Alcohol Allowed Me to Hide My Autism (Even From Myself)

If I hadn't gotten sober I would never have worked it out.

A cut out collage of a zebra mixed with a frog with a yellow flower at the centre and a butterfly landing on the flower.
Collage by Jo Stag

The first time I drank, it was a revelation. Alcohol allowed me to access the fun personality I reserved for close friends, and bring it to the party. It allowed me to stop worrying about how weird I was and just enjoy it. For the first time in my young life, I seemed able to step into the sunshine of other people's attention without immediately wanting to retreat.

And so, naturally, I loved it! Drink became a mainstay of my life, and it stayed at the center for over twenty years. Then I started to suffer from bad relationships and poor mental health. I didn't have enough money to waste so much on alcohol and I became frustrated. Eventually this led to me getting sober, and starting this blog. (Hurray!)

After I got sober, there was huge growth. I learned how to be reliable and got better at handling small talk (thanks AA!) I got better at sharing my thoughts with others and making friends with people and connecting, generally. I lost weight and my weird chin rash cleared up (what was that thing?) and I started feeling confident and dare I say it, happy. I fell in love and created a calm and happy home life.

And though my mood still dipped and soared, the improvements in my life were undeniable. After a few years sober, I got the best job I'd ever had: a permanent post at a university, teaching writing. In writer circles, this can seem rather like winning the lottery, as there are many more talented writers than permanent academic positions available. The only downside? The job was over a hundred miles away.


Still, I was so excited to be actually on a faculty - inside the belly of the beast! - and I knew I couldn't turn the opportunity down. My partner promised he'd look after my beloved cat, Ted, and we made a plan to see each other every couple of weekends. We'd take it in turns to visit. We'd make it work.


And we did. Kind of.


Over the next year, the pressure began to make my spine buckle, and gradually more was revealed about what was really going on with me. I was worn out. Exhausted. And my mood fluctuated wildly from day to day.

1. At first it seemed like some kind of mood disorder

As a kid, I was very cheerful. “Happy-go-lucky” school reports often said. This shifted as I got older, but I was more concerned with drinking and parties and drugs.

After I got sober, I could no longer escape the reality of my dramatically changeable mood.

Was it depression? Not quite. Was it anxiety? Perhaps. Was it bi-polar? No, not dramatic enough. Was it cyclothymia? Maybe...

After showing up at the GP’s surgery again, and trying yet another anxiety/depression med, I was referred to a psychiatrist (praise be! ANALYSE ME SOMEBODY, PLEASE!) After an hour-long interview about my symptoms, she said that my mood seemed to be reactive, and as a result, it didn’t sound like a mood disorder.

“You seem to struggle with emotional regulation,” she said. “I suggest you take this prescription (duloxetine) and undertake therapy to process some of the difficult experiences from your past."

And so she let me go on my merry (then sad, then merry, then sad) little way.

2. Which turned out to be emotional dysregulation

Armed with this new information, I found a new therapist and joined a support group for people wanting to do this kind of work. Joining a community had made the process of getting sober compelling and healing and fun, so of course I wanted to access that strength and camaraderie again as I worked to solve this new problem.

I paired up with a woman who had similar aims, and we started talking about some of the tough things that we'd gone through, in childhood, and as a heavy drinking/traumatised teens/mentally unwell young women. Our stories weren't the same but there were enough commonalities for us to help each other and form a really strong friendship.

In spite of the heaviness of the work we were doing, we laughed a lot, and made time to (try and) have fun. We encouraged each other to keep going with the process, reminding ourselves that this was just a stage on the way to feeling better. Things would always feel as dirge as this. Would they?

5. Or Maybe ADHD

Pina ADHD Alien helped me identify myself with and begin to research the condition.

Many of the things I thought were the fault of alcohol (and which alcohol had certainly made worse) were explained by a diagnosis of ADHD.

  • Frequently losing keys, wallet, phone, bank cards, passport

  • Constantly putting things down without realizing

  • Losing people’s belongings within moments of receiving them

  • Procrastination

  • Hyper-focus

  • Astonishing forgetfulness

  • Time blindness

  • Find boredom intolerable to the point of wishing for death (yes, I realize this is an overreaction, but that’s how painful it is.)

  • ability to work on lots of different things almost simultaneously

I took a test and passed with flying colors. I started to feel more compassion for myself when I made 'silly mistakes' relating to admin. I worked on praising myself for all the things I had done right. I learned a few workarounds for my terrible working memory. Things got easier.

And yet my anxiety around teaching continued. No matter how much I improved at the job, no matter how much I prepared. I continued to wonder what was wrong with me. Why did I find standing in front of people so scary and difficult? I wanted to sprint out of the classroom, even when I really knew my stuff. My nervous system was on overdrive. It vibrated so intensely that I felt completely exhausted afterwards.

6. Oh, hang on, It's autism!

Nobody was more surprised than me to discover I was autistic. It would have been Asperger's syndrome if that label was still in use. Through the new friend I'd made while processing difficult childhood/adolescence stuff, I was introduced to a Special Educational Needs teacher, who invited me to tell her about my difficulties. After listening to my outpouring (I was pretty desperate by this point) she asked if I had ever considered autism.

"Females tend to ‘mask’ their symptoms and so fly under the radar," she said.

I pictured myself as a teenager, scrabbling to fit in. Aware of a strange blankness inside where other people seemed to have preferences and opinions and ideas. I watched the humans intently and learned from them, like an anthropologist or an alien (or an alien who's an anthropologist). I copied my friend's clothes, mannerisms, and interests, but I could never keep up. They had an ability to improvise that I was lacking. I was always on the backfoot. My survival technique was to find a best friend and stick to them like glue. It wasn't perfect, but it was the best I could do.

Doing the steps in AA I had pinned all this on my early alcohol use. I perceived how booze had taken over as my only true hobby because it gave me freedom from feeling like an alien. But I struggled to feel comfortable with the believing I was an alcoholic. (And rightly so, since this term has long fallen out of favor in the field of addiction.)

Learning about autism helped me to add another layer of understanding to the story. Unlike my love of drinking it helped to explain:

  • difficulties with executive function

  • absolutely no sense of direction

  • literal-mindedness

  • gender dysphoria

  • often not getting the joke / funny by accident

  • powerful empathy / feeling other people's feelings

  • sensory sensitivities (so many)

  • no mind’s-eye (aphantasia) but excellent mind’s ear

  • face blindness

  • social anxiety that seemingly never goes away (unless at home with partner and cat)

  • ‘special interests’ or obsessions

  • susceptibility to ‘burnout’

  • limited energy that runs out quick from seemingly little activity (see 'autistic burnout')

  • stomach issues / IBS / food intolerances and sensitivities

  • insomnia + difficulty staying awake

  • intense love of animals

It was both a shock and a relief to find that many of my most troubling 'traits' actually fit under the umbrella of autism. It wasn't exactly good news, but at least now I knew where to look for solutions. And I felt a little better about how difficult I often seemed to find life.

Drinking heavily increased many of the problems listed above. But many of these issues were rooted in my autism. If I hadn’t quit drinking, I might never have figured out that I am autistic. Understanding this has allowed me to have much more compassion for myself and stop driving myself so hard.

7. There’s a good chance my parents are autistic too

My childhood was pretty happy until my parents' relationship broke down. They were entirely unable to keep their split amicable, and this caused me a lot of pain. I tried to make each of them happy and be entirely loyal to and supportive of them, even though this sometimes meant subtly disparaging or working against the other parent.

After I got sober, I realized that through no fault of their own my parents had let me down. Over time, I have come to realize that this was because they were struggling with the same issues that I have done. They were unable to navigate the complexity of divorce, co-parenting, running a house, finding new relationships, and raising teenagers, and my brother and I were impacted as a result. We have done well in life, but I think we would both agree that we’ve taken the long way around.

This last piece of understanding is bittersweet. My inability to understand and talk about my feelings (alexithymia) meant I was unable to discuss any of my issues with my parents until two decades after the fact. I took so long to acknowledge, process, and admit to my anger that my dad actually died before I got to have the healing conversation I dreamed of. Experiencing alexithymia makes much more sense in the context of an autism diagnosis, but it's still tricky to accept.

Now I know I have this, I'm learning how to improve my emotional literacy.

8. Despite all this I am much happier today than I was five years ago

Some people don’t see the benefits of diagnosis. They fear that the individual will be tarnished with the stigma of the label. But when you have struggled with certain problems for your whole life, the label feels like a relief. After all, you had all the disorders / difficulties anyway. At least now maybe people will get off your back about a few things. Even more important, you can start to give yourself a break.

My experience has been that it is a great relief to have a label that helps me make sense of a number of lifelong struggles. It can certainly seem gentler and more useful than the litany of abuse you have received or given yourself during the years that you were unaware of precisely what was different about you.

If you need help to cope, you’re not alone. But alcohol hinders as much as it helps.

If you’re ready to try something different, read beautiful hangover and discover what I did to get freedom from alcohol. Do whatever it takes to stay sober for 30 days: go to your doctor, try Smart or AA or Hip Sobriety or Soberistas. Listen to Recovery Elevator and SHAIR podcasts. Read This Naked Mind. Try Moderation Management. There is a whole community of people waiting to help you. Reach out. Something better is waiting. Sign up for more from me at beautifulhangover

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