Guest Blogs

Understanding My Head: My Alcoholism and My ADHD

Alcoholism and ADHD overlap so often that many doctors recommend an ADD evaluation for anyone with substance abuse problems.

My addiction-specialist counselor asked me one day if I had ever been diagnosed with ADHD. I had not. It had never even crossed my mind.

I was nine months into sobriety and learning how to handle life without alcohol. He told me a little about ADHD, enough that I could recognize myself; disorganization, procrastination, lack of impulse control and, of course, substance abuse.

I called my wife after our session. “You’ll never believe what Larry asked me,” I said. “He wanted to know if I’d ever considered that I might have ADD.”

“No way!” my wife of 12 years and a former special education teacher said. “I was just wondering that about you three weeks ago.”


And so, I began to see how ADHD affects me as a result of my journey in recovery from alcohol. I have been learning about how my alcoholism and my ADHD dance with one another in the neurobiology of my brain. I know not everyone with ADHD has substance-abuse problems and not every addict has ADHD, but I also understand the combination is not uncommon. And, for me, they tango quite well with one another.

“I’m bored,” I’d feel rather than say or even think to myself. “I’ve got stuff to do, things I’m anxious about. But why not have a drink?”

I made those kinds of choices with the same slim level of conscious awareness as when I decided to surf the web instead of working on a project until the deadline loomed near enough that adrenaline fueled a spurt of productivity. I lived with a nagging anxiety that I wasn’t doing what I needed to do but instead of do it I would drink to quiet the anxiety.

A realization I came to early in my recovery process was that there is something about the way my brain is wired that makes it unwise (understatement) to drink. Alcohol hits me differently than it hits non-alcoholics, or “normies” as they say in meetings. Once I admitted that that my brain is different in its relation to alcohol, I was primed for the idea that it may also be different in the way blood flows through it.

Knowing both has been a revelation. It doesn’t absolve me of the things I’ve done or not done. It doesn’t allow me to drink or excuse me from my responsibilities, but it’s a start. It helps me go a little easier on myself. That’s not only a revelation, but also a relief.

Once I began to realize I had a problem with alcohol and couldn’t hold myself to my attempts at moderation, like not drinking before noon, I felt like I was weak, lacking in will power. With procrastination and disorganization, I also felt like it was something I should be able to just get over. I beat myself up over it, which, not coincidentally, led to more fear, frustration and anxiety. No surprise, it also led to more drinking.

Understanding that my brain works differently than other people has been a gift. It allows me to take some smarter steps toward managing my different (but not unique) brain.

I shared what I;ve been learning about ADHD with a buddy of mine who is also in recovery. As I described how it showed itself in my life, he said, “That’s me! You’re describing me.” His take on hearing about it though was, “Great, one more thing I have to deal with.”

I understand that feeling. There’s a line in the Alcoholic Anonymous Big Book that says “no man likes to think himself bodily and mentally different from his fellows.” So, as helpful as my knowledge about ADHD and alcoholism have been, acceptance is another story. That’s an ongoing challenge that I will write about in other posts. I hope to share my experience in dealing with adult ADHD as I walk through the recovery process. I hope it is helpful to some and I encourage your comments.

For now, its enough for me to apply the same wisdom to myself whether my frustration is a result of my alcoholism or my ADHD.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change / The courage to change the things I can / And the wisdom to know the difference.