When ADHD and Alcoholism Overlap
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When ADHD and Alcoholism Overlap


Salon recently ran a personal essay by a woman named Clare Buhay, who’s struggled with both ADHD and alcoholism her whole life. Her childhood was spent daydreaming and being active and resourceful in every way—except when it came to actual schoolwork. She recalls regularly hearing that dreaded scold-y line from teachers: “You’re not living up to your potential” (ughhhhh, that brings me back—in an unpleasant way—because I got that one all the time, too).

Uncovering ADHD Through AA

No one ever suspected Buhay had ADHD; boys in her class got diagnosed with the condition, but not her. It wasn’t until she was an adult, building a new life for herself in Manhattan AA, that the pieces began to fall into place. “I have a thinking problem. I also have a drinking problem,” she writes, which sounds as familiar and comforting as a huge bowl of chicken noodle soup because Oh how I’ve felt it, too. (Ditto her comment that, as a kid, she always “felt both superior to, and fearful of, my seemingly well-adjusted classmates”—yup.)

Buhay recalls how, after her new-sobriety pink cloud began to wear off, her ADHD began to make her feel more and more itchy and uncomfortable in her skin. She realized that the hangovers of her drinking days had actually served as a sort of off-label self-treatment for her ADHD; the pain and immediacy of the hangovers helped quiet her mind and focus on one thing (feeling shitty) instead of 50.

Buhay finally found some relief via the wonders of psychiatric meds—namely Wellbutrin—but not before a few of her fellow AAs felt the need to lecture her about her mental illness being all in her mind. “Some 12-step groups frown on medication, but for me, it’s vital,” she writes.

The Constant Balancing Act of Addiction and Mental Illness

Anyone who suffers with a dual diagnosis knows the misery Buhay writes about and the notion of ignoring a mental illness or trying to pray it away isn’t just dangerous but offensive. The reality is that 50 percent of general psych patients also have a substance abuse issue. And ADHD is incredibly common among addicts—among those being treated for addiction, one study reported that a quarter of them were also afflicted with ADHD (whether that’s because those with undiagnosed ADHD reach out for substances as a way of self-medicating or because those with ADHD tend to be more impulsive is, I guess, one of those chicken-and-eggish debates).

Still I’ve heard numerous people in meetings criticize the use of psych meds by sober addicts; honestly, it drives me nuts.

Fortunately, Buhay was able to successfully treat her condition and she credits the tools of recovery for helping her survive such a rough time. But her piece really drives home the reality that working the steps isn’t a cure-all and there are certain medical issues that AA just can’t—and shouldn’t try to—fix. Fortunately, scientists are making constant strides in mental illness treatments; now if only people in recovery who aren’t personally afflicted can zip it before offering their uninformed opinions.

Photo courtesy of FaridSabetMD

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About Author

Laura Barcella is a documentary researcher, author, freelance writer and ghostwriter from Washington, DC. Her writing has also appeared in TIME, Marie Claire, Salon, Esquire, Elle, Refinery29, AlterNet, The Village Voice, Cosmopolitan, The Chicago Sun-Times, Time Out New York, BUST, ELLE Girl, NYLON and CNN.com. Her book credits include Know Your Rights: A Modern Kid's Guide to the American Constitution, Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World, Popular: The Ups and Downs of Online Dating from the Most Popular Girl in New York City, Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop and The End: 50 Apocalyptic Visions From Pop Culture That You Should Know About…Before It’s Too Late.