Are we drinking more in the lockdown? Hard to know, writes David Slack, but we’re certainly having to get creative about it.

Almost every phone call I’ve answered this week has begun the same way: “You still off the drink, then?”

Fair question. What a time to be not drinking.

The lockdown was announced and almost instantly lines formed at all the important places: Mitre 10, Countdown, any place you could get your hands on some booze.

Liquor. The perfect accompaniment to a celebration, the perfect accompaniment to agony and dread.

The national medicine. We like our liquor here at the end of the world but still not far enough away to escape a virus doing vast harm to humanity, stock markets and jobs. And boy have we been taking to it in the past few days; drinking, as a friend jokingly put it, like every day is Friday night. Because stuff, or a stronger word, is getting real.

What’s the barometer of agony and dread and realness? Take a look at the correctly-socially-distanced people forming an orderly queue outside a West Auckland bottle shop. The line is long, with many an unwinding look.

You could see it as a barometer of surrender, or fecklessness, or something like that. But you might also see it as a reassuring sign that when the going gets tough, Kiwis get thinking. Because if you’re standing in a line in West Auckland for booze, you’re standing in line for access to something – spirits – you can get in only a few places.

Right now the only place you can get your hands on a Woody, or any other form of spirit, is a licensing trust bottle shop. Supermarkets don’t sell the good stuff.

Lines outside West Liquor in Glen Eden. Photo: B O’Rourke

Is this encouraging bad behaviour? Are the trusts, by selling spirits or RTDs, encouraging people to drive out west, out of their local lockdown? Debate on Facebook forums is strong. A sense of humour is also there. Someone wrote in praise of people with the wit to come hunting for a “Waitakere daiquiri”

It’s not what we’re drinking, it’s what we’re prepared to do to get some. TVNZ reports on kava group get-togethers in South Auckland being broadcast live on Facebook and, even after cancellation, some continuing to mingle in private gatherings.

Waitakere daiquiri? Maybe Waitakere daycare. In Queenstown, excited young tourists deemed their group of 60 to be a bubble and got stuck in until police were called. Scroll through the young people on Instagram who don’t have work and there’s plenty of grog being grammed. That’s not new by any means, but where once the drink was the prop more often now it’s the hero.

Are we leaning on it? Are we leaning in? Are we falling over?

I said, to one friend who asked if I was still off the drink, “oh hell yeah”. I told him: whatever I’d be drinking if I was back on it, it’d be a wrong amount. I also tell people with both relief and surprise that the worse things get, the less inclined I feel inclined to pour one out. It’s as though the virus is taking things away from me, but it can never take that.

We all know it’s not a great idea to have too much. We also all know that for those first few days, at least, we have looked at the world on fire and said: pour another.

On day one of lockdown, a friend, Katy – not her real name – asked her Facebook friends how they were all going. Almost everyone posted pics of themselves with a large glass of alcohol.

“I’m also sleeping terribly,” she says, “and sometimes there’s that sweet spot in how much booze you’ve had that means you hit the pillow and fall fast asleep – like that sweet spot that makes you play pool really well.”

Katy 2 – not her real name – says: “I normally drink very little. Maybe only a couple a week. Since lockdown I’ve been craving, and drinking four to five a night, especially in the first week. Dialling back a bit now, but was absolutely using it as a coping mechanism.”

Katy 3 – not his real name – said: “Definitely escalated immediately before and into the lockdown, but consciously leveling out now. It’s unhelpful that I don’t feel I can go out all the time to get kombucha, which is my go-to beer replacement.”

Katy 4, an old friend, says drinking is steady and different. She started lockdown with a daily early evening G&T “but I quickly gave those up when it gave me a morning headache. We’ve given up our alcohol-free early weekdays but we also binge less with friends at the weekend. Normally it might be boozy barbecue with friends that ends much later.”

She thinks for a moment then says, “This whole lockdown feels a bit like retirement I imagine, and I know that a lot of retired people do hold out for that cocktail hour.”

“Hunkering down shouldn’t mean drinking up,” said the New Zealand Alcohol Beverages Council in a press release as this all kicked off. “It would be easy for those that drink to drink a little more in these times of uncertainty but let’s keep it safe and social.”

It feels as though people will be following that advice at some point but not quite yet. Not until we’ve got over the shock of the whole thing and don’t hurry us, thanks very much.

A week on, talking to friends, it feels as though maybe there might be a leveling off. But you wouldn’t want to be sure about that.

As I write this, my wife is in one group of Zoom drinks, my daughter and her boyfriend are in another and I’m late for one with a bunch of journo friends. The coming together is helping. The booze can too.

Maybe we’re levelling out for now. Maybe if things get worse we might revert. At that point, I would endorse going at it the way I once saw Kim Hill doing on the sole occasion I had a drink with her. Someone asked: “Another, Kim?” She said: “Okay. But just to the top.”

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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