Guest Blogs

“My ADHD Drinking Delusions”

Drinking turned down the chattering voices and nerves of my ADHD and hypomania. It helped calm my impulsiveness. The problem was that I always wanted another drink… and then another.

Last week, I went on a typically circular tear about my 21-year-old ADHD son’s experiments with drinking, and my fear that he’d fall into a self-medication substance-abuse trap. After rereading the blog entry I asked myself what, exactly in my past with alcohol made me so sensitive to what looked to everyone else like normal 21-year-old behavior.

Now, I’m 60. I’ve only been sober for 8 years. It’s been 11 years since I was diagnosed with and treated for ADHD. As far as the ADHD goes, my psychiatrist says I had developed complex coping strategies and skills that kept me functioning at some level until my engine block seized up and burst into flame when I was 49. One big problem was that alcohol was an integral part of those complex coping strategies. So I stubbornly held onto drinking hard for 3 years as I was trying to cope with the new perspective on the how and why of my sputtering brain — and the new anti-depressants and stimulants that were prescribed to help.

It wasn’t working out. I was headed for another, even worse burnout. Even though I accepted the new ADHD diagnosis, I couldn’t accept the plain old dark fact that I was an alcoholic. It’s the story we’ve heard a billion times but never think is our story – I never had one drink – or if I did, it was a quadruple. I drank because I was happy, sad, tense, loose, or had won or lost. But the new and biggest stories I told myself were that I needed to drink to calm my endlessly chattering ADHD brain. I told myself I needed to hold onto alcohol to cope with my mental disorder.

Totally desperate, dumb, delusional baloney — but I kept my fingers wrapped around this kernel of truth, this justification. Until the morning I realized that if I kept my hold on alcohol, I would lose my hold on my family for good. And I finally said okay, I’m a drunk. No more alcohol for me. Fine. Good. Yippee. Well, not yippee, exactly. Or at all, really – just rigorous honesty and very hard work. Not two of my favorite things.

So then I latched onto ADHD as the reason I was an alcoholic. Nope. And here’s where things get dicey. The percentages are higher for substance abuse with those of us with ADHD, it’s true. And I’ve talked to therapists who think impulse control is part of the reason, or the battle with depression and other comorbid conditions as contributing factors.

For me, drinking did turn down the chattering voices and nerves of my ADHD and hypomania (that kernel of truth I mentioned above.) I really, really loved that profound feeling of peace that surrounded me when I had that first drink at the end of the day. It helped calm my impulsiveness, so that wasn’t the problem. And the chattering switched off completely by drink two, so that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I always wanted another drink. I always wanted more and more. Because I’m an alcoholic – and that is separate from being ADHD.

I know that one aggravates the other. But for me these days, it’s vital to look at what I’m facing without excuses. ADHD might add to the difficulty of staying sober – but a million things make staying sober difficult, including wind, rain, and bad TV. And if you’re not an alcoholic and a drink helps your chattering – God bless you, and I’m so jealous I can’t even describe it.

I hope this isn’t another circular rant, but here’s the thing – I worry about my son because I know how tough it is for him to deal with his ADHD sometimes. And if he turns out to be an alcoholic I know how tough staying sober is. I guess I just want him to see all of his challenges in life, whatever they are — internal and external, as separate entities instead of huge combined forces too immense to deal with.

So divide and conquer, my son, and face life without excuses. And I’ll keep trying to do the same.