About the Aware Blog. Each month we will post an article on a range of topics relating in some way to Depression. A blog post may be the author’s personal experience, a reaction to public events, or views on how better we can support ourselves and others who experience depression or related mood disorders. Each of our posts will be from an individual viewpoint, this means that some blog posts may not reflect official Aware policy.
by Darragh McCausland
Depression & Alcohol
The link between alcohol and depression is so well documented that I imagine many people with depression are exhausted hearing about it. They might know from their own experience, too, how dangerously an excess of alcohol interacts with their illness. And yet, a significant portion of those will still take a drink. I certainly did. In the depths of my depression, I drank heavily. This, in spite of all the indicators, all the screaming alarms around what it was doing to my mental health. In this blog post, I’ll look back to establish how alcohol exacerbated my depression, but first I’ll explore why I (like many others) continued to drink in the face of the damage it so clearly wrought.
A few years ago I worked with people with disabilities in south Dublin and lived near my work. Every evening after work, I’d walk home to the house I shared with a man who was hardly ever there and who I didn’t know. I effectively lived alone, and this was how I liked it. I was isolating myself, retreating into my room every evening, where I’d lose myself in my laptop’s glow, surrounded by the cans of cider I bought on the way home from work.
I never planned to buy cider. I’d get through the working day telling myself that particular day would be different, that I’d go home and drink a smoothie, eat something healthy, get back on track. But walking home from work something would always give. I’d feel like I was dragging my problems, heavy as a sack of stones, along the road with me, and I’d compound them by repeating little habitual mantras to myself, toxic sentences of pure negative energy, such as “you’re going around in circles” or “you’re a hot mess.” These thoughts were never slow. They were accelerated, looping, and borderline obsessional – moving through my mind like lurching, flashing rides in a chaotic funfair. At that time in my life, I had very little tools for dealing with them. However, I knew there was a temporary release from them, a tried and tested way out and, because my walk home took me past a large supermarket, it was always waiting conveniently for me to buy it. The temporary release was alcohol.
When you are depressed you tend towards the irrational. You’ll go for the quick fix rather than sensible long term plan. Alcohol provides the ultimate quick fix, and in the short term it works. Of course it does; otherwise I wouldn’t have reached for it. I’d settle into my bed with my laptop and drink that first can of cider, feeling a rising warmth dissolve my problems, make them seem frivolous, distant, someone else’s. By the time I’d pull the ring on my third or fourth can (pathetically smothering the hiss with a sock so my housemate wouldn’t hear it in the room next door) I’d feel positively buzzing, a million miles away from my illness.
By the fifth or sixth can, though, I’d start to experience dread. My thoughts would turn to the next day at work. I’d realize, panicking, that I would not be able to sleep properly because of the alcohol in my system. Sometimes I’d decide to go back to the supermarket to buy more booze to stave off the sadness and fear. Other times, I’d curl under the sheet and pray that sleep would take me before I sobered up.
The next morning, I’d always feel worse than the day before. I’d feel haunted, experiencing vague guilt, black worries, self-criticism, nausea, and overwhelming, poisonous fear; all magnified to extreme levels by the depressive effects of the booze on my brain’s circuitry. Most days, I’d manage to make it to work, where I’d work under a cloud, trying to wish the fear away. Other days, I’d ring in sick and lie in bed with my ghosts until the curtains darkened and some irrational thought would make me go – in spite of everything, all the advice, all the evidence – back to the supermarket for drink, allowing the dreadful, illogical loop to occur once more.
This story could easily, so easily, have ended there, with me stuck in an unbroken loop of deteriorating mental health exacerbated by problem drinking. I mentioned earlier in the piece that, at the time, I did not have the tools to cope with my situation. I do now, but what helped me back then was the simple act of reaching out to the people, the friends and loved ones, that I had kept at arms length and who, I was grateful to discover, had not given up on me. They were willing to help me find the small steps leading out of my situation, towards the point where I was able to find certain tools I needed to cope (in my case, medicine and cognitive behavioural workbooks). Needless to say, the booze had to go. It is depression’s true partner in crime.