Waking up in a hedge after a night out in your early twenties can be slightly embarrassing. But it will generally lead to much hilarity and a very good anecdote to tell your mates down the pub.
Waking up in a hedge after a night out in your late thirties however, well, that’s just sad.
And yet that’s often where I found myself; drinking myself to the point of oblivion to try and block out all the negative and dark thoughts that come with depression.
It was only quite recently that I finally admitted to myself that I had a problem with alcohol.
Therapy taught me that I was using it as a coping mechanism. And when I dug a little bit deeper, I could see that I’d been using all sorts of negative coping mechanisms throughout my life to deal with my depression and anxiety.
I found the idea that I had somehow come up with these coping mechanisms, pretty much subconsciously, really quite fascinating. So I decided that I would try and categorise them in an attempt to better understand them. In the end, it turned out to be a very therapeutic exercise so I decided to share my findings in an attempt to help others better understand why they do the things they do. Obviously these are all very specific to me, but one thing I found during group therapy is that our individual experiences with depression may not be as unique as we think.
You may think this is a strange category to have. How can depression lead to anything good, right?
But for me personally it certainly wasn’t all doom and gloom.
From a very early age, when I first started suffering from depression and anxiety, all I wanted to do was fit in and be accepted. By my family, friends and peers. This is a basic human instinct - we are a tribal species. As a society we may have moved on and evolved, but our basic needs haven’t changed. We still want to be accepted and valued by the people that surround us.
When it comes to depression and anxiety, a conflict with these deep rooted human instincts arises.
For me, my negative core beliefs constantly tell me that I’m not good enough, I’ll never fit in and I have no value, but my basic programming is telling me that I have to fit in and that I need to provide value in order to be accepted. It really is a bit of a pickle. There needs to be a solution to this problem and in my case that just happens to be humour.
I’ve always used humour as a coping mechanism. But I’ve always viewed it as positive one. I’ve always identified myself as the “funny” guy who can always make people laugh. It’s one of the few things in life I feel I’m any good at. I equate laughter to happiness. So If I’m making people laugh then I must be bringing them some form of happiness.
Even when I’ve been at my lowest I’ve always tried to find some humour in all the sadness.
I even attempted stand up comedy for a while in a bid to fight back against my crippling social anxiety. And it worked, kind of. I did about five gigs, with varying degrees of success. But I succeeded in making strangers laugh. And believe me there is nothing quite like the buzz you get from that.
Unfortunately nothing lasts forever and I soon gave up my fledgling comedy career. Which leads me onto...
…You might be wondering why I stopped doing the stand up comedy, especially as I seemed to really enjoy it and I was genuinely quite good (I had a lot of potential anyway).
The reason is a little bit complicated.
Basically, at my last ever gig, my brain decided that putting myself out there in front of a bunch of strangers with the ability to judge me and mock me, was far too dangerous. Anxiety reasserted itself as my self-appointed ‘protector’ and I died on my arse. Forgetting all my material, fumbling for words and generally proving my brain was absolutely right.
I gave up stand-up comedy and never looked back.
I’ve talked about negative core beliefs before, but what I failed to mention is that in a twisted kind of way they only exist as a way to protect you. In my case, my own overwhelming fear of rejection and not being good enough led to my own brain deciding that I should never put myself in situations where that might happen.
The mind is truly powerful thing, but it also incredibly dangerous. To keep you safe it can make you do extremely negative things. Stay in bed all day, never leave the house or put yourself in social situations, actively distancing yourself from friends and family and ultimately hurting yourself.
This one is very specific to me.
Like a lot of people from my generation I started drinking at a very early age. I remember my early teens, illicit late night meet ups down the local park, sharing around a three litre bottle of White Lightning. If we were lucky and managed to scrape enough money together we sometimes got to treat ourselves to a couple of bottles of Diamond White each.
I think that my discovery of alcohol, coupled with the early onset of depression and anxiety, was a very dangerous combination.
I found that alcohol in sufficient quantities could make me a lot more confident but it would also effectively shut my mind off for short periods of time. I soon became reliant on it.
It was only years later during therapy that I came to realise that I definitely use alcohol as coping mechanism.
When I’m anxious in social situations I rely on alcohol to loosen myself up and take the edge off, which is perfectly normal.
My problem is once I start drinking, I generally never know when to stop.
Most people seem to know their limits, but I don’t even realise I have a limit let alone stop myself before reaching it.
A lot of the time I will drink until I black out and lose hours and hours of memory before waking up, sometimes in random places (the aforementioned bush) and sometimes with injuries I have no recollection of getting.
It doesn’t happen like that very often, most of the time I just wake up in bed with a hangover. And luckily whenever my wife is around I make a conscious effort to kerb my drinking because I never want her to see me that way, even if I am only damaging myself (unfortunately it has happened a couple of times, leaving me ashamed of myself).
Binge drinking to the point of oblivion is never a good idea. But for me, sometimes it’s all I can do.
Yes, it’s terrifying to wake up with huge chunks of time missing. It’s even more terrifying to have injuries you can’t explain.
But for me when my depression gets so bad I don’t want to be me anymore, alcohol is the easy option.
It’s cheap, legal and socially acceptable.
I’m perfectly capable of being a social drinker; I’ve done it loads of times. In no way do I think I’m an alcoholic with a drink problem (neither does my psychiatrist or therapist)
I do think I’m a broken man with a damaging coping mechanism though.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m starting to recognise how my mind works and how it affects my behaviour. I’m really glad I have had the opportunity to do this because it proves that I can change.
I now know that alcohol is never going to be an effective, positive, way of dealing with my issues. I no longer want to be reliant on something that can cause so much damage. It’s just not worth it.
For the time being I’m going to refrain from alcohol. In fact I’ve decided not to drink at all in 2018 (and my awesome wife is joining me)
So there you go.
Just a few points detailing some of the ways, positive and negative, I have learned to cope with depression and anxiety over the years.
I am now trying to focus on the good, reduce the bad and completely cut out the boozy. At the same time I’m developing new, more user friendly, coping techniques.
Watch this space.