My Complicated Relationship With Alcohol
First off, I work in a liquor store. I’m the whiskey guy, and I spend the day talking to customers, mostly men, about the stories that go into every bottle. Our history is all tied up with drink, and every sip brings past generations to us along with the sweeetness and the fire. Sure, a customer here and a customer there may have a problem, but I’m not there to judge, empathize or intervene. I’m there to sell bourbon.
Second, I was going to have a launch party for my book last night at a very hip bar on a dark street in Philadelphia. People planned on coming, and we were set to offer a drink with the purchase of every book.
I cancelled it.
As I’ve written here I’ve been a bit manic lately, and in the no inhibition charisma of mania this party seemed like a very good idea. Fortunately, good sense got the better of me a few days ago and I realized the tasteless contradiction of promoting a book about mental illness, and how to manage it, at an event that would not only have condoned drinking, it would have encouraged it.
Addiction is a scourge of people with severe mental illness, and alcohol, more than anything else, keeps a lot of people with mood disorders sick. Half of all people with bipolar disorder have a history of alcohol abuse, and one peer reviewed study actually found that, in moderate cases of bipolar disorder, alcohol abuse may have been a causal factor. Research has consistently shown that co-occurring substance use disorders, like alcohol abuse, are correlated with negative effects on illness outcome including more frequent and prolonged affective episodes, decreased compliance with treatment, a lower quality of life, and increased suicidal behavior.
I’m a social drinker, and yet Covid lockdowns took away most of the “social” and left most of the drinking. My wife and I took cocktail mixing classes online and I became quite the home bartender. It got to the point where I was drinking every day. Now that things have opened up, we’re having friends over a lot again. Drinking is almost always part of the gathering.
I know there is a contradiction between the work I do and the honest pleasure I take in a good drink.
While I’m Catholic, it’s impossible to encounter and teach meditation as I do without some understanding of Buddhism, for it intimately influences mindfulness practices. So I’ve studied Buddhist ideas and precepts pretty carefully. Drinking is a big no-no in Buddhism.
In Catholicism, the transubstantiation of wine into the blood of Christ is central to the mass, and we take a sip of wine during communion. But we also have Lent, a period of introspection and sacrifice that began last Wednesday and will last until Easter. It’s customary to give up something for Lent that will be truly missed. This year I have given up spirits and cocktails. Fortunately, it’s been an easy week of sobriety.
I speak very little about addiction in my book Practicing Mental Illness because I have no real experience with it and, in a book about direct experience, it would be hypocritical of me to go on and on about a topic about which I know almost nothing. But I do know that there can be great pleasure in drinking, and that this pleasure has a dark side, since alcohol is addictive and can cause great difficulty to a person with bipolar disorder like me.
Still, substance use disorder and bipolar disorder are separate conditions and must be treated separately for treatment to be effective. I can give up drinking for Lent, but I can’t give up bipolar disorder. We must always extend compassion and understanding to those who struggle with addiction, and we must be ever vigilant that our own behavior does not make our experience with mental illness more challenging than it needs to be.
So right now I’m not drinking. Do I miss it? Yes. Can I live without it? So far so good. Am I an alcoholic? I have no symptoms of withdrawal, so apparently not. But neither am I so in denial that I stupidly say, “I am different. This isn’t a problem for me.” Have I abused alcohol? Most definitely.
I will not minimize the struggle of those with mental illness who fight the battle against addiction. Or those who, as yet, just can’t stop. Our lives are complicated and contradictory, and I will never dare say, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Please bear with me as I investigate the influence alcohol has on my life and my mental illness.
We’re always healing. I let my behavior get the better of me, and I’m using the forty days of Lent to correct something that got out of hand. I can’t even imagine the suffering of one who is addicted, but I am empathetic. If you’re fighting this fight, please continue. If you need to fight this fight, please get help.
When it comes to alcohol and bipolar disorder, I’m no great role model. But I try, and sometimes I have the good sense to make good decisions. I don’t think this post is a cop-out, or an attempt at rationalizing my behavior. But life is an investigation and I am forever curious. I’ll use this period of Lent, this time without drink, to learn a bit more about myself and my work, and hopefully to be a bit more open to the experience of others.
Please take a look at my book Practicing Mental Illness: Meditation, Movement and Meaningful Work to Manage Challenging Moods. It’s full of good advice that can help you manage, and live well with, anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder. I hope you consider buying a copy. It’s an honor and a privilege to share my experience with you.