Bipolar and substance use

People often ask me why I don’t drink. Simple answer: I don’t drink because alcohol clashes with my medication. The more complicated answer: I have Bipolar and Bipolar and alcohol/other drugs do not mix. Approximately 60% of people with Bipolar have a substance abuse issue. That’s a sad statistic that I do not want to be apart of.

I have been largely protected from alcohol and drug use because of my family history. Growing up, my older brother was addicted to drugs and alcohol. I saw how addiction ripped my family apart. I witnessed my brother destroy himself and his relationships with substances. I swore I would never do the same. I didn’t drink until I was about 17, which in Australia is something to be marvelled at  (most kids in my neighbourhood were experienced drinkers at 13/14). And I can count the times I’ve smoked weed on one hand. My drug/alcohol experimentation has never gone much further than that. And I attribute that largely to the fact that I was scared straight by the experiences with my brother.

Thank God for that. Because it is incredibly common amongst people with Bipolar to use drugs, in particular alcohol, as coping mechanisms to deal with the highs and lows of Bipolar disorder. Many people go un-diagnosed with Bipolar for years, even decades, despite having noticeable issues with drugs and alcohol. Often this may be the primary diagnosis, with the underlying Bipolar disorder going un-diagnosed. People with Bipolar disorder, like many people with alcohol and drug dependencies, use substances to distract themselves from the overwhelming nature of their lives. As you can imagine this is a vicious cycle because people with Bipolar’s lives are defined by ups and downs, which can cement them in the cycle of addicton.

Alcohol and drug use is not only common amongst people with Bipolar but it also worsens the effects of Bipolar. Alcohol and other drugs impair a person from obtaining regular sleep, exercise and diet routines. These very same routines can be protective factors against Bipolar episodes. Furthermore, alcohol and other drug use can act as direct triggers for mood episodes. I know many people with Bipolar who experienced their first manic episode after experimenting with stimulant drugs. I personally have had depressive episodes triggered by alcohol.

You can see how this creates a bit of a mess. I might smoke weed and become paranoid, leading to a hypomanic episode. This may lead to the typical increased socialisation and partying which may involve the impulsive taking of more drugs, which can result in a worsening of the manic episode (resulting in hospitalisation) or a crash to depression.  Which leads to drinking more alcohol to cope with negative feelings and only makes the depressive episode worse. Bipolar and substances are the perfect storm.

I remember particular instances where I have specifically used the relationship between Bipolar and substances to manipulate my moods.  As previously mentioned stimulants can lead to manic or hypomanic episodes in people with Bipolar. This includes energy drinks. Earlier in the year when I was really depressed and couldn’t focus on or even think about my thesis I started drinking energy drinks to try and give me the extra edge. I figured it was like levelling the playing field. If I drank an energy drink while depressed, maybe it would level me out to a semi normal mood? Then I would be able to do my uni work. It worked. Kinda. Long story short, I got a lot of uni work done. But that’s because like Icarus I flew too close to the sun. I become hypomanic. And I know if I hadn’t of cut out the energy drinks at that point they would have taken me all the way up.

I’ve learned from the above experiences and those of other people with Bipolar that I am better off without substances. Like the great Salvador Dali once said ‘I don’t do drugs. I am drugs’. My brain does enough acrobatics without the aid of alcohol and other drugs. I remember once talking to a friend about their experience with cocaine. I said to them ‘that sounds exactly like me when manic! Why would you take something to make you feel that way voluntarily?’ Turns out, as much as drugs may aid the process I don’t need them to take me to the edges of human experience. Other people take drugs to feel what I feel, I take my medication to feel what they feel.

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