I remember liking alcohol as far back as a kid, when I would steal sips of beer from my father’s bottle. My parents didn’t even mind if I had a taste of wine at dinner as a young teen. I know this is generally unaccepted in the United States, and yet not uncommon in some other countries around the world. My parents were pretty lax, so found no harm in letting me have a taste.
I first started experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder as a young teen around 14 years old. I clearly remember the experience of the alcohol buzz even at that age. From those early years I knew that buzz eased the discomfort of anxiety, as well as the excess energy and agitation of manic states.
The first time I actually got drunk was when I was 16 years old. I drank a bunch of wine on the sly from an extra-large bottle of cheap Burgundy wine. Because of the size of the bottle, I figured no one would even notice it gone. At that early stage, it didn’t take much to get tipsy. I had been feeling that uncomfortable anxious mood elevation, and remember the relief of its sedating properties.
As a young teen, alcohol wasn’t always available. I rarely hung out with friends who drank. I guess my occasional abuse didn’t really start until I was in college. There I had friends with fake IDs, and access to frat houses where no IDs were checked. I clearly drank more than my female friends. They’d just sip a drink over the course of the night, while I’d often drink until I got myself in trouble, or sick. I remember vomiting on the floors of frat houses. I vaguely remember being helped back to my dorm. A few times I woke up with the ceiling spinning, having to miss classes from hangovers.
My college drinking was not daily, and I wasn’t suffering from mood elevation all of the time, so the drinking didn’t worry me too much. I did suffer consequences on occasion, losing a couple of friends because of it. Yes, when drunk I lost all inhibition. Some pretty nasty stuff came out of my mouth.
Long periods of daily drinking didn’t start until I moved from New Jersey to Berkeley, California with my first love. He was working on his Ph.D. in Chemistry at UCB. I felt alone with him in the lab all of the time, and believe I was experiencing a lot of low grade mania followed or preceded by depression (or mixed moods). I found a social life at the local microbrew pubs, of which there were many in Berkeley. Beer was super cheap and the more you drank the more you got “on the house”. That certainly didn’t help curb my drinking, for sure. Most days I’d drink at least three pints, some days four, then go back to the apartment and open up a bottle of wine with my dinner.
After only two years in California, my first love broke up with me suddenly. He never fully explained why, but looking back I’m sure it was my behavior. It was the mixture of bipolar mood episodes and booze. Though I didn’t see it, the combination was far from pretty.
From Berkeley, I moved to Taiwan to study Chinese and teach English. There my drinking was like at college; sporadic, but when I did, I got really drunk. I also started to drink more hard liquor, like gin, vodka, tequila, and even whisky. Hard liquor drinking would eventually be my downfall in later years.
When I returned to New Jersey, I again drank only on occasion. When I met my husband, a Czech, my beer consumption rose again. Czechs have the highest beer consumption in the world. He was happy to see me enjoy it with him, though I rarely drank more beer than him.
Someday I’ll write about the rise and fall of my career life, but here I’ll just say that at its peak I reached my sickest with bipolar disorder. There was a three year period when I swear I was hypomanic most of the time. The mood elevation crept up and presented itself as irritable to an extreme. I went from moderate beer consumption in my early marriage, to drinking a bottle of wine myself each night. Then entered the hard liquor again, particularly vodka.
Hubby never drank vodka. The bottles in the freezer were all mine. If I remember right, at my worst, the following was my usual daily liquid relief: a shaker full of cocktails (6 shots worth of liquor) before hubby got home, maybe a beer, and then ¾ of a bottle of wine consumed starting with cooking, and ending when I passed out on the sofa.
Hubby became concerned. I was hiding bottles. He monitored the vodka in the freezer. I was ordering cases of wine through mail order, and supplementing them with bottles purchased at the liquor store. It’s amazing what kind of tolerance I developed. I was a fairly trim woman in my early 30s.
My behavior got out of control. People at work complained, but it wasn’t until the unexpected death of my mother that my behavior became so extreme that they threatened to fire me. At that point, I was manic with depression mixed in again, and dreaming of driving my car into trees to escape or die. I then knew I drank too much, and said so (in hysterics) when forced back to a psychiatrist. The next day, I was in the hospital detoxing and receiving my first bipolar medication.
I was told I was an alcoholic, and formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 1. The latter I quickly accepted, but the former I wasn’t totally convinced of. Regardless, I went to Alcoholics Anonymous for about four years.
When my moods started to stabilize, I again questioned the alcohol dependence diagnosis. Under my husband’s careful eyes I began to have occasional drinks. Drinking on my medications is not recommended, and I would find out why. Blackouts. But it’s been years now and I am more than happy and safe having just one half to one occasional drink. I don’t self-medicate anymore. When my moods act up, I use prescribed “as needed” medication instead, or call my psychiatrist.
Though I am not a true alcoholic, many people with bipolar disorder are. I hope those that are find help for their addictions, and lead a life completely off the bottle.