This time five years ago, I was recovering from a hangover/shame festival, felt completely overwhelmed and mad, and was absolutely sick of my life. I was 33, but somehow I didn’t seem capable of learning from my mistakes, and it was infuriating.
Five years on, I have solved most of the problems that I was experiencing then, but that doesn’t mean my life is a trouble-free zone. I am healthier, more content, more creative, and more aware than I was while drinking heavily. But the process of getting sober threw a few unexpected turns in my path too.
In five years my life has changed wholeheartedly, and some of those changes I really did not see coming at all. To celebrate this health anniversary, I have made a list of the biggest surprises.
1. I had some kind of mood disorder or emotional dysregulation
As a kid, I was very cheerful. “Happy-go-lucky” school reports said. This shifted as I got older, but I didn’t pay much attention. I was more concerned with drinking and parties and drugs.
After I got sober, I was immersed in the reality of my strange and changeable moods.
Was it depression? Not quite. Was it anxiety? Perhaps. Was it bi-polar? No, not dramatic enough. Was it cyclothymia? Maybe.
After showing up at the GP’s surgery half a dozen times, and taking a few different anxiety/depression meds, I was referred to a psychiatrist (praise be!) After a long interview about my symptoms, she suggested that my mood seemed to be reactive, and said that, as a result, it didn’t seem like a mood disorder.
She prescribed medication, and let me go on my merry (then sad then merry then sad) little way.
“You seem to struggle with emotional regulation,” she said. “And it could be in response to childhood trauma. I suggest you take this prescription (duloxetine) and undertake therapy to try and process some of the difficult experiences from your past.
I got a new therapist and joined a support group for people wanting to do this kind of work. Joining a community had allowed me to get and stay sober, and it had made the process compelling and healing and fun. I wanted to access that strength and camaraderie again as I worked to solve this problem.
2. I probably have ADHD
My anxiety around teaching continued, and I started to wonder what was wrong with me. Why did I find standing in front of people so scary and difficult? Why did my nervous system thrum along so intensely?
A friend shared the pictures of Pina ADHD Alien on Twitter and I related so much to them that I began to research the condition.
Many of the things I thought were the fault of alcohol (and which alcohol had certainly made worse) were explained by a diagnosis of ADHD.
- Frequently losing keys, wallet, phone, bank cards, passport
- Constantly putting things down without realizing
- Losing people’s belongings within moments of receiving them
- Astonishing forgetfulness
- Time blindness
- Find boredom intolerable to the point of wishing for death (yes, I realize this is an overreaction, but that’s how painful it is.)
- ability to hyperfocus
I took a test and passed with flying colors. I started to feel more compassion for myself when I made the usual mistakes. To offer me praise for all the things I got right. I began to learn workarounds. Things got easier.
3. I am definitely autistic
Through serendipity, I was introduced to a Special Educational Needs teacher, and after a brief discussion of some of the difficulties I was having she asked me if I had ever considered autism.
I told her I had not, and she told me autism presents differently in girls and women. She told me that females tend to ‘mask’ their symptoms and so fly under the radar.
Hearing this, I remembered myself as a teenager, with a total blankness inside when it came to having an identity. How I watched and learned from my friends, copying their clothes, mannerisms, and interests like an alien who found themselves in the strange position of attending a local comprehensive.
I had pinned these feelings and behaviors on alcohol because booze had been my only true hobby. I interpreted that strange blankness as an early sign of Alcohol Use Disorder.
Learning about autism helped me to add another layer of understanding to the story. Here are the parts I identified with:
- difficulties with executive function
- absolutely no sense of direction
- very literal-minded
- often don’t get the joke or funny without realizing
- sensory sensitivities
- no mind’s-eye (aphantasia) but excellent mind’s ear
- face blindness
- social anxiety that seemingly never goes away (unless at home with partner and cat)
- ‘special interests’ or obsessions
- susceptibility to ‘burnout’ and limited energy as a result
- stomach issues
I came to depend on alcohol due to my difficulties with fitting in. And drinking heavily increased many of the problems listed above. But many of these issues were rooted in my autism. If I hadn’t quit drinking, I might never have figured this out!
4. There’s a good chance my parents are autistic too
My childhood was fairly happy until my parents' relationship broke down. They were entirely unable to keep their split amicable, and this caused me a lot of pain. I tried to make each of them happy and be entirely loyal to and supportive of them, even though this sometimes meant subtly disparaging or working against the other parent.
After I got sober, I realized that my parents had let me down. Over time, I have come to realize that this was because they were struggling with the same issues that I have done. They were unable to navigate the complexity of divorce, co-parenting, running a house, finding new relationships, and raising teenagers.
My brother and I were impacted as a result. We have done well in life, but I think we would agree that we’ve both taken the long way around.
This last piece of understanding is bittersweet. My inability to talk about my feelings (alexithymia) meant I was unable to discuss any of this with them until two decades after the fact. I took so long to acknowledge, process, and admit to my anger that my dad actually died before I got to have the healing conversation I dreamed of.
5. Despite all this I am much happier today than I was five years ago
Some people don’t see the benefits of diagnosis. They fear that the individual will be tarnished with the stigma of the label. But when you have struggled with certain problems for your whole life, the label can seem gentler than the abuse you have received or have given yourself.
My experience has been that it is a great relief to be given the label.
There are reasons you rely on alcohol the way that you, and getting sober is the only way you will uncover them. If I was still drinking, I would have no idea that I was neurodiverse, and wouldn’t have made progress finding the support and tools that I need to thrive.
I wouldn’t have been able to improve my relationships with and understanding of my family.
And I would have had to quit my job because I wouldn’t have known the importance of managing my energy.
It might sound like a lot, but it was important for me to discover it, and I have no regrets. I’m excited about a future in which I can be even more creative and content and use my energy on the things that matter most to me.
Follow my journey if you want to learn more about how to do this on substack.
If you need help to cope, you’re not alone. But alcohol hinders as much as it helps.
If you’re ready to try something different, read beautiful hangover and discover what I did to get freedom from alcohol. Do whatever it takes to stay sober for 30 days: go to your doctor, try Smart or AA or Hip Sobriety or Soberistas.
There is a whole community of people waiting to help you. Reach out. Something better is waiting.
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Chelsey Flood is the author of Infinite Sky and Nightwanderers, and a lecturer in creative writing at Falmouth University. She writes about freedom, addiction, nature and love, and is working on a non-fiction book about getting sober, and a new YA novel.
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