When you mix alcohol and ADHD

Andy Mac | March 2021 | 8 minutes

DJ and producer Andy Mac shares his journey with ADHD and alcohol, and how he's become healthier and happier since his diagnosis and getting in control of his drinking.

I first heard of ADHD, otherwise known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, when I was at school. I just thought it was something that badly behaved kids who couldn’t keep still had. So definitely not me then.

I was quiet, did my homework and kept still just fine. But I was anxious which, unbeknownst to me, was a symptom. I used alcohol to go from shy person in the background to life and soul of the party, a bit like Superman, with booze being a crap substitute for a phone box. What I didn’t know was that ADHD was causing a lot of my anxiety. And once you mix ADHD with alcohol, what you have is this: a perfect storm of calamity coming your way.

I now know this. Those with ADHD are more likely to drink heavily. They are likely to binge drink more often, and they are more sensitive to its effects. Alcohol sits terribly with some of the classic symptoms of ADHD, such as impulsivity and disrupted emotional functioning.

It’s easy for ADHD sufferers to get locked into a cycle of drinking. It goes like this. After a binge drinking session, you wake up with the fear. You feel guilty. Or depressed. Or anxious. Or all three. You find it hard to stay still or focus on anything because the thoughts of what you think you’ve done the night before are playing in paranoid HD in your head. It’s overwhelming. You may just stay like this in torment, or you might have a drink to deal with the feelings. Over and over, this happens.

When I was drinking, and before I knew I had ADHD, I was a self-help book addict. I read hundreds of books because I wasn’t happy.

One time I somehow broke into an old people’s home when pissed as a student, thinking that it was my friend’s address (logically). The anxiety caused by this the following day was enough to convince me I should change my name and slip out of the country to become a sheep farmer. I didn’t though. I just went to the pub with my mates.

When I was drinking, and before I knew I had ADHD, I was a self-help book addict. I read hundreds of books because I wasn’t happy. Drinking was also making me miserable, although I would never have admitted it. I’d convinced myself I had the answer to being happy, then I’d lose interest in that book and find another happiness holy grail a week later.

I also loved a good label - BPD, co-dependency, social anxiety disorder, PTSD. The list was long. I was probably suffering from elements of these from time to time, but the excitement of novelty was more interesting to me than then doing something with the book or the information. It gave me a dopamine rush.

Now here is the science bit. Neurons in the brain and the nervous systems of those with ADHD have lower concentrations of proteins called dopamine transporters. I was making up for my lack of dopamine and I didn’t even know it. The search would always continue.

I’m still the same person with the same challenges as before. But I feel like I’m playing in a hard football match and I’m now wearing boots. Whereas before, I was running around in bare feet, sockless.

Looking back, I was chasing dopamine all over the place. When I was drinking, I used to have a new favourite beer every week. I even jumped from drink to drink within a night. I’d have a beer, then switch to cocktails, then five sambucas, then over to wine. Like a tourist travelling through the world of alcohol in search of new lands. I repeated this addiction to the new in every other area of my life. My hobbies would go from surfing to chess to tarot to boxing within one month, then I’d never do them again. Also, see relationships and jobs.

I didn’t get diagnosed until after I gave up drinking a couple of years ago. I was found to be suffering from ADHD (inattentive subtype). This means that I’m not hyperactive, but I have other symptoms. I zone out and stop following conversations. I procrastinate to world record levels and I get easily distracted. I now take medication, which helps reduce these symptoms, and I’m amazed by how well it works.

Life is not perfect, even after the double whammy of ADHD diagnosis and stopping drinking. I’m still the same person with the same challenges as before. But I feel like I’m playing in a hard football match and I’m now wearing boots. Whereas before, I was running around in bare feet, sockless.

  • Andy Mac is a DJ and producer who has enjoyed acclaim on an international level and was resident DJ at Cream for over a decade.