CW: alcohol & drug use
I was trying to ex-out of Google Chrome when a pop-up appeared; it offered me the options “Leave” or “Stay.” I was filling out an application for some job I’m lukewarm about. As a passionate and emotional person, I don’t like lukewarm anything. I scald myself in the shower, despite dermatological suggestions to choose a reasonable temperature. I waved the mouse over “Leave” and clicked hard. I think Google might have remembered what it’d seen in my bank account, because it was hesitant to accept this choice. “Are you sure?” a second pop-up asked. “Yes,” I clicked, harder than the first time.
You may know by now that I love taking crazy and odd jobs. I drove Uber for the first time on Halloween, I’ve done “modeling” for graduate art classes, but last September, I took the best gig yet. I began as a research participant in a study that looks at the impacts of THC and alcohol on driving. Yeah, you read that right: I got legally stoned, I got drunk, I played video games, and I got paid. It was every sixteen year old’s dream come true. I was only in it for the money and the story, but I came away with a better sense of my substance-use. And, unexpectedly, a strong desire to go sober.
Before beginning the trial, I had to be medically cleared. This clearance consisted of a full physical, blood work, and a charting of my family history. The most strenuous part of this process, though, was the psychiatric exam and documentation of my substance use. I was honest with the researchers; I told them I’d been depressed in the past, that I’d drank more during that period than any other, that I’d gotten really anxious/paranoid when combining alcohol and weed. Nonetheless, I was cleared and began a several month journey at the local VA Hospital.
Though the study was double-blind and I can’t know for certain, I am fairly certain that on my first test day I received alcohol-placebo (meaning alcohol and a sugar pill, as opposed to alcohol and THC.). I remember being elated and relaxed (while drunk), but when I sobered up I felt something just shy of despondence. As the study continued over the course of the fall, I made a note-to-self that I felt best on the placebo-placebo day and worst on the alcohol-THC day. Short synopsis of that day, which was *crazy*: I got drunk & high, did the driving stuff, sobered up, had lunch, then went in for the final “baseline” drive to get cleared to get home, then was hit with a second wave of THC—I was in the very dark, very cold driving booth wigging out because I had been sober but 30 seconds before. When the researchers came back in after I’d finished the drive, I told them I was “super high” and had to sleep it off for several hours before being discharged. For the concerned out there: I should note that I took the bus home after each of these occasions or had Maddie pick me up; the researchers were very strict about patients not driving home on test days.
Throughout each test day, the research team would supply me with a stack of surveys about symptoms, my perceived ability to drive, and my mood. I realized after day one that my mood was lower at the end of the day than the beginning; I chalked it up to being tired, but now having been more attentive to the way alcohol affects my body, I realize it wasn’t fatigue.
Flash forward a few weeks after the study was over: I spent New Year’s Eve sober–not a decision, just out of circumstance–and greeted the first morning of 2017 with some stretching and a long run by the beach. I did yoga on the Maine shoreline, danced on the rocks, felt great. After my bright morning, I went out for lunch and saw the restaurant had gluten free beer. I ordered one, drank it, and twenty minutes later was deep in a funk. I took myself shopping in an effort to cheer up, but I couldn’t. I went back to the house I was staying in, had a gin and tonic, which, unsurprisingly, did not help, watched some TV and went to bed. I returned home to Connecticut the next day; over dinner, my brother began talking about the effects of alcohol on brain chemistry. He made some comment about how alcohol can reduce your uptake of serotonin and dopamine for up to three days. When he said this, something clicked. I realized that there was definitely a connection between my depression and drinking habits. I wasn’t just hungover in the days that followed drinking (whether light or excessive), I was inviting bouts of depression.
Honestly: I have been trying to give up alcohol for a while. Like, a couple of years. I’ve always admired my friends who don’t drink. My old roommate had an allergic reaction to alcohol on her 21st birthday and hasn’t had a drink since. Every time I came home drunk or woke up hung over I would look at her and think: I wish I was sober, or, I need to stop this. This is hurting me more than it’s serving me. Sure, I’ve had some really fun nights out, and in, drinking. But I’ve also had some really bad ones, followed by strings of bad days wondering why I felt like sh*t. I’ve stopped for brief periods in the past, but it never stuck. The realization that I’d wanted to quit this behavior badly, but couldn’t bring myself to do it, became troubling. When I heard–and then read a bunch–about the alcohol-depression-dopamine connection, I realized that stopping was a decision I really, really wanted to commit to. It’s cliche to come to major decisions like this around New Years, which is why I was hesitant to write about it several months ago. But now it’s been some 80 odd days, and I’m feeling good. Stable. Sure.
I know that I’m really lucky; I wasn’t struggling with a full blown addiction. I have deep respect and admiration for all those overcoming their own addictions; it’s an incredibly decision to come to, and an even harder process to follow through on. We need support from family, friends, God, but ultimately it is a journey we take alone. My alcohol and drug use wasn’t at the point where it was concerning any of my friends or family. But, it was worrying me, and that was all I needed to look in the mirror and say Leave, followed by Yes, I am sure. I knew that I couldn’t commit to this for anyone else’s sake or benefit, which is why I’m struggling to write about it: these kinds of decisions are super personal, and they only work when we’re fully committed to treating ourselves better. That said, I got help and advice from blogs, particularly this one: Hip Sobreity; I did a lot of journaling and talking to myself about what this decision means for me in the present and in the future. I’m in my middle-twenties (sort of? almost?), am graduating college soon enough (yippee!), and am beginning to think about the kind of life I want. I don’t think alcohol is destructive to everyone, but I know it’s not good for me. I know my family history and the way my body reacts to “just one drink;” the risks just aren’t worth it anymore. I’m grateful for the support I’ve gotten from friends and family, drinkers and non-drinkers a like, and know that this piece is a bit of a coming out for the people I haven’t been brave enough to tell yet about this new step in my life.
Peace on this rainy Monday,