Alcohol And ADHD: A Toxic Cocktail

 I’m nearly at the end of my second year of sobriety and just about to pass my previous personal best. I was also recently diagnosed with ADHD (combined presentation). I just turned 53.  

First the alcohol part: I have known that I have a problem with alcohol for a long time, probably as long as I have known about alcohol. I started drinking in my late teens, sneaking into pubs. I drank heavily all the way through uni, then I taught English overseas which involved afternoon teaching, evening drinking and hungover mornings. I then started a PhD which allowed me to combine my work with my drinking hobby. It played havoc with personal relationships. A short marriage ended almost as soon as it began and to cope with the grief, you guessed it, I drank myself into a stupor every night. Then I met a Japanese woman and followed her when she went back to Japan and taught English with the accompanying alcohol fueled lifestyle and that relationship went the same was as my marriage. In the fallout from that I somehow finally landed a permanent academic job in my field in Australia and moved here.  

And so it went for the last couple of decades. Working and drinking with occasional relationships either ruined by drink or with fellow drinkers with all the emotional chaos that brought. Despite all the chaos, I stubbornly persisted. If you asked me why I drank I would tell you that it was a combination of loneliness and stress at work though obviously alcohol was a contributory factor to both.  

In January 2011 I stopped drinking and it was amazing.

After a couple of weeks off the bottle I started to feel calmer than I had ever been before. I slept better, lost weight and was much fitter. I couldn’t imagine how I could possibly go back on the grog but eventually I did. I was at a wedding and met a young woman who I was interested in. Ironically she is a doctor and she egged me on to have a glass of whiskey with her and to work up the Dutch courage to make a move I did. But I only had the one and I didn’t immediately fall back into my old habits. I thought I had cracked the moderation thing but after a few months it was as bad as it ever was, if not worse.  

Then a few more years later following a health scare I stopped again and this time I managed almost two years. Then on a trip to Bali with my then girlfriend I had a snorkeling accident and was so shaken up by it I had a beer. Again, it was no big deal. I had two in the course of the evening and that was it. As before, it took a few weeks but I was back to my old ways, weekends lost to binge drinking and the early parts of the week wasted in withdrawal and hangxiety.  

Finally in January 2021, following that first alcohol-soaked pandemic year, I said enough was enough and stopped and have never looked back. The trigger this time was my black belt grading in karate. I realised that I needed mental and physical focus and I was pretty sure alcohol was affecting that. I also knew from previous experience that if I got through the first couple of weeks, I wouldn’t want to start again. I failed my grading quite badly but didn’t drink and haven’t drunk since. I passed on my next attempt.  

That’s the alcohol part but what about the ADHD?

I have always thought of myself as anxious. Everybody else sees me as driven and energetic but disorganised. Since I have drunk for all my adult life, this was always associated in my mind with alcohol. I have also done lots of crazy impulsive things when drunk, sometimes risking real trouble. Now here’s the thing: I said I gave up alcohol to help with my focus. Along with my karate goal I had the much more important career goal of completing my first academic book, which I had started in 2011. When I gave up drinking almost everything became better, except my focus. It still sucked. I finally finished the manuscript, in an insane burst of hyperfocus. That’s the only way I had ever done anything including my PhD but most of the time that hyperfocus wouldn’t come and I would hit the bottle in despair.  

It was a perceptive karate instructor who first picked up on my ADHD. In a bout of frustration with my inability to maintain focus he asked me outright if I had ADHD. I brushed it off at the time, but it must have stayed with me because when my concentration did not improve, even months after giving up booze and when I failed my driving test for the fifth time and I explained what happened to a friend who has ADHD he suggested that I get assessed. I did an online screening and “passed” with flying colours. After six months wait I finally got a proper clinical assessment and the diagnosis was confirmed: clearcut, definitely not borderline. I was fortunate enough to get in to see a psychiatrist who corroborated the initial diagnosis and put me on a course of Methylphenidate (Ritalin).

The effect of the first dose was remarkable. Everything just slowed down. I thought to myself “this, this is what I was looking for in alcohol all these years.” Everything became more manageable. Work that would normally have taken hours to do was done quickly and efficiently. My house magically became tidy. As I learn more about the condition, a lot about my drinking career started to make sense. Not only did alcohol provide the initial release but more importantly it provided a context in which ADHD behaviours could seem normal. Everyone talks too much, interrupts, randomly changes the subject, does crazy impulsive things when they drink, don’t they? Actually, it turns out that they don’t and a lot of my drunken behaviours were actually my ADHD leaping out. I also think, looking. back that a lot of the emotional release I experienced when drinking is that I spent a lot of time when sober trying really hard to be “normal”.  

ADHD is among other things a disorder of emotional dysregulation. One of the more controversial features is something called “Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria”. Even though it has not been established scientifically, many ADHDers report a much higher sensitivity to rejection than neurotypicals and one thing that is well-established is that we ADHDers are much less able to self soothe than neurotypicals. This explained why my previous attempts to give up drinking had failed. On both occasions I was faced with an intense emotional challenge and alcohol was my crutch: the fear of a woman rejecting me, and the fear of drowning sent my emotions haywire.  

Everyone’s story is different. Many especially undiagnosed ADHDers have problems with alcohol or other substances but lots of people have ADHD and do not abuse alcohol and there are lots of other reasons why someone might have a drink problem. The biggest danger for me is to think that now I have a diagnosis and appropriate treatment for my ADHD, I no longer have an alcohol problem and I can now drink “normally”. I know that I cannot. Giving up alcohol was what opened the door to my broader mental health journey and sobriety and managing my ADHD go hand in hand.  

One of the biggest problems with the current Australian mental health system is that it is often difficult to get help with ADHD if you have a co-morbidity with alcohol or other substances, so you need to tackle the drinking first before you can get help. If, as part of your sobriety journey, some of what I have talked about chimes with you, particularly if there is a family history of ADHD, it could certainly be worth getting the appropriate professional assessment. 


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  • Thanks for sharing your experience in such an open and honest way. Wish you all the best.

    By Gay
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    September 17, 2022
    • Thank you for sharing your journey.. i was diagnosed really young with ADD even though it was mild but i have struggled the rest of my life to make sense of it and alcohol seemed to make sense. This has been eye opening thank you!

      By Phebes
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      September 19, 2022
  • This sounds like me! Only I’m 37 woman currently nearly 7 months pregnant with 2nd baby. It’s been really tough this pregnancy.

    By Aussie Tilly
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    September 17, 2022
  • Thanks for sharing, can relate to a lot of your experiences. At 30 I have decided that I have too much living to do to waste more time hungover or ashamed of my actions.

    By Nick
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    September 17, 2022
  • Thanks so much for your openness about your journey with alcohol and ADHD.

    By Susanne
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    September 17, 2022
  • What an epic journey! What a successful story. Truly inspirational. Thank you 🙏

    By Natalie
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    September 17, 2022
  • Wow….this resonated with me to the max!!!! Thank You 😊 for sharing your story with us. 🙏🌟✨️😁

    By Kelly
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    September 17, 2022
  • RH

    Discovering I had ADHD has been one of the most empowering things in my life, as well as finding out that growing up with ADHD and three women, including my mother, who imposed a dis-empowering regime on me by way of keeping me under control.
    They probably didn’t know that’s what they were doing but it had a major effect on me. It wasn’t a ‘thing’ back then.
    I haven’t had a drink for six months and feel more in control than I ever have. Just having a reason for all those ratty behaviours, lack of restraint, inability to concentrate, anger at being placed relentlessly under control, is revelatory and I’ll say it again, empowering.
    Working with a wonderful psychologist for a couple of years through the governments fantastic mental health plan scheme was/is/has been my rehab.

    So thanks for your story and mentioning ADHD. It is never too late.

    All the best to you

    By Geoff
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    September 17, 2022
  • Thanks for sharing your story. I’m in the same boat. Had a binge drinking problem for 26 years. It got to the point where I couldn’t cope any more, so I finally got sober. After about 10 months sober, I was still struggling and my 13 year old son had just been diagnosed with ADHD. A lightbulb went off in my head while completing his assessment forms, I ticked so many of the boxes myself. It explained so many of my lifelong struggles and quirks. I then sought professional assessment and was diagnosed with ADHD last year at 42 and put on Ritalin also. I feel remarkably better able to cope and regulate myself and function in life, I’m still sober. My past drinking issues make sense to me now. I was drinking to boost dopamine, which my brain must have relied on to cope, but made things so much worse once it wears off. Plus I was drinking to cope with situations I found socially awkward or emotionally overwhelming, or to slow down my racing mind. It’s great to hear from another late diagnosed adult with ADHD, we’re not alone. There needs to be so much more education and support around ADHD, starting young. If diagnosed and medicated when young (if appropriate for the individual) it can help to avoid lifelong alcohol and substance dependence and many other major life struggles. The more we talk about ADHD openly the better. So, thanks again for sharing and I’m glad you’re feeling better 😊

    By Kristal
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    September 17, 2022
    • Thanks so much for this

      By Bern
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      September 17, 2022
    • Great read, fantastic article. Thank you for your honesty, and obviously it has appealed to so many in the same boat. This is exactly what I have just gone through as well -hated myself for drinking every night, why did i do it after kids/work had been finished and on social occasions. Had tried everything from hypnosis to medication to reduce cravings Naldrexone and others – no luck, more self hate.

      Went to a phycologist and she identified I had ADHD… so obvious when i started looking. I can recommend the book – Scattered Minds to everyone out there.

      Alcohol consumption since medication started reduced drinking 80%. .. almost like a ‘normal’ drinker. Still more work to do there but it just explains so much.

      By JonG
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      September 21, 2022
  • That’s a great success story RH. Thank you very much. KJ

    By Kelly Jones
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    September 17, 2022
    • Fantastic Richard, thank you for sharing. There are things about processing and thinking and academia, especially hyperfocus/unable to focus that ring true. For quite some time I’ve been considering exploring the diagnostic route, your candour is both brave and inspiring. Thank you

      By RachN
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      September 17, 2022
    • Hello Richard..
      So proud of You.
      I too.. have ADHD n diagnosed when I hit rock bottom with Successful Careers then alchohol became my best friend..
      Your blog is inspiring..
      Still working 2wards a new life

      By B
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      September 17, 2022
  • Thanks for sharing your story and congrats on being alcohol free for so long. The ADHD part was really interesting.

    My daughter was recently diagnosed with ADHD and medication has helped her immensely. It wasn’t easy getting a diagnosis there was a long wait time as you also found.

    I wish you well on your journey.

    By russell bennett
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    September 17, 2022
  • Thanks for sharing. It was like reading a story written about my life.

    By Sarah
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    September 17, 2022
  • Great story mate – thankyou

    By Daniel Kronberger
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    September 17, 2022
  • Your story is virtually my story. I was diagnosed with ADHD at 53. I could never understand how other people functioned past 4pm because by that time, I was completely depleted and would start drinking to get through the rest of the evening. I now know I was exhausted trying to be “normal” and the extra energy for all the forgetfulness (like getting halfway to work then having to turn back because you’ve left an important document on the kitchen table or forgotten your office keys, mobile phone). The many procedures I had in place so I wouldn’t forget anything was exhausting and my house constantly looking like a bomb site was so overwhelming. Thank you for being honest and bringing awareness and hopefully one day, more understanding. My best wishes to you.

    By Mel S
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    September 17, 2022
  • You have given me much hope!

    By Leo
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    September 17, 2022
  • Wow you just described my life but from a female perspective. I was diagnosed a year ago and sober for near 4 months. Still trying to switch the ritual of drinking with exercise, I’m on vyvanse and dex and the difference is significant. Thanks for sharing.

    By Dee
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    September 17, 2022
  • Thank you for sharing your experience! I’m exactly in the same situation although still waiting for getting assessed. It is very hard in Australia as unfortunately ADHD has become a “trendy” condition and the wait time is 6 months plus. Anyhow, I’m happy that you found your way and hopefully I’ll find mine. All the best!

    By Agie
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    September 17, 2022
  • Richard, what a story mate! It really struck a chord with me because of the similarities with my own ADHD later life diagnosis and my very, very destructive relationship with alcohol. I’ve become a hermit to escape people because I think “what’s the point of explaining yourself and putting yourself at the mercy of other peoples ridicule and mindset.” Thank you mate and please know that by sharing your story you have made me feel less like I’m unique and alone in my struggle. I hope I can write a story like yours one day too.

    By SBM
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    September 17, 2022
  • I liked your story. I can relate to some of it. I quit drinking over 2 years ago as well, at age 53. I went to counseling after I quit, but for stress and anxiety reasons. (I even forgot to mention to my counselor for several sessions that I had recently quit drinking.) It was our second session when she asked me if I ever considered I might have ADHD. Oh. I never thought about it before. My adult daughter has it. When I told my daughter I had been diagnosed with ADHD, she laughed and said it was obvious.
    Your story tied the two together for me. Alcoholism and ADHD.
    Congratulations and thank you!

    By Suzi
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    September 17, 2022
  • A wonderful, encouraging and inspiring story. Thank you for your openess and vulnerability. I have a couple of questions though, and will try to keep them simple.

    I was diagnosed with adult ADHD during a 7 year battle to combat anxiety, major depressive disorder and burnout. The last one in particular, I accept came about from burning the candle at both ends for 20 years while fast building a successful professional services firm, being its biggest biller and being CEO. Stupid, in hindsight.

    The ADHD diagnosis largely came about in the most recent 2 years as part of my team – psychiatrist, psychologist and GP – realising the biggest problem was extreme PTSD. Why didn’t they come to this conclusion earlier? Me. I didn’t realise for over a decade what I had been through at the top of my field was over exposure to vicarious trauma plus direct trauma. I only note this as background.

    In short, leaving a huge amount of detail aside, my psychiatrist put me on xxxx and it has pretty much saved my life. Not only is my energy back, but I have a whole new level of focus and it incidentally helped a lot with the depression, alongside xxx.

    So here are the questions. Given I was never a big drinker until 2016 when my health really started collapsing, yet now struggle not to have those ‘little nips’ during the day for confidence, and sometimes (not often) drink too much per se, does adult ADHD have a relationship with anxiety? Do xxx increase anxiety? If so, do xxx accidentally increase an inclination to ‘calm the nerves’ via alcohol?

    Any views appreciated if grounded in experience or research.

    By Simon
    |
    September 17, 2022
  • Well done to you. I am really amazed at your long story of struggling with your problems with ADHD and drinking to cope. I myself have a long history of reliance on alcohol but for different reasons, more to do with traumatic events in my life that I just couldn’t cope with, so alcolol was my solitary solace. I had always suffered bad health from childhood so alcohol was the last thing I needed to prop me up. To make a long story short, my liver suffered from all the abuse and I needed a liver transplant.
    I was one of the lucky ones, I got the jolt I needed to make me stop for once and for all. I am now four years sober and I am one year post transplant and my health is improving every day. I am very lucky and like you, life is so much better, I am happier now than I have ever been in my life and have so much energy and looking forward to doing much more than I ever imagined I could possibly do. Life without alcohol is so brilliant, I never thought that was possible when I was drinking. I didn’t think I could cope without it, but here I am, still alive and living it to the full. Thanks for your story, you are a very brave man and I am delighted for you that your life has turned around so well.
    Best wishes
    D

    By Deirdre
    |
    September 17, 2022
  • This situation is exactly what is happening to me right now. It’s great to hear a success story. Well done.

    By Edina
    |
    September 17, 2022
  • Thank you much! Since childhood until today teachers and bosses both have said in reviews very bright, but has trouble focusing. Starting projects but never seeming to finish Alcohol and drug abuse Since my early teens to “help”. The hypersensitivity to rejection really rang true throughout my life again.
    I feel like you were telling my story!
    I’m just 60 days sober and feeling so much better physically and mentally but still am unable to maintain focus!
    You’ve given me hope!!
    Thank you!

    By Katie
    |
    September 17, 2022
  • Omg. Literally me. Thanks so much. I am going to get an assessment. 51 and finally realising I am very neuro diverse.

    By Bern
    |
    September 17, 2022
  • Amazing breakthrough Richard – all the best

    By Janet
    |
    September 18, 2022
  • Hey mate, very interesting blog. I struggle with ADHD and OCD (although I don’t like all these labels).

    My life was following a very similar pattern to yours for a long time. Ended up in Spain as a language teacher, lots of failed attempts at relationships. Then I took a year of booze and things got better. I went back to it, but am always considering knocking it on the head for good. The roller coaster simply isn’t worth it.

    I’ve never really given the stimulant medication a go as I’m concerned it will cause more anxiety and trigger obsessions. Am always looking for natural alternatives to drugs, but your results with Ritalin are quite intriguing. Anyways, all the best with it and thanks for posting.

    By Rob
    |
    September 18, 2022
    • Thank you to everyone for your kind comments and it is really good to know that many of us are on the same journey. One of the worst things about having undiagnosed ADHD apart from not understanding why you do all the things you do is the feeling deep down that you are weird and awkward and have to work so hard to “do being normal”. It is great to hear that so many others are in the same boat. To those of you waiting for a diagnosis, hang in there, it will be worth it in the end. For those at a different stage in their alcohol journey also stick at it. It gets easier. I promise

      By Richard
      |
      September 22, 2022
  • Thank you. You gave me some inspiration when I needed it. God bless

    By Brian
    |
    September 20, 2022
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