Alcohol Poured Gasoline on My Anxiety: The Truth About Women, Motherhood, and Drinking

When I think about the worst parts of my drinking, it’s not the blackouts, the DUI, the toxic hangovers, or even the body-cringing moments involving my daughter. 

It’s the anxiety. 

That fucking ten ton plank on my chest. The racing dislocated thoughts. The sense of impending doom. The total suffocation the day after. The days after.

I can feel it in my throat just typing this.

In the end, that’s what got me to finally stop. On my last Day One I thought, I can’t feel like this ever again. I would rather die.

Of course I’d said that before. Many, many times. But that morning I knew it would never look any different. Even if I still found fun or relief or connection or whatever else made drinking so fun for so long, the aftermath would always feel like that. And that was hell.

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It wasn’t just like this at the end, when my drinking had become really bad.

It was rough from the beginning, I just weathered it a little better when I was younger. In college and my early twenties, I didn’t have anyone to look after but myself. I could mess around without (too) much consequence. A gnarly hangover on Sunday morning after a weekend of partying just meant we’d done something right. In Boston, my roommates and I used to drag our mattresses out from our rooms, set up a big “family bed” in the living room, order big piles of pizza or Chinese take-out, and watch reruns of Sex and The City. If I was hungover at work, there was a good chance half of my colleagues were too—it was practically an accessory in advertising. So we’d just commiserate, screw off, and start over again at happy hour.

Even so, I’d sometimes find myself walloped by anxiety, though I didn’t have a name for it then. I remember riding the train into work one morning, listening to my iPod, and suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was my friend’s boyfriend who I’d come to know pretty well. He’d spotted me and wanted to say hello. To my surprise, my face flushed, I started dripping sweat, and I couldn’t for the life of me look him in the eye or talk. I couldn’t get off that train fast enough. For months that exchange shamed me because I knew he could tell I was nervous—it had made him uncomfortable too—and I couldn’t do anything to make it stop. At other times: I’d get a swift kick of panic while talking in a meeting and have to leave the room, I’d be overcome with an ubiquitous, unnameable dread that everyone in my life hated me or something was about to go wrong, and it always seemed to come out of nowhere.

Alcohol was the antidote, at least in social situations (and most of my life was a social situation then). I could never get to that first drink fast enough. It made the right words flow, my insecurities disappear, and the rough edges of my interior go smooth. In my twenties especially, it helped me forget about how fat and gross I felt, which was the occupying thought in my mind most of the time. Add a few espresso martinis and I was fine. Everything was fine.

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Things changed when I had my daughter in 2009.

I remember looking forward to drinking again so much once I had her. I missed the release, the inclusion, the socializing, the softening. Almost immediately after she was born I went back to it, joining in at parties with my husband and baby in tow, having my girlfriends over or going to their houses for wine like we had been doing for years. One time, just a couple of weeks after she was born, I walked in a snowstorm to my friend’s place a few blocks away just to try and feel like my “old” self for a few minutes. I barely drank one glass of wine before I felt so ill I had to trek home. I had mastitis.

Over the next few days, I alternated between taking hour-long showers to relieve the pain and trying to sleep, and the same thought kept charging through my mind: I would never be the “old” me again.

We moved to Colorado when she was five weeks old. We were in that shock bubble of new parenthood and had a ton of pressure besides, financially and emotionally. Wine was a part of the nightly routine with my family, who we were living with until we got settled. I looked forward to it every day, and then I’d get frustrated because it just didn’t seem to work any more. Even a small amount made me feel jittery instead of relaxed. Revved instead of slowed. Edgy instead of smooth.

I was trying to juggle breastfeeding and pumping and middle of the night wake-ups and diaper changes and all the things that come with a new baby, and I’d become increasingly afraid that there was just no escape hatch for my nerves. One day around four in the afternoon I wandered into the kitchen and realized I hadn’t eaten yet that day. And I couldn’t imagine putting food in my mouth without gagging.

This was not good.

 Me (age 32) with Alma (6 months).

Me (age 32) with Alma (6 months).

I forced myself to eat something that day, and had to do the same the next, and the next. The only way dinner became mildly appealing was if I had a couple glasses of wine. I’d feel better for a little while—maybe an hour, until the buzz wore off—and then I was a mess. Crying. Scared. I often threw up. What was happening to me?

Within a few weeks, I’d lost all my pregnancy weight and then some. I know, I know, what a horrible problem. But if you’ve ever lost weight that way, it’s awful. I felt like a live wire, a frayed nerve—there was no safety in my body, no safety anywhere. No rest.

I visited a psychiatrist. She prescribed an anti-depressant, Klonopin (for anxiety and sleep), and Ambien (also for sleep). I added this to the rotation and learned how to self-medicate. I gave up breastfeeding. We moved back to Massachusetts. We established some semblance of stability, eventually. But alcohol never hit me the same way after I became a mom. I could never slip into that easy release again—there was always a sharp, anxious edge to it. Perhaps it was the hormonal shift and the sleeplessness. Perhaps it was age. Perhaps it was the profound psychic shift in becoming a parent: the unshakable knowing that my heart now beat outside of me.

Likely it was all those things. 

I’m not the only one, though. I’ve heard the same thing from hundreds of other moms since getting sober.

My drinking changed when I had kids. 

I couldn’t tolerate it the same way once I had kids.

I started to drink more once I had kids.

And yet, our culture’s favorite answer to the stress of motherhood? WINE!

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NUMBERS DON’T LIE.

I’ve been pulling apart the cultural, economic, and psychological pieces of the mommy wine culture phenomenon, but that’s a different post (or book). I do want to point out a few things, though, because I’ve often wondered if maybe this perception of drinking among women and especially mothers has just been a product of my own lens. You know the whole, We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.

But no.

  • Female alcohol use disorder in the United States increased by 83.7% between 2002 and 2013, according to a 2017 study sponsored by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

  • High-risk drinking, defined as more than three drinks in a day or seven in a week for women, is on the rise among women by about 58% as defined by the same study above.

  • A 2018 study found a steep rise in the rate of alcohol-related ER visits between 2006 and 2014, and increases were larger for women than men.

Sidenote: It was also around this time in 2009 when I started to see wines like Mommy’s Little Helper and Mommy’s Time Out show up at our local liquor stores and wine shops. But I digress.

Alongside this, we have the rise of anxiety disorders.

  • Today, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting about 40 million American adults every year. 1
  • Women are more than twice as likely as men to get an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. 2

20% of people dealing with social anxiety disorder suffer from some form of alcohol abuse or dependence.3 Hello, the reason I started to drink to begin with! While alcohol can reduce anxiety temporarily, it can also increase anxiety within just a few hours of consumption. This includes even moderate amounts of alcohol, and the effects on anxiety can last into the following day. 4 And, a study by the University of North Carolina School of Medicine showed that there is a connection between alcohol and anxiety on a molecular level.

Now I’m not a scientist or a doctor, and obviously there are many factors in this equation, but my instinct (and my inbox full of emails from women who were stuck in the same loop I was) tells me these things are linked.

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I didn’t have a full-blown panic attack until 2012.

I was at work. It was a five-alarm situation: one minute I was sitting in a meeting room full of executives preparing for a big pitch, and the next I was crawling across the office on my hands and knees asking my friend Kelly to do something because I couldn’t feel my face. 

She pulled me onto a couch and I proceeded to pant, Help me, Help me, Help me, while my hands curled in on themselves and my chest felt like an elephant stampede. I knew I was going to die.

Someone called the EMTs and within minutes, they’d affixed an oxygen mask to me, set me on a stretcher, wheeled me through the office, down the four floors of the building, and into the ambulance. 

When my husband came to the hospital to see me, he said, “This happens when you drink too much,” and I said, “I don’t think it’s the drinking.” I really didn’t. He reminded me of other, less severe instances in the year prior. We hadn’t ever considered those panic attacks but now I know they were.

Though I feigned ignorance, he’s planted a seed and sure enough, over the course of the next year, I had a few more experiences like that and each time, it was after a particularly excessive string of drinking.

Once I knew the connection, I couldn’t un-know it. I was doing this to myself, at least in part.

In the year between 2013 and 2014 when I was consciously working to get sober—when I really knew I shouldn’t be drinking anymore but was still trying to find a third door— crushing anxiety followed every single night of drinking, no matter how much or how little I would drink, no matter how many sober days I had put together prior. There are many theories as to what anxiety actually is, but it’s widely accepted as the body’s internal alarm system, a way of trying to get us to pay attention. My body, and I believe my soul, was screaming at me to fucking stop. Maybe it always had been.

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When I finally got sober, my anxiety dropped drastically.

The simple fact that I was no longer creating any new destruction was an astonishing relief. But certain situations, like socializing sober, could send me into a complete and immediate spiral, just like the old days. Sometimes, while driving into the city for work, I’d realize my jaw was almost completely locked and my breathing was dangerously shallow. It was defeating to still feel this same weight of anxiety even though I had finally stopped drinking, but even so, it was imbued with a different flavor. It was difficult, but not intolerable. It was more about thawing out and coming to terms with all that I’d suppressed, versus actively destroying myself.

I worked with a coach about a year into sobriety, and on one of our calls I was talking about my anxiety, which had been particularly bad for a few months. She told me anxiety is not an actual feeling, it is the result of trying not to feel.

Woof.

I will detail what really helped me manage my anxiety in sobriety in a subsequent post, but the short answer is: doing the real work of recovery. For me this has included the 12-steps, therapy, learning about boundaries, writing and podcasting, practicing rigorous honesty, prioritizing sleep and other non-negotiables, saying no A LOT, staying on the SSRI that I’d been prescribed in 2009, and eventually, quitting Ambien.

It has been a long, slow, and non-linear process, but my God, it has been worth it.

I really thought the alcohol helped. Why wouldn’t I? Wine never helped me “relax” or “unwind” or all the other BS promises we are peddled. I didn’t “deserve” a drink or “need” it to cope with life. It wasn’t “balance” in any quantity—it completely dismantled any hope for balance. I deserved something life-giving, not something that torched the fire.

Drinking is like pouring gasoline on your anxiety. And then lighting a match. You deserve to know that. And there is another way.