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 –
MIND – Mental health charity with lots of useful resources and information – http://www.mind.org.uk
Addiction Helper (UK) – 0800 024 1476