How The Lockdown Helped India's Youth Stay Sober

With no social drinking and home stocks running dry, coronavirus helped to keep addictions at bay.

Suman Mahfuz Quazi

You know that feeling when you tuck into a molten chocolate cake and the gooey liquid spreads like an avalanche, flooding your taste buds with chocolatey goodness? It is easier to explain such feelings of euphoria, simply because more people can relate to it, than say when you talk about how the first hit of a joint hits your head, triggering dopamine release. Not to mention, the moral judgement around the use of substances – legal and illegal – such as cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana or weed and cocaine, among a litany of other intoxicants that have slowly crept into the lives of modern, urban and young Indians as “recreational” norms.

For some, it’s an addiction, for others a dependency and for many more still, a habit – but for all of them, a poison of choice. These substances are often sought as a modicum of release – from work pressure, anger, anxiety and boredom. Ironically though, for most substance users – and at a time when all of these emotions are surging, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which brought with it a host of emotional, psychological, financial and physical stresses – none of them were so easily available anymore.

A forced sober break

With the lockdown-enforced social distancing, since March 25, 2020, that led to the closure of most restaurants and bars in India, and the availability of liquor, tobacco and gutka largely hit due to the government ban, regular drinkers, smokers and users of weed, learnt to be, well, sober. Though the government eventually allowed alcohol delivery through an e-token system, the process was cumbersome, compared to waltzing into your neighbourhood alcohol theka (booze shop) and walking away with a khamba (a file of alcohol).

Shushir Sen, a 35-year-old journalist, describes his relationship with alcohol as a dependency, adding that much of his alcohol consumption was intrinsically entwined with socialising. With parties, both outside and at home, being ruled out, Sen was able to cut down on drinking. “When the lockdown began, I had three quarter-sized bottles of alcohol at home, which would typically be gone in two days. But knowing that it won’t be easily available, made me pace out the alcohol I had. I started drinking in moderation,” he shares, adding that this was an important first step for him.

Freed up time for other activities

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For most yuppies, drinking, smoking, smoking up and chasing (cocaine) isn’t in itself the problem – as it would be for a clinical addict - but rather, a recreational activity, which becomes difficult to avoid, thanks to peer pressure. Echoing this, 31-year-old Kunal*, who works in the corporate sector says, “Normally, you work the whole week and so, you feel the compulsion to go out or meet friends over the weekend. That’s when most of us end up drinking, smoking or using substances, like cocaine. But when the frequency with which you do this reduces, as it did during the lockdown, you come to realise the futility of it all.” 

Kunal’s wife, Aparna*, a 30-year-old corporate worker, shares that the lockdown-induced sobriety helped them focus on other, more productive and fulfilling activities together. “Between work and partying on weekends, we would hardly get any time to do things together as a couple. That changed during the lockdown because staying sober didn’t just free up more time to do things like cooking or spending time with our cat, but also made us more receptive towards each other.”

Dealing with withdrawals

This is important. Often, the impact of heavy drinking or use of substances, such as weed and stimulants like cocaine and methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA), is felt in the following days. Side effects like, loss of appetite, nausea, sleep disorder and anxiety, can add up to give one a crippling hangover that can extend well into the whole weekend, after just a night’s debauchery. And that can have long-lasting effects on one’s mental health, too.

“Under the influence of substances, one can be aggressive. And in the following days, when the high comes down, there’s a crankiness that sets in. This has impacted our relationship for the worse in the past. Whereas in the lockdown, when we were sober, we were more eager to hear each other out,” Aparna reiterates.

The advantages of being sober

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Sobriety didn’t only affect the couples' relationships positively but also had other tangible benefits. “It did wonders to my bank balance, appetite and sleep cycle. Because there was nothing in my body to keep it unnaturally charged up, so I actually got sleep when I was supposed to,” Kunal adds.

Similarly, Sen, who had previously struggled with saving money, says, “I saved money for the first time in my life. Because of my lifestyle before the lockdown, even if I had money to save at the end of the month, I would inadvertently spend it on alcohol.”

While Sen managed to procure some alcohol from the black market in Mumbai, where prices were skyrocketing through the roof – 750ml of Old Monk rum originally priced at Rs 520 was going at Rs 4,500 during the lockdown – he staggered his consumption. “Because of my drinking, there used to be a constant lethargy. Now, I feel cleaner. I started having breakfast after seven years in my life and I woke up feeling fresher,” Sen adds.

Better ways to use time

Like, Aparna and Kunal, 25-year-old media professional Zayyan Sharif, too, feels that the lockdown period and unavailability of intoxicants helped him for the better. “Unfortunately, since cigarettes were still available, although at a premium, I continued to smoke just as much as I did normally. But I would indulge in drinking quite a bit, at least on two weekends in a month. And sometimes, even during the week. Because my work is so taxing, I would treat myself to a drink or two at night or smoke a joint with my roommate. But that’s no longer an option.” This, Sharif says, helped him in more ways than one.

Other than feeling healthier and saving money, cutting down substance intake positively impacted Sharif’s relationships. “I found myself talking to my family members and girlfriend a lot more. I felt like I have more time and more importantly, the mind space to address things that matter. During the lockdown, I actually made the effort to call up my near and dear ones to check up on them – things I hadn’t done in a long time,” the youngster tells us, adding that with partying and socialising out of the window, the lockdown taught him to look at other ways of spending his time, be it watching movies with his girlfriend or cooking with his roommate.

Healthier and more productive

But why are we talking about this at all? The funny thing with addiction/dependency is that most people impacted by it already have the thought of “quitting at some point” at the back of their minds. The tough bit, for most, is to know where to begin. But the lockdown, in effect, did that job for them. So, in a way, and ironically, a global health disaster is now helping scores of young adults stay healthier.

For 28-year-old musician, Sujan Sengupta, who smokes up regularly, the lockdown brought a long bout of absolute sobriety. “I used to smoke cigarettes regularly many years ago, and I remember feeling exponentially better when I quit, which is why I never went back,” he recalls, adding that he felt much more productive. While Sengupta had already cut down on his weed-intake, limiting its consumption to the second half of the day, allowed him to focus on his music with new gusto. “There were so many tracks and other work that I just wasn’t being able to come around to. I managed to get quite a bit done.”

Considering that drug use is often triggered by emotions – happiness, anger, enjoyment – many slowly become reliant on these substances for cathartic release, before it becomes a habit. “Whether we want to accept it or not, this [pandemic] is going to change all our lives forever,” Sengupta asserts.

And like, Sengupta, Sen, Kunal, Aparna and Sharif, too, are all hoping to carry on the lessons learnt during this pandemic into their future. One they are envisioning to be more wholesome - with less alcohol, moderate use of intoxicants and measured partying.

Photo: Shutterstock

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