Alcohol and mental health: Susan's story

Susan | November 2020 | 8 minutes

In this blog, Susan shares her experience of problems with alcohol and mental health, and how the two were linked.

Over the years, alcohol fed me many lies. But perhaps the cruellest lie it told me was that my anxiety could be fixed with another drink. If I could travel back in time to give myself just one piece of advice, it would be that the crippling anxiety I was drinking to avoid, was actually being caused by the alcohol that I was ultimately drinking to avoid it!

Had I understood this simple fact back then, I believe that I might have avoided my spiralling into serious alcohol addiction.

You see, whilst it is well-documented that there is a link between alcohol and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, it is difficult to fully comprehend the reality of just how severe the impact of alcohol on a person’s mental state can become. Reading about how it alters brain chemistry in a scientific paper doesn’t paint a very human picture.

"Over the years, alcohol fed me many lies. But perhaps the cruellest lie it told me was that my anxiety could be fixed with another drink."

I can use my own personal experience with alcohol dependence to give you a clearer picture. Like many people, when I first tried alcohol I found that it could take the edge off feeling nervous in a social situation – because it was altering the chemicals in my brain. Looking back, I know that I liked the fact that alcohol seemed to give me more confidence when socialising as a student, and then at work. I naively thought that this was harmless. I suppose that I was, in fact, drinking to take away social anxiety, even all those years ago.

But the inescapable fact about alcohol is that, over time and with regular consumption, we become increasingly tolerant to it. Eventually, the satisfying effect alcohol was having on my confidence couldn’t be achieved by a couple of glasses of wine anymore. Over time, I needed to increase the amount I was drinking to get the same level of self-assuredness. Whilst I might have had niggling worries that my alcohol consumption was increasing, I had absolutely no idea about the devastating impact this was having on the delicate balance of chemicals in my brain, and the havoc this would wreak on my mental health.

Most people will at some point experience the unpleasant after effects of drinking too much and a typical hangover can have both physical and mental symptoms – people often joke about ‘beer fear’, ‘hangxiety’ and even ‘booze-anoia’ to describe the anxiety they feel after a heavy night. But when you develop a dependence on alcohol and drink increasing amounts over a long period of time, the effects on your mental state are nothing to joke about.

Over time my hangovers progressed to debilitating withdrawal, but I did not know that the crippling anxiety that I frequently experienced was a direct result of this. I didn’t know it wasn’t ‘real’ – it was a chemically induced state caused by alcohol. My withdrawals, like those of many people who are alcohol dependent, became more and more severe, and the anxiety I experienced became increasingly debilitating. In the end I had to avoid the withdrawal at all costs because the anxiety was so severe – it was a feeling of overwhelming impending doom, mixed with crippling shame and fear. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself and I was practically climbing the walls, wanting to get out of my own skin because I was so agitated and anxious.

"I have always pictured my alcohol dependence as a dark shadow, an evil entity that ultimately wanted to kill me. In my darkest moments it would whisper to me that everyone I loved would be better off if I wasn’t around. Alcohol truly took me to the darkest of places."

Sadly, the only way for me to avoid this was to drink; a vicious circle that had started with me innocently using alcohol to feel more confident.

Once drinking to avoid the anxiety of withdrawal became a necessity, there were further impacts on my mental health. Alcohol is a depressant, and the overwhelming sadness of the situation that I found myself in consumed me. I have always pictured my alcohol dependence as a dark shadow, an evil entity that ultimately wanted to kill me. In my darkest moments it would whisper to me that everyone I loved would be better off if I wasn’t around. Alcohol truly took me to the darkest of places.

Recent high-profile campaigns to raise awareness about and take away the stigma surrounding mental health problems have been so successful in enabling and empowering people to talk about their experiences without being judged. I think that this should be extended to discussing the impacts of alcohol on mental health because I do not think that people are aware of the devastating effect that alcohol can have on our brains, which can ultimately lead to people taking their own lives.

I admit that there were times early on in my progression into alcohol dependence when I would rather blame my erratic behaviour on my mental health than on the quantities of alcohol I was drinking. This was because of feelings of shame and fear of judgement – being open about alcohol problems feels harder than being open about your mental health. How different things might have been if there was better education about the indisputable link between alcohol and mental health issues.

Susan is the author of From Rock Bottom to Sober Forever. She lives in Surrey with her husband and son.