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How The Pandemic Inspired Author Maggie Downs To Quit Drinking

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Over the past year and a half, really, we've heard from Americans about how this pandemic has changed their lives, their work, their health, their daily habits. Maggie Downs got her start as a writer, well, through drinking.

MAGGIE DOWNS: For many years, I wrote a column for the local newspaper called Drink of the Week. So every week, I would go out to bars. I would try their special cocktails and then write a little article about what makes it special.

SIMON: She no longer writes Drink of the Week. But living in a place like Palm Springs, her social life was infused with alcohol.

DOWNS: People come to Palm Springs for vacation and to relax. And so I was always the happy hour friend. I was the person who - I never had to be coerced to go out. And I knew all the cool bars. It was very much just a part of me.

SIMON: In the spring of 2020, when stay-at-home orders went into effect and people scrambled to buy toilet tissue and antibacterial sprays, Maggie Downs piled up liquor.

DOWNS: Because I had been drinking daily, I was prepared. And I thought, this is how I'm going to get through the pandemic. I am just going to numb my way through it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DOWNS: I felt there was no delineation between work and my personal life. And happy hour was creeping earlier and earlier every day, like one hour earlier until it was like a happy morning (laughter). And it just - it wasn't very healthy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Maggie Downs may help put a face on a statistic. Last year, alcohol consumption increased by 14% among adults, and the rise was especially dramatic among women. A study from researchers at the RAND Corporation found that women drank alcohol 41% more in 2020 than they did in 2019. After months of daily hangovers, Maggie Downs decided it was time to quit.

DOWNS: I didn't realize there were so many paths to getting sober. I thought there was only AA and being in a basement with a bunch of people and drinking, you know, lukewarm coffee. And it turns out there are many paths. You know, I didn't pour out all the alcohol in my house. I didn't empty the pantries or anything. It was a point where my household was particularly low on alcohol, and I just decided to stop.

SIMON: With the help of phone apps, books, even a Peloton sobriety group, Maggie Downs has now been sober for 10 months. She says that she's sometimes been reluctant to tell her friends that she's sober.

DOWNS: So the thing is, I quit drinking, and I didn't tell anyone about it. Part of it was that I didn't want to fail. So I've been telling people slowly. The other day, when a friend of mine and I - we were making plans to go out for dinner. And I didn't know how to tell her. So I just sent her an awkward text that said, by the way, I don't drink alcohol anymore, but I still eat lots of food (laughter). And it felt like I was just blurting out this weird thing in the middle of a conversation. And what I've been learning is that it's scary to be vulnerable and show your friends how much you've changed during the pandemic. But I think it's also really gratifying to see that my friends are evolving and so am I.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS'S "ITHACA")

DOWNS: When I think about it too hard, like, oh, so I can never have another glass of champagne when I'm toasting a person or whatever, I start to get really anxious. And I think that's where the one day at a time comes in because as long as I'm not drinking today, I'm fine. I can't think about the possibilities that might or might not exist in the future. And it's very grounding to feel like I'm in the present again.

With the pandemic especially, there's this real burden of time, and you start to think about what are my priorities in life? What have I not done, and what do I still have yet to do? And I spent this whole year locked down and being very cautious to preserve my health. But what was it all for if I'm slowly killing myself? What was even the point?

I can do anything. I have so much time to write. I can be creative. I can follow any curiosity I have. I've started taking more classes. And I bought a pair of roller skates and (laughter) you know, just all sorts of things that I never would have had time to do or that I couldn't do because I was always out drinking. And so it was very empowering to think that I could reclaim my time and that I could just be liberated from holding myself back.

SIMON: Maggie Downs, a writer and journalist who lives in Palm Springs, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS'S "ITHACA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.