Why can't I drink any more?
April 30, 2020 8:53 AM   Subscribe

I used to be a reasonably heavy binge drinker. Then I stopped drinking completely six years ago to reset my relationship with alcohol. In the last year I've felt like trying drinking again, but every time I've tried drinking even a small amount of alcohol I get a brutal three-week spell of depression afterwards. I'm looking for information (and anecdotes if you have them) about why this is happening and what (if anything) I can do about it.

Between the ages of 16 and 23 I was a binge drinker. I wouldn't describe it as alcoholism, as I wasn't physically addicted, didn't habitually drink alone or during the day, and had no issues stopping cold turkey. I grew up in a lousy abusive home and had lots of huge emotions (not to mention untreated mental health problems) and no coping skills at that age for dealing with them. I drank either to numb/distract myself from those feelings, or to express them - I was so emotionally repressed and shut down that I couldn't talk about any of it while I was sober and needed to get very drunk before I could express those feelings at all. During this period I would get blackout drunk at worst 2-3 times a week and at best once a month or so.

The older I got the worse the effect this pattern had on my close relationships, and the emotional component of my hangovers got bad enough over time that I was increasingly concerned I would try to hurt myself in that state; for these reasons I eventually decided to stop drinking entirely. It was meant to be a month at first, just to see how I found it, but the dry phase ended up lasting six years.

Last year I found I was interested to try drinking in small quantities again, because there are some drinks that I really like that either don't come in an alcohol-free version or where the alcohol-free version is nowhere near as good. I tried it twice - once when I was on vacation with my family, when I drank a small beer, half a glass of wine and maybe three single measures of liqueur (28% ABV) over three drinking sessions, and it had a significant impact on my emotional health for at least a few weeks after I got back from the vacation. The second time I tried drinking was on a trip to a brewery/distillery where we were offered a tasting after the plant tour. I drank maybe half a pint of ale total and less than a quarter of a measure of spirits, as these were all tasting measures, and again I felt terrible emotionally for at least three weeks after the drinking session. I didn't feel drunk after consuming this quantity of alcohol, more like mildly tipsy for about half an hour and "oh hey, my face feels warmer than usual". I wasn't taking any medication or consuming any other psychoactive substances at the time, I'm pretty certain I'm not underestimating the quantities I ingested on either occasion, and I didn't have other major worries or emotional health problems going on at the time that might explain this reaction.

My life is so different now compared to when I was drinking heavily. I've spent a lot of time in therapy since then, I have a much more robust emotional toolkit, a stable relationship (with someone who also incidentally doesn't drink), a non-stressful living situation, no more conflict with my more-high-conflict parent (because they died in the interim) etc., to the point that I'm not at all concerned that I would be drinking for the wrong reasons now that I want to try again. I still have very vivid memories of how terrible being very drunk and feeling out of control and being very hungover felt and I have no desire to ever feel like that again in my life.

I would like to get to the point where I can drink like four alcoholic drinks a year because I like the way they taste without paying for each one with a month of poor mental health - it doesn't feel worth drinking even a small amount of alcohol right now if that's what's inevitably going to happen. I'm not so desperate to have those four drinks a year that I'll go ahead and have them anyway even if they make me feel disproportionately terrible for weeks afterwards, but if I can do anything about this I'd like to at least give that a shot.

I'd also be interested to know why this is happening - did my early experiences inadvertently condition my brain to react like this to alcohol as a substance? Is there any science on this kind of reaction after someone has had a bad relationship with alcohol, stopped drinking and then tried going back to it? Has this happened to anyone else?
posted by terretu to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Food and drink can be very tied to memory, so yes, it's entirely possible the taste of or sensations brought on by alcohol are reminding you of a particular place and time and triggering a reaction to that. Just as a personal biological note, though, I have noticed the emotional effects of alcohol to be more pronounced as I've gotten older. Amounts of alcohol that don't cause physical hangover symptoms can still bring on anxiety and melancholy. This could just be a function of aging as well or in addition to alcohol serving as a memory jogger.
posted by superfluousm at 9:17 AM on April 30, 2020 [9 favorites]

Although my post-alcohol anxiety is on the order of days, not weeks, you might be interested in some of the answers to my AskMe about anxiety after drinking.
posted by rogerroger at 10:15 AM on April 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've never been a "binge" drinker on the order you describe, but I certainly had my share of too-many-drinks in college and my 20s. It dropped off dramatically as I aged, so that now at 50 the amount of alcohol required to make tomorrow morning unpleasant is way, way lower than it used to be.

But a new threshold surfaced 4 or 5 years ago, too: if I overdo it at all -- which, in this context, could just mean drinking slowly for a long time, like a beer or glass of wine an hour over the course of a long afternoon-into-evening gathering around a pool with burgers -- I'll definitely feel depressed the next day when there's external reason for the melancholy. And for me, it's always gone by the next day.

This seems really, really weird to me, but I'm coming to find that it's not at all unique to me, and I wonder of this in combination with your history here may just be combining to make booze a total no-go for you.
posted by uberchet at 11:23 AM on April 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

Anecdata: Me too, although for me it's more like a couple of days. I would characterize how I feel is "unusually cranky." I'm 49, female. When I am training for something physically like in martial arts, I also notice the impact physically over 4-5 days - nothing huge, but enough that if I've been really working on a particular difficult new thing, I notice that my ability to do that thing is not as good.

I did go through a period of drinking more about 16 years ago, after my daughter died, and stopped for both two pregnancies and then later just because I had changed a few things around my job and was not stressed, so that might be similar to your stopping. It was when I was on a trip with a drinker and had some drinks that I was like whoa, this is weird. I experimented a bit after that I've decided even one beer produces a noticeable impact. It might well be psychosomatic but...I'm in my head, so.

As a point of interest, I have documented brain changes from PTSD (as per my neurologist). I have done therapy, am very content with my life and skill set, am not on medication, etc. However, I have wondered in a mild way if that reality impacts a bit on my tolerance levels for mind altering substances, etc. I am very picky about cold medication because it also impacts my mood for a long time, and that has been the case almost my whole life.

I've stopped drinking and I occasionally miss it too for similar reasons - nothing really tastes like a single-malt scotch, although if anyone has suggestions I'm up for them. But for me, it kind of confirmed that alcohol is not good and I just stopped ingesting it. I switched to tea (really mostly tisanes after 3 pm, although caffeine remains a drug of choice) as my sort of go-to relaxing drink.
posted by warriorqueen at 12:06 PM on April 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

I didn't used to be a heavy drinker, but I could drink socially. I come from a very heavy drinking culture. At 50, I'm essentially resigned to never drinking again, for two reasons:
  1. terrible interactions with my meds. I was diagnosed with ADHD in my mid- 40s. Stimulant meds have been life-changing for me, but also result in murderous 3-day hangovers. Even whisky-tasting quantities will put my head in a vice for most of the work week.
  2. I have an amusing form of arrhythmia which causes my heart to slow down under stress. Less than half a pint of beer put me on the floor of the pub, then most of the night in ER.
I'm resigned to never tasting Laphroaig again. The only faint glimmer of hope is finding the occasional cocktail bar where they can mix up interesting botanical/fruit mocktails that taste complex yet not too sweet. Cannabis either makes me feel the wrong kind of drunk (THC) or complete anhedonia with dissociative spells for a couple of weeks (CBD).
posted by scruss at 1:31 PM on April 30, 2020

Google the term "kindling" as related to alcohol abuse. There's no scientific consensus on this, but there's evidence that yes, repeated alcohol binge-and-withdrawal cycles really do condition the brain to this kind of response.

It's hard to study because no one would voluntarily abuse themselves like that, and substance abusers are often hiding their use and aren't reliable sources of scientific reporting. Anecdotally, this is how it was with me until I finally quit.

I could add a lot more personal tales, but for now look up the term "kindling." I will once more underscore that there is little consensus on the long term effects of alcohol abuse and withdrawal. And I will add that there is a horrifically gargantuan amount of bullsh1t (or at most pseudo science) information out there regarding this subject as well.
posted by SoberHighland at 1:54 PM on April 30, 2020 [3 favorites]

nthing anecdotes about small amounts of booze messing with my emotions the next day, and getting worse as I get older. I'm in my early 30s and in the last couple of years I have noticed this - even a glass or two of wine which didn't make me feel at all drunk can make me depressed the next day.

Mine typically just lasts 1 day, so weeks seems to be a lot to me, but with your history might be reasonable. I have noticed that it's pretty inconsistent, during some periods of the last few years it's more prevalent and during others it's less. Unfortunately I haven't figured out if there's anything external affecting that, sorry.
posted by sillysally at 2:06 PM on April 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, given your previous drinking patterns, you also might not have a great sense of how little can effect you physically. I do drink regularly, a few times a week, but not all that much. On an empty stomach, even a half a beer can have me a bit buzzed. So if you have a beer and a liquer in one sitting... that could be a lot, especially if it wasn't over too long a period of time.

(I'm not negating emotional and psychology reactions but wanted to share that you might not have a great sense of how little it takes to have a physical impact.)
posted by bluedaisy at 2:37 PM on April 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

Kindling is usually tied to severe alcohol withdrawal. I have friends I. The ER and it is not bullshit, but usually applies to late stage alcoholism where they see someone come in with severe withdrawal, get them sober release them, see them back again but worse. I have not heard it in the context of 6+ years sober.” With moderate usage.

I have found that after long stretches of abstinence even small amounts hit me harder. I chalk this up to age.
posted by geoff. at 5:09 PM on April 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have understood kindling to be the effects of stopping at some point and then starting and then stopping, repeat. That the affects of the repeated nature, for a definitive alcoholic, were much more difficult and potentially dangerous. At least, that is my understanding and personal observation. I am not sure if it is applicable here though.

To answer your question: I think my addiction re-wired my brain on some level. I use mindfulness techniques to help me down my path of recovery. There is so much tied, emotionally, mentally, physically to the act of drinking. I saw just how reflexive I was when I'd be firing up the smoker to make some BBQ. Where's the morning beer? The bourbon? I found myself walking to where those used to be. The mind was on auto-pilot. I mourned not being able to drink. Ultimately, I made peace with it and no longer grieve. The mind finds a way to get more to drink. It is the nature of addition. It is an unreliable narrator when it comes to alcohol. Something is going on and I think your examination is worthwhile.

I hope you are doing well. Good luck in finding your answer.
posted by zerobyproxy at 9:11 AM on May 1, 2020

Why is it happening?
It's happening because alcohol is a drug that fucks with your body and your emotions. (If drinking even a little results in a pattern of "brutal three-week spell of depression afterwards" I would guess there are some deeply-buried unresolved depression issues.)

What can you do about it?
Given your history with it... and amount of mental energy you're putting into this situation... and the fact that you've made gains with therapy.... you can leave that shit alone and move on with your life. For many of us, alcohol is a motherfucker... and you've laid out plenty of evidence that it has been for you too.

Also: you can spend a tons of time trying to unravel this knot... or maybe spend this energy/time on something more creative/beneficial... or maybe use a less 'emotional' drug like cannabis instead
posted by mrmarley at 7:12 PM on May 9, 2020

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