Opening Up About ADHD and Alcoholism
An alcoholic friend with ADHD recently reached out. Ten years sober, I offer my perspective on how to deal with two fierce comorbid conditions.
I’ve written about my own struggle with alcohol and its connection to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) before on this blog. But recently, as I approach my tenth year sober this spring, it has been on my mind again. To be honest, as a recovering alcoholic, drink is always on my mind in some way or another. Nevertheless, I had been giving it more thought than usual when, coincidentally, a friend with ADHD wrote to me and asked some questions about dealing with ADHD, family, creativity, and drinking. With the name changed and permission from my friend, here’s my reply.
Those are some rough waters you’re navigating these days, and I know with ADHD whipping your reality around and crashing it down on you at the same time, making it through the day sometimes seems hopeless. But I’m familiar with a lot of what you’re going through, if only because I’ve wrecked on almost every shoal, reef, and craggy shoreline in that nasty sea. In my experience, alcohol only seems to calm things down. In actuality, it just drops a fog over you — so you can’t see yourself steering your life right into the rocks.
Since you’re laboring in the entertainment business, where for years I did the work-drink-and-cope-with-ADHD dance, I thought I’d throw some random showbiz drinking examples at you. There’s an oddball movie that I was watching with my daughter a couple of years ago, which had Tommy Lee Jones guarding some cheerleaders in a sorority house or something, called Man of the House. At one point, he was making dinner for a woman closer to his own age, and she brought a bottle of wine over. He said he didn’t drink anymore, and she asked, “Is it because you didn’t like yourself when you drank?” Tommy Lee looked at her for a second, then smiled and said, “No, I liked myself fine when I drank. It’s everybody else who couldn’t stand me.”
That’s only part of the truth with any drinker, of course. I think one of the best, most scary, funny, and honest depictions of the never-ending nature of the struggle with alcohol and the sneaky price drinking exacts from your life is in the TV series Rescue Me. Plus, Dennis Leary’s character, to me, seems very ADHD.
Watch any Late Late Show episode on which Craig Ferguson interviews Dennis Leary — both of whom are now sober. Then there’s Robert Downey Jr. — a serious talent and seriously great nut who seems to finally have understood that the only way to use his crazy huge talent in all its subversive beauty is to grab hold of it with sober hands. Another now-sober hero of mine is Tom Waits. Listen to “Cold Cold Ground” — it’s not about drinking, really, but good God, what a great song about life, longing, and consequence.
I have a talented friend in his 40s who fits your definition of a “functioning alcoholic” and is an actor in New York who still can’t understand why his career hasn’t taken off. He doesn’t see the trace effects of alcohol in the morning when he goes to auditions. He doesn’t see the slight dulling of the edge his work loses if he had a few the night before. He can still be a terrific waiter and a regular drinker, but these days in this intensely competitive business, you have to have every cell of yourself: body, mind, and spirit — at least clear enough for long enough to know what’s real.
I don’t know if any of this rings true to you, but I’ll tell you this: I thought differently about alcohol for most of my life. I thought I could handle it. I thought it was cool and that it was part of my persona as a creative non-conformist. All those frowning, straight, stick-in-the-mud types were just jealous of how good I was. But I know for a stone-cold fact now that drinking never did anything good for me. I don’t cotton much to regret, although sometimes I slap myself on the head at memories of things I said or did while drinking, or worse, and more often, at all the time I spent drinking of which I now have no memory of at all.
I think everyone sometimes has critical and defensive voices chattering away in their heads. But our ADHD often increases, accentuates, and amplifies that noise into an anxiety-ridden, confusing, dark storm, and a couple of stiff drinks at first seems to work miracles; the volume shuts down, you’re no longer anxious, and what seemed impossible to accomplish suddenly seems eminently doable. That’s what’s sneaky about drinking; sometimes it helps in the short run. It does turn off the voices, takes the self-criticism and obsession with all the things you could have done better down a notch, and comforts you by saying, “Hey, no worries, you’ll do better tomorrow. Look at all the great ideas you’re having — you’re on a roll now, see?” I think an ADHD brain especially craves this kind of comfort and semblance of peace. And an ADHD alcoholic’s brain will full-on fight to the death to keep it.
To be honest, even while keeping alcohol corralled into nighttime and weekends as best I could, I still did a lot of writing while slugging back Bombay and Budweiser. Finally, though, the more energy I spent staying a working drunk, the less my work rang true. In the end, all alcohol really cares about is that you keep drinking. For an ADHD brain, I think, alcohol disguises itself as a dream come true, a salve for your frayed and fried nerves. But in the long run, for those of us who have ADHD and are alcoholic, it will turn your dreams to dust because dreams just get in the way of that next drink.
The beginning for help with the ADHD noise and confusion in my case came with diagnosis, therapy, meds, and finally getting sober. The other powerful weapon I had — and you have — is the ability to write. Use it. Attack the voices, despair, rage, and confusion with the keyboard, by taking long walks, by screaming at the surf, and then with the keyboard again — write and write, sober. It’s harder and hurts more, but the work is way more honest and has a much better chance of being good. It takes time, but you’ll surprise yourself, I promise.
I went to a number of meetings, but I didn’t do the whole Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) program, though most of my sober friends have done so. I put together my own ad hoc phone-based support group that included them and the therapist I was seeing when I stopped drinking — 10 years ago this spring. The point is you don’t have to go for treatment per se. If and when you’re ever ready to stop, there’s no “cutting back” or “tapering off” or “handling it” — really, that’s all bullshit. When you know you have a problem or even think you might, there’s only stopping. There’s only not drinking. So, if and when you’re ready to do that, put down the bottle and go to AA, if for no other reason than to listen and learn a little something. Then, use that or a therapist — or whatever. But if any of what I’m saying rings true, don’t put off doing something about it.
Don’t worry about what the rest of your family and friends might say — especially any of those who have similar drinking issues; they’re going to tell you you’re not an alcoholic because if you are, they are. Always be open with loved ones about what you’re doing in your life but stay away from situations that could suck you back into the bottle and denial. And remember, this is something to do for yourself.
Oh, some good news — there’s one completely juvenile emotional reward you get if you stop drinking: smug superiority. In social situations, you get to say, “Thanks, but I don’t drink,” and allude to a shady, mysterious past filled with great funny stories that can only really be shared with other nondrinkers (which is true — people who still drink don’t get to join the “drinking stories” club because they don’t have the perspective of loss). And my God, you will miss it. But so what? I miss summer vacation after fifth grade, but I can’t have that again either.
I hope you’re doing well, Mike. I am passionate about the not drinking thing, but if you decide not to stop, it’s certainly not a deal-breaker for our continued correspondence. Ask me a question or pose a problem and I’ll tell you what I honestly think. But if I think drinking has something to do with it, believe me, I’ll tell you.