Getting Back On Track

Alcohol and My Anxious Brain

Photo credit: David Scholes

With each relapse I’ve had since June 2016, I’m always reminded the next day that my brain is at odds with alcohol. The effects range. I may wake up with the shakes and feeling like I might jump out of my skin, heart racing, and mind a jumbled mess. It is also possible that I will wake up feeling incredibly depressed and have to dig deep just to get out of bed and wash or eat. Sometimes I wake up feeling wound up. I bounce off the walls and want to go, go, go!

Why the Jekyll and Hyde routine? There are two answers to that question. For starters, alcohol just does to this people, ALL people, after a while. Here’s the sciencey part. If you drink excessively for long enough, alcohol will begin to alter your brain chemistry. Otherwise healthy people can begin to develop anxiety disorders after long term use. This is because alcohol changes the levels of serotonin and neurotransmitters in the brain (yikes!). These chemicals help regulate our mood, so when alcohol lowers their levels we lose those safeguards. You may start to experience alcohol induced anxiety which can last for hours or even an entire day after drinking. It’s that next day jittery feeling and a racing heart that you just can’t shake. The bigger problems start when that anxiety pops up even when alcohol isn’t involved, which can start to happen if you binge for long enough.

The second answer is geared towards people like me who suffered mental health problems long before they ever picked up a drink. I struggled with depression in my teenage years and, like many young people, learned quickly that you can self-medicate with alcohol. It feels good to seem relaxed and uninhibited. Sure, I had some embarrassing moments in my twenties when I “spazzed” out while drinking, but who didn’t? Everybody, it seemed, had a good story about the time they got trashed and got into a fight or went ape shit at a party. It felt normal, and even when I began losing friends after some of these episodes, it never occurred to me to stop drinking. I figured I was a flawed person and the booze just brought it out every now and again or that those people weren’t really my friends anyway, so who cares?

Alcohol was exacerbating my depression, dropping already imbalanced chemical levels in my brain, and dragging me further down into some dark places I struggled to get out of in my early adult years. By the time I reached my early thirties and had evolved into a nearly every day drinker, I started noticing new symptoms pop up. I joked at the time that I was having OCD moments, but I now realize that I was in the early clutches of anxiety and it was only going to get worse. I don’t know when or for how long I’d had anxiety, but by the time I was thirty, I was finding it difficult to leave for work on time because I could not shake the feeling that I had left the gas to my stove on and was going to come home to a destroyed apartment. I would check it five or six times before leaving. Were the knobs set to off? Good. On bad days, I would leave my apartment and go back up just to check one more time. I played this game with the door to my apartment as well and, when I had it with me in New York, my car door. Was it really locked? I’ve turned around three blocks into my walk to the subway just to go back and check what had already been checked a dozen times.

This played out in my dating life as well. I would be overtaken by thoughts of “Why didn’t this guy text me? Why haven’t we hung out this week? Did I say something stupid? Should I message him?” I would re-read texts or e-mails combing for clues about what I could’ve done wrong. I could feel myself being ridiculous, but because I knew other women who had the same tendencies and saw this kind of neuroses played out in TV series, I figured it was just what single women do sometimes. Carrie Bradshaw on ten with drunk texts. My more rational side tried to distract myself and not worry, but it was a losing battle. I didn’t see it for the red flag that it was in my own mental health. (For the record, the men definitely did and I remained single a lonnnnnng time).

I’ve learned the hard way that booze and my brain just do not mix. It’s not just that I’m a binge girl, though that is a huge problem. It’s that I’ve reached a point where any relapse is a game of roulette. I can’t predict what state I will be in the next day, and I don’t just mean a hangover. That is the least of my worries. I mean, will I be sad? Will I be hyper? Will I feel like I can’t get settled and have to take a Xanax? Later in the week, even without touching a drop, will I suddenly cry while watching a Netflix show that isn’t even that sad? Will I skip around the malls singing and stopping for every distraction? Will I be sitting on the couch with my husband having dinner and suddenly feel like I’m having a heart attack because my anxiety has popped up to say hello?

When you drink and have mental health problems, you never know what you’ll get and that should be a frightening enough prospect to get anyone to abstain. At least that’s what I tell myself after each of the handful of times I’ve decided to drink in the last six months. So why hasn’t it been enough to keep me far, far away?

The killer of sobriety is the illusion that once we start to feel better, our brains work again and our moods are stable, that we’re cured. We’re “normal”! Hooray! Except, that isn’t the case.

My brain is never going to be “normal” in the traditional sense. I’ve had a chemical imbalance since I was small. I’m always going to have to approach problems, situations, and various social settings in ways that may differ from other people (but I mean, isn’t that true for most of us anyway if you really think about it?). I’m learning to detach myself from this desire to be “normal.” I happen to believe that plenty of perfectly abnormal people have accomplished great things in this world, so normality is not necessarily something I need to aspire to. There will likely never be a day when I can sit down and have just one drink at dinner, and even if I did, there wouldn’t be any guarantee that I wouldn’t feel my mood shift suddenly as a result. That’s my driving force into 2017 as I try to combat this tendency I have to say, “I’m all better now!” and drink every 4-6 weeks just so I can prove myself wrong and start again from zero.

There’s a great scene in House of Cards where the character Doug Stamper is at an AA meeting and he’s talking about his job and the idea of counting. He says, and I’m paraphrasing, that the most important number he counts is the days of his sobriety, which is 5,185. He talks about how he’s just one drink away from zero and that scares him all the time (an interesting thing to hear if you know anything about his character). He admits that he is ruthless in his job at times, but that he is equally ruthless with is sobriety because he has to be. Then he says something that continues to stick with me, “Like everyone else in this room, I can’t control who I am, but I can control the zero. Fuck the zero.”

And therein lies my 2017 mantra. Fuck the zero.

4 thoughts on “Alcohol and My Anxious Brain

  1. I don’t quite know how to put into words the way this article made me feel. This is me! I am now 4 days sober. I’ve always had a problem with irregular binge drinking but over the last year this has become more & more regular, culminating in becoming a nightly problem. I have had mental health issues since having my 1st child nearly 7 years ago & of course my increasing drinking hasn’t helped.I have tried to stop in the past but I also went back to thinking “Oh 1 or 2 won’t hurt” & then finding ‘1 or 2’ becoming 10 or 20. I have now got to the point where I am virtually a monster while I’m drunk but barely remember it when I wake up. I am now ABSOLUTELY determined to stop before I lose the thing most important to me, my family. Thank-you so much for posting this article, it’s made me feel like I’m not the only 1 going through this & that if I want it enough I CAN do it. Fuck the zero!x

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    • Thank you for sharing and congrats on taking those first steps! Stick with it, especially when it’s been awhile and the urges try to trick you into thinking you’re all better now and it’s fine to have just one or two. You got this! 💪🏼

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