Talking about depression has never been a problem for me. I’ve always felt the more open we can be, the less stigma will be attached to the condition. But there is one part of depression that doesn’t get spoken about much. I’ve been trying to fathom the reason as to why and I think ultimately it’s because this one aspect is frequently seen as a personal failing. I’m talking about alcohol abuse.
I really, truly don’t know if I’m an alcoholic. My doctor isn’t sure. One thing we are both sure on however is that drinking is a huge problem for me. I read a comic recently over at depressioncomix.com that briefly touched upon alcohol- the jist of it was that the person drinking wasn’t doing so because they had a problem, but as a way to fill an empty space caused by an already existing depression problem. This really resonated with me. I drink a lot, easily at least a dozen bottles of wine a week. And anywhere up to four bottles in a sitting. And I do it to escape. The pain I feel from depression is masked by the alcohol, at least temporarily.
It is a form of self medicating, and admitting that is harder than mentioning any other aspect of depression. Depression is ugly, and many people with depression drink to cope. The Royal College of Psychiatrists and the NHS both acknowledge a link between depression and alcohol abuse and many other resources make the statement that alcohol abuse is common amongst those with depression- so why aren’t we talking about it?
It is common to see people say that drinking alcohol is a choice and so we blame people for making a conscious choice as opposed to them being ill. And to some degree, choice is there. In order to get drunk I have to buy alcohol, to do that I have to get dressed, leave the house and go to the shops. But the way I’d describe it is almost like an autopilot response. Like my rational brain is screaming at me not to buy it, and constantly berating me as I make my way to the shops. I don’t have the mental strength to fight it. And so people see it as a willing choice. I don’t have withdrawals or incessant cravings, but between the hours of 10 am and 10pm I find myself struggling to avoid going out.
We also have a habit of seeing a problem drinker as an old bearded guy, sat on a park bench swigging white cider. So when someone who appears functional, working and has friends says they have a drink problem it is easy to overlook. When I spoke about drinking on an old blog the first comment was from someone saying I didn’t have a problem- because they drank the same. If I had a problem, they had, and people don’t want to be seen as drunks. I would argue there is probably more stigma around problem drinkers than with depression. In fact, the language we use is itself designed to avoid acknowledging a real and serious health issue. We talk about binge drinking, or problem drinkers. Alcoholic is a word reserved for those shaking their way through an AA meeting in a draughty church hall.
1 in 11 men and 1 in 25 women in the UK are physically dependent on alcohol. That’s about 4 million people, and these figures don’t include those not physically dependent, who might still abuse alcohol in some way. In fact, the number of people who will develop some form of health problem due to alcohol is a whopping 1 in 3 men and 1 in 6 women. Just over 13 million people, or a little under a quarter of the population. So this is a very real problem.
So why do I drink? I like the depressioncomix point about using it to fill an empty space. When all you can muster the energy to do is sit in front of a computer for the 12 hours you’re awake, you need something to fill that void, that monotony. Alcohol changes your mind, the way you act, the way you think. For a few hours I’m someone else. The problem comes once I’m in full drunk mode because that’s when the depression really ramps up a gear. I’m liable to self harm (though thankfully I haven’t done so in about 8 months) because I feel I deserve that punishment. And it also gives a physical and real thing to look at to reflect the invisible illness of depression.
I drink to avoid reality, to hide the pain for a few hours, and to fill the time because when you are too depressed to do much you have to do something. Even watching a movie can be draining. And it isn’t just the depression elevated whilst drunk, there is an emotional hangover that lasts days- guilt, remorse, self loathing. All of this. In truth I’m not sure how long I’ve been depressed, probably since my teens and discovering alcohol has only had the effect of prolonging my condition. Like the depression itself feeds on the booze. When I’ve gone months sober I feel better- not entirely well, the depression is still there, but it is manageable. I can control it. And finding the motivation and energy to fight two conditions- the depression and the boozing- is difficult to muster. So I crack open another bottle of wine.
I don’t see the point in being sober if I’m just going to feel wretched. If I’m going to feel like shit, I might as well feel like shit and be drunk. And I don’t need to- because I do the exact same things sober as drunk. I will sit in front of the computer for hours. The difference is I find my online entertainment far easier to just sit through. If I’m going to be ill, I might as well be drunk. That is the thinking. And it is definitely used as a form of self medicating.
I wish I could drive, I’d be out at castles and museums a lot more. I feel very isolated because of where I live, and that was a conscious choice because I like the area and house. But it has the effect of cutting me off from society. I could go for a walk on the beech but once you’ve seen one rock pool you’ve seen them all. I need human contact and to be able to socialise more. But instead I socialise with one thing, not a person, but a glass and bottle.
I’m tired. I’m exhausted. And like many, maybe even most, people with depression I have my own self destructive coping mechanism. Talking about that is difficult because of the stigma associated with problem drinking- but when 13 million people develop health issues related to alcohol, maybe it is time we did start talking about it more. You know many, many people who abuse alcohol. Maybe you do so yourself. It isn’t nice, it makes you act out in ways you never would, and it damages your friendships and reputation. But for many it is intricately linked to their continuing struggle with mental health disorders. And I guess if we’re going to talk about mental health, we need to be talking about the uglier side of it too.
If you are dealing with an alcohol problem- contact your doctor. They can help. I just wish I could take my own advice.