Sipping Through Sickness: Illness and Alcohol Use Disorder

Sipping through sickness

As I lay in bed leveled with COVID for the fifth day in a row, I am reminded of how I used to drink through illness. It didn’t matter how sick I was, I would always drink. And that’s because I drank every day, so being sick was no exception.  

It may be surprising to some that someone could drink when they are sick. But, for people with substance use disorder, it’s probably not all that shocking. Alcohol was my self-care solution, and I always drank at the slightest inkling of physical or psychic discomfort. So of course I drank when I was sick — illness is uncomfortable.

With the flu or a cold, I would drink Hot Toddys. I heard of people drinking them when they were sick, so that was enough justification for me to consider it a form of medicine. Even though I never liked whiskey, I would gag them down. But, I never drank them for whatever medicinal effect they had (or likely, didn’t have). I drank them because even though I was sick, I still needed to drink. I just had to dress up my alcohol for the occasion. 

I would also drink screwdrivers when I was sick. There’s vitamin C in orange juice, right? Seemed like a logical choice at the time. Maybe just have orange juice, Laura. But more often than not, I just drank beer — my go-to. Why should being sick get in the way of my daily beer binge? And while I may have been too sick to go to work, I was never too sick to drink. 

Because I always drank while under the weather, it would take longer to recover because alcohol compromises the immune system. Drinking while ill further taxed my already over-taxed and sick system. So illness dragged on and made the recovery time longer. Alcohol also weakens the immune system, and would make a regular drinker like me more susceptible to infection from viruses and bacteria. 

While on vacation in 2015, I contracted a gnarly gastrointestinal infection called C-Diff. I was given a prescription of powerful antibiotics and was expected to make a pretty quick turnaround. After all, other than my drinking, I was a healthy 33-year-old and should have shaken that infection pretty quickly. 

But, because I drank through the antibiotics, I never got better. Isn’t that something a doctor tells you right away when taking antibiotics? Don’t drink while taking antibiotics. Well, I drank while taking the antibiotics and suffered with C-Diff for a year and a half because I didn’t prioritize my health for the 10 days it took to complete the medication. I just kept drinking and wondering why I wasn’t getting better. 

This is the kind of insanity I faced in my active substance use. Alcohol always took precedence over my health, much like alcohol took precedence over everything in my life at the end. But now that I’m sober and lying in bed with Covid, I wonder how I could drink through this. It’s simply too exhausting to do anything, even lift a glass. And I feel awful. 

But, 26 months ago I would be drinking right now, and thank god I don’t have to do that anymore. In sobriety, I can tolerate the discomfort and not have to choke down a Hot Toddy to feel better. And since I am not pouring alcohol into my already compromised immune system, I will recover from this quicker, too. I’ll add that to the list of the seemingly endless benefits of getting sober.


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