“I drank because I was socially awkward, then I got sober and discovered I’m autistic”

Lesser-known reasons why some people become dependent on alcohol
Created On: 01 November 2021   (Last updated: 01 November 2021)

Autism can have an enormous impact on alcohol use and recovery. In this blog, Chelsey Flood discusses her experiences of drinking and of 12 step support. She writes about the importance of providing recovery support that allows people with neurological differences to be comfortable and authentic to themselves.   

Looking back on my time in 12 step groups with my special autism lens (it’s basically a monocle but with tentacles) I see how challenging getting sober was for someone who struggles with sensory overload, social anxiety, executive functioning issues, hierarchical structures and difficulties maintaining a sense of self.

Alcohol

“It helped me feel more confident.”

“It allowed me to talk to people I fancy.”

“It stopped me feeling so awkward.”

As a member of 12 step fellowships, I hear people talk about why they started drinking a lot. Booze helped them socialize. They felt more confident, less hampered by social anxiety, capable of chatting and flirting, in other words, enjoying life and living in the present. It’s the same reason why most people continue drinking.

So why do some of us become dependent? Not only physically dependent — which everybody agrees is a cruel and devastating state — but psychologically dependent, which is a more ambiguous and tolerated (and tolerable) situation. As commonplace as it is potentially devastating.

What’s less documented is the connection between problem drinking and undiagnosed and unsupported neurological differences.

For some of us, alcohol shifts from social lubricant to the main event. Why? We might not even require people to accompany our drinking after a certain point. I certainly didn’t. We grow to be perfectly content drinking at home by ourselves.

That is the power of wine to make us feel good. Once we are hooked, one sip and we forget our worries and failures and breathe a deep sigh of relief.

Even if things have been terrible for months. Everything is suddenly A-OK.

Ahhhhh!

So what do we have in common, those of us who let go of the socializing and cling onto the liquor?

The patterns are well-documented. Trauma. Genetics. Challenging childhoods. Unsupervised teens. Addicted or mentally ill parents.

What’s less documented is the connection between problem drinking and undiagnosed and unsupported neurological differences.

Four and a half years after I got sober, I discovered that I am autistic. This cast my decades-long psychological dependence on alcohol in a new light. Sitting in rooms full of people engaged in recovery from alcohol addiction, I heard others repeat the start of my story. They struggled to engage with other humans in social situations, too.

“I didn’t understand the rules of interaction.”

“I felt like an outsider.”

“I didn’t get how to join in.”

Me too.

Like at reception when I ached to play dressing up in the wendy house. How did you get to wear the wedding dress? (My ultimate dream.) I couldn’t work it out. So I looked uninterested and watched the other little girls take turns wearing the dress, longing to try it myself.

Alcohol, when I found it, allowed me to join in at last with the improvised play of humans. As a result, I loved it; I drank it every chance I could.

I loved my new life, and this new more outgoing, reliable and conscientious version of me was great, but she tired me out, too.

In AA they talk about being powerless over alcohol. The creators of the program understood that alcohol had become a magic elixir for those who were addicted. A source of strength that it was hard to imagine living without.

Perhaps it’s easy to see why alcohol got the hold on me it did. Because it was never an addition. It was always essential. If I wanted to socialise with my peers, at least. Which, I desperately did.

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Fake it till you make it

After I got sober, I began to change. AA taught me how to be more honest with myself and others, to be consistent, and that I was allowed to say no. It wasn’t perfect, but it taught me how to live without drinking. And so I went to meetings and did what was recommended, and life got so much better.

I loved my new life, and this new more outgoing, reliable and conscientious version of me was great, but she tired me out, too.

I battled social anxiety the whole time, no matter how hard ‘I worked the steps’ or ‘handed it over’ or ‘prayed’ (I put this in quotation marks to connote the absence of religion in my prayers.)

I loved meetings but they made me anxious. I tried my best to hide it, to ignore it, to say my feelings didn’t matter, but they continued to dominate my experience.

I ruminated over what I said and didn’t say. Unless they told me explicitly I could never tell if anyone liked me. I always defaulted to the belief they didn’t. Meetings were too bright and too busy. And I couldn’t stop smiling, (like I to Uncle Monty) no matter how I felt.

“You look so happy!” People say to me, all the time, and of course I don’t want to disappoint them.

“Oh, this is just my anxious face.”

It was tiring being this new reliable, unflaky, sober me. I loved her, but she was unsustainable.

‘Fake it till you make it’ refers to the oft-used 12 step technique that helps you overcome your inner resistance to changing. Also, ‘acting as if’. It works kind of like CBT. A sort of brain training.

It works for a lot of people, and it worked for me. Only, I never quite graduated from faking it. I didn’t fully arrive in the chatty, helpful, positive personality I was practicing.

Learning to drop the mask

Looking back on my time in 12 step groups with my special autism lens (it’s basically a monocle but with tentacles) I see how challenging getting sober was for someone who struggles with sensory overload, social anxiety, executive functioning issues, hierarchical structures (AA is non-hierarchical as an organisation, but the sponsor-sponsee power dynamic is definitely not equal) and difficulties maintaining a sense of self.

Masking or social camouflage can be a hallmark for autistic women. Research shows we become so proficient at masking our autistic traits, that we totally avoid detection. Hence the explosion in late-diagnosed autistic women recently. Thousands of us flew under the radar and now we need a rest.

Learning about this propensity for autistic women to mask in order to be accepted was my biggest clue that I was on the spectrum. All my life, I’ve done this. In lieu of having confidence in my own preferences, I have looked to others, and adopted theirs.

And in my early recovery, when I was learning who I really was, who I wanted to be, I used the same technique. I wanted to be more gregarious and more relaxed and more sociable so I would fake it till I made it.

I’m not saying it wasn’t helpful. It was. Extremely.

But how many others with neurological differences, are able to recover from alcohol addiction, but not able to find a comfortable and authentic way of being ourselves?

Also, how many autistic people – diagnosed or undiagnosed – walk out of AA or never make it to a meeting in the first place because of how social the process of recovery is?

Or how bright the meeting rooms are.

12 step groups worked for me but they took an awful lot of effort. I had to overcome my innate preferences constantly to keep showing up and engaging enough to get better.

It’s a lot for any newly recovering person. It could easily be too much for an undiagnosed autistic person. It nearly was for me.

A call for more research considering the autistic dependent drinker

I wish I had connected alcohol dependence with autism sooner because it would have helped me to understand why I made the unhelpful choices I made. Even when they negatively impacted the people I loved (including me).

It might have helped me better understand my dad and the unhelpful choices he made, especially those that negatively impacted the people he loved (including me).

I wish I had read about the connection between alcohol addiction and autism when I was deep in obsessive research, spending hours online, trying to discover why I drank the way I did, in spite of the negative consequences.

I might have diagnosed autism in myself sooner. (Just call me Web MD.)

Imagine if I had then found an autism-friendly mode of getting sober. What might I have found in lieu of ‘faking it till I made it’?

The connection between autism and alcohol

Alcohol hid my autism (even from me.) Treatment for alcohol addiction accidentally encouraged me to continue to hide my autism.

How many other people end up reliant on booze because they are autistic and don’t know it so live their lives pretending not to be themselves?

We need more autism-friendly modes of recovery. What might they look like? Does/did booze help you hide your autism? Deal with social anxiety? Socialize? Does it help lessen your sensitivity and enable you to actually relax?

Earlier this year, I joined a priority setting group, Substance use, Alcohol and Behavioural Addictions in Autism (SABAA). I hope that I can play a part in shaping the way that these fields are considered together in future. I hope that sharing honestly about how alcohol hid my autism (even from me) and how treatment seemed to require that I continued to hide my autism, might help start useful conversations about how this could change in future. If you are interested in joining the conversation, then get in touch at sabaa@soton.ac.uk.

You can connect with the Autistic community on Twitter. If you have a question, use #ActuallyAutistic or #AskingAutistics (or both). You can also visit The Autism Self Advocacy Network and the Autistic Not Weird Facebook page and website.


Chelsey Flood is the author of Infinite Sky and Nightwanderers, and a senior lecturer in creative writing at UWE University. She writes about freedom, addiction, nature and love at Beautiful Hangover, and is also working on a non-fiction book about getting sober, and a new YA novel.


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