I thought I was just like everyone else.
Joining my friends for happy hour, sipping on nice wine at client dinners, and spending Sunday afternoons at the local beer garden. It seemed perfectly normal that my social life revolved around alcohol. Since my drinking patterns did not seem any different from my peers, it never occurred to me to question them or view them as a form of self-medicating.
According to Kimberly Leitch, LCSW-R, and Talkspace therapist, there are many different forms of self-medicating. “Some of the more common forms of self-medicating that my clients engage in are the use of marijuana, alcohol, and sleeping pills,” Leitch said. From her perspective, self-medicating behaviors are often tied to poor coping skills.
My Unhealthy Relationship with Alcohol
The more I learned about my anxiety, the more I realized why I enjoyed drinking so much. I had been oblivious to the fact that my ego had an ulterior motive. As a Type A personality who obsessively tries to plan every moment of every day, alcohol gave my nervous system a mini-vacation. It felt like my one chance to let my guard down, not overthink things, and enjoy the moment. Even if that relief was an illusion.
It’s not uncommon for millenials to turn to alcohol or other forms of self-medicating as a way to keep up with our fast-paced society. According to the National Institutes of Health reports, 31% of alcoholics in the U.S. are young people and 21% of alcoholics are anti-social young people. As Leitch shared, “Surviving in today’s society is more difficult than it used to be, yet peoples’ frustration tolerance seems to be less.”
“In this day of technology and instant gratification,” she added, “people tend to be less prepared to deal with or develop coping mechanisms to manage everyday stressors.”
The Importance of Awareness
Even though I hated my hangovers, the feelings of regret, and the hours spent beating myself up for stupidly drinking too much again, I couldn’t figure out why I kept doing it. What I thought was an innocent desire to relax and have fun started to feel more like a compulsive way to mask something bigger.
My therapist agreed.
For Leitch, there are several steps to work with someone who self-medicates. “The first steps are to identify why they do it, what has failed in the past, how it doesn’t help, and the negative effects associated with their use (e.g. hangovers, trouble getting up in the morning, missed work, etc.),” Leitch shared. “The next steps include identifying healthier alternatives, what may have worked in the past and building upon that or modifying it.”
Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, and Virginia-based licensed Talkspace therapist, shared that people usually self-medicate as a way to numb feelings of anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, or a combination of all of these. “Some of the coping strategies [clients who self-medicate] have not yet developed are strength, self-confidence, the importance of the self, and the ability of creating boundaries when confronted by others,” she said.
Getting Comfortable with the Uncomfortable
As I became more mindful of my intentions behind drinking, I noticed I drank more when I felt uncomfortable. Alcohol served as a protective mask whenever I was at a social gathering and felt awkward, excited, lonely, self-conscious, or embarrassed. It was as if my emotions were too overwhelming and alcohol was the only way to manage them.
Leitch has observed a similar pattern with her clients. “Self-medicating helps people avoid facing or feeling certain situations or emotions,” she said. For example, “someone dealing with loss may not like the feelings of loneliness and they are therefore trying to cover up that pain.”
“Some emotions are difficult for people to deal with and so they’d rather avoid them,” she added. “Avoidance is a popular coping mechanism, albeit an unhealthy one.”
In an effort to deal with my emotions in a healthier way, I decided to stop drinking for an entire year. I wanted to face discomfort head on. I wanted to stop using alcohol as a crutch to avoid my emotions. I wanted to see what I was really hiding from.
And you know what? It was easier than I thought. The more comfortable I got with being uncomfortable, the less I felt like I needed or wanted alcohol to cover up those emotions. It felt empowering to be able to embrace whatever life threw at me.
Whether you know you are self-medicating or you are worried you might be, give yourself the gift of finding professional support. It may feel scary or unnecessary but getting to the root cause of your self-medicating is better than masking it with a substance.
You can do this.