Alcoholism and Mental Health: The Tipping Point
by Sonia Kahlon
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
A pretty typical Saturday night in the 80s, when your parents are Indian immigrants, was getting together, at a different family member’s house each weekend, with extended family. The kids, mostly cousins, would be shoved into a family room with a TV, the women in the kitchen, and the men in the basement where a makeshift bar was constructed. It was on these nights that I saw drinking. Not necessarily the actual imbibing but the effects of bottles of Crown Royal being opened, finished and put in the recycling bin with increasing frequency throughout the evening.
I would try and make myself invisible so I could watch the bizarre progression of the men’s night firsthand. The women were cooking and gossiping. The kids were usually playing video games. But I could not understand what the men were actually doing. Sometimes after one or two drinks, there were uncomfortable hugs, cringe-worthy laughter, and the distribution of 20 dollar bills to whichever kid happened to walk downstairs. But after a few drinks, these were not happy-go-lucky drunks. There were no lampshades on heads, no declarations of love or reminiscences about fond memories of the past. For the most part, they were aggressive, insulting, and embarrassing drunks. The slogan for Crown Royal, “For every king a crown”, did not apply to this group.
They were literally falling-down drunks. They were prone to arguments, got DUIs, lost jobs and custody of children. They often ended the evening with vomiting, incarceration, or hospitalization. And then, as I got older and moved from my parent’s home, I was the recipient of drunk dials at all hours of the night. These phone calls were usually in the form of tirades about past wrongs, perceived slights, and insults about my parents. Typically these exchanges ended with abrupt hang-ups. I also heard about the antics secondhand from my mom. One Sunday, she called to chat. She had been to a wedding the night before. Indian weddings were the Super Bowl of drinking. She started the conversation with:
“The wedding was so nice! The bride changed her outfit at least 6 times!”
She continued, at length, describing the jewelry, the music, and the food. I was about to get off the phone when she said,
“It’s too bad your uncle had to ruin it on the way home.”
She proceeded to tell me an unbelievable story where my drunk uncle was being driven home by another aunt and uncle. My aunt said something he didn’t like, and he started kicking her from the back seat, while she was driving.
“I don’t even know how you do that!” I said. “Did he like grab onto the back of the front seats to leverage his leg strength?”
“Well, anyway, she drove to the police station while he was kicking her, and she went inside and filed a report. The officer came and got him from the backseat.”
“What happened to him?”
“Who knows? He’s probably coming home later today.”
“How is your sister?”
“Fine. I guess. I think her nose is broken, and she has a black eye.”
The nonchalance with which my mom told me the story was not surprising. This uncle had exhibited violent and bizarre behavior—far worse than this incident—for decades.
However, no one expected an apology since that would mean admitting that a problem existed, which was out of the question. For Indians, all pride, self-worth, and status is determined by what the community thinks of a family. It affects one of the most important aspects of the culture—marriageability. Someone from a ‘bad’ family is considered ‘not marriage material’. Everything potentially detrimental to a family’s reputation, is covered up at any cost.
As a result, there were no explanations given in the days that followed. Only grudges, hostility, and doubling down and what was said and done. Anything to avoid admitting why these things were happening and the consistent pattern of cause and effect. There was no mention of the words ‘alcoholic,’ ‘addict,’ or ‘recovery.’ Let alone words like—‘borderline personality disorder,’ ‘mental illness’, or ‘self-medicating’. If you didn’t name a problem; it simply didn’t exist.
So when I started drinking in my teens, I swore I would never be like those sweaty, angry men in the basement. And I wasn’t! From the first sip, I thought, “This is the greatest liquid on earth.”
My persistent anxiety started to melt away. My social awkwardness retreated. I was medicating my undiagnosed generalized anxiety and major depressive disorder. And under my strict medical guidance, I was improving! I became the best version of myself. I was never angry or belligerent. I had figured out the magic formula to achieve visible high-functionality with a burgeoning reliance on substances to calm my raging mind.
For about a decade, a combination of cigarettes, alcohol, and unhealthy romantic affairs served to simultaneously exacerbate and abate my mental health challenges. As I got older, life started to happen; as my responsibilities mounted, so did the frequency of my drinking. I no longer binge drank, I had quit smoking, and I settled into a long-term relationship. But I still had alcohol available as a daily tool to manage stress.
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I was able to hide my problem in plain site by covering it in a layer of sophistication: wine tastings, champagne for celebrations, and mimosas at brunch. Not drinking for these occasions would have seemed stranger, to my friends, than getting beautifully wasted. There was also an understanding that we all worked hard during the week and were ‘blowing off steam’. We worked hard and we played hard. No harm in that! But, there was plenty of harm, my addiction was escalating with the aid of these lovely excuses, and my mental health was spiraling out of control.
A few years before I considered quitting, I had a nagging inner voice that told me my relationship with alcohol was not healthy and that I was self-medicating severe anxiety. But I quickly reminded myself of the men who, when bringing up an empty bottle to the recycling bin, would also go to pee and be too wasted to close the bathroom door. Measured against these broken yardsticks, my drinking came in at solid ‘meh, not so bad.’ I judged these men for their lack of control, the desperate state of their lives, their complete inability to see themselves, and the damage they were causing to those around them. My life was intact; I was successful personally and professionally. But there were parts of my life that were crashing and burning—my physical and mental health. I had headaches, persistent nausea, and was exhausted all the time. I had crippling anxiety when I was not drinking and depression that was worsening by the day. I had spent almost a year in a suicidal haze while still functioning at a frenzied peak running my business.
After a particularly frightening weekend, where my anxiety had progressed to a point that I didn’t want to be left alone for fear I would harm myself, I made an appointment with a psychiatrist. I received the diagnosis of generalized anxiety and major depressive order with suicidal ideation, with little surprise. Most of my immediate and extended family had lived with the same issues. The kicking uncle had been found a few weeks earlier in his garage after a suicide attempt. For decades I denied having a mental illness. Instead, I relabeled my symptoms as being ‘Type A,’ ‘intense’, and ‘ambitious.’ But now, I was finally ready to accept the diagnoses and take medication. Within days, my ideation was gone, and within weeks I began to see a pinprick of light poking through the dense cloud cover of my depression. Even my unbearable anxiety was abating. But I was still using alcohol as a blunt tool to unwind at the end of a hectic workday, and the combination of alcohol and prescription psychiatric medication was taking a toll on my physical health. I was frequently nauseous, my sleep pattern was erratic, and I was constantly dehydrated.
I was inching closer to making the decision to stop drinking. There were a few months filled with conflicting emotions. Resentment: it simply wasn’t fair that I wasn’t able to moderate my drinking. Fear: How was I going to fall asleep? Then there were the exciting emotions. Inspiration: I pictured a life full of hobbies and causes I was passionate about. Motivation: I thought about waking up every morning without a crushing hangover.
And so it was that one Sunday in April, while out to brunch with a pregnant friend, I decided not to order a mimosa. I had a particularly vicious hangover from the night before. I barely wanted to eat, I had drank 5 large glasses of water, was nauseous, and I kept seeing pulsing black spots every time I stood up. I was done. Was this my rock bottom? I had always pictured rock bottom as a mythical place where you find yourself after a bender, not able to remember anything, a week has passed, and you awaken on a park bench without your wallet. Not picking at a Buddha bowl with vegan eggs, at a hipster brunch place with utensils made from recycled soda cans.
I realized that I had been waiting for some epic event to tip the scales in favor of choosing sobriety. Deep down, I thought that some theatrical consequence of my drinking would occur that confirmed once and for all that I had a problem and needed to stop. But the most compelling effects of my drinking were in was not happening in my life. I was not passionate about my work. I was not able to follow through with my personal interests. I was not forming relationships that had depth and were meaningful. I was not proud of the person I was becoming.
My vision of an alcoholic was skewed by the dramatics of family members. It seemed like they hit a new rock bottom every few months. But rarely did these horrific consequences result in an equally powerful commitment to change. Being confronted with your bad behavior can be overwhelming. The reaction can be impenetrable defensiveness. I certainly did not like being reminded of things that happened during a blackout that seemed so out of character for me.
Maybe rock bottom is a gradual shift caused by the culmination of consequences until a moment of clarity occurs. I would describe the brunch as that moment. It was a lengthy period of pitting anger and denial against acceptance and hope. Until that morning, when the scales tipped in my favor. What I had to gain by ordering that mimosa was just not worth what I would lose. I would have lost that Sunday to an eventual early blackout. I would have lost the next morning to a compounded weekend hangover. I had been losing myself for a long time.
The more distanced I am from my active addiction, the more I can see the lies that were told to me by both of my cultures—American and Indian—about alcohol and mental health. Ignoring addiction and mental illness does not make them disappear. It’s like putting lipstick on a pig. And many of those uncles were (and still are) pigs. Using substances to self-medicate anxiety is not an acceptable coping mechanism. We can’t work hard and play hard without coping hard. I spend a lot of time these days learning and practicing healthy ways to ‘cope hard’. Some days, it clicks—I journal, get 8 hours of sleep, cook a healthy meal, exercise, and some days I grab a pint of ice cream, crawl under the blanket and watch Netflix. Either way, my truth is in acknowledging my discomfort, giving it space to breathe, and treating it with the compassion it deserves.
If you or someone you know may be in crisis or considering suicide, please call, text, or chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.