Pandemic Public Policy Proves Alcohol Dependence is the True Epidemic

Lines Around the Block Outside Liquor Stores in Advance of City-Mandated Closing

Ten days ago, when restaurants and bars in Denver were ordered to close seating areas, but allowed to stay open for delivery and carryout only, I said to my wife, “They’ll never close liquor stores. They’ll have riots on their hands.” I thought about the double whammy liquor store owners would face. Not only would they have weeks of lost revenue, but they’d have thousands of dollars in glass repair expenses after nightly break-ins. We talked about the idea with pathetic chuckles, but there was nothing funny about it. I believed every word of our discussion.

 

Two days ago, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock ordered all liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries closed as part of the city’s “stay home” restrictions. Lines immediately wrapped around the block outside liquor stores and pot shops as consumers panic-bought as much as they could fit in their vehicles. When asked for a comment regarding liquor store closings, Mayor Hancock told reporters, “As much as I might think it’s essential for me, it’s not essential for everyone.” In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and as he tried to enact measures to keep people home and stop the spread, and while he was making decisions that would crush our local economy and bankrupt small business owners, he made a joke about his own alcohol dependence? Isn’t that what calling alcohol, “essential for me,” means?

 

The order was reversed within hours as the mayor realized his decision was causing people to jam into liquor stores ahead of the designated closing time with complete disregard for social distancing. His order to close liquor stores actually accelerated the spread of the virus because people crowded together to get their booze.

 

The fear of sobriety is far greater than the fear of a deadly, unknown virus without a cure.

 

I read every news story I could find on the debacle. Every article was the same. They all pointed to the long lines and risk of exposure as the reason the decision was reversed, but I could find no commentary whatsoever on the patheticness of the situation. It is pathetic that no one in the mayor’s office anticipated the very obvious reaction the order would create. It is even more pathetic that no one reporting the story had the courage to make even a hint of social commentary on how sad it is to see our society so dependent on addictive poisons. This was a one-day news story in Denver, forgotten as easily as it was reported. No deep thought. No wake-up call. Just an anomaly that filled 45 second in a producer’s rundown on the ten o-clock news.

 

I’m over three years sober, and I still feel regret everyday about the pain my drinking caused for me and my family. I scream from the highest rooftops and to anyone who will listen that alcohol is a poison in any quantity, and even moderate drinkers are doing untold damage to their brains, bodies and relationships. I talk incessantly about the more than 15 million alcoholics in America, and the three million annual alcohol related deaths worldwide. I am as anti-alcohol as a person can get. I do not believe, “To each his own,” nor, “Everything in moderation.” I believe alcohol is a scourge on society, and honesty and education is the only remedy.

 

But I believe the mayor made the right decision in reversing course and allowing liquor stores and pot shops to remain open, and not only for the reasons I discussed with my wife ten days ago. I believe leaving the liquor stores open is a matter of life and death.

 

In a discussion in our private, online forum for our SHOUT Sobriety program, one of the participants, a good friend of mine, told me about some of the things his wife is hearing from her friends in her group for codependents. As the isolation measures continue in an attempt to flatten the curve, alcoholics are drinking more and becoming more abusive to their loved ones. I believe it. As unemployment reportedly nears 30%, and uncertainty grows on so many fronts, drinkers only know one way to manage that stress. They drink.

 

And as scary and tragic as is the idea of abusive drinkers drinking more (and it is mega-scary and sad), do you know what is even scarier? Alcoholics losing their jobs and facing the unknown without access to their self-medication will get people killed – no exaggeration. If you want to see violence, take away an alcoholic’s income and his alcohol at the same time.

 

Let’s not forget that at a certain level of physical dependence, a level achievable not just by gutter drunks, but by high-functioning alcoholics as well, quitting cold-turkey leads to seizures and even death. Closing liquor stores, thus preventing people from ingesting poison, could kill alcoholics and the ones who dare get into their paths. Is there anything more pathetic than that?

 

Numbers don’t seem to matter. Fifteen million alcoholics is more people than suffer from cancer in this country. Three million alcohol-related deaths is a massive amount of avoidable, self-inflicted mortality.

 

Pictures won’t matter either. The one I used at the top of this post is one of hundreds available online of the lines outside liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries on one particular day in one medium-large sized town in America. This picture is one federal government order away from being repeated across the country with the commentary on our more deadly epidemic remaining silent despite what the pictures tell us.

 

As a nation, as a world, we are ignoring the epidemic hiding in plain sight. It is evident in our statistics. It is evident in our societal reactions to uncertainty. It lives in the words of the mayor of Denver who was trying to make a joke. Is he truly dependent on alcohol, or was he making fun of alcoholic dependency? Those are the only two options when the quote is, “As much as I might think it’s essential for me, it’s not essential for everyone.” Which is it, Mayor Hancock?

 

Either way, there is absolutely nothing funny about it. It is not funny three million times. It is not funny 15 million times. It is not funny standing in a blocks-long line on a Monday afternoon in Denver.

 

I’m going to keep shouting. I’m not going to let this incident die an unanalyzed death like every news outlet in Denver. I’m going to keep beating the drum and pointing out the tragedy for anyone who will look and listen. If you want to help me, I’m grateful. Share this post, sign-up for my email list, subscribe to my Untoxicated Podcast or make a financial donation to our nonprofit called Stigma. I’ll never stop, and God knows I can use all the help I can get.

 

But the thing that’s most important for you isn’t about spreading the word, at least not at first. What’s most important for you is to let the numbers and the pictures and the pathetic story sink into your life. Let it make an impact on you.

 

When you hear the idea of liquor stores closing because of the pandemic, does it send a chill of panic through you? When you consider that more people are afflicted with alcoholism than cancer, does it strike even a little bit of a sad chord? When you hear my mayor make jokes about his alcohol dependence, have you joked about your drinking, too?

 

I’m not just here to beat the drum and scream from the rooftops, I’m here for you. Our SHOUT Sobriety program for people early in the process of recovery offers real connection to real people, and all the tools I used to find my permanent sobriety. If you are ready, we are ready for you. SHOUT Sobriety is a donation-based program, and we ask all participants for a $25 per month recurring donation to support the mission to destroy the stigma associated with alcoholism. If you can’t ignore the pictures, if the statistics make an impact or if you don’t think dependence is funny any more, we are here for you.

SHOUT Sobriety

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21 Comments
  • Reply
    Chloe
    March 25, 2020 at 5:56 am

    Powerful. This pandemic is bringing another one to light and I’m scared about both.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      March 25, 2020 at 6:41 am

      They are both scary, Chloe! Thanks for reading.

  • Reply
    hilary Keim
    March 25, 2020 at 7:46 am

    This is powerful insight, Matt. I’m positioned dead-center in the Strugglebus of this alcoholic purgatory. I was sober for ten and a half years; relapsed in July of ’18. Checked myself into rehab (twice) in the last seven months and was discharged just three and a half weeks ago. Today I have 51 days clean and sober. But, holy shit, this environment is callous, tempting and nearly impossible for me in early sobriety. The things that I need – community, new friends, hugs, shared space and safety, routine, my yoga studio…. Everything is shut down. I feel like my recovery is on hold. I am able to intellectualize this and remind myself that I can be creative and still get access to these things I need to lay groundwork for this hard first year. But, I’m waffling so hard. There are a lot of ‘what’s the point?’ shouts and tremors from the annals of addiction’s big voice. It sucks. I live in Boise and our liquor stores are beaming and so wide open. The big red font is glaring and sexier than ever.
    I only recently discovered you and your article in EJ… I’ll be staying tuned, Matt. Oh my God, I cannot do this alone.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      March 25, 2020 at 7:53 am

      I understand 100% where you are coming from, Hilary. Have you considered our SHOUT Sobriety program? Real connection with real people sharing the same struggles. Here is more information. I hope we stay connected.

      https://thestigma.org/shout-sobriety/

  • Reply
    Kim
    March 25, 2020 at 8:57 am

    A bar by our house where locals hang out closed March 16th. A few days later a friend drove through the parking lot and said some regulars were drinking in the parking lot because they didn’t know what else to do with themselves or where to go. My bf & I could only express sadness about the situation.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      March 25, 2020 at 9:22 am

      It is so sad. Don’t we want more out of life? Thanks for sharing this, Kim.

  • Reply
    Jennifer Long
    March 25, 2020 at 9:10 am

    I am on day 37 of my sobriety and I am becoming more and more frightened by the Facebook posts about drinking and how to get alcohol delivered and so on. I live in OH and we have liquor stores open and beer and wine, along with lower proof spirits, so there is nothing but escalation happening. Makes me sad.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      March 25, 2020 at 9:25 am

      Congratulations on over a month of sobriety! Jennifer. That is outstanding. One of the things we are focusing in in SHOUT Sobriety right now is this: Think how proud you will feel, how much you will have grown your sobriety muscles, when you make it through this pandemic sober. It will be a tremendous feeling and propel you further down the road of recovery!

  • Reply
    Sloane Wilke
    March 25, 2020 at 9:25 am

    Wow. I knew alcoholism ran rampant in our society but I had no idea that it affected more people than cancer. That’s….sobering.

    Here in Memphis, we have been ordered to ‘shelter in place’ as of 6 pm last night. Only “essential” businesses and medical facilities are allowed to remain open. Guess what made that list? Liquor stores! I think that speaks volumes. In Tennessee, grocery stores can sell beer and wine [no hard liquor] whereas gas stations and some convenience stores can only sell beer. Obviously heavy alcohol is the preference of some folks….I get it– it’s cheap and it packs a punch…but it is not ESSENTIAL in my opinion. You can stay alive with what you get at Kroger or the neighborhood market. And this is coming from an alcoholic [recovering] who was so dependent on alcohol at the end I was having seizures and camethisclose to dying. Even if I was in active alcoholism my opinion on this would not change.

    I thank you for recognizing that alcohol is necessary for some individuals during this time because it is literally a matter of life or death. Alcohol and benzodiazepines are the only two substances you cannot quit cold turkey once you get past a certain point– medical intervention and detox is imperative. Even heroin does not require a medical detox. You’ll feel like hell times infinity [been there too] but you will not die. Sometimes people can’t “just quit” even if they want to with every ounce of their being.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      March 25, 2020 at 9:31 am

      Thank you for sharing that the story is similar in the Southeast, Sloane. I hope we take a look at this nationally when the crisis is over, and consider the two factors about keeping liquor stores open. First, that is was necessary because closing them would have been deadly, and second, that we have a huge dependency problem across the country. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  • Reply
    Corey
    March 25, 2020 at 5:04 pm

    I have been abstinent now for eleven months. Funny, this has been the greatest social distancing thing I have ever done, and left me well prepared for this time of mandatory solitude. Sobriety in many ways has sucked for me because of a lack of connection with other humans going through the same thing. I cannot do AA, it is just not for me. I don’t so much wish that I could drink again as much as I wish that everybody else could be on the same page as me. I know that is never going to happen, though.

    If I were in my drinking mode right now I would be panicked at the thought of not having enough booze to get me through the crisis. And mixers! Heaven forbid I not have something sweet on hand to dilute my poison and make it easier to choke down. How liberating to not have to worry about that! It is ridiculous that liquor stores and pot “dispensaries” are considered essential. I know that even at the zenith of my alcoholic selfishness I would’nt have been deluded enough to think that my pathetic addiction was anybody else’s problem. I would have found a way to get my fix, though.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      March 25, 2020 at 5:12 pm

      Congratulations on 11 months, Corey! In my experience, a year was a big turning point, especially for neurotransmitter regeneration. Getting those brain chemicals firing again is a huge deal. Hopefully, you are almost there. You mentioned your lack of connection. We offer that in our SHOUT Sobriety program. I hope you’ll check us out!

      https://thestigma.org/shout-sobriety/

      • Reply
        Corey
        March 25, 2020 at 5:28 pm

        Thanks! Hopefully I haven’t ruined any neurotransmitter regeneration by being heavily addicted to sugar as a substitute. Ben and Jerry’s, M&M’s, you name it. After years of heavy drinking I was no longer even hungry any more. One of the great joys of sobriety was getting back an appetite, but of course I took that too far, and now I gobble junk-food with gusto. Not sustainable, but I’m sure some of my fellow ex-alkies can relate. Oh, the simple joy of eating something and enjoying it. One of many things I let alcohol rob from me.

  • Reply
    Shannon Roberts
    March 26, 2020 at 5:38 pm

    I am way new to sobriety (21 days) and feeling exceptionally good about myself. Maybe even a bit arrogant. Because this pandemic expanded simultaneously to my sobriety I am wondering how I will feel when life goes back to “normal” and I am expected to be social and out of the house. I have a wonderful home support system and I am truly happy here in my home cocoon but my real life includes adventures on the road in our RV, camping, music festivals, reunions, etc. and what then? For now, I will bask in my healthiness and take this all one day at a time. Right?

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      March 26, 2020 at 5:50 pm

      Congratulations on your first three weeks, Shannon. That is awesome! Have you ever heard of the “pink cloud?” You are probably experiencing it. It is basically a feeling of relief from finally addressing your drinking. You are right to expect this will eventually get harder. Much harder in fact. Have you read my Guide to Early Sobriety? Lots of tips based on my experiences in there. Here is a link:
      https://soberandunashamed.com/guide-to-early-sobriety/

      If you are interested in connection and community, please check out our SHOUT Sobriety group. We’d love to walk the walk with you!

  • Reply
    Joe
    April 1, 2020 at 8:58 am

    where is your outrage, shaming adjectives and descriptions about pot? I don’t see references to pathetic people standing in lines (just one that I read in the whole article), labels, (i.e. I don’t see any reference to marijuana-aholic), shame, despair, hand wringing, etc. about the pot smokers. Of course not – there is such a double standard in the U.S. about people who use alcohol as their drug of choice vs. pot. I live with a pothead and he has absolutely no shame, despair or self-judgement going on regarding his drug use, but looks down the nose at me and anyone else who happen to use alcohol to numb the horrific pandemic going on right now in our country. The answer is not to single out alcohol and apply all of the useless derogatory rhetoric we see every day by self-righteous people in so-called recovery. The answer is to stop the stigma and stop the shame. We all have our reasons for what we do. I am disappointed in your tone-deaf article since you are otherwise very informative.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      April 1, 2020 at 10:36 am

      Weed is just not my jam, Joe. I am terrified and outraged about lung cancer, type 2 diabetes and the trillions of dollars of national debt, too, but that’s not what this forum is about. It sounds like you have the passion to write about the harms of marijuana, and I’ll support you if you do, because I think it’s serious. I am fighting a huge uphill battle to change public perception about alcohol. I just don’t have any leftover energy for the other evils we face. I’m not sure what you mean by, “so-called recovery,” but I can assure you, recovery is a blessing in my life.

      Here is my take on marijuana. I have written about it. I just don’t have the bandwidth to write about it frequently, Joe. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      https://soberandunashamed.com/marijuana-the-cure-for-alcoholism/

  • Reply
    Sloane Wilke
    April 1, 2020 at 10:10 am

    With all due respect, I find this to be an apples and oranges comparison. What’s the worst that can happen after you’ve had too much marijuana? You fall asleep? Get too silly? Too lazy? Even those who are ‘too high’ to drive almost always have the wherewithal [at least from what I’ve observed] to realize they either need a designated driver or shouldn’t go anywhere. Marijuana has medicinal uses. Drinking alcohol does not. I’ve witnessed firsthand what marijuana can do for cancer, chronic pain, and terminally ill patients. Alcohol has no such place in that equation.

    Worth noting is the fact that I detest marijuana for personal use. Yet just because it’s not for me doesn’t mean that it’s beneficial to many. And I definitely believe it is a far lesser evil [because people who use too much of it can have negative consequences] than alcohol.

    I feel as though I am qualified to share my opinion because I am an alcoholic, heroin, meth, and crack addict in recovery. I abstain from all mind-altering substances though in my past life I have used them excessively.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      April 1, 2020 at 10:30 am

      I disagree, Sloane. Marijuana has the same impact as alcohol on our neurochemistry. It hijacks our pleasure centers and subconscious minds, and makes emotional and mental health just as impossible as alcohol. I am not disputing the true medical applications, but I am very concerned about the concept that weed is safe in comparison to alcohol. I do not believe that to be true.

  • Reply
    Sloane Wilke
    April 1, 2020 at 11:07 am

    I don’t think it is entirely safe. That’s why I made sure to mention that it can have negative consequences and is the lesser of two evils. In an ideal world everyone would abstain from alcohol and drugs…but I’d much rather deal with [or be] somebody who uses too much marijuana than too much alcohoI.

    I have never been addicted to marijuana. I would think maybe this is because I wasn’t a fan of how it made me feel– but then again I have never liked how crack made me feel and that very quickly turned into an addiction that brought me to my knees. Regardless of how much one uses marijuana, I am glad that it is safer to detox [if that is a necessary step] from than alcohol. I’ve never heard of any seizures or death associated with marijuana withdrawal.

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