Calgary

Pandemic's stress and loneliness create dangerous cocktail for alcohol abuse

Some alcoholism treatment centres say the pandemic has seen more people looking for a cure to their woes at the bottom of a glass.

Treatment centres report seeing increase in clients over past year

A Calgary man attends a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. Some addiction treatment centres are saying they are seeing an increase in clients over the pandemic. (Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

Some alcoholism treatment centres say the pandemic has seen more people looking for a cure to their woes at the bottom of a glass.

Ben is one of those people.

"I was … a functioning alcoholic," he said. "Alcohol is a drug and it took over every part of my life … and I had nothing to do but free time to drink."

CBC has agreed not to use Ben's full name. 

Ben said he steadily saw his consumption increase while working in bars, but he didn't realize his new habit was an addiction until he lost his house, job, and car, in the floods that hit Calgary in 2013. 

In the morning I would have to put a shot of vodka in my coffee and I wouldn't necessarily get intoxicated, but I'd have to have it in my system to feel normal.- Ben

He tried one recovery program that didn't work for him before focusing on eating healthy, going to the gym and sleeping better. But when the pandemic hit and gyms closed, old habits returned.

"It progressed so fast, it had a hold on me, like I could not stop," he said. "In the morning I would have to put a shot of vodka in my coffee and I wouldn't necessarily get intoxicated, but I'd have to have it in my system to feel normal.

"I would go to work, I had my one drink before work, and then I'd come home and I'd do something as simple as watching the Food Network … but I would sit there for hours, just drink after drink."

Ben said every morning he was waking up and feeling depressed — unrelated to anything going on in his life at the time. 

The 33-year-old decided to get help from Simon House Recovery Centre. He signed up for a 12-week program, based on Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, at the Calgary addiction treatment centre. 

Ben, right, with counsellor Steven Archambault at Simon House. (Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

John Rook, president of the Simon House, said calls have increased dramatically and a dozen people are on the waitlist for the centre's programs. They currently have 66 clients. 

"People have lost their jobs. People are frustrated. People are feeling contained. And so what do they do? They turn to alcohol," he said.

Other recovery centres in Calgary, like 1835 House and Smart Clinic, are also reporting waitlists.

Capri Rasmussen, from Aventa, said it's seen a waitlist of three to four months this year for women seeking addiction treatment — and clients are managing additional recovery challenges like accessing child care and health concerns.

One-in-four people say drinking has increased

According to Statistics Canada, roughly a quarter of people say they have increased their alcohol consumption during the pandemic. After Ontario, the Prairie provinces have the highest rate of people self-reporting increased alcohol consumption at 27 per cent. 

Those who reported lower mental health were more likely to say they had increased substance use — reasons given included boredom, stress, convenience, loneliness and insomnia.

Simon House's rehabilitation program costs $6,400. But before spending that much, there are many ways to access help — online, by phone, or in person.

One of the most accessible continues to be Alcoholics Anonymous.

An Alcoholics Anonymous member holds a coin that indicates 24 hours of sobriety. (Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

Brian estimates the number of people attending meetings at his branch in south Calgary has doubled. CBC News has agreed to only use the 50-year-old's first name to preserve his anonymity, in accordance with AA rules.

"Seeing more people participate is good news in a way. Isolation is the worst thing for an alcoholic," Brian said.

Brian said a close friend was recently found dead in her apartment, surrounded by empty bottles. He said he wants people to know that they shouldn't be afraid to ask for help —"It's wonderful to let go of this mental torture and finally feel at peace."

Alberta Health Services offers an addiction helpline, which is available province-wide by calling 1-866-332-2322.

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story included the last name of one of the men receiving treatment, which has since been removed.
    Apr 18, 2021 1:19 PM MT

With files from Axel Tardieu

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