Monthly Archives: September 2013

Alcohol and Mental Health

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Alcohol and Mental Health

The link between alcohol and mental health problems is undisputed and long established. A study by charity Alcohol Concern showed that during a 12 month period, there were 72,000 hospital admissions with a diagnosis of mental and behavioural disorders due to alcohol. The same study also revealed that 65% of suicides are linked to excessive drinking.

There is some debate over which came first, the alcohol abuse or the mental health issues. However, it has been conclusively proved that heavy drinking can cause neuropsychiatric disorders in people who were not already previously diagnosed and it can exacerbate existing mood swings, anxiety and depression. The problems are intensified in young people and a US study by the same charity showed that 80% of adolescents with alcohol problems also had a psychiatric disorder.

I started drinking at 16 and I also had mental health issues. Both started at about the same time and undoubtedly each made the other worse.

I was the Queen of self-medicating in my early teens and twenties. It was the easiest thing in the world when faced with a tempestuous mental state to dull, alter or obliterate it with a quick drink or ten. I found that after a drink I was fun and confident. My problems floated off into the sunset, with my inhibitions duly following suit.

I’m not sure when I crossed the line from fun party girl into heavy drinker, but it all escalated at University when I suddenly had access to a student loan. Before long, every stub in my cheque book was for Threshers off-license. I was studying Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Sylvia Plath that great alcoholic and mentally ill sector of American literature heavyweights. I felt I was in some pretty cool company. As long as I kept my head away from gas ovens, I thought I could rock through my degree and everything would be just fine and dandy. I sat my finals drunk and came out with my B.A Hons exactly like I’d planned.

Then I drank after graduating because there were no jobs and I was fed up of doing voluntary work and it not leading anywhere. I had to downgrade from vodka to cheap wine due to income restrictions, but there was no way I was stopping.

It will come as no surprise to hear that drinking did not help my problems one little bit. It made them spectacularly worse. Alcohol is a depressant, so drinking it if you already suffer from depression is a ridiculously bad idea. I had terrible hangovers, mood swings and anxiety. The temporary relief and numbness from my feelings was short-lived and they returned with a vengeance when I sobered up the next day. I found that I was needing more and more alcohol to achieve the same effect and it wasn’t fun any more. It was something I needed to get through the day and I was in a mess. I felt lost, useless and unable to cope. The very worst thing was I couldn’t even generate any artistic output from my turmoil. I wasn’t using any of my skills or qualifications and there was no great work of literature bursting forth out of my pain.

Gradually my problems escalated to the point where I was now also self-harming regularly. I’d become used to spending my evenings drinking, self-harming and visiting A+E to get stitches. During one such visit I discovered I’d almost severed a nerve to my hand. It scared the hell out of me and was the wake-up call I needed.

I realised that if I didn’t take action I was going to be an alcoholic forever. I’d lost sight of whether the alcohol or depression was the bigger problem. They had fused together in a terrible co-dependent hybrid. I was frightened and mortified by the damage I was causing myself. I knew I couldn’t cut down or be someone that only has a drink at social events. I’m an all or nothing kind of gal so I decided to summon up all my willpower and desire for change and see if I could give it up for good.

I didn’t tell anyone of my plan initially because that would have involved admitting I was currently drinking a shocking amount. I went cold-turkey and it was hard. But after a couple of weeks of sobriety I put the word about and was amazed at the support I received. I gradually replaced drink and self-harm with counselling sessions, talking to friends and writing. It wasn’t easy. There were a few slip-ups and I had to learn to deal with the full force of my un-medicated feelings. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to go back to drink but I didn’t want to live a life terrified and unable to deal with how I really felt.

Seventeen years later I am still teetotal and having a drink doesn’t even occur to me any more. I’ve also not self-harmed in that time either. Lots of people ask me why I don’t drink and if I’m feeling brave, I’ll share a bit of this story with them.

Giving up alcohol has been one of the best decisions I ever made for myself. I dread to think how bad my life could have been if I hadn’t stopped. Without it I was finally in a position to look at the root causes of my unhappiness and deal with them.

If you can relate to any of this and want to stop drinking, you’re not alone. There is a lot of help and support out there and although it’s difficult to give up, I assure you it’s completely worth it.

You can contact any of the support agencies below for advice and help. Don’t wait until you hit rock bottom like I did.

Alcoholics Anonymous (UK) – 0845 769 7555
Addaction (UK) – National charity that provides services for people affected by drug and alcohol problems – http://www.addaction.org.uk
Drinkline (UK) – 0800 917 8282
Al-Anon – for families and friends of alcoholics –
http://www.al-anonuk.org.uk
MIND – Mental health charity with lots of useful resources and information – http://www.mind.org.uk
Addiction Helper (UK) – 0800 024 1476

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Relationships and Depression

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Relationships and Depression

Depression doesn’t just affect you, although it can be difficult to see this when you are consumed by the beast of darkness. Its slimy tentacles will wrap themselves around every area of your life and if you aren’t careful, squeeze the living daylights out of it.

It can be hard to keep yourself together during these times, never mind the rest of your life. If you are in a relationship, your partner will often bear the brunt of the effects of your illness. It can pay to have a few strategies up your sleeve to make sure that your relationship will survive this testing time.

I was lucky with my partner that we had been together for over a year (and known each other as friends for 3 years before that) when I became seriously depressed as a result of my Dad’s death. So he already knew me pretty well and had seen a lot of the positive sides of my personality. He knew I’d had problems in the past but for the start of our relationship at least, we were able to get off on a solid footing.

I’m pointing this out because I’ve had other relationships that started when I was already depressed and they either never got off the ground or were doomed to failure because I wasn’t well enough to hold them down. Depression clouds everything and the type of boyfriends I picked whilst consumed by the quagmire were let’s say, less than exemplary. If they were suffering from depression as well, then the hideous starting dynamic meant that we both ended up with twice as many problems as we’d begun with.

It’s given me a lot of valuable insights into how relationships work. They are difficult at the best of times, but throw mental illness into the equation and it can all get pretty messy quite quickly.

My current partner does not have personal experience of depression, so when I succumbed to the monster, he didn’t know how to handle it. Overnight I had changed from someone who was independent, motivated and capable to a needy, clingy mess.

We both had to learn how to handle me in this state and how to get our relationship through one of the worst times of my life.

If you are the one who is depressed, it is important to challenge all those negative voices in your head saying your partner is going to leave you. Despite having no evidence whatsoever to back this up, I held onto this belief with a vice-like grip. Depression is evil; it can help to see it as a separate entity and give it a hard time when it shows up. From past experiences I’ve learned that nothing will get rid of a boyfriend faster that constantly asking them to promise they will never leave. So I fought against these thoughts. You have to give your partner credit for being able to see beyond depression and believe them if they say they love you. If you think that you are going to drive them away with your depression, you probably will.

Communication is also vital, even though the impulse of depression is to withdraw. Talk to your partner about how you are feeling, even if every fibre of your being believes they won’t want to hear it. If you can’t explain what you are feeling, tell them that. Be honest if you feel dreadful. Share and involve them in your experience. My partner was honest with me and told me he didn’t know what to do or say when I felt bad. I told him he didn’t have to do or say anything, that listening was enough. Over time, we worked out ways to bridge the gap. I learned how to explain what I needed and he felt less pressure to be measurably helpful.

It’s also important not to have unrealistic expectations of your partner and expect them to save or rescue you from depression. If you are lucky to be with someone kind and helpful, resist the temptation to make them totally responsible for your well-being. I’ve found that when one person is depressed, it alters the dynamic of the relationship dramatically into that of carer and patient. I’ve been both the depressed one and the carer through various relationships and it’s very hard to get back on an equal footing. It’s great if your partner wants to help, but you have to take responsibility for yourself too. Get professional help, look into medication, support groups and self-help and above all, try and keep your life as intact as possible. See friends, talk to them about how you feel and develop coping strategies for getting yourself through it. The more you withdraw from life and your commitments, the more of a burden your partner has to shoulder.

It can be helpful to apply these strategies to all relationships, not just the one you have with your partner. I’ve always found it helpful to spread myself around amongst my partner, friends and family to make sure that no-one feels over-burdened by me. Although you don’t want to be hard on yourself, it is realistic to accept that depression is a pain in the backside and it is difficult to support someone through it. Again, communication is important. If it’s hard to get out and meet people, explain that. Keep in contact by text, email or phone instead. If people don’t know how to help, reassure them that just being there is enough because it often is.

Finally, the most important thing to consider when keeping your relationships intact is to remember that life still goes on for other people when you are depressed. You have to ask how they are, show an interest and act like you care, even if you don’t. Of course you need support, understanding and flexibility, but relationships beyond your family are not unconditional and they won’t survive if you disappear into your own doom. It can often provide a welcome break from your own head to listen and consider someone else’s life for a while.

The chances are that depression will pass eventually and you don’t want to emerge from it to find your life full of deafening silence and tumbleweed. I’ve found that these damage limitation strategies can go a long way in helping to rebuild your life afterwards.