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Alcohol and neurodiversity

By Posted in Podcast

We are seeing more and more discussion around neurodiversity and alcohol in the Club Soda community. We’re not just talking about adults who are neurodivergent, we are hearing that alcohol is sometimes used as a coping mechanism by parents of neurodivergent children. On today’s podcast Mandy and Kate from Love Sober share their personal experiences, and talk about what they hear about from the mums they support at Love Sober. We’re hoping this conversation will be a starting point, and that in future we will explore this further, and hear about more neurodivergent people’s experiences. 

Who are Kate and Mandy?

Mandy and Kate are the women behind Love Sober, a community for women who want to explore changing the way they drink. They host the Love Sober podcast, are both writers, and coaches. Kate stopped drinking in her early 40s after having her second child. Her drinking wasn’t particularly unusual, glass of wine on a weeknight, bottle on a Saturday night. She looks back and realises how poor her mental health was, and how exhausted she was by spinning all the plates. Mandy started drinking recreationally at a young age. She experienced trauma in her late teens, and in her early 20s alcohol became a tool for numbing out the hard times. She has had her struggles with mental health, and took a number of breaks from alcohol. She has been sober since 2017. 

What does neurodiversity mean?

Before 1990, things like dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD, and Autism, were being ‘discovered’, but were seen as disorders. People were even thought of as aberrations. Neurodiversity is a new approach that sees them as differences. Because our brains are different we can have a variety of strengths and weaknesses. If those differences are not supported, met and understood, This can cause a number of problems for neurodiverse individuals. In a nutshell, it’s about seeing things as normal differences, rather than viewing them as something that is wrong with people. 

We all know that we’re slightly different. Some of us have different learning styles to people around them. That doesn’t always impact hugely on life and isn’t always very noticeable to the outside world. But problems arise for people who have conditions that have a more obvious impact on how they respond to the world. Society isn’t always good at adapting to suit those different ways of interacting with the world. 

Seeking diagnosis for neurodivergent children

We always said our son was wired slightly differently. He was just sort of bright, he had huge amounts of energy. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. In primary school he was pretty well supported. He was seen as being a bit lively, a bit naughty as a lot of boys are. There are a lot of boys who can’t sit still and who are learning differently. That’s not the same as naughty. The wheels didn’t really come off until early secondary school. All of a sudden he was getting into lots of trouble and being suspended. He ended up getting expelled. I was saying ‘there’s something going on, we’re missing something’. I hadn’t been able to see the special educational needs department. They had said he was fine because he was clever, he wasn’t struggling academically. His old head teacher had left teaching to work in neurodiversity. I phoned her and she said it sounded like it was something to do with his executive function. He started to get in trouble in the neighborhood, he was getting into big risk-taking behavior, he was hospitalised. We had to do a lot of learning really fast to cope with the situation. We finally got onto CAMHs and got a private diagnosis of Atypical Autism and ADHD. The school system had completely missed us.

By the time we knew all of this about my son, thankfully, I was sober. And I could start to piece together the resources and also recognise some of what was going on with me. I was always called a diva, because I couldn’t eat in restaurants if the lighting wasn’t right. But it was triggering anxiety for me, I’m very light sensitive and very visual. Understanding the sensory needs of the family and being able to advocate for my son helped me to recognise it in myself and then in my daughter. It meant that we could start having a different conversation, which I was also seeing mirrored in the sober community. So many clients I speak to either have a child who is neurodiverse, who has now been diagnosed as neuro diverse themselves. 

Kate

A lot of the mums we work with carry so much shame around motherhood. Having a child that has extra needs and not knowing what they need and how they tick, it’s a lot of pressure. We put our kids in an education system that is not always working for them, especially if they are neurodivergent. Then we feel shame and blame that they’re not managing in that system. It can escalate extremely quickly. The normative thing to do is drink, whether it’s good for you or not. A lot of people find that when they step away from alcohol their mental health is better, their life is better without it. We hear from a lot of mums who drink to cope, because of the stress of having a child that was marked as ‘difficult’. 

Mandy

Adults, neurodiversity, and alcohol

There’s something really interesting about societal norms in all of this. Experiences you have with your child, or how you feel in yourself can leave you feeling like you are not a normal parent or not a normal person. Drink is viewed as being the normal response, which then of course, hides everything and means that your reactions to these situations aren’t normal, because you’re not coping with them. You’re actually hiding them making things worse, but that’s okay, because society says that’s normal. Often, people talk about needing to understand why you drink, there must be one big thing that happened. And what I realised over the years is that there’s not one big thing, it may be just a slight feeling of otherness that you might have, or something that you feel that you’re not particularly doing in the way that society asks of you. And therefore you drink.

Laura Willoughby Club Soda Founder

I have complex PTSD, I had a very traumatic experience when I was 18. When I was trying to put my drinking story together, that was a huge part of it. But it wasn’t everything. I knew there was something before that, which resulted in my falling into drugs and alcohol at a very early age. At the age of 12-13 I was trying to leave myself and be someone else, I was a real people pleaser. I started tracking my experience with school, I was always naughty. And I was always the one that didn’t get it, or was always opinionated. But I’m highly sensitive. Now I have a better understanding of what it is to be an empath, and to be a highly sensitive person. Understanding that as a neurodiverse profile in itself was useful. These are super practical things that we’re starting to understand. I get overwhelmed when things are busy and there’s lots of noise and light. So of course, when I would go into a pub and it was really busy, the first thing I did to manage my anxiety and the overwhelm of that sensory experience was to head to the bar and drink two drinks. I’d have one at the bar, and one to carry across the pub to find my mates. I was searching for that one thing to make it a bit quieter. Now I have these amazing noise reduction headphones. I can turn them on and my nervous system regulates. I can be there for my son, I can give him a big cuddle, but I don’t have to listen to cartoons at the same time, because I actually find it super stressful. All my life, I was kind of told that being really sensitive wasn’t a good trait. ‘Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve, you’re too open. You’re too sensitive, you’re too much’. 

Common ADHD traits are impulsivity, immediate gratification, not being able to regulate your impulsivity. Thinking about how we use drinking, the bingeing and the fuckit button that people talk about, it segues into self medicating, but also that impulsive behaviour and immediate gratification that we seek. The other side of this is that it’s traumatic for people who are living in an ableist society, going through an educational system, who are neurodiverse. We know the links between trauma and alcohol use and addictive behaviors. Drinking is tied to norm. But of course, then we’re using it as a coping mechanism or self soothing mechanism. By being continually hung over and under the effects of alcohol, you fail to give yourself any space to recognise what’s going on underneath. Alcohol affects you in a few ways in terms of neurodiversity. The more you use substances, the more your frontal cortex is going to be impaired, which impacts your executive functions. So you may, you might already have a vulnerability, and then it’s going to make it worse. If you’ve got a dysregulated nervous system, pouring gasoline is going to mess with your neurotransmitters, and that’s going to make you even more dysregulated. So for most folk who have some form of neurodiversity, it’s entirely the wrong thing to do, because we’re more susceptible.

Kate

Information is key. I was googling neurodiversity, and there’s not a UK neurodiversity place, there’s no official body. But the National Dyslexia Society has quite good links to all of the others, and refers to neurodiversity. There’s a few really good resources. You could go private and get try and get diagnosis. CAMHs is sadly very much underfunded, and we’re still on the waitlist, we have to go private, and then you’re into quite expensive treatments. I think that getting a diagnosis for my son gave us access to some post diagnostic services, that’s been the most helpful thing for us. So if you can afford it, I think it’s worth it. If your kids are under 11 you can go to your GP who can refer you to the CDC – Child Development Clinic. If you’re thinking about a diagnosis for yourself, there are some tests you can do online. It depends on the impact on your life. Don’t wait for a diagnosis necessarily, but deal with the symptoms. If you need help with nervous system regulation, you can learn how to soothe and how to calm yourself. I’ve mentioned the Blurt Foundation before who have great free resources, there are mental health charity CIC, and you know, that sort of sensory, sensory awareness, your sensory toolkit, those kinds of good practices, just keep you reg regulated, and sort of keep you out of fight flight down regulate your nervous system. There are some support groups on Facebook, it is a bit like piecing it all together at the moment.

Kate

I’m still unsure as to whether my son is going to be diagnosed or not, but I certainly know that he’s super sensitive, like me. I know he likes wrapping himself in blankets, and I know that he likes being under a weighted blanket. The greatest gift for me has been being sober myself, because I’ve learned to forgive myself and to love the differences in me, rather than trying to fit myself in a box. Like everyone else, I’ve kind of found my own people and sober friends, they just see me as I am. That gives me the gift to see my kids as individuals. We had a bereavement in the last couple of days, and watching my kids processes has been incredibly interesting. My daughter is fairly neurotypical. She needed a cuddle, she needed to talk about it, and then she moved on to process in her own way, talk to her friends, and that was it. Whereas my son needs a lot more managing through the process. He needs to be able to talk about it, he needs metaphors, he needs to understand things. My husband said yesterday ‘I think he could do with having some sort of spirituality, because he needs to believe in something bigger for it to make sense, because it hurts so much more to him’. It’s fascinating to be sober and learn about myself has given me the gift go, okay, you two are individual kids. My son doesn’t like to read and I love to read. That bothered me for a really long time. Because I’m sober I find I’m able to see my strengths and not put myself down. That allows me to look at him and think ‘you don’t want to read, that’s fine. You’re brilliant at sport, so let’s concentrate on that’. I feel like I can be present, being able to look at your own personal development is something that’s going to really help your kids.

Mandy

I think it’s important as things are emerging to see how much impact it’s having on you. Sure, you can work on self compassion or go for a walk, there’s that level of things that are going to be good for you. But if you have emerging mental health issues, you know, you might need antidepressants, if you realize that you can’t slow you brain down or that you’re hyper sensitive, you may need to talk to your GP. Getting rid of alcohol may not be that magical thing that makes everything brilliant. There may have been factors as to why you drink, there could be shame, or trauma, or neurodiversity. There are all these pieces in a puzzle. For me it was about getting connected and finding my group so that I had a support network. 

We always say that shame dies when it’s shared in safe spaces. It’s great when you see yourself mirrored. Kate and I both went back to drink for about a year and the thing that drew me back was belonging. When I first connected with sober communities and I first started sharing my story slowly and timidly and anonymously at the beginning, I felt seen for the first time in my life. When I went back to drinking, I lost that. And that’s why it’s so amazing. 

Kate

Neurodiversity resources

Kate and Mandy mention a few services and folk that are working in Neurodiversity in this interview. Here is a little more info about those.

CAMHs (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) is the name for the NHS services that assess and treat young people with emotional, behavioural or mental health difficulties.

Russell Barkley specialises in ADHD and has loads of great content on his Youtube channel.

Irene Lyon is a nervous system specialist and somatic neuroplasticity expert.

Kit Messenger is mentioned as the headteacher who went to work in neurodiversity. She and her team provide training to the adults around children who are struggling: parents and carers; teachers; school leaders and professionals.

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