When you grow up feeling like an alien, like an outsider looking in, when you desperately want to belong, to be included…but no amount of masking can equip you to pass as a ‘normal’ human being – that’s where alcohol comes in.
I didn’t discover I was Autistic until I was 42. Had I known earlier, maybe I would have accepted myself more, have understood myself better and embraced my neurological differences. As it was, I grew up thinking I was mad, broken, bad and wrong. I longed to be cool and popular; my school friends seemed so much more real than me, more alive, more present. Then I discovered alcohol shortly after getting my first part time job at 17 and I thought I’d found my answer.
You’d think I would have steered clear of alcohol giving my upbringing. My dad was an alcoholic. He worked hard 6 days a week and drank hard to make up for it. Growing up I both feared and loathed him, but hated myself more for not loving him like I knew I was meant to. I didn’t understand him anymore than I understood myself. I used to think his aggression made him a bad man, but I don’t think that anymore. Alcohol was his coping mechanism, but alcohol brought out the worst in him. In that way I guess I am more like him than I realized.
Fast forward. I’m 17, working in a DIY store with a load of other students, male and female. Some had their own cars, their own money, they certainly had more freedom than I.
The first time they invited me along to the pub I was almost giddy with excitement. Someone ordered me a Martini Rosso (since I couldn’t tell them what I drank…I’d never tasted alcohol and only knew of beer and wine). There were more Martinis and I think some Bacardi. I didn’t have to pay for a single drink. I felt warm and fuzzy. Relaxed. Silly. Pretty. I talked non stop and people laughed at me. But in a good way. They thought I was funny! It was a revelation. I was bowled over by my own confidence and shocked to realize that boys found me attractive. The fact that I vomited several times when I got home, that my head felt like it was going to split open the next morning; that all seemed a fair price to pay for the new version of me that came out to play when I drank.
So drinking became part of my weekend routine. Go to work, go to the pub, get smashed, be sick, do it all again next week. I had a succession of short relationships with male co-workers which were largely innocent as I was ridiculously naive on the sex front and had no intention of giving myself away. Yet to an outsider looking in I guess it wasn’t pretty and my poor mum was tearing her hair out. I’d always been her good as gold little girl, wouldn’t say boo to a goose, a model student. I’d spend most of my free time in my bedroom reading or caring for my menagerie of pets. I listened to Billy Joel and wrote stories. I wasn’t like other teens. Until I was (in her eyes anyway).
The more Mum tried to control me the more I rebelled with my trusty friend alcohol steadfast in my corner. She didn’t want me to ruin my life and I just wanted to have fun. And I did have fun. Throughout my teens and twenties. I laughed and danced. I kissed boys. I went to gigs. I shared secrets with my girlfriends. I was sick a LOT, sometimes over other people. I once woke up with nettle rash all over my backside having passed out whilst having a wee in the pitch black woods. I once let my best friend pierce my ear with nothing more than a needle, cork and frozen brussel sprout! I recall very clearly laying on the floor at a party in London with the whole room spinning and thinking, it’s ok, my boyfriend will come and get me soon. Then I spied him across the room, laying on the floor, in his own spinning world, waving at me. Oh the panic I felt then!
As brutal as the hangovers were and as much as I loathed being sick, what was worse was how difficult my sober Monday to Friday became. Because without alcohol, my social anxiety, my sense of isolation, that nagging sense of not being connected to anything, it was all a thousand times worse. Still, I held down really good jobs, I was recognized and rewarded, I grew my career and I got married. We bought a house. All the things you’re ‘meant’ to do when you’re a normal human being (which of course I was pretending to be). But behind the scenes my mental health was in tatters. I lived in a constant state of high stress (which I now know is very common for Autistic people). My emotions were all over the place. I struggled with uncontrollable rages, deep depression and acute fear of being judged and rejected. I had friends and family who loved me but they didn’t know me. I didn’t know me. I felt utterly alone.
Of course I can’t blame alcohol for all that. I was Autistic and rapidly spiraling into the land of bipolar which is a one way ticket. Had I known about my neurodiversity and mental health then, I hope I’d have cared for myself more and made better choices. What alcohol did though was temporarily make the bad thoughts and feelings go away. It gave me confidence to socialise, to be a louder, more colourful, entertaining version of myself. Then of course it just exacerbated my depression and made me feel hopeless. That’s not a good place to be.
My first marriage ended because I had a breakdown and I did what I always do when I’m broken. I retreat, I push people away, I reject them before they can hurt me. He was one of life’s good guys and and I’m eternally grateful for our time together. But I’m sure on reflection he thinks he had a lucky escape from me!
In my late twenties I met my second (hopefully forever) husband. N was younger than me but he seemed more grown up. He had a strong work ethic. He adored his family. He also loved to party. We had a fabulous first 5 years of working hard in our respective careers and partying hard all weekend. During that time we travelled the world together then came back and bought our first flat. Did it cause arguments that I would get paralytically drunk on a regular basis? Yes! Was my erratic behavior affecting my husband’s own mental well-being? Undoubtedly. Fortunately for me, his enduring love and the fun part of the fun times kept us together. When I think of us sharing Thai whisky buckets under the stars on Koh Phi Phi I smile; when I remember laying on the jetty the next day unable to get on the boat we had tickets for, I feel a bit stupid. When I remember us drinking cocktails with some rather gangster like Russians in Goa I remember the beauty of Ashwem beach and then the worry of how we would make our escape from them.
In 2010 we decided to start a family. Within 2 weeks I was pregnant with our sweet Angel Pablo. By that point I’d be drinking regularly and often heavily for well over 15 years. But the second I found out I was pregnant at 2 weeks, I stopped drinking. Completely. I also cut our caffeine. And it was easy! It was easy because my baby needed me, I had a role to fulfill, to grow our child and I guess it became my special interest. It was all I could focus on. If you’ve read my earlier blogs you’ll know that we lost Pablo during pregnancy to a rare lethal chromosome disorder. I’m yet to find the words to tell his story but suffice to say for now, that when he died a part of me died and I was utterly bereft. The hospital allocated me a bereavement counselor. Whilst kind, she only confused me. Her sessions were very abstract (arranging toys in a sand tray or selecting postcards from a pile that resonated with me). Autistic people tend to like facts and truths. We are very literal. Ambiguity confuses us. So when the counseling didn’t help I turned back to my old friend alcohol of course.
Vodka was my drink of choice back then and I had a remarkably high tolerance to it so I would free pour with whatever available mixer. Sometimes Diet Coke or soda and lime, but I’ve also been known to use orange squash or even powdered diet iced tea that my sister in law brought over from America! Fortunately I fell pregnant again with our beautiful rainbow L just a few months later. Again, I cut out alcohol and caffeine completely and it was an easy choice to make.
8 months pregnant with L
I maintained sobriety throughout my pregnancy and for 1 year and 13 days after his birth which is the length of time I was breast feeding him. In truth I did enjoy a few rare nights out with N that first year such as going to his work Christmas meal. But I stuck to two drinks and I maniacally pumped and dumped my milk when I got home as I didn’t want his precious body contaminated with alcohol.
When my breastfeeding ended (L got chickenpox and couldn’t nurse) I was delighted to welcome alcohol back in my life but my drinking pattern had to change. The clean, work hard weeks followed by the heavy duty partying weekends was not conducive to family life so we started drinking little and often. Just one or two vodkas once L was in bed but for five, sometimes six nights a week. It was a strange transition. Because I was never drunk, yet I’d never felt so dependent on alcohol. Now it wasn’t about making me more confident and sociable, it was about helping me relax and unwind from the intense stress of looking after a very demanding and unsettled baby (who would not be diagnosed Autistic until he was almost 6) and working part time as a Manager in a large international financial services firm where I felt constant pressure to prove I could still deliver and be committed to my career, despite now being a mum.
Occasionally one of the grandmas would look after L and we’d throw a house party. I’ve always preferred house parties to going out. I feel much more relaxed and safe in my own space with a handful of trusted friends than in a nightclub or pub full of strangers. Of course house parties brought their own anxiety because I have terrible OCD (for which I’m now medicated) so the mess and disruption caused by welcoming people into our home was a massive source of stress for me).
In 2014 I fell pregnant with our darling H. Our joy was short lived because 2 weeks later I was diagnosed with breast cancer. If you missed that story please read ‘The Baby Bump and the Bad Lump’ one of my earliest blogs. Anyway, long story short I was determined to protect H and deliver him safely whilst having treatment to kick cancer’s butt. Once again I kissed goodbye to alcohol and caffeine as well as (for a few months) sugar because I read it feeds cancer. It was such a surreal and terrifying time and arguably one where I could really have done with a stiff drink. But I was on a mission for my body to be the perfect safe haven to grow H whilst simultaneously fighting off cancer.
Me after my first chemo. 16 weeks pregnant.
So I smashed through a mastectomy, chemo and (post birth) radiotherapy all alcohol free. I remember for my 40th birthday we rented a gorgeous house in Deal and all our closest family came to be with us. It was 3 days after my final chemo and 4 weeks before H would be delivered. I sat in the village pub on a long table, having a celebration meal the night before. Everyone else was drinking. I felt dog tired and so wrung out from chemo I just wanted to sleep. The drunken behavior of my brothers was irritating me, the loud voices of everyone, the conflicting smells of people’s meals. I made my excuses and escaped to bed. When I woke up on my 40th birthday, most of my eyebrows and eyelashes had fallen out! Just like that!! I was horrified. Throughout chemo I’d been plastering them with a protective gel and was grateful to have held onto them. So waking up fat, bare faced and post-chemo grey on my special day was a bit of a kick in the balls. If I had balls that is. I think I ate a whole 2 tier box of Milk Tray chocolates that morning by way of coping.
I breastfed H from my one breast for 3 months before I was forced to start Tamoxifen and Zoladex injections (my post cancer medication regime). I was desperately sad about this and felt like my heart was breaking. So of course I turned to my old friend vodka. Again our drinking pattern was little and often (too often), it was part of our evening routine and I felt cheated if I didn’t have a drink. I noticed that N was always more sensible than me, he’d stick to one or none if he had an early start. I’m not going to lie, this irritated me. Because I felt like the bad guy for wanting more. Drinking relaxed me, it smoothed away the stress of the day, made me more chatty, hell – it helped with my libido if I’m honest because it’s hard to feel sexy when your body is a map of scars, your reconstructed breast is monstrous and you feel aged 10 years by cancer treatment.
And so it continued. By and large life was good. I was physically healthy (if not mentally), our boys were thriving and N’s career was going strength to strength. My Autism diagnosis which came 6 months after L’s brought overwhelming relief and answers to so many questions about my past and my present. I finally knew who I was, I started to meet others from my tribe and I even got a job working as an Autism trainer using my past experience in learning and development. The trouble was, my mental health continued to be a massive problem. I cycled rapidly in and out of deep depression and had dark periods of hopelessness and paranoia. Drinking absolutely made these feelings worse but it was also my go to response when I felt stressed.
My second significant diagnosis (Bipolar 2) set me on the path to better mental health management. I began taking lithium which did a great job of balancing my erratic moods and I started to feel in control of my life. However I discovered on a family holiday to Spain that lithium and alcohol don’t mix. A few cocktails whilst listening to music with the children and their cousins ended in me barely able to walk and being carried home by my sister in law and 12 year old niece! Waking up after that night, feeling absolutely awful but also deeply fearful because there were huge gaps in my memory of what happened…that was a wake up call. ‘You can’t allow yourself to get like that ever again’ I told myself and I had all the best intentions. But it was well over a year later at my brother in laws 40th that I finally found it in me to just STOP. Unfortunately the stop button didn’t kick in until I’d drunk three quarters of a liter of vodka, insulted several strangers, kicked N’s Uncle in the crotch (I have no idea why) and passed out on their couch by 7.30pm! 14th September 2019 will forever more be known as the day I went out with a bang.
In 5 days time on 14th November I will have been alcohol free for 2 months. This is the longest I’ve been AF in my life other than of course during my pregnancies. There have been fleeting moments when I’ve felt tempted like when the boys were fighting in the supermarket in front of a huge stack of pink G&T cans. But I know in my heart that I cannot drink alcohol anymore. That’s just me. People say ‘everything in moderation’. But I don’t do moderation. I am intense and full on. I don’t know when to stop. It’s why I’m so overweight right now because my binge eating is so difficult to repress. But I’ll crack it. Just like I’ve cracked this. Right now I’m just proud to be alcohol free. My lovely husband N is on the same bandwagon. Annoyingly he is super fit and has the body of a Greek God but hey ho. The boys have commented that it’s good I don’t drink alcohol anymore. From a ‘post cancer’ perspective, it is definitely wise for me to abstain. But most of all I just want to be me. The real authentic me without alcohol jazzing up my personality or numbing my fears and worries. Alcohol can’t solve my social communication challenges and anyway, who says they need solving. I’m authentic, Autistic, mental me and for all the dark times when I haven’t wanted to live I can honestly now say I’m glad to be alive.