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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.

Hey Mike,

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.

[The Truth About Substance Abuse and ADHD]

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.

[“Understanding My Own Alcoholism”]

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.

[Suggested Resource: When Too Much Isn’t Enough]

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.

Be Safe,

14 Comments & Reviews

  1. nicely said… recently found out ADHD is common within my immediate family circle so I’m off to be checked soon.. been self-medicating (or creating reasons/excuses for my ‘different’ mentality) for a long long time but now I have a family that’s been shown to be a non-viable path going forward.

    Congrats on the 10 year mile stone..

    1. Hi ne1l,
      Sorry for this reply to your comment being months and months late, but thanks for commenting and I hope you got some answers when you went to get “checked out” and got a diagnoses that was helpful to you and that you’re getting help with ADHD and alcohol recovery. AND I know how hard it is to recognize and then break out of familial reinforced habits/norms especially when it comes to drinking, so congratulations on having the self-awareness and courage to take action for yourself. If you get this note, please let me know how it’s going for you. Best, F.

  2. I agree with the “Well said” and the recognition and validation you demonstrated toward your friend. Not that you validated his drinking rather him as a human being regardless of whether you believe him to be alcoholic. Because there is likely a reality taking place in his personal life due to his drinking: people who care about him are getting tired of navigating around the huge pink elephant that lives in the same home as he and his family, and follows him everywhere he goes. Though those not intimately related may not even see it, he does at some level. And having to constantly deal with the big lumbering beast wears a person down, and down, and down. However many levels of Dante’s inferno one must traverse is particular to the individual, but that path is dark and lonely. Between the elephant and the metaphysical void that alcoholism exacts on its host, a voice that reminds them of that they are still human and bring good and have meaning to another person can be the one thing that pulls them back from oblivions edge. The reality is that alcoholism is a chronic, debilitating medical condition, that may be successfully treated. But if allowed to go untreared, it is fatal in 100% of cases. It is also difficult for normal earth people to understand that ecentually drinking becomes a need not a want. There is no choice as it becomes as necessary as food water and air to to the alcoholic. I know. I’ve been there. Know I have lost control, have a problem, continually losing the most important things in my life and being. And knowing if I stay on the path I will die prematurely yet seeing the impossible span of living a long life without ever drinking again. Totally defeated, and worthless. Luckily my fear of dieing was stronger than fearing the impossibility of never drinking again. I had no choice but to waive my white flag, let loose of the fictitious grip I thought I had on everything and surrender my will and accept help from others who knew how to render aid. I had to do trearmemt and did neaely everything that was suggested by those who knew how to help me. Many of whom had been similarly helped by others as they were then helping me. I did AA as well for a few years because our stories are all similar. But I took what I needed and am no longer thirsty. I absolutely do not crave or desire alcohol at all now. Emphasis on now. As in today. Because if I don’t, the condition will have my mind considering the impossibility of a lifetime without alcohol…And I will be at the liquor store shortly thereafter! Such a mindset is what saved me from using the faithful friend when three years into sobriety I had debilitating panic attacks. I didn’t go to a meeting though. I called my GP whose wife is a psychiatric clinician and so my doc knows more than most about cooccurring conditions. I saw him as opposed to the liquor store. He prescribed 3 weeks worth of clonazepam and I was at my first counseling appointment two days later. After meeting three times over three weeks, I was diagnosed ADD. And as antithetical as most in the treatmemt field deem it, my mind was calmed by a psychoactive substance of potential abuse in dexedrine…And have been on the same dose for six years. Sober now for 11 this past July 18.

    I wish you, your friend and anyone else so self medicating the best in life; junkies of booze or criminalized compounds. Addiction is the problem. But survival and happiness is absolutely possible!


    1. Dear AJ,
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, my apologies for it being so long for me to reply. Congrats to you on your 11 years sober. Thank you as well for being so open about your own journey – especially about the decision to get help from a psychiatrist. At first it can feel like one is dealing with a double stigma (In my head: Oh my god, I’m a drunk AND a nut-job!) and conflicting opinions about the treatment one needs. But over time I’ve found there a many people in both the mental health and alcoholism recovery communities that recognize the comorbid connections and know the difference between recreational drug use and medication I’m prescribed for my ADHD. I’m happy that you’re doing well, and again, grateful for your comment, and hope to hear more from you on your journey.

  3. Thank you. This was very helpful. I am sober, have ADHD, and am 27 years old. I also attend AA meetings but I have support all methods of recovery and have my own issues with the program. None the less, this was a great article to read and related to so much of it. I always say that alcohol turned off the noise in my brain. My brain is always going a million miles and hour. I am anxious, scattered, and always thinking. Alcohol was switch that turned it all off and I could reach oblivion alone. (I always drank by myself at night, alone). When I was drinking I said that ADHD was the problem not the booze. Now that I am sober I realize that one does not go without the other. I have to manage them both, I have to manage them both one day at a time. They will always be with me and I can either succumb to them or address them. My life is drastically better when I am managing my ADHD and my alcoholism.
    Also I am a huge Downey Junior fan and he has played a part in my sobriety. I am also a Jospeh Campbell fan and I view the 12 steps as the hero’s journey. I often tell people that you can go from being a junkie to being a super hero. Downey was junkie and now he is Ironman.
    I just wanted to say thank you.

    1. Dear Patrick,
      Thank you for your great comment. Sorry I’m so late responding, but I’m very happy that the post resonated with you. You’re right that ADHD and alcoholism are both “one day at a time” challenges and only by facing them head on and honestly every day can we grow and survive. But now, 20 years since my ADHD, Anxiety, Hypomania, Depression etc. etc. diagnoses, and 17 years sober I also think that that every day struggle makes us face our weaknesses, but makes them a little weaker every day, and helps us recognize and value our strengths and make them more muscular and resilient with every day that we stay sober and focused. Thanks again, Patrick, and I look forward to any more thoughts you may have on your road to realizing your inner super-hero.

  4. I know this is old but it resonates with me as I am a “recovering” alcoholic who in rehab was diagnosed as ADHD, so I learned arse about face that when I “joked” about drinking switching off the voices in my head it was the goddess honest truth…now I sit at 6 months sobriety with no cravings, no care to drink again and I struggle in support groups where everyone is a “disease model” follower where it was the alcohol that made you do it and its a disease you don’t have control over…I’ve learnt to shut up because the whole idea that my drinking served a purpose that’s no longer needed is a foreign concept…once an alcoholic always one because that disease is prevented only one day at a time…

    1. This is a great comment. I often deal with a similar issue. I told my story at a meeting a few days ago and openly talked about ADHD, how it worked for me, and how it gave me an off switch. No one criticized it.

      For me I have to treat both issues and realize that I don’t have any control over my drinking or my ADHD but I can’t have a say if they are being treated or not. Neither will ever go away. I will have them for the rest of my life, but I can treat them. I have learned better treatment methods for my ADHD that is not drinking. That includes taking my medication (if someone tells you not to take your meds, ignore them, ADHD treatment responds to medication), exercise, writing lists, having a launch pad, asking for help, reading more about ADHD and addiction, talking to a therapist, coach and/or sponsor, working the steps, etc. If you want to stay sober you will have to treat you ADHD. What is great about 12 step meetings is that you create the program that works best for you. We live one day a time and stay sober one day at a time and we treat our ADHD one day at a time. Best of luck buddy.

      1. Hi Patrick,
        Terrific, honest and helpful reply, Patrick. Thanks for staying in the mix (esp since I’ve not been for so long.)

        Best, F.

    2. Hi Chainsaw,
      Thanks for your comment and I’m glad that you identified with the post. I think Patrick’s reply to your comment was on the money. You’re on the right track, you’re sober and aware of your ADHD and I hope getting treatment after rehab. You shouldn’t feel the need to shut up about what you’re going through, though. You might find that there are more people than you’d think who are dealing with versions of the “double diagnoses” that are similar to yours. If not in the meeting you’re going to then maybe another one or another kind of support group. We all need someplace to let it out, where we can be honest and not feel judged, if for no other reason than to keep from crawling back into our hole alone with our nasty little demons. It would be great to hear from you again as you make your way through these early days. Chainsaw is a great user name btw. Best, F.

  5. Frank, this is exactly the words I needed to hear(read).

    The real reason I’ve struggled with ADHD medication is because it doesnt mix well with alcohol. I’ve been on and off Ritalin, and recently doubting taking Strattera.

    I’ve always said I’m not an alcoholic, because I’m always able to stop when I want(need) to. I couldnt drink while on Ritalin, so I didn’t. Made some of my symptoms go away and was doing really well on it for a while, but I missed drinking, so I would take it only when I really needed to so I could drink again. First I would take it monday through thursday, then drink on saturdays and sundays. Then I took it only monday and tuesday so I could drink friday through sunday.This ultimately progressed to only taking it when I had something really important to do, so maybe once or twice a month. All of this so I could drink comfortably any day I wanted to.

    Now, I don’t want to start Strattera because now I really won’t be able to drink and I cant pick and choose when to take it like I did with Ritalin. I have to take it every single day, no exeptions.

    All of what you said to your friend about the comfort alcohol brings is very true, at least in my case. And you’re right, there’s only not drinking.

    I tend to have moments of ‘enlightenment’ where something just clicks in my mind and I radically change my way of thinking, and this has been one of them.

    For that, I thank you Frank.

  6. Dear Frank,
    I may never to be able to convey how much your words have meant so i’ll keep it brief and simply say it has lead me to an enlightening of sorts. I am in college and 21. I drink at parties etc but recently have been over doing it and blacking out. I am by no means an alcoholic but like to have fun and sometimes too much fun. However, when I drink a different person comes out. I have been called bipolar when presented with alcohol. I have done and said things when blacked out that I cannot comprehend. And worse the majority of it is on videos or there are photos. It’s been hard for me to accept my inability to drink and make rational decisions but your words have helped because truthfully I often do feel alone fighting a disorder no one else can see. Nonetheless, I was happy to read your article and discover that our struggles aligned. The alcohol soothes my anxiety so effortlessly, so easily, that in social settings it seemed like the perfect remedy but with a lofty cost. I write too, keep a diary and it puts me at ease on the days my thought make me feel like I want to implode. There aren’t many of those days and my friends don’t always understand as they aren’t afflicted. But again thank you for your words and your commiseration.
    Wishing you all the best and more,

  7. “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.”

    Quoted above was the highlight of the article for me. It rings so true and hits like a boxing champion. I was an alcoholic for most of my 20’s and despite wondering at times when it was going to end (or perhaps IF it was ever going to) that next drink was always so easy to get my hands on to help me stay distracted and docile to the numbing effects of said alcoholism.

    Alcoholism is internalizing the commands of your oppressors, which is alcohol.

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