Sunday, July 27, 2014

Alcohol, Depression, and Me

We all know the cliché of the alcoholic writer. Sadly, it's not just a cliché.  A Swedish mental health study in 2011 showed that, of people in the creative arts, authors had the highest rate of depression, anxiety syndrome, schizophrenia, substance abuse, and a 50% higher rate of suicide than the general population. (Read the article here.) Although I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl, I never expected to become a cliché.

Self-medication is as common to writers as depression. I didn’t realize that the struggles I had were all signs of depression. I started self-medicating when I was attending the University of Washington in Seattle. I loved everything about college life, but there was always an undercurrent of darkness trying to tow me under.

photo via Flickr/Creative Commons
I had never been able to fall asleep easily, and dorm life only made my problem worse. I started taking generous doses of Nyquil every night before bed to help me sleep. Literal self-medication. Surprisingly, I was still able to function pretty well during the day, but I purposefully only took late morning or afternoon classes. As soon as I got back to my room I would crash, hiding in my bed. Of course I couldn’t sleep properly after a late nap, so I took more Nyquil and the cycle continued.

My self-esteem was pretty low at the time, and as an escape from my self-doubt and negative thoughts I started binge drinking on the weekends with friends. It was easy for me to put on a happy face for others; I was a people-pleaser and always tried to keep my problems to myself. Alcohol is a depressant, of course, so it didn’t help my emotional issues at all. And it put me in some very dangerous situations. These days we know that repeated binge drinking is a form of alcoholism, but at the time no one thought much of it. (Maybe they still don’t.) Even with the weekend drinking (which sometimes carried over onto a weeknight or two) I was still able to make excellent grades.

My second year continued much as the first. I lived in the same dorm, with the same roommate. More Nyquil, more binge drinking. I was an English major with a creative writing emphasis, and wrote lots of dark poetry and short stories during this period. No great surprise. It never occurred to me that the reason I spent most of my alone time hiding in my bed could be depression. I could feel so happy and then the invisible weight would come crushing back down.

University of Washington via Flickr/Creative Commons
The third year I was at the University of Washington was incredibly rough. It started out bumpy, trying to find a new place to live. I ended up commuting from my parents’ house south of Seattle, which was a long drive. In January, with no warning, my family suffered a great tragedy that nearly destroyed us. (That’s another ultimately triumphant story, but it took a long time to turn the bad into good.) I ended up having to drop all my classes the second term but one. It set my graduation date back, but it couldn’t be helped. That summer my immediate family moved to Canada and I was left alone in Seattle. It was also the summer I turned 21.

No longer living at the dorms, I wasn’t tempted to do as much binge drinking, but my social drinking increased dramatically. I could go to bars with my friends, and I did. Often. My classes were definitely starting to suffer during my senior year. I could barely function during the day: not from the drinking, but from exhaustion. The lack of sleep at night meant I fell asleep in classes, or between them in places like the library. I could barely even drag myself to the lectures that were scheduled. 

One Shakespeare class I took with a friend, hoping that it might help me with my motivation to go. He didn’t know my personal issues, and just thought I was slacking off and skipping class. I missed so much that the day I finally came turned out to be the midterm. I sat down, looking on with horror as the professor passed out the exam. After quickly reading it I realized it would be impossible to fake my way through it. I got up, walked out, and never returned. I promptly dropped the class. Somehow I still managed to get good grades in the rest of my classes.

More alarming than the social drinking was my propensity to drink alone. I stocked a little liquor cabinet and would make myself a drink in the evening while doing my homework, reading, or watching television. Not a glass of wine or a beer, mind you. Hard liquor or a mixed drink. Probably not a good sign. At the time I just thought I was being grown up, although a little voice in my head tried to warn me that something was off about my life.

Things finally changed later that year when I went to a proper doctor. I had only seen the doctors in the health center on campus, and they were quick to deal with whatever your ailment was and send you on your way. This time I went to a low cost women’s clinic that had an amazing staff. The doctor really took time to ask about my mental health and not just my physical health. She was the one who looked at my symptoms and diagnosed me as clinically depressed. 

It was such a huge relief to know that that exhausting drowning feeling wasn’t just my imagination. I didn’t have to just “buck up” or “snap out of it.” The doctor put me on mild anti-depressants and had other suggestions for me (one of which was cutting back on the alcohol.) I did graduate from the University of Washington with honors, only one term behind my four-year goal.

via Flickr/Creative Commons
It’s been a long road, and I’ve struggled off and on with depression since then. I’ve learned more skills to help me cope, but there are still days I want to hide in my bed. Sometimes I do. But just for a little while, because now I know there is hope.

If you have any of these symptoms of depression, there is hope and help for you out there. This is a link to an excellent self-test for depression. (Click here.) If you think you might be suffering, remember that this is an illness and there is no shame in seeking help and treatment.

If you would like to share, I would love to hear about your journey with depression.

Related Posts

Suicide: thoughts from those left behind to those who are struggling

Mental Health: Facing my Monster


  1. Thanks for sharing....My depression might not be depression at all....At least not in the common sense of being sad and with thoughts of suicide.....My emotional rollercoaster was anger (and at times - self loathing).....

    I went to college and quit after my first year...I got horrible had nothing to do with partying or "finding myself", but mostly due to no interest....I would suffer a bad grade and would say "F-it" and drop the class....It's rather funny - and sad - but I'm a writer who never passed English 101....

    Getting back to my "depression"....I would blow up angry for no reason, or at least for reasons that a normal person would not find to be something to get angry over....I found that I could handle accidents very calmly - such as a trip, or a car dent, or my children spilling all the milk onto the table....But if it was something minor, such as walking into a wall, or dropping my drink - anything that I could personally control - I'd lose it....I would hit or kick the wall for having bumped into it.....

    I never went to a Dr. or was diagnosed with anything....I still have it.....I just learned to cope with it....and through mediation I have calmed down a lot over the last year.... Mine was mostly lashing out, swearing, hitting (objects), throwing things (usually alone)....But my anger did spill out into the real world, and made many people fearful and weary of being around me....Especially at the end of my marriage when everything set me off.....

    I should probably find a Dr. who could help me understand myself better.....I do know I have an attention disorder - though never diagnosed....I get bored very easily, especially over any topics that don't interest me....It has even affected my writing....I can write a beautiful first draft but then I never return to it.....I have so many things sitting on shelves (computer in box really) that I haven't touched since I first composed it....

    I do think of myself as an artist....An artist who writes - mostly short stories, essays, and poetry....I don't have a substance problem but that might be just because I've always hated the feeling of feeling numb....And alcohol has always enhanced my moods....If I got drunk while angry I would be VERY angry while drunk....Instead I was able to isolate myself (sometimes for days) until the moments passed....

    Every day is a challenge to keep myself in check....and to keep a positive outlook....I have found that meditation works well for me....And I don't beat myself up for not hitting the poet's ink well as often as I would like....

    Thanks for posting your struggles....As a writer (for me) there's a desire to be the suffering writer (Hemingway) who wrote amazing (but few) stories, who drank with zeal, and killed himself when he began feeling his mind slipping....There is such a romanticism about that....I would love to live and die like him....And that is my curse, for wanting to write like him, all my work suffers in comparison.....And that adds to depression and anger.....So for me - I just write the best Darren Wasell stories as I can....

    I wish you well my fellow scribe....may we meet on the battle fields of history, pens in hand, the Devil at our heals, and the wind to our backs....

  2. Thank you for sharing your struggles and your journey. Many men were taught growing up that the only acceptable "manly" emotion is anger, which is really unfortunate. Any intense feeling goes straight to anger, since that's all they have been allowed to feel.

    Sometimes it helps to try and look beneath the anger and try to see what emotion is there. It could be loneliness, fear, shame, or a combination of things. It's never wrong to feel emotions; it's only wrong to lash out or react. Easier said than done, I know :)

    It sounds like you are on the right track. Best of luck to you.