Drinking with ADHD

I try not to think of myself as an alcoholic.

I don’t really mind telling other people that I am an alcoholic – it gets the point across – but, strangely, I don’t like to use the word in my own head. I can feel myself mentally veering away from it.

To be an alcoholic is to have a problem forever. It is a life sentence.

It is never serving oneself a ladle of mulled wine at Christmas; never accepting a free shot of liqueur after an Italian meal; never sitting alone in a quiet pub with a book and a pint of cider.

Or, rather, it can be those things – but it comes with some ugly small print. It is vomiting brandy into the toilet on Christmas Eve; starting a loud argument with a partner in a restaurant; crying alone in that quiet pub while the bar staff try to ignore it.

Alcoholism and ADHD

Of all the ‘classic’ ADHD symptoms I have displayed, alcoholism has been by far the most damaging. I ruined my health, my relationships, my finances. Drinking led to terrible decisions and premature ageing. I’m not alone: a decent chunk of people with ADHD end up with dependence issues.

Terry Pratchett described the feeling of being one step beyond sober – of being ‘knurd’ – through the eyes of his policeman character Sam Vimes, who is also an alcoholic. At one point Vimes drinks some strong coffee and is plunged into a horribly real version of reality. White-knuckled and ashen-faced, he sits staring into the void until he’s brought back with a nip of whisky.

This is a horrendous and brief experience for Vimes, but it’s clear that his normal state of mind is a little closer to ‘knurd’ than is normal. Vimes’ colleagues reckon that he needs a couple of drinks in him just to get to regular people’s ‘sober’.

From what I can gather, this isn’t dissimilar to the problem that people with ADHD are said to have.

The theory is that dopamine (a happy drug that’s liberally squirted by most people’s frontal lobes), isn’t transported efficiently through our brains. As a result, we aren’t properly rewarded for everyday tasks like putting on trousers or interacting with people.

We find it harder to regulate emotions. ‘Moderate’ stimuli don’t really register, and thus everything can seem flat and grey and, well, sober. When we find an easy source of dopamine (impulse buying, smoking, adventure sports, binge eating, alcohol, drugs) it’s not easy to stop tapping into it – especially for someone undiagnosed and unwary.

Other symptoms of ADHD also make you want to drink and, at first, the drink seems to do the job: quieting the constant chatter of internal background noise, easing social awkwardness, oblivion at the end of yet another failure of a day.

But eventually, traitorously, alcohol makes the symptoms worse.

My alcoholism and ADHD

I started drinking early, at 14 or so. It was easy to get my hands on alcohol through various sources, and I immediately enjoyed the feeling of being tipsy. I could shut up some of the background noise in my brain, enjoy one elevated emotion at a time, and feel enthusiastic about pretty much anything. It was a revelation.

Although I enjoyed a few joints, I didn’t need to experiment with cocaine or hallucinogens during my teenage years: alcohol was the drug for me. It relaxed me, focused me, opened my soul and allowed me to channel my screaming teenage narrative onto paper. Looking back at my teenage writing, I have to admit that I was best at it when I was drunk. Metaphor flowed easily and I found it easier to describe emotions, amplified as they were. I followed the misattributed ‘Hemingway’ quote: ‘Write drunk, edit sober,’ and polished up the rhyme and metre when I was meant to be working or studying.

At 17, freshly broken up with a protective boyfriend and enjoying the salary of my first full-time job, I was drinking every day.

Socialising was now way more fun, of course: being drunk meant I could talk to strangers, and that they would like me. I could joke around and instigate physical contact (hugs, high fives, casual sex) without cringing. I made lots of new friends.

But from the beginning I displayed that symptom of ‘problem drinking’: a love of drinking alone. I would sip whiskey and coke, or sweet rosé wine, in my bedroom for hours as I sang to myself and wrote poetry. What a cliché.

I would curl up on the window ledge, holding a cold glass to my breastbone and watching the liquid slosh gently to my heartbeat. Then I would vomit out of my attic room window, and smoke cigarettes to mask the taste.

What was easily hidden at 18 – who didn’t drink too much? – was more apparent by my early 20s. I kidded myself that nobody thought I was that bad, but of course that was a lie. Everyone knew I was that bad. They all saw me spend hours in the pub, directing emotional tirades at whichever unsuitable older man I was tagging along with; saw me constantly broke and quickly declining as I aged and swelled.

What it took to stop

I wish I could say I quit drinking as soon as I fell in love with my now-husband, but unfortunately I didn’t. I let myself hit rock bottom before I took his outstretched hand, and I regret it bitterly.

I was not a good person when I drank. I would use every mistake of his as a weapon to win a battle. I felt fully justified in this when I was drunk, convinced that I was talking sense and that he was the enemy.

But the morning came, and with it the realisation that there had been no battle: just a sloppily drunk woman berating her loving boyfriend, before crying hysterically and throwing up into the sink. Classy.

The artificial anger and despair that comes with drunkenness is a frightening phenomenon, and for me it was every bit as addictive as the giddy happiness. I’ve always clung to any emotion that wrenches my gut.

Eventually, I stopped. I had to stop.

It wasn’t easy but, one awful morning, I knew I was done. I would have lost the man I loved and eventually, I have no doubt, I would have lost myself. I wasn’t the kind of alcoholic who could have ticked over for decades, ‘high functioning’, slowly pickling. I was well on my way to acute mental and physical damage.

Sobriety and ADHD

I had been briefly alarmed by some of the more obvious symptoms of alcohol abuse, but I didn’t realise quite how generally unhealthy I was until I started getting better.

My hair no longer falls out in spiderwebs, I don’t bruise at the slightest knock, my fingernails don’t snap before they’re long enough to shape.

I still start stupid arguments sometimes, because of course I do, but I’m no longer so determined to die on stupid hills. Sometimes I’ll even come down from them – if not graciously, then at least of my own accord.

The process of sobriety is something I think I’ll write something separately about, as becoming sober with ADHD is quite an interesting ordeal.

Suffice for now to say that I have been sober for over three years – and diagnosed for less than one. Three years is a long time, if you ask me, but it’s nothing compared to the ‘dinosaurs’ of the sober world. They remind me that I am not done with conscious effort.

I feel as though things are easier. Not drinking is no longer a choice I have to make every day – I barely think about it, aside from the obvious occasions (highdays, holidays and everything’s-going-to-shit-days).

But support forums are full of men (and it is usually men: women seem to keep quieter about their relapses) who write about snapping after fifteen years dry, buying a handle of whiskey on their way home from work and starting all over again. Vigilance, it appears, is necessary.

Sobriety itself doesn’t appear to have lessened my ADHD symptoms. This is unsurprising: the symptoms are part of why I drank in the first place.

When I quit drinking, I lost the tool for shutting off the chattering of my brain: I stopped being able to read books for hours on end, an escape that I sorely missed. Although the alcohol-induced mood swings disappeared, I went through periods of dull, fractured lows.

Once I was past the physical withdrawal, I missed the social aspect of drinking most of all. My social life had been built around the pub, and while I’d had some terrible times I’d also had some fantastic times. It was hard to come to terms with the loss of Saturday night as I knew it.

However, now that I am medicated (currently 80mg Elvanse/Vyvanse per day) I have less of an urge to drink. It’s largely the dopamine fix, of course, but I think it’s partly because I’m finding it easier to talk to people. I can focus on what they’re saying without needing to top up on booze.

As well as that, my little surges of hyper-focus come with accompanying rushes of affability, and I feel able to express emotions (well, some emotions) without being embarrassed. A huge part of the attraction of drink was that ability to be communicative with the important parts of my psyche, not just the outskirts. This, more than anything, is solidifying my faith in my own sobriety.

I’m also showing some improvement on the reading front, although I think it’s something I’m going to have to consciously retrain myself into.

Interestingly, it took me weeks after starting treatment to discover that one shouldn’t drink with ADHD medication. That would have been the first thing I checked a couple of years ago. Progress.

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