Therapists & Drinking
In my 20s and 30s I bounced in and out of therapy several times. Since childhood, I’ve struggled with anxiety—the social kind and generalized—and anxiety’s good buddy, insomnia.
Because alcohol has troubled me basically since I had my first beer in 1996, I’ve always talked to therapists about my drinking. It used to come up in response to the question, “So why are you here and what do you want to work on?”
Uniformly, when I’d describe my drinking habits, a therapist would tell me it was nothing to worry about, totally normal. “The problem,” said one memorable therapist, “is the way you judge yourself about drinking. It’s a problem that you think it’s a problem.”
Not coincidentally, this is the same therapist who responded to my issues with my parents by saying, “Why is it that you think you need to have a relationship with your parents?”
Obviously this therapist and I did not connect and our sessions together were few.
In 2015 I finally hooked up with an amazing therapist who actually helped me a lot. It was a drinking incident that compelled me to make an appointment with her; she came highly recommended by a friend. She does not accept insurance and I knew it would be expensive.
Here’s the chain of events that brought me into her office: I was invited to speak at a conference in New York that spring, and it was good day. My talk was successful, I saw friends and colleagues and made new personal and professional connections.
As the afternoon wound down, I went to the hotel bar with a few other attendees. As I was three-quarters finished my first cocktail, a friend saw me desperately eyeing the waitress and said, “I can see you want another drink, I’ll flag her down if I can.” She was in a more visible spot. No one else seemed to need another drink, but I did. And other people could tell it was urgent.
An hour later, I boarded my train home and soon found myself in the cafe car ordering one beer, and then another during the 70-minute trip. Between sips I texted my husband to arrange meeting up for dinner at a bar where I ate a hamburger and had yet another drink.
To this day, I cannot figure out what exactly was going on with me that day. When I started drinking after the event I was feeling happy and energized—not exactly the kind of feelings I’d normally be anxious to numb. And it was because my own behavior was so mysterious to me that I called the therapist the next day.
I stopped drinking in advance of our first session. The therapist approved of this decision, of course, but she also stressed that I should be able to return to drinking later, that it wasn’t a big deal. I don't think she wanted me to get overwhelmed.
I saw her weekly that whole summer and our sessions helped me with so many things. I had gone into her office thinking I was a person who was “in touch” with my own feelings because I have a lot of vocabulary words at my disposal to describe emotional experiences and mental states.
Turns out this isn’t what being in touch with your feelings really means. Articulating feelings isn’t the same as feeling them.
I explained to her the circumstances of my childhood the same way I had since I’d first left home—offhandedly, deadpan, and for comedic effect. As if to say, look at the things I’ve survived to become an adult who is merely quirky instead of the damaged, dysfunctional person you might expect.
She made me see that these adverse events weren’t absurd and funny anecdotes for me to act out for others like a turn at charades. They were traumatic experiences that changed the way my brain developed. By weaving these experiences into narratives, I made them something apart from myself. I changed feelings and events I didn't understand into something I could easily explain. I turned them into something I could recite, perform like a monologue, but not feel in the nerves of my body.
The type of therapy that therapist does is called Neuro Emotional Technique (NET), something of a cousin to EMDR therapy, and her goal was for me to experience and resolve those terrible feelings right there in her office. After the first session I told my husband, "I don't know if I'm up to this. I can't go in there again." But I did go back and things began to shift.
Just because I wasn’t conscious of those feelings of helplessness and confusion and fear and anger did not mean they weren’t still there. As a child, I was an emotional eater, using ice cream and Doritos to deal with the emotions I was not able to feel my way through.
As I became an adult, alcohol filled that role. The hope was that if I could resolve more of that unaddressed trauma, I would no longer need to cling to behaviors like eating and drinking to soothe myself.
I avoided alcohol during the 12 weeks of my treatment, but started drinking the way I had been soon after.
The binge drinking episode the night of my talk in New York was unusual. It was something that happened maybe once or twice a year. I was hopeful the NET therapy would “cure” me of binge drinking while allowing me to continue moderate drinking, which it likely helped me do. Even though I continued drinking for nearly two years, I never had an episode like that one after my talk in New York again.
That therapist never said, “If you quit drinking it will help treat your anxiety,” but I think she might have if I had been able to afford a lot more sessions. In retrospect, I think she knew I wasn’t ready to move through the anxiety that the thought of “never drinking again” provoked in me back then. I was happy to take a break from booze, but I needed to think it would be there for me later.
But the fact is that, neurologically, alcohol aggravates anxiety and depression and I wish someone would have told me this more specifically and sooner. I did not expect the profound relief I got from anxiety when I quit. I would go so far as to call it an effective treatment for anxiety and insomnia, at least for me.
Many doctors and therapists over the years have suggested medications for me, Paxil and Ambien and Xanax. A cornucopia of drugs have been on offer. There is no doubt that these treatments are appropriate and helpful for many people. But never once did anyone say, “You might be able to dramatically improve this condition if you stop drinking alcohol. Just try it and see what happens.”
Looking back on my season in therapy in 2015, I don’t know whether it was the abstinence from alcohol or the therapy itself that helped me. The two things likely worked together to help me grow. But avoiding alcohol was an important step toward healing.