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Without a doubt, there were many reasons I would reach for a drink. Some days needed no reason for alcohol, other than making it through another day with all 4 kids fed, bathed, and alive. But many, many times I reached for the bottle to help deal with my anxiety. I always joked around that I was best friends with alcohol and anxiety, and we were an inseparable trio.
For a bit of context, I grew up in a family of Worriers. My mother’s constant worry about worst case scenarios for every possible event mixed with low level anxiety about everyday life occurrences bled and fed into the nervous, anxious person that I am today. I literally grew up thinking that if you don’t worry about the worst thing happening in any given scenario, then it will. There was no such thing as carefree living, as every action came with a risk or consequence. As a result, not a day passes without me thinking about something terrible happening to one of my family members. I admit, this is a daily struggle for me, and probably one of the biggest reasons why I abused alcohol.
Looking back on my relationship with alcohol, beginning as a teen, I first used it to fit in. Being a socially awkward and tall introvert, it was a way for me to connect with my peers and feel somewhat normal and more accepted. And it was my way of rebelling against overly strict parents. Over the years I went from barely fitting in with the cool kids in high school, to becoming a party animal in college (a social butterfly as my basketball coach put it!) to then needing to drink heavily on daily basis in order to deal with normal adult stressors of working and raising a family.
Using Alcohol As Therapy For Anxiety
I had always assumed that drinking was an integral part of life to celebrate the good and to get through the bad. Everyone drank, it seemed. So naturally, I assumed drinking was a way to relieve my anxiety, which had increased astronomically after having four back to back pregnancies in slightly under 5 years.
As the years wore on, and as my drinking raged out of control, I realized that on a deeper level I was drinking mainly to subdue my anxious thoughts. I no longer needed a reason to drink. My sole reason was to calm the storm raging in my head. I treated alcohol as anti-anxiety medication and used it religiously. I convinced myself that alcohol was the equivalent of therapy and prescription meds.
What I didn’t realize was that the alcohol was only making my anxiety worse. I chased that wave of relaxation that would encompass my body as I drank, wrapping around me like a warm, cozy blanket. And for a few minutes or hours, I was able to numb the thoughts in my head. For a moment in time, I was able to escape the anxiety that was constantly swirling all around me, picking on me, reminding me at any moment, that I could lose it all.
That wave of relaxation and euphoria turned to numbness and blacking out, and eventually passing out somewhere in my house, usually not in my bed.
But then anxiety and regret would wake me up nice and early, usually around 2AM. With a swirling stomach, pounding headache and the spins, anxiety would be right there, sitting on my chest like a heavy elephant, reminding me loudly that it never, ever left and would always be here. Those 2AM meetings still haunt me.
I would wake up feeling defeated, angry, sad and ashamed that alcohol had such control over me, and that it wasn’t even helping me with the one thing that I relied on it for.
Working Through Anxiety In Sobriety
One of the hardest things about sobriety was acknowledging and having to face my anxiety head on. I needed to find ways to arm myself to cope with and work through it in order to support my decision to give up alcohol for good. For me, having a sobriety toolbox and making time for self-care is integral to my day to day success.
There are many things that I find helpful for dealing with anxiety. Number one for me however is exercise. Sweating and getting a good burst of endorphins helps to calm my anxious mind on a regular basis. Some people sweat for vanity, I say I sweat for sanity! Although I enjoy many types of exercise, running and HIIT workouts are the ones that really help wear me out. More times than I can count, I started a run with something heavy on my mind and by the end, I have clarity and feel better equipped to deal with the situation that had been bugging me.
Other helpful tactics include talking it out, whether through self talk or with a trusted friend or family member. I find it immensely helpful to talk through events that are causing my anxiety to spike. Something as helpful as talking through worst case scenario and seeing that either you can still find a way to get through it, or identifying that worst case most likely will not happen helps bring my anxiety level down a bit.
Therapy is another avenue to help deal with anxiety. I am not currently in therapy, but I acknowledge with all the recent life changes happening with my family right now (kids being back in school during the pandemic, building a house and uprooting our family to move into a brand new neighborhood 40 miles away from our old stomping grounds) that I definitely need to reconnect with a therapist. In the mean time, I acknowledge my anxiety and talk through scenarios with my husband (and by myself!) to help myself cope.
Therapy was also integral in helping me process my postpartum anxiety and depression, especially after my third child was born. Speaking with a therapist helped me to come to terms with my anxiety, and helped me to feel validated that what I was experiencing was real. Talking through day to day issues and feelings helped me get through that particularly trying time where postpartum anxiety and depression were both raging.
An important note about therapy: While I do believe therapy is extremely important, I realize that it is not accessible to many people. I know paying a $40 copay twice a week was a stretch for my family to handle at that time, and I know for many, this could never be an option. If you are interested in therapy but are concerned about the financial impact, check out resources offered through your employer, such as an Employee Assistance Program. There are also some therapists who charge a sliding scaled fee based on your income. Finally, search through resources for your particular state to see if you could qualify for state funded counseling, where you may have access to free or reduced fee therapy. And with the state of the world, online therapy where you meet virtually with a therapist, is an emerging, reasonably priced option as well. There are also self help books and workbooks for anxiety that can be checked out of your local library too!
In It For The Long Haul
Coming to terms with my anxiety has been no easy feat. Ditching alcohol forced me to face my anxiety head on, and I acknowledge that I am a work in progress. I know that the way I am wired, I will never simply “get over” being an anxious person. It is truly in my DNA, and something I need to work through every single day. Just like I know and am okay with the fact that I can never, ever allow myself to have just one drink, because I know how easy it was for me to abuse alcohol in order to cope with life. Getting and staying sober and working through anxiety take a lot of work but showing up every day is half the battle.
And if you need help processing your relationship with alcohol, I found the book, This Naked Mind by Annie Grace, to be super helpful in helping me to quit alcohol forever. It truly has been an integral part of my recovery.