Does Alcohol Cause Mental Illness?

In the first few weeks of sobriety, I attended A.A. meetings. I was told that I was powerless over alcohol and needed to place my faith in a higher power. If submission was the prerequisite for freedom, I was ready to surrender control. Whatever it takes. I’m done.

However, when I read in the Big Book that problem drinkers must “endure the suggestion that they are in fact mentally ill,” I bristled with denial. Nope. No can do.

Ironically, I’ve since rejected the notion that alcohol has power over me. Alcohol has no more control than laundry detergent, paint thinner or Seven Eleven Big Gulps. They are all just liquids that I don’t believe to be suitable for ingestion.

But after twenty months of sobriety, I no longer wonder, “does alcohol cause mental illness?”

It absolutely does.

Booze Goggles

The stigma around mental illness is strong, despite the increased awareness surrounding mental health. Physical ailments are less complicated. Fighting cancer makes you a hero. Reversing diabetes is badass. Conquering alcohol use disorder warrants props too–but simply battling it?–not so much. Granted, I drank too much. But then I stopped. Was I mentally ill? Am I still?

“Mental illness” translates to crazy–not in touch with reality–a few pieces short of a puzzle. Mental health is a function of how attuned your subjective perceptions are to objective reality. Mental illness indicates a level of psychosis in some context–it is the absense of clear thinking.

Depressants vs. Antidepressants

It’s normal in our culture to use drugs as a way to feel better. There’s a whole class of pharmaceticals known as antidepressants designed specifically to treat mental health issues. Alcohol is classified as a depressant drug. Yet it’s marketed as a stress-reliever, mood enhancer, social lubricant and liquid sex appeal. Alcohol psychosis permeates all levels of our society and generates significant profits for the alcohol industry.

Alcohol use disorder is classified a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. You don’t need a medical degree to understand why. Alcohol’s euporhic buzz makes reality seem better than it is. The anxiety that happens when the buzz wears off (withdrawal) makes reality seem worse than it is. Alcohol addiction leads to a preoccupation with drinking that reorders our priorities. Our ability to focus on more pressing issues is compromised. Distinct and mild episodes of drug-induced psychosis (intoxication and withdrawal) are blurred and intensified by frequent use.

Does alcohol cause mental illness? Clearly, it does.

I suffered from alcohol use disorder. Yet I appeared to be a productive, positive person. I looked and acted healthy. My kids were taken care of. My dog was walked. Dinner was on the table. I was helpful, reliable and kind. Drama was something I avoided. I wasn’t sick on the outside. But inside, my mental health was deteriorating.

Every morning, the shrill voice of an unrelenting inner critic pierced my consciousness before I even opened my eyes. Some days, I’d cover my ears and beg, “Can I get a cup of coffee before we start the beat-down?” The critic did not have a sense of humor and the request was usually denied. My extrodinary efforts to balance my alcohol intake with a whole food plant-based diet, daily exercise, and copious amounts of water and supplements were no longer working. Yet I continued to drink. I guess I believed that aruging with reality was easier than changing it.

Thank God that’s not true.

I no longer subscribe to the A.A. philosophy that alcoholism is a life-long disease. Oh, it’s real and it most certainly can be fatal. But when you stop drinking, you can overcome alcohol use disorder. Healing doesn’t happen overnight. But everytime you align your thoughts and actions with reality, your mental health improves.

Alcohol use disorder produces an internal state of dis-ease that is death by 1000 cuts. Ethanol is a sedative. Your brain counters the depressive effects with stimulants and stress hormones. Once the alcohol wears off, there is a bio-chemical imbalance that lasts well into the next day (or longer), leaving you hypersensitive and anxious. Even if you didn’t drink enough to suffer the standard hangover symptoms, it darkens your mood. Relationships and responsibilities feel more pain-in-the-ass than purposeful. It’s harder to shift out of negative thinking. Emotions may be manageable for high functioning folks, but the slogan on the struggle bus is “fake it till you make it.”

Does sobriety cure alcohol use disorder?

Most chronic disorders are reversible to at least some extent. The anxiety, depression, negative thinking and other psychological symptoms are the effects of heavy alcohol use, not the cause. That’s the good news. Alcohol doesn’t reflect who you really are. It changes who you think you are. They’re called booze goggles for a reason!

Alcohol inhibits the natural endorphins that maintain emotional stability, and triggers of the release of stress hormones. Sobriety alone will improve your mental health. But to level up and become the best version of yourself, you have to challenge your limiting beliefs. Don’t believe everything you think. It really helps to have a coach or other qualified professional help you identify the subconscious patterns that undermine your well-being. It’s hard to see your own crazy.

Since I quit drinking, I am discovering new and very improved versions of myself. I no longer pretend that I’m all good. I am all good—even when I’m dealing with hard things. I have a strong relationship with myself and a much clearer perception of reality. My emotions don’t rule my world. My thoughts and actions aren’t in conflict with each other–and when they are, I stop and resolve the issue. Taking care of myself first is what allows me to take care of everything else.

Don’t misunderstand. I didn’t wake up like this on day one. It’s been a long haul and a lot of hard work. Anyone willing to peel the onion is going to shed some tears. I’ve attended recovery meetings, gone on retreats, worked with several therapists and coaches, read self-help books, and immersed myself in quit-lit and sobriety podcasts. And I’m not finished. I learn something new every day and life just keeps getting better.

How to Overcome Alcohol Use Disorder

To overcome alcohol use disorder you must admit that alcohol is causing more stress than it's worth. It's not fun anymore. Drinking too much is a form of self-neglect, not self-care.

group think sobriety

Don't surrender your autonomy to group-think sobriety. Exchanging one set of limiting beliefs for another won't set you free.

Internalized oppression

Is your inside voice a bully? Internalized oppression from patriarchal, elitist and racially-biased "standards" causes fear and shame.

Becoming a Non-Drinker

What's the difference between "recovering alcoholic" and a non-drinker? The words you chose have a big impact on your experience of sobriety. If you don't like what you feel, change what you think.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder?
Do you wish you drank less but find it difficult to stop once you start? Are the legal experts in your head constantly debating the problem—and what you should do? That's alcohol use disorder.
You’re not alone. Many of us have been duped into using alcohol as a consolation prize for neglecting our needs--and then criticized for becoming dependent on it. I was able to quit drinking after 30 years without AA, rehab or willpower. My energy, vitality and joy have returned. I help high-functioning drinkers experience sobriety as a superpower, not a disease. 

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