Drink me up and drink me down. 2020 has been a roller coaster year in which anxiety, depression, and related substance abuse have increased substantially. Drinking alcohol is considered by many to be an acceptable escape from loneliness, stress, and sorrow. But in this epic year of crisis after traumatic crisis, it can be hard to know whether the hopelessness you are feeling started when you picked up a drink to cure it, or was intensified by the drinking itself. We can easily drink ourselves into a depressive stupor without realizing that the alcohol has become the cause. It’s often a chicken/egg situation. Did the depression cause the drinking or did the drinking cause the depression?
We are in a health crisis with COVID-19, that is intensifying another health crisis with alcohol use and depression. At the beginning of this year, before 2020 became synonymous with bad news, it was reported that there had been a 100% increase in alcohol-related deaths in the United States. A doubling in the 20 years since the turn of the century. Reports have been published monthly since the lockdowns began in March, that people are increasinly depressed and drinking more as well. We’re trying to escape the inevitability of day after day of bad news, and we are using alcohol to do it.
We often associate death by alcoholic meltdown with men who drink hard for years, but did you know that women are at greater risk than men if they drink at comparable levels? It is women who have the highest increase in alcohol related fatalities. Women have a tendency to dive deeper, harder, and faster into alcohol addiction and depression. The serotonin system in women’s brains is damaged more readily by alcohol than that in men’s brains.
“Serotonin impacts every part of the body, from one’s motor skills to emotions, regulating one’s mood, social behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory and sexual desire…. there (is) a significant decrease in the function of the serotonin system, which regulates impulse control and mood, in women’s brains after just four years of problem drinking.
For those of us who manage to stop drinking, those of us who manage to step back from the newly feminised marketing of alcohol and stay sober, we sometimes find that sobriety is not the cure in and of itself for the depression we felt while drinking. Going sober is often followed by a sort of pink cloud euphoria at coming out from under the rock of dealing with daily hangovers, but we can suddenly feel everything, the good and the bad, and if we continue to be faced with feelings of despair and depression after cutting out the alcohol, we may question ourselves.
What is wrong with me –
Part of the process of staying sober is figuring out that chicken and egg equation of that alcohol and depression rollercoaster. Did the drinking inspire the depression or did the depression exist on its own? Now that I’ve stopped trying to self medicate with alcohol, what is the solution that is best for me?
Why are we depressed? We’ve put in the hard work to become sober, shouldn’t our problems be solved? Shouldn’t this depression that was obviously brought on by alcohol disappear when alcohol is out of the equation?
After self medicating unsuccessfully with alcohol some of us find that we need to replace that failed cure with some sort of talk therapy or anti-depressants. The idea of relying on something or someone else, after freeing ourselves from alcohol, can be perceived as weak by our very loud and obnoxious inner critics.
I weaned myself off my anti-depressants recently and am beginning to work with a therapist. I still remain undecided about whether I want to go back on anti-depressants or not. I want to try other avenues first and I think that’s okay. In my experience after giving up alcohol, I’ve felt so victorious and didn’t want to turn to another vice, medication, to bring my moods up to baseline. I am in the early months of sobriety and time will tell whether I need to re-medicate or not.
From memory, I’ve always had abnormal moods since I was a teenager. A close friend of mine died suddenly when I was 15 and I found alcohol to be a relief from my grief. Was this the start of the depressive cycle and would it have remained if it wasn’t perpetuated by alcohol for the next 12 years? Or did drinking begin the depressive cycle when I learnt that it gave me relief from my feelings, leaving me completely unable to deal with even the smallest feeling? Chicken/egg? Was it the depression that caused the alcohol abuse or the alcohol abuse that caused the depression. Only time will tell.
In the meantime, it is important for me to be able to come to my community and safely tell my story, in a place where there is no judgement. This enables me to work through my depressive episodes when they come and empower me not to pick up the bottle and drown myself in it. Finding my voice and using it is allowing me to stay off the alcohol depression roller coaster.
The following perspective on alcohol, depression and anti-depressants – My Monster– was shared in my community and spoke to me. It tells a similar story to mine. A story that may have a different resolution. But either way. To get off the alcohol depression roller coaster you need to figure out your own chicken/egg equation. And it starts with putting down the bottle and getting your feet back on solid ground.
The depression monster first dug its claws into me when I was 17 and from then on it was always there—dragging me away from a worthwhile life. I didn’t know my monster’s name until I was 20. Mixed and influential messages from various sources, amateur and professional, fell broadly into two categories:
a) depression is a choice
b) depression is a valid medical condition
Suggested plans of action accompanying A-type views could be summarized under the heading ‘HTFU’, whereas B-type advocates, also known as ‘soft cocks’, were more likely to encourage a blend of support and tablets. For several years I went with the soft cocks. In retrospect, I can see that I made important progress in that time: I started leaving the house regularly; volunteered at an Oxfam shop; found a job that forced me to interact with other humans; and eventually started spending time with other humans just for fun.
But I couldn’t let go of the shame I felt over choosing support and tablets. I suppose I’d managed to synthesize all of the advice and information I’d received into one succinct and bitter line which I repeated incessantly to myself: I’m defective. This broken record of self-loathing was reinforced by a CV that I imagined screamed underachiever. For years its most dazzling bullet points included my BA (minus the honors year I’d dropped out of because I was a quitter who never finished anything); my volunteer work at Oxfam; and 5 years as a Jenny Craig Weight Loss Consultant. By the time I’d reached the first phase of old age (my mid- twenties), I hadn’t changed the world at all. Ergo, I was a failure.
So I came up with a brilliant plan to improve myself: I’d start doing things that scared me—things like flying, applying for new jobs, further study. I’d quit medication cold turkey too because tough people do things cold turkey. Tough people never need help. It took me four years to tick off all the dot points on my impressive to-do list. My achievement timeline looked like this:
2006: Quit medication cold turkey. (Very painful, possibly tough, definitely stupid. Wouldn’t recommend ‘achieving’ this to anyone.) Also enrolled part-time in a journalism degree.
2007: Started new job with emergency services.
2008: Ended long-term, safe but stifling relationship. Went to China and the US.
2009: Finished journalism degree.
Throughout all of this ‘progress’ I was drinking like Frank Sinatra. I’d started drinking when I was 17. I doubt my reason for drinking were ever extraordinary. At first I drank because alcohol was new and fun- a magic potion that allowed me to shed my 7-year-old-awkward-girl suit.
While sands slipped through my hourglass, I learned that drinking buys a lot of great stuff—acceptance, escape from discomfort (minor and major, emotional and physical), escape from anything that ultimately requires facing up to, really. Hindsight can be terrifying, and I reckon the only thing that diminishes that terror is sharing lessons learned with others. If I had to plot my drinking timeline on a graph, it’d show a sharp and uninterrupted incline starting in 2006—the year of my first big achievement. Yes, Geri, connect those dots and suffer in your jocks as you reconsider the thing you were so proud of.
Tablets might have been shameful, but in my world drinkers were champions. My substitute medicine was always accessible and relatively cheap. And I could or would not see that I was digging an ever-widening trench between who I was and who I wanted to be. Why was it so hard to put down that shovel?
I think a key part of the answer is that my social world revolved around alcohol and in Australia that’s almost monotonously normal. This makes it very easy for problem drinkers to escape detection. At most social gatherings people who decline a drink are usually subjected to intensive interrogation that stops just short of a full-body cavity search. If you hang out with heavy drinkers you can expect to enjoy the kind of welcome ordinarily reserved for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Abstinence can be thirsty work—much easier to go with the flow and forget where it’s carrying you.
I’d developed a taste for oblivion, too. It felt good, and if something feels good you don’t over think it, you just do it. Who cares if it’s only short-term gratification and bugger the consequences, yeah? Self-sacrifice is for masochistic losers, for example, Christians and vegetarians. I secretly believed that modern medicine would save me from any dire consequences anyway. As a faithless person, I had some truly wild beliefs about science.
At 31 I made another magical discovery as a result of persistent sleeplessness: calmative medication (Mersyndol then Restavit then Xanax). Curiously, I wasn’t ashamed of taking any of those tablets. It was what tough people sometimes had to do to get some well-earned Zs. It wasn’t long before I made a subsequent magical discovery: calmative meds plus alcohol equal a sleep only rivaled by anesthetic or death. Pretty clever, I know, but apparently not clever enough to consider that the same combination in the correct quantities could actually produce death. Oh well, everyone makes mistakes.
After a couple of years, the rickety support structure I’d set up for myself collapsed. Predictable maybe, but I was still pretty shocked. Under the influence of a broken toe and a 2-litre goon-bag hangover, I committed to a 12-month dry spell with an online community.
At 33, I finally noticed the ‘terms and conditions’ asterisk on the bottle’s price tag.
I did save money and I lost 8kg eventually, but my mental health didn’t improve simply by omitting alcohol. Life without anaesthetic was challenging and often uncomfortable. I learned that getting older isn’t the same as growing up, just as being smart isn’t the same as being wise. In short, there was a bunch of stuff I had to face. I had to admit that I needed support… and tablets. But I’ve generally found that admitting errors sucks much less than the outcomes of concealing them. Toward the end of my 12 months I posted this on my community blog:
When I consider how I was before I’m so glad I decided to change despite all of the discomfort its involved. My robot life, in some ways, was easier—going through the motions, sticking to my precious routine, disconnected from feelings. It was an operating system I developed in response to a deep sense of worthlessness (horrible to think that the operating system and the worthlessness that inspired it were perpetuated by the same fuel) and an inability to face all the sadness I saw in the world. I suppose the aim of my game was self-preservation. I now believe that aim was flawed. (Can a life spent in cotton wool and ether be thought of as lived?) This community has given me the time and clarity I needed to work out what matters to me. It’s taken a while, but now that I’ve done it, I’m no longer willing to make choices that support comfort and convenience at the expense of what I hold dear.
I’m 34 now, and I still feel the jab of those claws every so often. It’s OK to feel things though—that’s how we grow.
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