With so much in the news about the rise in hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19, it’s easy to miss an unrelated affliction that sends a growing number of patients, particularly young to middle-aged women, into intensive care—alcohol-induced disease.
America’s courtship with alcohol has waxed and waned ever since Europeans first brought their love of liquor to these shores. The Pilgrims reacted against it. Its popularity returned until the temperance movement put an end to it. The roaring 20s brought it back, but then along came Prohibition. From the 1990s to the present, alcohol consumption has escalated, precipitating life-threatening disease.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NI-AAA), rates of alcohol-related deaths among women have increased 85% over the past 20 years with a noticeable rise during the current coronavirus pandemic in hospitalizations due to liver disease, breast cancer, and cardiovascular issues caused by the consumption of alcoholic beverages. (Katie Kindelan, NBC News, “Women and Alcohol: Breaking down the myths and stigma,” April 31, 2021) And these numbers will likely get worse.
Luckily, I’m not included in those statistics. I’ve been sober since 2008.
I don’t know when I began to rely on alcohol. At first, I drank socially, at parties, wedding receptions, dinners out, happy hours, picnics. I never said no to a refill. At some point I became more focused on where I’d left my wine glass than on the person I was talking to. I gravitated toward other drinkers, finding nondrinkers boring. The social drinking soon escalated into drinking alone—a clear sign that I was in trouble. I drank if I was happy or sad or tense or relaxed or worried or angry or lonely or romantic or sleepless. I watched the sunset and drank. I sailed and drank. I cooked and drank. My wine glasses got larger and larger.
Several times, I attempted to drink less. Instead of two bottles of wine a week, I’d buy one—a magnum. I told myself that I could stop if I wanted to, but I didn’t want to join the ranks of the mirthless teetotalers. I rationalized that red wine was good for my heart. My husband and children begged me to stop, but I ignored them. And then a wonderful thing happened.
My heart sent me a warning. One night a couple of hours after sinking into the regular wine-induced oblivion, I was awakened by an insistent and racing pulse, as if I’d just run up and down the stairs 10 times. When it wouldn’t slow down, I had my husband call the ambulance. The hospital kept me under observation overnight. No one mentioned a possible connection with the drinks I’d imbibed a few hours earlier. But I suspected alcohol was affecting my heart. When the palpitations returned, I got scared. And I quit. Since then, the tachycardia has not returned.
It wasn’t easy to stop, but I knew it had to be permanent because all my past attempts to drink less had failed. With just one alcoholic beverage, I’d fall off the wagon. Certain circumstances required greater vigilance. It took a while for me to disassociate certain types of food from the accompanying libation de rigueur. What was Japanese food without sake? Italian food without wine? Mexican food without tequila? Spanish food without sangria? A South Beach breakfast without mimosa?
The first few weeks, I drank vast amounts of water with meals. At pubs, I tried nonalcoholic beer. Not bad, really. And they’re getting better-tasting all the time. In grocery stores, I avoided walking past the rows and rows of beer and wine and kept clear of the wine-tasting tables that I used to frequent. Tea time replaced happy hour. Fizzy water became my companion at sunset. Chocolate and ice cream tasted better than ever.
I was wrong to believe that alcohol helped the cardiovascular system. It does the opposite. A recent study led by Dr. Gregory Marcus, a professor of cardiology at the University of California, San Francisco, shows that even one glass of wine or beer can cause atrial fibrillation which can lead to a stroke. Marcus said in his report that “whenever we consume alcohol, it is presumably having a nearly immediate effect on the electrical workings of our hearts.” (Quoted by Anahad O’Connor, New York Times, “How Alcohol Affects the Heart,” Aug 30, 2021) That would explain my heart’s wild pulse after drinking.
Alcohol affects the brain also. A recent study at the University of Oxford found that it reduces the volume of gray matter—the part that processes information and retains memory. Poor performance on memory tests is indicative of this reduction. Anya Topiwa, a senior clinical researcher in the study, said that people are incorrect to think that drinking moderately is harmless, or somehow protects us. (Amy Woodyatt, CNN, “Drinking any amount of alcohol causes damage to the brain, study finds,” Updated May 20, 2021) My grandmother, mother, and all three sisters suffered from dementia, so I am genetically predisposed to follow suit. Anything I can do to help delay the onset is welcome.
I don’t have a problem being around others who drink. But there have been times when I’ve thought that maybe, just maybe, I could try a wee sip. The New Yorker writer and art critic Peter Schjeldahl, a 29-years-sober alcoholic, also fancied drinking again, but he said the thought “evanesced in a flash… Fellow-alcoholics know that the beast, though out of mind, survives. My thought was a foul little burp from a cave.” (“The Art of Dying,” Dec 23, 2019) Yes, the beast is always there.
Despite pestilence, conflagration, deluge, and cutthroat politics, I’ve remained true to my vow of sobriety these 13 years. I want to engage with the world, not hide from it, and I want to keep my wits about me while I still have them.
Born and raised in Altavista, Virginia, Lynda Pinto-Torres, née Smith, has returned to the area after a lifetime of traveling, teaching, playing the piano, and writing. She and her husband live in the outskirts of Bedford, Virginia where she continues to work on her first novel, a work of historical fiction.