Sasha's story: Taking alcohol out of the equation helped me solve a lifelong question
The alcohol industry plays a cruel trick on our collective consciousness:
“The sophisticated connoisseur and their encyclopaedic knowledge of vintage Bordeaux. Runs through the veins of Rock Stars. The life blood of networking events. How to get relationships built”.
You need this stuff, man…
I’ve sat with colleagues over their beers and watched their standard units stack up. Night after night. I’m pretty sure they would freak out if they did the math. I go to (a lot of) functions and watch the conversation quality dive – it’s consistent. Let me graph it for you on the back of a napkin.
Let’s roll back to March 2022
Like many people who went through lockdowns and pandemic anxiety, alcohol was a regular part of the week. With a lifelong interest in food and wine, it was an important aspect of life –a tool of the trade, and the idea of not having wine at a dinner, or a beer at band practice was alien. I had a decent enough knowledge of Australian and Latin American wines, familiarity with Japanese, Chinese and Korean drinking culture. I knew the recipe for the perfect Negroni. I’d done the big Chinese banquets and the obligatory baijiu toasts – taking on Dongbei’s finest and representing the heroic Aussie spirit at the dinner table.
And of course, it was de rigueur at every work function. Colleagues who abstained were met with an unusual curiosity.
I was dealing with some tough challenges – a period at work had left me in a dark place, doubting my ability, wrestling with self-harm ideation, things which persisted even after moving to a role where I was valued. That battered corporate self-image was tricky to repair in a continuous harm environment. My partner had moved overseas for an important job, and harder yet - I was trying to navigate complex family health issues. My mood regulation was poor, and working with a psychologist wasn’t making the dent I was expecting.
A light goes on
Lise’s Alcohol Free posts turned up in my feeds, showing a different, more positive world. I read with curiosity about depression, alcohol and brain chemistry, and quickly it turned to resolve. It made perfect sense. Take a time-out. Work out what was really happening in there.
I’d been working so hard on this mythical Happiness™ thing, but I just couldn’t stop feeling sad.
Brains are complex things. Serotonin and dopamine functions change with alcohol consumption, even moderate, and it can take time for the brain to adapt to its absence. The chemical balance in our brains has an impact on our ability to navigate emotional spaces, especially if there are competing issues, like depression, stress, anxiety.
It turns out that “normal” people don’t like non-drinkers, but I worked out that the discomfort of others around a non-drinker could be managed simply with a non-alcohol beer in hand. The social signalling is all back in place, and even if they know it’s a fake drink, the confrontation just vanishes.
I suspect there’s an underlying reflective question which hits them during that moment of confrontation: “How would I be judged if I openly stopped drinking alcohol”?
Does it stop them making the leap themselves?
Since I stopped, I’ve just about lost count of the number of times I’ve had people – from close acquaintances to complete strangers – try to persuade me back to the fold. I’ve learned to laugh along (it’s sooo funny), and quietly empathise. I understand it may be an externalisation of their own anxiety about their relationship with alcohol, maybe about facing that stigma themselves.
And perhaps the ones who push the hardest are the most frightened of all…
While I was coming to grips with my new identity within this alcohol-soaked society, a family member was being assessed for ADHD and one afternoon, I overheard the diagnostic questions. That moment is etched in concrete - that rising crescendo of horrible familiarity as I mentally ticked Every. Single. One. of those boxes.
It was a fundamental moment: understanding the ADHD neurotype is to understand how a person who has always been resilient can lose that within a short space of time, with the wrong environment or inputs - but that's another topic.
The Australian health system is terrible for neurodivergents. It starts with a long GP appointment to start a Mental Health Care Plan to obtain a referral to a psychologist (you need to find one). After formal ADHD diagnosis by a psychologist, it’s another long appointment with the GP for another referral to a psychiatrist (who you also need to find) to access medication – and typically, the wait times are 4-6 months for both specialists. Psychiatrists are also needed for script renewals, so you get to do it all over again (and again).
That system is antithetical to the need, and it costs a lot of money.
I persevered. It was worth it.
The months were rolling by, and my weight was dropping. My mood was improving, and I’d finally gone for my long-overdue sleep apnoea test. By October, I was on a CPAP machine and trialling ADHD medication. But...
Something still didn’t ADD up
Roll forward to the start of 2023. With medication, I’ve got many of the ADHD symptoms managed, and I’ve observed a quantitative improvement in cognitive function (using tools like IQ tests). I’m back to childhood testing levels - probably beyond, given the attention improvements. That postgraduate course I’ve started is reactivating my interest in academic work. I can no longer play video games. Marvel movies are an abomination (I guess they always were). My social media feeds self-eject after 5 minutes. I’m back to absorbing philosophy, thinking about linguistics, working incredibly hard on training AI models.
But something is missing. I’m reading more about neurodiversity and ADHD, and I just don’t feel like it’s the complete picture. Hard to know what you don’t know. A family member’s psychologist suggests they evaluate for autism, and knowing it has a genetic correlation, I realise I need to get my head around it – one way or the other.
The Embrace Autism site is amazing – it is an incredible resource of well-researched, clearly written articles. And diagnostic tests. To my surprise, I’m “aceing” the tests… All of them. Quietly sceptical, I give it a break, and come back to it after a decent break. Still checks out. Read more. Join some subreddits and watch quietly on the sidelines. I raise it cautiously with my psychologist – and we have a little aha moment. We discuss the pros and cons of formal diagnosis and proceed.
Having my diagnosis takes out the second-guessing and the uncertainty. I can stop wasting cycles wondering about whether or not it’s true.
And there it was: it explained so much.
We learn to hide (mask) from an early age
From earliest memory, my life was dedicated to the pursuit of “masking” (as it is called in autism circles) – at school, it was working out a formula to hide in plain sight. That undiagnosed hyperlexic 5 year old who got sent to the little room at the back of the class to do advanced reading. My grades went down pretty quickly after that.
At age 16, I cracked it: being an indie kid worked perfectly – and it was a lot better than lunches in the library or the dreaded D&D room. Look cool, act moody – the Goth version of “Smile and wave, boys”. And Existentialism. Thank you, Albert Camus.
Instant confidence. Space to grow.
Fast-forward to the fast-paced tech/biz world, it was inhaling HBR self-improvement guides and slavishly training myself to be a better corporate citizen. High tech warriors. Startup supermen.
It takes its toll.
Alcohol is written into the business world: it’s pretty much a compulsory activity. And it was something which had slowly muted my hard edges. It flattened out the atypical (autists do it different) dopamine and oxytocin production schedule that my body wanted to follow. It suppressed a lot of that sensory stuff, even with moderate consumption.
But even muted, my unidentified/suppressed autistic self was not able to interpret certain behaviours. Over time, the world had become too confusing – and I’d run out of understanding. I'd lost any perspective I had with the collapse of my belief in people.
What it’s like (being unfiltered)
Taking alcohol out of the equation let me rule that out and focus on the real causes of this existential dread. I turned all the lights back on, and they were pretty f%$#ing bright.
Years of pushing down sensory issues, thinking to myself “it’s tiredness”, some over-emotional state due to stress. My “Slavic Soul”. Dissociation events were just stress/trauma or even alcohol related (by then ruled out).
That constant feeling of difference I thought was due to introversion and having a funny name in an Anglo-centric sports jock culture.
The hyper-sensitivity to the micro expressions on people’s faces. The way sounds build and build. Physical stuff like feeling ants running over your skin. Thought clouds of sentence fragments buzzing away like noisy insects.
I can’t tell you how tough it is to sit with a person doused in Axe body spray when you have the ability to smell a magazine being opened across the room. If I use a scented deodorant on myself, I will be a mess within an hour.
So, the ironic use of Old Spice is probably never going to be a thing for me.
I’m learning to cope with the sensory: technical (eg articles on autistic brain chemistry), mental (visualisation, mindfulness) and exercise – running more, learning to surf.
I’m in training to accept my social blindness – I need 2-3 meetings before I can recall a face and name. I have moments where my brain will literally take a pause, and I’ll freeze – which isn’t socially amazing, but I’m learning not to let it make me nervous – it’s just a cognitive peculiarity. And all those judgemental micro facial and body expressions – I’m learning not to store those up. I’m taking it less personally being talked over. I use long sentences, I’m over-precise. Allistic (non-autistic) people get bored easily, and they make a lot of assumptions about human interaction.
I’ve even challenged the physical contact thing (I’m really not a “hugger”) and started jiujitsu.
I’m proud to have an autistic brain. It thinks creatively. It lets me focus on complex, detailed work for lengthy periods of time. It gives me insights and novel ideas, and unfettered, amazing perseverance. Sure, it comes with a bunch of tricky stuff, but at least in my case, I’ve learned to accept and even love those parts too.
Please educate yourselfabout spectrum disorders
That patronising, slightly-in-awe “He’s in the spectrum” nod and wink. Well, go and read a few articles, guys. The one I shared on LinkedIn about autism a few months ago had an interesting engagement footprint (and a very, very interesting gap). Apparently, it’s contagious or something.
Stigma and unsupportive environments drive many with ADHD, ASD, OCD, etc out of the workforce, into negative behaviour spirals, substance abuse, depression, suicide.
Hypersensitivity and emotional dysregulation are major features of our lives.
Alcohol is etched into the social fabric
Having walked this path, alcohol won’t have any further role in my diet. It is incompatible with my chemistry. I don’t want to consume a product which limits my cognitive function or impairs my emotional regulation. That’s a choice that I make for me.
I’m happy to serve it to others, no judgement. I’m even happy to offer pairing suggestions or invent new cocktails. But if you think you’re going to talk me into “just having a glass with dinner”. It’s just not going to happen. And you should consider why you feel the need to suggest it.
If you’re “virtue signalling” on social media with this or that wine/cocktail/spirit to show how cool/wealthy/sophisticated/down-to-earth you are, remember it reinforces these social cues. There’s someone else out there, right now, looking at your feeds, being reminded that it’s unacceptable to turn down a drink. Neurotypicals might cope fine with that stuff, but there are also plenty of us who struggle to balance the importance of this type of signalling.
The alcohol industry is doing its best to keep it that way – and they really don’t need your support.
An advocate for an alternative universe
To Lise - thanks for shining a light into a better world, where we aren’t chained to the propaganda of a harmful industry. Your posts helped me realise we can choose how we participate in life. That it is just an imaginary social contract driving our behaviours.
I’m so glad I chose the red pill.