Self medication and mental health: today is one month sober

Today marks one month sober, the longest I’ve gone without a drink in almost 2 years.

That’s a tough thing to share.

I originally decided to go sober for my hormones, but if I’m being completely honest, I also went sober for my mental and physical health. More specifically, I went sober because I noticed a pattern with self-medication. Perhaps you can relate?

The relationship between alcohol and mental health is what I want to talk about today.

In 2015 Tyler and I made the new year’s resolution to not eat anything with added sugar. We did it! But in the beginning, we counted alcohol as sugar. I think it was sometime around the first week of February that we amended our resolution to exclude alcohol. Cutting out booze was just too hard. Too extreme.

I remember that January though. I’d never felt better. I had more energy. Waking up in the morning was easier. My skin was clearer. I felt lean. Life was good. My yoga practice improved. But I also felt that unscratchable itch for a drink, or something.

I remember that first sip of wine after Dry January. It was a cab sav and it went down so smooth. It felt like home.

Since that night in February 2015, alcohol seems to have made an appearance most weeks, if not most nights, of my life. The glasses of wine after work or a long day. The bottle of wine on a weekend. The vodka soda at the bar. The beer at an afternoon gathering. The endless pours of wine at family gatherings. Drinks with friends. Drinks with roommates.

There’s always a reason to drink.

Drinking became the way I unwound. The way I made social situations more appealing and comfortable. It became my crutch. I’d go maybe a week or two here and there without it, just to prove to myself that I didn’t have a problem, but once I hit my 7-day or 14-day goal, I’d celebrate with a glass of wine.

When I was 15 a psychiatrist diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. At 18 another psychiatrist decided I suffered from ADHD. Between 15 and 21, I was on and off various pharmaceuticals, often several at a time, none without side effects. When I wasn’t taking a combination of pills, I was smoking weed or cigarettes or drinking. It wasn’t until a terrible reaction to an accidental (but prescribed) overdose in 2010 that I made the choice to take my mental health into my own hands.

I fired my psychiatrist and weaned myself off Adderall, anti-psychotics and antidepressants for good. But I also picked back up my on-and-off cigarette habit, smoked the occasional joint, and began social drinking. I couldn’t stand to be alone with myself. None of it ever got extreme, but when I look back on my life since 15, I have never been without immediate access to some form of medication. When I think about it, it’s almost like I’ve never actually experienced being me.

The smoking weed and cigarettes was easy enough to eventually give up, but drinking is different. It’s not taboo. And if you’re drinking wine or a fine scotch, you can convince yourself you’re not self-medicating; you’re being classy. It’s actually normal to drink, expected. It permeates our social culture. Over 30%* of Americans have at least one drink per day, with an additional 20% consuming at least 1 per week. This means I was right there with half of America.

Finally, last month I decided to stop the cycle for good.

I couldn’t keep self-medicating to escape, even if just once a week, because ultimately that’s what I had the habit of doing. I used alcohol to escape my stress and social anxiety. I used it to combat mild depression and boredom. It’s the drink that rings in the evening, kicks off the weekend. And when not alcohol, I medicated in other ways.

Even coffee is a drug. I first starting drinking it to wake me up from my stoned hazes in college, but then the caffeine habit just kind of stuck. I couldn’t go a day without it for nearly 8 years, despite the jitters and afternoon crash. I finally quit for good early this year (matcha is life).

All of this behavior makes me question: what am I running away from? Why am I not treating my body with the love and respect that I (and everyone!) deserve?

What am I trying so damn hard to escape?

My relationship with substances–even coffee–has never been a healthy one. I’ve always been in the mindset of “need.” I need my medication to be “stable.” I need my coffee to have energy. I need a cigarette to take off the edge. I need to get high to be happy. I need a drink to relax.

But what I probably need is to learn to be with myself.

To sit in that mental discomfort. To confront whatever emotions or thoughts stir up for me. How do I feel the moment before I decide it’s time to drink? What tells me it’s time to medicate? When I reach for the bottle of wine, I’m making a choice to escape the present moment. Why can’t I feel comfortable socializing without it?

One month into my total sobriety, I am still on that journey of discovering what it is I have been trying to escape the last 14 years. Perhaps in another month I will have more clarity. This is not a post about some newfound enlightenment, because that is definitely not what I feel.

One month isn’t long, but given my decade and a half history with prescribed and self-medication, one month is cause for celebration.

I’m shocked, but I haven’t even felt that familiar itch to drink. With every passing day, I become more resolute in my decision. Every day, I feel better and better. It’s probably too early to say for sure, but have I somehow overcome my previous habit of self medication?

If that’s the case, I’m fucking proud of that.

Mental health is more in our control than Big Pharma or the mass media would have us believe. Not once in my psychiatry or therapy sessions was I asked about diet, exercise, sleep, my irregular menstrual cycle or stress management. Not once was it explored that perhaps I just needed to learn stress management techniques or adjust my lifestyle. It’s a real shame that my experience is not an isolated event. This is modern America.

Given what I now know to be true for myself, and what I believe about our collective obsession with over-diagnosing mental illness (not to say it doesn’t exist for some people!), there isn’t a single part of me, personally, that self-identifies with any kind of mental disorder or illness whatsoever. I look back and see hormonal imbalance, coupled with the normal stresses of growing up. I see poor lifestyle choices. I see lack of sleep. Questionable diet. Social pressures. No routine. All things within my control. I see a teenager being told she needs medication in order to function in society and feel right, and that idea carrying into and informing her young adulthood. I think that’s really sad.

What I’ve found works for me is focusing on sustainable lifestyle habits to maintain my mental health. This now includes not drinking. I’m not saying I will never, ever have another drink in my life, but right now, I am choosing not to.

Mental and physical health are intrinsically connected. You cannot compromise or optimize one without affecting the other. If the purpose of life is to be happy, then the purpose of life must also be to be healthy.

I can’t remember exactly when I discovered that diet, exercise, and sleep directly affect my moods, but at some point these things became very important to me. For years I’ve been playing with their balance, yet simultaneously sabotaging myself.

I need 8-9 hours of sleep per night, so I prioritize that. Meanwhile, alcohol disrupts sleep and therefore compromises its quality.

I feel my best when I eat mostly vegetables and eliminate processed foods and sugar. Meanwhile, alcohol depletes the body of nutrients, messes with micronutrient absorption, artificially increases appetite, and lowers inhibitions about food choices.

I feel most energized and alive when I walk and practice yoga daily. Meanwhile, alcohol makes physical activity much more difficult and less appealing.

When any of the above become compromised, my mental health suffers. Since alcohol has a direct effect on diet, sleep, and exercise, it would follow that when I drink, my mental health suffers.

For me, drinking is self sabotage.

Over the years, health has risen to be my highest personal value. I believe it is what lays the groundwork for a happy, fulfilling and stable life. It feels so empowering to finally live in full alignment with my highest value and choose to no longer drink or self medicate.

So here’s cheers to one month totally sober, and to many more!

Do you struggle with drinking or another form of self medication? Talking about these kinds of things and being vulnerable opens us up for meaningful connection. I’d love to connect with you!

*Washington Post, 2014

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