Drinking every day was no secret for Sam, but even he didn’t realise the extent of his dependency. His unhealthy coping mechanism took time to work through, and despite relapses, he’s now found himself on a more promising path
“You are over the threshold,” were the words of the specialist medic at the local drug and alcohol service. Initially, I had no idea what that meant, but it was certainly a shock.
For six months, from the summer of 2016, I had tried to cut back on drinking, not knowing I was alcohol-dependent. I was aware I was drinking daily – it was no big secret – but I certainly hadn’t realised the extent of it. As far as I was concerned, I was managing. Getting on with it even. I was functioning, albeit in a dysfunctional way.
Little did I know that the regular episodes of illness I was enduring were signs of alcohol withdrawal, affecting me both physically and mentally. I just assumed the physical symptoms were a virus…
Mentally, I was unstable, and had been for a while. It wasn’t surprising, after a series of traumas, that one particular event triggered feelings of emotional distress. So, I took to self-medicating. What I underestimated was the eventual impact drinking would have on my health and wellbeing.
Going through a mental health crisis, drinking and repeated withdrawals became a vicious circle. You’re stuck in a Catch-22, where you want to numb the pain and trauma. You are desperate to be free, but unable to escape. You want to run away from the intensity of unbearable feelings.
Everyday activities no longer fulfilled me. Distractions would work for five minutes, but that’s as far as it went. Nothing would take the edge off. Nothing would enable you to be who you were before. And that’s why people turn to substance misuse…
When people experience complex traumas in life, it is understandable that they turn to self-medicating. Every one of us will self-medicate, whether we recognise it or not, to cope with life and its pressures. However, self-medicating isn’t just about drink or drugs, and actually comes in many forms – smoking, spending, gambling, relationships, sex even.
From 2000, I had battled with bulimia for eight years. Then, throughout my 20s, over-exercising was the main problem, whether it be running for miles, or spending hours at the gym every day without fail. All my life I had swapped one unhealthy coping mechanism for another, but the feelings of guilt and shame had remained.
To explain, withdrawals are not to be confused with a hangover, and the symptoms go far beyond that. Upon stopping the drinking abruptly, I experienced a myriad of symptoms on and off for five months that were unexplained. For a long time it didn’t add up – in part from my limited knowledge of withdrawal from alcohol – and it only became obvious once a pattern had emerged.
The key to recovery is establishing coping mechanisms that are healthy, fulfilling and non-damaging
Unfortunately, while wine was the poison, it was also the medicine I needed to avoid significant damage from withdrawals. Typically, I’d experience full-body shakes – where I was unable to stand or walk – fever-like symptoms, nausea and sickness, total confusion, delusional thoughts, short-term memory loss, agitation, insomnia, intense nightmares, and overwhelming discomfort. Sometimes the symptoms were so extreme, I had to drink again as the only means to ease them.
What it linked to was a set of unresolved issues over a period of time, which I couldn’t accept or manage. I had gotten all my priorities in the wrong order as a means to avoid them – or perhaps I was in denial. Eventually, it became clear that I needed serious help, and was admitted to an inpatient detox facility for 10 days in March 2017.
It seemed like the obvious option to resolve my problems. However, I realised that being isolated wasn’t the way for me. In fact, I relapsed immediately after being discharged, and the reason became clear to me soon after.
It wasn’t a drinking problem that had gotten out of hand – it was the underlying trauma driving it. I concluded that dealing with drinking helped, but left me vulnerable to mental health problems. And being vulnerable to my mental health led me back to drinking, which is often the case for others in the same boat.
During this time, I found trying to access mental health support in the community virtually impossible. My GP said the guidelines state you have to be sober for three months before any referral could be made. How on earth was I, or anyone else for the matter, meant to do that? It would inevitably lead to crisis, again and again.
One year after the inpatient detox, and further withdrawal episodes and mental health crises, I was admitted to a local psychiatric hospital in April 2018. I had been seen by the Mental Health Liaison Team at A&E many times in the build up to this. I detoxed over four days in general hospital, and was transferred immediately after.
It was a short stay, but successful in getting the real work started on my recovery. Getting a diagnosis of emotionally unstable personality disorder also helped me to understand my episodes of emotional intensity. It was a ‘dual diagnosis’, linked to alcohol dependency, which recognised that both problems went hand in hand.
I realise that I’m far from out of the woods. None of us ever truly are.
Now, in 2020, going back to the gym for sensible work-outs and eating properly again feels good. Things I never normally allowed myself to do, or hadn’t for a long time – like going for long walks along Brighton beach, where I live – also help.
I’m getting into a structured routine, with self-care being vital in my recovery moving forward.
While I recognise the ‘blips’, I now know they’re not the end of the world, and have learned that recovery is a process.
Self-isolation didn’t help me, and I’m fortunate that my friends and family are supportive and understanding. Even though I have had a series of lapses, I know I can do it again – but without their support it wouldn’t be possible. What I’ve realised in this journey is the key to recovery is establishing coping mechanisms that are healthy, fulfilling and non-damaging.
There’s no shame in recognising our unhealthy coping mechanisms – and admitting it to ourselves is the starting point.
Rav Sekhon | BA MA MBACP (Accred), says:
Sam’s inspirational story highlights the difficulty of breaking the cycle of alcohol use when it is used as a coping mechanism to manage our mental health. It may provide temporary comfort, but it is damaging to our wellbeing to maintain such a cycle, as Sam bravely shares with us. Thankfully, Sam was able to receive helpful support, and find the internal strength to break the cycle.