“I used alcohol as a way to numb and escape,” Toronto-based Jen McNeely told HuffPost Canada. The working mom of a six-year-old son has a decade of sobriety under her belt and is a facilitator of the Toronto She Recovers support group. She recalls when she’d react to challenging situations by turning to drinking.
Pandemic stress affects everyone, and many worried Canadians are turning to legal substances to cope with one of the most challenging periods of our lifetimes; one in five Canadians staying at home has a drink a day, and alcohol and cannabis consumption are on the rise among current users, according to a study by the Canadian Red Cross, released in July. A York University study suggests that parents especially are drinking to cope with feelings of overwhelm.
Psychologists found that people with kids at home were more likely than non-parents to turn to alcohol before anything else to feel better. They posited that school worries, childcare, and burnout were their greatest sources of anxiety.
“Parents have been coping with many stressors and responsibilities during COVID-19, which potentially include working from home, homeschooling young children, and managing their own negative emotions,” assistant professor in the department of Psychology at York University Matthew Keough said, in a press release about this latest study.
We asked McNeely, as well as Lisha Di Gioacchino, an expert from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use And Addiction (CCSA) for wellness tips parents can keep in mind if they think their drinking or cannabis habits are becoming a problem:
Watch for red flags
McNeely said that many people struggling with substance overuse may sense they have a problem before others do. Some common red flags that may crop up during the pandemic, she noted, include losing your temper with a partner or children; feeling your anxiety spike, and getting the sense that “things are spiralling out of control.” For a drinking problem specifically, McNeely noted that signs include constant anticipation for a drink, a pattern of underestimating how much you’ll drink, and feeling self-hatred during hangovers.
Recognize the impact of shame and stigma
Stigma and internalized shame about substance use are pervasive, as media representation and stereotypes about drug and alcohol use are often derogatory. This is a significant barrier to recovery, Public Health cautioned on its website. Stigma and shame can lead people to unsafe usage and exacerbate the painful feelings that may be fuelling the urge to consume.
Know the risks of excess
At the same time, it is important for parents to seek support, when their use of alcohol exceeds Canada’s LRDGs and to be aware that children and youth who have a parent with a substance use disorder are at an increased risk of developing a substance use disorder themselves, as well as other mental health issues.
“This not a moral judgment whatsoever,” Di Gioacchino said. “We have circumstances in our lives that we use substances to cope with. It is important to understand that alcohol and other drug use can actually worsen anxiety and depression over time.”
Understand that “wine mom culture” isn’t funny
McNeely and many people in recovery find it offensive when parenting circles, especially mommy groups, normalize unhealthy drinking as the only way to cope with life. A “Back-To-School” display in a wine store recently went viral for all the wrong reasons.
The off-colour joke angered those who saw it as marketing groups making light of the overwhelming burdens mothers are going through during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Be aware that women are at a higher risk statistically
Di Gioacchino said that a CCSA survey of substance use during COVID-19 found that about 18 per cent of individuals who spent most of their time at home increased their alcohol use. Women cited stress as a reason for the increase in use more than men (57 per cent vs. 32 per cent).
“This aligns with previous research that shows women are more likely to use substances to cope with stress, trauma, violence, and colonial violence,” she pointed out. “This is the reason why we recommend expanded access to gender-competent, trauma- and violence-informed supports.”
She especially stressed that alcohol use during pregnancy, including before pregnancy recognition, can cause harm to women as well as causing Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
Know your limits
Each parent will have different thresholds for booze, but it’s good to know the average national guidelines: 10 drinks a week for women and 15 drinks a week for men, with intervals between drinks. For parents who want to track their consumption, it’s worth also noting the serving should be standard-sized — a wine bottle contains more beverage than the suggested 142 ml in a single glass.
The same goes for cannabis: National guidelines suggest ingesting once per week or only on weekends, although tolerance may differ from person to person.
Make self-care non-negotiable
For McNeely, working full-time as the founding publisher of She Does The City, on top of raising a son, has meant she’s needed to kick her healthy coping skills into overdrive to get through the pandemic.
“You’re going through burnouts for several weeks or months at a time. If you’re feeling depleted, you need to figure out ways to help yourself,” she said. “When you’re a new mom, they often say put your oxygen mask on before your kid’s. It’s really true.”
To do this, she has made a “non-negotiable” self-care routine, which includes regularly connecting with fellow sober people and taking nightly outdoor walks. She has also lowered her pre-pandemic expectations to match her new reality.
“With work. It’s not all going to get done. There’s just no way. I’m not a machine,” she said. “I have to take what I usually do, productivity-wise, and slice that in half.”
Do check-ins with yourself
For those in early recovery or testing the waters of sobriety, McNeely strongly suggests doing a body scan whenever the urge to drink or use a substance arises.
“When I was itching for a drink, I’d usually ask myself, ‘OK, am I hungry? Am I tired? Am I lonely?’” she said.
From there, parents can work on the underlying problem. If exhaustion is the root, she recommended figuring out how to get a break. “Maybe if you have a partner, say ‘Look I really need a morning to myself. Can you look after the kids?’”
Access support and community
It’s worth being aware of different recovery options, as quitting cold turkey isn’t ideal or possible for many people who misuse alcohol or cannabis, depending on their situations or level of reliance.
While in-person AA meetings aren’t happening, there are many support groups that use different frameworks, such as harm reduction or abstinence, that are still operating during the pandemic. Many are hosting virtual meet-ups every day, noted both McNeely and Di Gioacchino, who also accesses sobriety services.
There are also regulation skills people can develop on their own. Square or box breathing is an exercise the CCSA recommends in an infographic on coping skills during COVID-19.
The Canadian government also has a self-help portal that chief medical officer Dr. Theresa Tam has recommended.
And there’s no discounting quality time spent with family, something that the pandemic has allowed McNeely and her son to enjoy more of this summer, with camps cancelled.
“I would say that while no parent wants the situation, it has made us reevaluate how we schedule,” she said. “We’re going to try and carry this on.”
Are you in need of support? For addictions treatment helplines in Canada, consult the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. For information about available services at The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, call 1 800 463-2338 and press 2, or read more here.
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