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A Story About Drinking and Dopamine Deficiency

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

TW: Discussions of (romanticized) alcohol use

My maternal grandfather passed away on Christmas Day from an alcohol-related aneurysm when my mother was nine - a fact I don’t remember ever not knowing.

Same with “addiction is hereditary.”

As I grew up, I saw a lot of people use alcohol and then abuse others; I experienced the abuse, too.

So growing up, not only did I not want to drink, I despised it; despised when others did it to a point that they turned into someone else (that’s rich from my high-masking ass, but anyway).

Because of what I now know is PDA, I’ve always had a survival drive for autonomy which means control - whatever my definition of control is. And I saw drinking as a loss of control, so I avoided it.

Throughout high school and the first couple years of college, I was known as the “mom”, designated driver, party pooper - you get it (which is also part of why getting in trouble for someone else’s alcohol was literally traumatic).

When I dropped out of college after 2 years and came back home, my anxiety and panic attacks went through the roof. For years. The accumulated trauma and sensory overload was catching up - unbeknownst to me.

At the time, I was living with my good ex, James; we’d been together for maybe a year or two at this point. We decided to be “adult” and buy some wine.I discovered that wine helped my anxiety. It was the only thing that could stop the inner-chill I couldn’t shake.

As time went on, my anxiety levels started to subside a bit and I wasn’t drinking as much. I realize in hindsight we had started doing other things like rollerblading in the evenings or going for bike rides - I’ll get there.

By now, I’m in my mid-20s and have been working full-time and started going back to school part-time for history and political science degrees. The more active and involved I was, the less I thought about drinking. I would sometimes drink in social situations to be more comfortable, but that was about it.

I was super busy morning until night until I eventually graduated college a few years later - at this point living with my mom again and dating my bad ex, Jack.

This part of college is still a blur; 2009-2011. There was so much trauma from the relationship with Jack, with “friends”… I was in student government and literally a giant portion of the entire university knew my personal life and that I was being cheated on because my “friends” wouldn’t stop talking about it to others. I was taken to judicial board multiple times because people thought I was mean - I was never found in violation of anything because their issues with me were my autistic traits (ie didn’t like me because I “always had RBF, my voice was condescending, is rigid with following Roberts Rules” etc etc etc) - NOT violating rules. I spent most of my time defending myself from attacks that were coming from every angle.

I started drinking more at this time with Jack. He liked wine. We drank a decent amount of it. It helped me swallow the pain of what he and everyone else were doing while it was happening.

We moved to DC in late 2011. I was in such a bad place. Looking back and knowing what I do about trauma and the brain, combined with everything I didn’t understand because of being undiagnosed autistic, I don’t even know how I was getting out of bed and going to work.

He got sick of me and made me go to a psychiatrist who told me I wasn’t depressed because I was going to work and I just needed to “communicate” with my partner better. That was helpful and gave Jack ammunition to continue blaming everything on me.

He moved out in 2012. I was alone in a city I didn’t know... but I wasn’t drinking.

I befriended someone I worked with - well, she took me on as a project (like most do). She had a hyper-fixation with working out. I discovered yoga. Then strength training. I was also pursuing a masters in mental health counseling at this time – back to doing the full-time work and school gig.

Then I moved back to Ohio in 2015 and lost my routines. And once again, I was coming home with a lot more trauma baggage than I left with. I was 1 class shy when I realized I couldn’t finish the Masters which is a story for another day. I was living with my mom again. And I was drinking again.

I was able to move out, but the drinking continued for a bit while I had an abusive job. I was forced to do things I was told I wouldn’t have to, and people would intentionally do things to make me super uncomfortable because it’s “funny to see the picky office girl squirm”.

I quit and started a job working from home in 2016. This was the beginning of unmasking before I knew I was unmasking. Once I realized how uncomfortable I had been for years, I knew there was no going back.

I put up with more abuse from friends and employers over the next few years, but was able to get into a really structured movement routine because I had more autonomy. And I wasn’t drinking.

Movement changed my life in ways I was still years from understanding.

I had decided to take a huge risk and answer the call from my authentic self and get my certification as a health coach - I wanted to help others feel the way I felt without all the diet culture BS. I had to become a personal trainer first as a prerequisite, so I signed up to do that in November 2019 with the intention to finish the course and take the exam sometime over the next year or so.

In March 2020 while still strength training with other people’s programs and not yet a personal trainer myself, I injured myself - my sternocleidomastoid to be exact. From doing too much without proper stability because I’m hypermobile and was never taught these things.

I spent the next 15 months getting my personal training and health coaching certifications (December 2020 and June 2021 respectively), and learning how to properly train a body from a true beginner level - my bautie. I knew why I had been injured and I was determined not to let others suffer that same fate if I could help it.

I was building a business. I had less aches and pains than ever. My life was… in order, for the most part.

Then in October 2021 I had a pre-cancerous mole removed from my waist and was unable to move my body for what was supposed to be weeks, but turned into months.

I started drinking again.

A few months after being able to slowly start moving again, the audhd realizations are starting to hit me.

I lose Kingston in October 2022.

He WAS my routine. Everything I was trying to rebuild crumbled.

My drinking is at an all-time high. I’m so burnt out. Autistic burnout. Immense grief.

February 2023 I find out Izzy has kidney disease, which is ultimately what took Kingston.

The drinking is the only thing that eases any of this.

The drinking is the only thing that motivates me to be able to do most things; it’s the partner who’s there to body double and make me laugh when no one else is.

The drinking is the thing that breaks up my day between work and not work; it’s the partner who’s there to help me decompress when no one else is.

The drinking is the thing that calms the raging fire inside my body AND the inner chill that stifles my breath.

I don’t want to do this anymore though. I hate it. I hate the way it makes me feel, in all the ways.

I’ve needed answers. I need the ‘why’ so I can find ways to work with rather than against my bautie.

When I lay this all out and look for the common denominators when I was seeking refuge in drinking versus not, I started to see a pattern – and it wasn’t the amount of incoming stress or abuse… it’s the amount of incoming dopamine.

You’re shocked? Don’t be shocked.

When I didn’t seek solace in the glass, I was doing more dopamine-producing activities in my daily routine. It was everything from having a commute where I would blast music, to verbal processing with people out and about, to physical activity like dancing, walking around, being outside, etc.

(I’m leaving out nutrition which plays into this but too much to cover here so stay tuned.)

These things all stimulated those dopamine receptors without me realizing that’s what was happening.

The consistent physical activity was the icing on the dopamine-deficient cake for me though for two reasons: 1) it produces an immediate effect on dopamine; and 2) it increases overall dopamine production in correlation to consistency, which raises our level of tolerance (another thing I’ll get into another time).

So when I started working from home, the physical movement - working out, stimming, whatever you want to call it - became more physiologically important to me than ever. And when that all fell apart, so did my brain, then my bautie.

And I’m so tired of being tired; tired of feeling like crap, physically and emotionally. I can’t “fix” a lot of things about myself and that’s okay, but I can manage them. I can manage my dopamine deficiency, and that’s the goal.

My plan going into this week is to not drink*. I’m going to focus on replacing the dopamine and comfort my brain is seeking in other ways that I know make me feel better in the long term.

*I’m in a situation where this is not physically dangerous, but please know, this is not a personal recommendation for others; alcohol withdrawal is very serious and appropriate precautions should be taken.

I developed this term to help determine if I’m gaslighting myself, which is “stress care.” These are the things I do for myself that I don’t necessarily love in the moment, but improve overall stress levels and give me energy in the long-term. Last week I talked about doing three “small” things to feel better (hydration, getting outside, moving my body)… these are on my “stress care” list.

Continuing, I’m progressing to structured movement this week. This isn’t a "workout"; this isn’t about what I look like…. this is my dopamine production session. This is about how I feel and what my brain needs. My brain needs this. An added bonus is music while I workout; it’s the ultimate physical release and apparently, I need this pretty regularly.

I’m going to start posting bautie double workouts on YouTube where I’m not interacting with the camera at all; simply filming some real-time workouts and posting it with some added music so you can either workout with me or just put it on and have someone else in the room with you.

I’m also going to follow up this week with some info about anti-diet nutrition and dopamine production, as well as some more specific information about why dopamine and alcohol create a particularly rough situation, so check back if you’re interested.

Stay (get?) regulated,


1 Comment

Oct 08, 2023

So many parallels with my own story. Since starting unmasking, it's been a yo-yo between exercising daily, eating mostly healthy, overworking until burnout. Then it's shutdown, unhealthy coping mechanisms (i.e. addictions), and not going outside for days. Right now my S.A.D. has been kicking in and it's been the strugglebus. But, I keep learning more about how I got here and what I need to heal. For the last few years, my only goal in life has been to learn and heal. People like you have been a godsend to me since diagnosis. I stopped seeing my diagnosing therapist because she was all about ABT, despite her own son being autistic, so people who I can relate to have been…

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