Let me start off by saying, this is not a story of someone struggling with alcoholism, or someone who has moral convictions against alcohol consumption. Quite the contrary! I experimented with alcohol when I entered college, and yes, I was underage, but I would never say I had a drinking problem. My drinking habits significantly decreased when I finally did turn 21, probably because it wasn’t a new and forbidden activity, and also because college had me busier in my upperclassmen years. While college is often a time for experimentation, it is also a time for self-discovery. My story revolves around the discovery and confrontation of mental health issues I had been silently battling for years, and how choosing sobriety ultimately meant choosing my happiness.
The details of my diagnosis aren’t of particular importance. What you should know is I did everything I could to address my illness; I participated in talk therapy, exercise, a healthy diet, and had a positive support system. Unfortunately, depression doesn’t just go away because you will it to, or you eat enough spinach to put Popeye to shame – I was experiencing clinical symptoms that were unrelated to a particular traumatic situation or event. Antidepressants weren’t my first impulse to “fix” myself – in fact, I avoided considering them for most of my college years. I had serious fears, misconceptions, and misinformation about antidepressants, and I really didn’t want to be seen as someone who “took the easy way out.” Thankfully, I had the guidance of a psychologist and a psychiatrist, both of whom gave me all the information I needed to make the best decision for myself. And ultimately, that’s what I did. Choosing to take antidepressants helped me immensely, but it wasn’t the end of the story.
Let’s set the stage: I was a senior in college in an undergraduate theatre department at a Midwestern liberal arts university. So, yeah, partying and drinking on the weekends (usually in costume) was just part of the culture. Like I said, I’ve never been a huge drinker; I’m a 5’ 1” vegan, so you can guess my tolerance is pretty low. At any given party, I would usually have one or two drinks, feel pleasantly buzzed, walk to the nearest Taco Bell for a burrito night cap, and return to my dorm to doze off with a full stomach. I know, the college cliché is excruciating.
This routine once a week or so doesn’t sound particularly unhealthy or problematic – in fact, for most college students, this is, like I mentioned, a pretty standard routine.
However, if you read the dosage instructions on almost any bottle of antidepressants, you’ll see the words: DO NOT MIX WITH ALCOHOL, complete with a cute illustration of a martini glass with a big X drawn through it. I just assumed this meant you shouldn’t chase your pill with a cranberry vodka in the morning, but having a drink at a party wasn’t a big deal. I was exempt from this, right?
Blame my over-active curious mind, but I asked my psychiatrist about these instructions at a follow-up visit. I don’t know if you consider yourself an expert in brain chemistry, but I sure don’t. My psychiatrist explained a lot of things to me that I could try and relay to you, but it would probably be like playing a game of telephone – a lot is going to be lost in translation. I’ll do my best to explain the essentials, but in no way am I claiming to give medical advice or make accurate scientific statements. Feel free to use Google after reading this and fall into the same WebMD rabbit hole I did. You’ve been warned.
Basically, using alcohol while taking an antidepressant can cause the effects of both the alcohol and the medication to intensify. This means you could be at risk for a higher level of intoxication at a faster rate, leading to blackouts, alcohol poisoning, or even death. In addition to these risks, alcohol basically renders the antidepressant ineffective, due to how the two substances interact in your brain. What can I say? Brains are complicated.
I don’t know about you, but those statements sounded pretty scary to me, especially when I was hearing them in a physician’s office. I was pretty much “scared sober” for a little while, partly because I didn’t know how alcohol would affect my body with my new medication, and also because I really wanted the medicine to work. However, my desire to attend our infamous theatre parties did not subside. I didn’t want to be a boring wet blanket at a raging party, especially when I had so few left, so I decided to get creative and bring an alternative beverage. Thank goodness for the health food section at our local Kroger, because I found some ginger beer that was non-alcoholic, resembled an adult beverage, and actually had a spicy kick that made me feel like I wasn’t just sipping Sprite. Totally hipster.
It worked pretty well for a while, but people were curious as to why I suddenly had a strange bottle of Jamaican ginger beer in my hand at every party, which in turn caused them to be curious about why I wasn’t drinking alcohol. What could I tell them?
“Yeah, I’m not drinking right now because the psycho-pharmaceuticals I take for my mental illness don’t react well to alcohol, and I really don’t feel like being mildly suicidal in the near future.”
Talk about an awkward conversation flat-liner.
Usually, I would say something like, “I just can’t right now,” and my drunken peers would shrug and wander off, curious for another few seconds until they were distracted by something more interesting or embarrassing happening on the other side of the room.
I stuck to this for a little while, but eventually, I started to feel better on my medication. I had a lot going on near the end of my senior year of college, and every once in a while, I really just wanted a beer with my best friends. I loosened up a little bit and allowed an occasional indulgence. The Dr.’s words of warning drifted further away from my memory as I got more comfortable with my routine and more confident about my ability to control my feelings. I’m always in complete control! Ha!
Life went on; I graduated, moved away, and struggled to establish my new life in a big city and navigate my new post-grad identity. Moving, along with numerous other changes, had an impact on my mental health. I had an ever-changing schedule, new responsibilities and stressors to juggle, and my supportive community was spread out across several different states. I began to struggle to find motivation for simple tasks, creative career projects, or social efforts. Soon enough, I found myself in familiar territory, but this time I was more frustrated at my lack of control.
Why was I back here? I was doing everything right. Right?
We could go on about my struggle to regain stability and mental clarity, but eventually my search for relief came back to one thing – alcohol consumption. Though I wasn’t drinking regularly, I had started to notice a pattern: when I would have a drink, I would momentarily feel better. The buzz in my head and a heavy tongue felt good, and I would slip off to bed without much effort. But the next day, I would feel like someone had essentially sucked the life out of me, kind of like if a dementor started to drink my soul or something, only chocolate didn’t help afterwards.
I couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t start or finish tasks, couldn’t even muster a smile. I would literally be questioning the point of my existence, and it wasn’t just a bad hangover. I usually only had one drink; I never went on benders or binges.
I realized I needed to make a choice. Was one drink worth all of this? And yes, for me, one drink is all it took.
Many people struggle with alcoholism and addiction – I am not one of them. I don’t want to downplay the difficulty they go through in choosing sobriety, because it’s way harder than what I have going on. I also have no moral or religious objection to consuming alcohol – I’m really not the person to be judging other people’s morals anyway. In my case, I just needed to look out for my own health and be my own advocate.
These days, I’m choosing to abstain from alcohol, and ultimately, my reason for this choice comes down to love. Making this decision is the ultimate form of self-care – it’s the best thing I can do for myself right now. I had to decide that I deserved happiness, and that I am worthy of that shot – we all are. For me, that happiness was jeopardized by my battle with depression and the effect alcohol had on my body and mind.
Do I miss having a beer with friends? Yes.
Most of the time, I’m happy to be with the people I love, and I’m able to enjoy our time together regardless of whether or not I have a drink. But, occasionally, I do miss the sensation. I miss the social satisfaction. I miss the taste of a Boulevard Wheat on draft. But, I know those sensations are short-lived, and the after effects are not. I try to remind myself of this.
In some ways, it feels weird to be in my early 20’s and choosing sobriety. It’s a hard thing to explain to people; no matter how succinctly or casually you refuse a drink, people still notice, and wonder. And it’s hard to find the words to describe my situation without launching into an exhausting story and becoming the downer of the party, or being seen as some damaged fragile person who has an unstable psyche. Sometimes, people feel guilty for drinking around me, and start to question whether or not they should. For the record, I never want people to feel guilty for drinking around me, and I happen to make an excellent DD.
At the end of the day, I can ask myself – what am I missing out on? The answer is, nothing that is more important than my right to happiness.