was a perfectly reasonable idea—but then I started shaking and tears filled my eyes.
“Um,” he said, “what’s going on?”
“I think I’m having an anxiety attack.” I tried to breathe deeply. “That’s not normal, right? Thinking about drinking less shouldn’t make me panic.” But it does if the promise of drinking is the only thing keeping the panic at bay.
I love beer. Alcoholism is present on both sides of my family tree, so I’ve always consumed it enthusiastically, albeit moderately. But after the disastrous election last fall, having a beer with dinner grew from an occasional indulgence to a daily routine. In the last six months, my anxiety has reached an unprecedented level, spiking with every virulent homophobe, racist, or misogynist appointed to a powerful position, with every proposed funding cut that would eviscerate programs my friends and loved ones depend on. I read about the climate catastrophe silently happening all around us, and I wonder if my daughter will remember snow when she’s my age, and the only way to keep my hands from clenching into fists and staying that way forever is to wrap them around the neck of a frosty IPA.
My daily beer has been a dependable moment of comfort and calm, the hiss of a bottle opening relieving just enough of my own pressure to bring me back to functional. By the end of the day I’d be gritting my teeth and reminding myself to hang on—that sweet, hoppy, carbonated relief was on its way.
It started on the afternoon of the 2016 presidential election. I put my daughter in her stroller and set off on a walk to the liquor store. No matter what ends up happening tonight, I remember thinking, I’m going to want a drink. I almost bought a bottle of champagne, less in anticipation of toasting Hillary Clinton’s historic win than in pre-emptive relief over the end of election season. I was ready to raise a glass to not having to see Donald Trump’s smug face on the news every day.
But champagne felt like too much of a jinx, so I bought a six-pack of beer instead. Later that night, I gulped one without even tasting it as I obsessively refreshed FiveThirtyEight on my phone, despair settling like an anchor in my stomach.
Neither the panic nor the coping mechanism are unique to me, of course. Judging from my social media feeds and conversations with friends, a great many people find current events an untenable burden on their mental health. A survey by Harris Poll on behalf of the American Psychological Association found that stress levels have increased nationwide since the election.
“American politics are extremely triggering,” my friend Emily says. She doesn’t use the term lightly; she has post-traumatic stress disorder from sexual harassment and attempted assault by fellow service members in the Coast Guard. Having an unapologetic harasser in the Oval Office is a constant reminder of what she endured. “It’s a slap in the face,” she says, “and plays into the toxic culture that fostered what happened to me.”
For people who struggle with addiction and substance abuse, the ever-present triggers are all the more dangerous. “The current climate causes me a lot of anxiety, dread and anger, all of which I have used as excuses to drink in the past,” says another friend, Maggie, who is in recovery for alcohol addiction. “I definitely had a few white-knuckle nights.”
Social media feeds are not only a never-ending barrage of breaking news coverage, much of it negative to the point of hysteria; they’re also glutted with people presenting substance use as a solution, posting breaking news headlines along with comments like “I need a drink.” For every wry self-medication meme that circles the internet, there must be at least a few viewers who are either triggered by it or, like me, use laughter to push away the sneaking suspicion that they really do have a problem.
Mark Calarco, chief medical officer of the American Addiction Centers, isn’t surprised that political tumult makes people want to reach for a drink or their drug of choice. “People with addiction are always going to be prone to relapse with stress triggers,” he says. “The political environment, social issues—if it’s a concern for that person, it’s going to increase their risk of using.”
Brianna* is in recovery for opiate addiction, and struggles to ward off feelings of hopelessness without getting high. “I tend to get really fatalistic,” she says. For her, staying clean depends on “being a normal person that’s a part of a world that’s worth experiencing sober. Sometimes it feels like this country is heading in a direction where that’s not true. Some days it feels like it’s already not worth it.”
Brianna stays involved in issues where she feels she can make a difference, like attending protests and calling her members of Congress. Sometimes this works for me, too—if I can bury myself in a specific, targeted political task like meeting with my state representative, the cacophony of terrors is less overwhelming.
Daphne* self-medicated her anxiety with alcohol when she was younger; now, with Trump-related stress looming large, she works to keep herself engaged in the task at hand and avoid the temptation to drink. “Alcohol definitely inhibits my ability to react productively,” she says. “I’m sensitive so it doesn’t take much alcohol to make my mind feel muddied and unable to focus.”
It may be just an accident of my social circle that everyone willing to speak to me about their mental health and struggle with substance abuse is female or genderqueer, but it could be indicative of a larger trend. Men have historically consumed more alcohol than women, but that gap is closing in recent years—and under this archaically misogynistic administration, women and nonbinary people have plenty to worry about.
When the whole world feels like a mad carousel taken over by the lions, how can you tell when your drinking is more problem than solution? Calarco lists questions to ask yourself, like “Am I drinking more than I planned to? Do I want to cut down but can’t?” Although I haven’t been truly drunk in years, if I find myself running out to the liquor store in the middle of the week because that first six-pack disappeared faster than NEA funding from the national budget proposal, it’s a sign that I need to take a step back.
Calarco also says it’s a warning sign when drinking detracts from rather than adds to your joy: “Have I given things up that I enjoy because drinking is taking up more of my time? Or if you’re drinking due to stress and it’s making the stress worse—do you keep drinking anyway? Are you noticing that you’re not getting the benefits, the relaxation you did before?”
Finding other ways to relax, and other sources of support, is the key to avoiding problem self-medicating, Calarco says. You can’t just block out everything that triggers you: “Unless you live off the grid somewhere, you’re going to have access to stressors.”
Of course, the very act of seeking recovery support is a reminder of how much is at stake politically, how real and immediate the consequences of elections can be. Obamacare has made it easier for addicts to seek treatment, but drafts of a possible replacement puts that benefit in peril. Brianna depends on her health insurance to access treatment and stay sober. “The fact that someone can take that away from me in an instant from thousands of miles away for the sake of politics makes me nauseated,” she says. “Heroin is cheaper than methadone if you don’t have insurance—how fucked is that?”
Emily is horrified at Jeff Sessions’s pledge to revitalize the war on marijuana, the only thing that helped her PTSD symptoms: “Smoking made me feel chill enough to be present, where meds made me calm, but disassociated,” she says. “And I think that difference, feeling present but not vigilant, probably saved my life.”
Whether it’s a 12-step program, cognitive behavioral therapy, or what Maggie calls “social media scream therapy,” being connected is better than being isolated. “If you’re engaged in counseling or getting support,” says Calarco, “that will usually help keep things in perspective. Don’t try to go it alone.” But there’s a balance to strike between under- and over-connection – bingeing on bad news all day is mind-numbing in itself. The hangover from four hours of Facebook scrolling isn’t much better than the one from four margaritas.
Calarco warns that addiction is like any other chronic illness: it won’t go away on if you ignore it. Instead, it will get worse. If any of us is going to survive the next few years with our brain cells and dignity intact, drinking the pain away isn’t going to cut it. It’s much harder to speak openly about my fear and sorrow than to drown them in a bomber of craft saison, but it’s worth doing. Instead of telling myself that the news is overwhelming and I deserve a drink, I’m trying to remind myself that what I really deserve is a safer, less chaotic world in which to raise my daughter. Drinking less isn’t necessarily what’s going to make that world a reality, but at least it’s one fewer distraction from the work that needs to be done.