People often ask me, “Were you born an alcoholic?”
I’ve never known the answer. In fact, I don’t think that answer exists.
The better line of questioning digs into the circumstances surrounding our childhoods and teenage years.
As we grow up, it’s the traumas and harmful experiences – be they physical, emotional, sexual abuse, or physical or emotional neglect – that most strongly influence how likely we are to have problems with drinking or drugs.
First published by the World Health Organization in 1998, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) test asks 10 questions that address 43 trauma-related issues in the home.
Each “yes” counts as a point, with the highest score, theoretically, being 10. However, the common benchmark score that warrants concern is a four. Having parents who divorce counts as a point. So, too, does having a depressed parent or a family member in prison.
My ACES score is three, one point below what is considered a “high-risk” score that indicates an increased likelihood of someone developing severe health issues. However, it’s worth noting that even a score of one doubles your chance of becoming an alcoholic.
Taking that into account, my score of three is significant – especially considering that I am someone who identifies as having had a drinking problem. Scoring three and above also indicates a likelihood of depression. In fact, more than 70% of people who score three or higher are on antidepressants.
I have never been on antidepressants, but that’s not to say I have never been depressed. I started drinking at the age of 16 to escape social anxiety and also an undercurrent of depression caused by what was going on in my home. I didn’t know how to cope. Drinking to numb out, as I was doing, is called self-medicating because it dulls all discomfort.
But here’s where it gets tricky.
Sometimes you start drinking to relieve the pain caused by a bad situation. However, it doesn’t take long for drinking to transition from being the solution to becoming the problem. This is when drinking becomes more dangerous.
Throwing back a handful of shots or downing a bottle of wine or two will slow our response times and undermine our ability to make sound judgments. Let’s say we drink to the point of blacking out, even just once. This is a form of Russian roulette – especially for women. Your fate for the night could be decided by anyone within grabbing distance of your body.
“When men are in a blackout, they do things to the world. When women are in a blackout, things are done to them,” says Aaron White, PhD, a leading expert on alcohol-induced blackouts and senior scientific adviser to the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
For anyone, drinking to excess increases the chance that something bad will happen. That could be anything – a car crash or sexual assault – and the more often you drink to excess, the worse those odds get.
I can look back at my own history and see that it was only a matter of time before alcohol-related tragedy struck. For me, it was sexual assault.
For victims of sexual assault in particular – and the odds of that are high in places like college campuses where binge-drinking is a regular occurrence – it’s common to respond by self-isolating over time and to experience numbness, denial, anxiety, concentration problems, sleep disturbances, and depression. All of that can lead someone to self-medicate. So, the trauma-addiction cycle continues.
Limiting or entirely stopping the use of alcohol is one of the first steps toward recovery from sexual assault or from any trauma, if for no other reason than because alcohol is a depressant that can increase anxiety and stress. At the very least, it’s helpful to taper off alcohol use.
You can find longer-term healing with therapy. Many local organizations, such as RAINN, offer free or discounted therapy services to help survivors process the assault. The Centre for Interactive Mental Health Solutions, for example, offers up to eight free therapy sessions to treat depression.
Alcohol may seem like a quick fix, but the more permanent solution – therapy – helps you unpack the negative experiences that result in anxiety, depression, and other emotional difficulties.
Through therapy, you can learn healthy coping mechanisms that aren’t self-destructive. You can also learn to rewrite negative beliefs and break the patterns that lead you to choose harmful situations and relationships.
As you heal, you’ll progress down a path that’s not only much safer, but also allows you to create a much more fulfilling life – one that you no longer need alcohol to escape from.
Photo Credit: Michelle Koegelenberg / EyeEm via Getty Images
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