Do you know someone who seems to self medicate with alcohol to cope with life, symptoms of a mental health diagnosis, or simply to de-stress? It is a known fact that alcohol is often the “drug” of use for individuals suffering from a mental health condition. Alcohol is a substance that either works as a medication for symptoms that are becoming out of control or a way to increase the properties of a psychotropic drug. Either way, alcohol can be a dangerous substance if used unwisely and to self-medicate. As you know, alcohol is such a socially acceptable substance that many people won’t suspect anything is wrong with someone who frequently drinks alcohol. Why would there be? Alcohol is found almost everywhere and almost in every restaurant across the nation. It isn’t being sold in a variety of flavors at a restaurant, it can be found in a variety of foods. Alcohol is also culturally acceptable as many kids from higher socio-economic statuses tend to drink wine with dinner at various ages. It’s no wonder so many people use and become addicted to alcohol. Unfortunately, out of control alcohol use can lead to a variety of challenges including increased depression. This article will highlight some of the ways that alcohol negatively affects those with mental health challenges.
I have had the personal experience of working with or befriending someone who is struggling with alcohol addiction. It wasn’t until I began college that I recognized that many people from various walks of life struggle with alcohol addiction, even the individual who seems well put together. My perception of alcohol addiction was that of an individual who presents as depressed or anxious, has lost a close relationship or a job, and who has little to no motivation to change. As I developed in my career as a therapist, I recognized even more than I did in college that alcohol addiction was common among professors, doctors, scientists, mental health professionals, social workers, and many other professionals. Sadly, many families struggle with alcohol addiction behind closed doors. To make matters worse, those addicted to alcohol are also often struggling with mental health challenges (primarily depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or psychotic disorders).
There are 5 truths I have come to understand as an “instrument” that keeps individuals (those who abuse alcohol and are in need of help) held captive:
- They are addicted/dependent: Sadly, because alcohol use is so socially acceptable in almost all facets of life (i.e., during holidays, special events, etc), it can be very difficult for an individual to identify that they are indeed addicted to or dependent upon alcohol. Who would want to come to terms with the reality that they are vulnerable to a liquid in a glass and cannot walk away when they want to? Who would want to admit that they are unable to live without this liquid in a glass? No one. The shame, the fear of coming to terms with reality, and the vulnerability that alcohol addiction/dependency creates for the individual is all too much to bear. It is much easier to ignore the addiction/dependency and continue to lie and convince oneself that drinking is merely social or a way to decrease stress.
- They ignore the depression that follows a hang-over as real and dangerous: While providing therapy to one of my adolescent male clients I learned that his father’s alcohol addiction seemed to dissipate into depression once the alcohol wore off. My client would discuss, in tears, how depressed his father was and how much his father’s depression disrupted the family’s entire life. He reported that not only did his father exhibit a lack of motivation in life, but he also expressed, verbally, his desire to die. Suicidal thoughts and anhedonia (i.e., a lack of pleasure in things once enjoyed) characterized his father. I soon learned that it wasn’t just this client who experienced this but also many of my other clients with substance abusing parents. One of my female clients reported that once her mother’s stolen narcotic medication wore off, she became very despondent on alcohol and a very irritable woman. Interestingly, my most recent twitter friend, Sam Lorden Bowles (@Soberncleanlife), explains how depression has negatively affected many people who drink alcohol. He identifies that it is the hangover that appears to trigger the depression the most.
- They ignore that alcohol makes it easier to self-medicate or hide the truth: As difficult as it may be, lets face it, most people drink alcohol to avoid something no matter what that something is. Most people also drink on the weekends or after work. If the individual is part of a corporate culture it is also likely that alcohol will become a part of office parties or meetings. Alcohol isn’t just a “social drink.” It is also viewed by society as a “healing agent” when emotional pain or anxiety gets to be too much.
- They refuse to see it is destroying the potential for a stable future: A lot of people define themselves as social drinkers or people who only drink when socializing. Sadly, what often gets overlooked is the reality that “social drinking” can turn into a problem when “social drinking” occurs every weekend or during every social event. I often regard alcohol as the “subtle destroyer” because it is often normalized, used to sooth or “calm,” and can be found in very appealing beverages that are often eye-catching and tasty. Unfortunately, in a culture that normalizing the frequent ingestion of alcohol, it can be difficult to walk away from it or excuse yourself when others are having a good time with it. For individuals with mental health challenges (primarily depression and anxiety), drinking can either relax the person or lead to exaggerated emotions that can turn into a complete spiral downward. A previous client of mine decided to spend his 21st birthday drinking wine with his friends and family at a wine tasting party. He struggled with bipolar disorder and severe depression with psychotic features. He was often paranoid and overwhelmed by anxiety and fear. He thought that drinking wine would result in him feeling calmer and more capable of enjoying his birthday. However, he realized after an explosive argument with his mother and father that the alcohol limited his ability to cope with stress and resulted in him engaging in self-injurious behaviors (i.e., cutting) and saying things he did not mean. Alcohol can often do the reverse of what is expected. Not everyone can tolerate alcohol, drink responsibly, or identify when they are becoming social alcoholics.
- They don’t see they need help: No individual addicted to alcohol will ever reach out for help unless life circumstances, family or spousal confrontation, or legal matters arise from the use of alcohol. It is only when the person is challenged to change or make adjustments that they reach out for help. When mental health challenges and alcohol converge, the identification of a substance abuse problem may be less noticeable to the sufferer. For example, someone who is struggling with bipolar disorder may not be able to identify their need for help if the alcohol keeps them steady, calm, or focused during times of mania. For the individual who is depressed and hopeless they may also struggle with identifying their need for help if their conceptualization of their alcohol use is distorted. Some individuals believe that 6 beers a day or 8 beers a week is okay. Six beers a day is binge drinking. The individual struggling with both mental health and substance abuse will need support from loved ones who are capable of identifying that help is needed.
Do you know someone who may be struggling with alcohol addiction but cannot see that they need help or simply does not care that they need help? As always, feel free to post your thoughts and experiences below.
I wish you well