Emotional Hangovers

I overdid it on Saturday. I’ve had a few drinks during my 2-3 months of moderation practice, including enough to get me properly (if briefly) buzzed, and never experienced such a miserable reaction. When I woke up Sunday morning, I had a splitting headache, a dry mouth, and the usual unpleasantness of a hangover. But it was the emotional hangover that took me by surprise.

We are told that mistakes are good for learning, so here is what I learned. ALCOHOL DOES CRAZY THINGS TO MY BRAIN CHEMISTRY. Sorry for shouting, it was just amazing to witness. And awful to witness from the inside, because the thing about whacked-out brain chemistry is that the bad feelings are incredibly real. For the interests of posterity, here are my first 72 hours post-binge.

Waking up hurt, first because my head was pounding, and second because a bone-deep depression was settling in. Depression is not remorse. Depression is a thick gray fog, an exhaustion that makes life seem barely worth enduring. Depression is the end of hope, and depression is always endless. Mine has gotten much, much better over the past decade; these days, it manifests mostly as a couple of occasional “off” days, which might not even be noticeable without my particular personal history. This was a full-on plunge into the abyss though.

Depression lies to you. Mine tells me that I am broken. I am a failure. Around noon on Sunday, I decided to skip taking more aspirin, because a throbbing headache seemed like a preferable distraction from the depression.

Some of my depressed thoughts centered on my drinking. I should note that my particular voice of depression almost never talks about my actions. What I actually do isn’t that important, because my depression prefers to talk about what I am. So I did not spend Sunday regretting my actions, just my entire existence. Intellectually, I was entirely capable of knowing that I’d made one, smallish error and would soon be back on track. Emotionally, I was certain that I would never, could never, ever figure this out. “You are going to be a problem drinker for the rest of your life,” said depression, “and P.S., you’re a failure.”

Sunday was just a rotten day, the kind where you blink back tears and go to bed early just for the sake of finding unconsciousness. I hoped Monday would be better. It wasn’t.

Monday, I woke up exhausted. That thick gray fog still covered all my mental real estate, but I know how to handle it. Do what you can, I told myself, and take care of yourself when you can. After all, I’ve handled episodes of depression before, and I know all the tricks.

Except on Monday, I discovered that my chemical reaction from over-drinking apparently wiped out all my willpower. Someday, I will read up on some addiction neurochemistry and maybe come a little closer to understanding the technical explanation. For now, what I discovered was that I could not possibly resist any impulses. And I was full of a ton of impulses, almost all of them for things that aren’t good for me.

I thought donuts might make a good snack, and went and bought four. And then I panicked, because I knew that once wine o’clock rolled around, I was going to go buy wine. Whatever mechanism in my brain had sustained me for the past couple of months, making decisions each day to abstain from alcohol or have just one, was now completely broken. I was a failure, and therefore, I was destined to fail.

Except that I have some practice handling depression, and 2-3 months of practicing new habits to fall back on. My new habits did not include going to the liquor store, and my rational mind knew that I didn’t want to. So carefully, without rocking my delicate mental boat too much, I structured my evening so that I would not buy wine. I found a good book. I took the book to bed (I never drink in bed, so it’s one of the less-triggering places in the house), and read there until about 8pm. Then I fixed myself a healthy snack, drank a big glass of water, and then opened one of the two beers that remained in the fridge (at which point, future-me may read this and roll her eyes severely…drinking is not a good coping mechanism. Sorry future-me). Sitting on the couch, I watched a light comedy, sipped my two beers, and headed to bed. I felt awful, but at least the damage was limited.

Tuesday, I woke up feeling mostly back to normal. More tired than usual, but my willpower was back. My confidence was back. Oh, and that thick fog of depression was finally starting to blow away, enough that I could see the faint outline of the sun. It might take a few more days to clear completely, and I’m going to continue to take careful care of myself throughout, but I think I’ve minimized the fallout reasonably well. And maybe learned something new about the value of not over-drinking.




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