Bipolar and the Risks of Alcohol
Staggeringly, it is estimated about 45 percent of people with bipolar disorder also have an alcohol use disorder.
So why do we drink? I can only answer this question based on my personal experience with bipolar and from those around me experiencing the same.
I have battled (note I'm not saying “coped” here because in all honesty I haven't for the majority of the time) with rapid cycling bipolar disorder for nine years, and although I wouldn't class myself as having an alcohol use disorder, I have definitely used alcohol in the past to cope.
I have consumed alcohol to:
- Self medicate
- Block out pain
- Bring down mania
- Push mood into instability as anywhere is better than where I'm feeling at that moment
- Lose inhibitions and feel alive
- Self harm and punish myself
What is interesting is that prior to drinking alcohol I know it is introducing mood-altering chemicals to the brain and will always cause instability. However, I go ahead and drink because I don't think of the aftermath.
My motivation to drink is in the moment where I have a compulsive need to do one or all of the things I've listed above. For the last nine years I have been encouraged to live in the moment, as the future is too overwhelming, so I find it a struggle to rationalize the consequences of some of my actions.
We also know that compulsion is symptomatic of bipolar disorder and stopping yourself from fulfilling a need, no matter how risky, is extremely difficult.
You are at risk of losing your inhibitions when you drink, which is where you lose your judgment and impulse control.
We make different decisions to the ones we would if we were sober. We take more risks, lose rationality and, ultimately, don't think straight.
I have been at the hands of this many times, particularly during hypomania. I can feel high, irritable and impulsive and guess what comes with that? Thoughts and impulses related to sex.
When I was single I used to online date. To gain confidence and focus on fulfilling my need, I drank. Looking back I was most likely perceived as “easy.”
I would meet up with guys, drink far too much and stay with them overnight. Over time I questioned why the relationships never went very far, but found myself in a cycle of behavior.
When the alcohol wore off I often felt shame, and once my mood changed I would fall back into depression. At that point, shame and disgust would really kick in, and on the flip side I would want to drown my sorrows in alcohol. I'd gone from drink to stimulate to drink to block it all out.
What Does Alcohol Do to the Brain?
Alcohol is a depressant and depletes the amount of serotonin in your brain. This is a chemical many bipolar mood stabilizers are trying to steady — so you can see how drinking alcohol is risky.
It's a bit like drinking a sugary drink while trying to calm down. It defeats the objective and doesn't make any sense!
Alcohol can affect our thoughts, feelings and actions — all of which are daily impacted by bipolar disorder. This is partly down to neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that help to transmit signals from one nerve in the brain to another.
When you first feel relaxed after drinking alcohol there are chemical changes going on in your brain. This is where we can feel more confident and less anxious, which is when we start to lose our inhibitions.
The more we drink the more our brain becomes affected. No matter what mood we were in beforehand, once high levels of alcohol are involved, the pleasure effects can be replaced with more negative emotional responses, like anger, anxiety, aggression or depression.