Alcohol & Health: Hear from SBGC’s Sober Ashley.

In my introduction I mentioned that I had several reasons for choosing sobriety, one being my health. Though I’ve experienced a lot of illness in my childhood, my adult life was unmarked by sickness. In fact, from about 2012-2017, I didn’t have a single illness. But around June 2017, my health took a decline that I could not explain.

The Almost Alcoholic
I would characterize my drinking as “gray area” or almost alcoholism. This type of drinking differs from alcohol dependency because most people never experience withdrawals and it differs from alcohol abuse because most never face major consequences such as a DUI or another stereotypical “rock bottom” events. Therefore, these individuals are never forced to examine their relationship with alcohol, they believe they are normal. However, the almost alcoholic also differs from normal drinking, defined as one or two drinks, once or twice a month. Psychology Today defines the “almost alcoholic” as a person who experiences one or more of the following: trouble sleeping, mild anxiety and/or depression, marital or family conflict, declining performance at work and health problems not directly attributed to the person’s drinking.

This gray area drinking can be a slippery slope into alcoholism, but there’s also a chance the person will shift back into normal drinking. Before settling on sobriety I considered this—one or two beers, once or twice a month—but the idea didn’t resonate with me for a few reasons: 1. I liked drinking! So the idea of moderating seemed terrible. I’d either drink as much as I wanted and have fun or I’d have two drinks and end up feeling deprived. Or worse, I’d have more than two and feel like a failure. 2. Moderating is a risky game. Everyone know alcohol tolerance increases over time, so it was inevitable that moderation would turn into more. For me it was sobriety or bust.

My Health
This time last year I was dealing with my third or fourth sinus infection since Thanksgiving. Just a few weeks earlier I’d recovered from pneumonia and, unbeknownst to me, a few weeks later I’d be fighting bronchitis. I’d also been struggling since June with inexplicable stomach pains that my doctor initially thought were a stomach ulcer but would ultimately be attributed to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Miraculously, I continued to go to the gym three times a week during this time, but I’d still managed to gain 30 pounds and my skin looked horrible.

At the same time my mental health was deteriorating to the point I was barely functioning at home or work. Throughout most of my life I’ve considered my mood melancholy but this was a new level of sadness. I found myself feeling extremely hopeless about my present or future and crying spells became a regular part of my life. My lifelong worry streak also ramped up during this time as evidenced by my IBS diagnosis. During this time I was also prescribed an anti-depressant and figured I’d be on it for 6-9 months max. The medicine helped me feel ok-ish, but I still continued drinking to deal with the -ish part.

Surprisingly, I never connected these problems to my drinking and, believe me, none of this ever stopped me from drinking. By this time I was drinking daily, usually secretly. If anything, the myriad of mental and physical ailments made me drink more so that I could feel better at least temporarily. I justified the drinking by telling myself a hot toddy was supposed to help, right? Plus being sick all the time was stressful and drinking help me relax, right?? Of course, deep down I knew alcohol couldn’t possibly be good for a cold, but I soon found out it didn’t help anxiety or depression either.

Alcohol is a complicated substance. On one hand, the fact that alcohol is a depressant means that when you drink your feelings are dampened in the moment. At the same time, your brain releases dopamine, the feel good hormone, in response to what it interprets as a rewarding or pleasurable event. However, since our bodies seek to maintain balance, our brain also releases a chemical called dynorphin to bring your mood back down to normal. In other words, alcohol artificially stimulates dopamine release and the body fights back with dynorphin. What that means is even though drinking can calm your feelings and even feel good in the moment, the long-term consequence is less happiness due to the release of dynorphin. For me that means alcohol was not only making me physically sick, it was exacerbating my mental health problems.

My Turning Point
This isn’t the part where I tell you I quit dinking and magically fixed all my problems, life’s always more complicated than that. I did a few things to help myself out. First, I left my old job and eventually returned to something a little less stressful. I also ended the relationship I was in at the time and it was definitely the right decision, we’re both better for it. Even after I made these two changes I continued to drink regularly. I figured I was happy now so why shouldn’t I drink? As a result despite the fact that my physical health improved, my mood was still touch and go.

Finally, in October I had a friend suggest doing the Sober October challenge. Typically, I avoided such challenges because I found them silly, but at the time I happened to be unemployed and found myself drinking out of sheer boredom and I wanted to combat it. I had no intentions of being sober forever, I just wanted a break until I found a job. After the first week I felt mentally clearer and overall more positive. I was also had the time to take my meditation practice to the next level. I’d started meditating in an attempt to avoid a long list of meds for my IBS, but in October I hit my stride and started meditating four times a week. Now I can happily say I meditate daily and it helps keep me in the present moment which helps tremendously to improve my mood.

While sober I also came to accept my lifelong anxiety and depression. As much as I would’ve liked to keep referring to them as my worry streak and my melancholy mood, I had to get real and accept that I had real mental health struggles and that I’d been using booze to cope with them. As scary as it was to admit these things, the acceptance lead to measurable relief and helped me learn to respect my mental health as much as my physical health.

However, the biggest changes were the ones I could not see or control—the dopamine/dynorphin battle in my brain came to an end. At first things felt a little “flat” because I wasn’t getting the artificial dopamine boost from the alcohol, but I also stopped feeling the dynorphin-induced lows—slowly my body and brain regained their balance. The end of this cycle also contributed to my anti-depressant being more effective.

The Beautiful Now
Today I am happier and healthier than I ever thought possible, but things still aren’t perfect. Life still has its ups and downs, but I feel better prepared to cope with them. I’ve also had two sinus infections this winter, but that’s it, no other colds or illnesses to speak of.

Not every almost alcoholic will deal with persistent illnesses the way I did, but I encourage you to ask yourself if your drinking is negatively affecting your life in ways you don’t immediately notice. Do you have trouble sleeping a few times a week? Is your work performance suffering because you have a mild hang over? Are you having more conflicts with your spouse? If so, consider choosing sobriety, even for just a month, and see the difference it can make.