Friday, April 23, 2010

ADHD and alcoholism

I have been wanting to write about this subject for a while.  I became interested in ADHD because I have a good friend who is a recovering alcoholic who seems to exhibit many of the symptoms of adult ADD inattentive type.

I know his story pretty well.  He has talked to me about his failure in school because he was bored.  He didn't want to do homework.  He only wanted to do what he enjoyed.  And when the subject was something that he enjoyed, he could hyperfocus. He can become obsessed with a subject and will talk over others in order to return back to the subject that interests him. Otherwise, he will "zone out" and day dream.

He also has an inability to sustain healthy relationships. Just as with classes, he was a stimulus seeker, often having multiple relationships at a time.  He would hyperfocus on a woman and then become bored when she would begin to be attached to him.  His communication skills were not good, often zoning out and not answering questions when spoken to. 

His ability to sustain a job has been minimal.  Once again he would like the job for a while and then become bored or start to find fault. He has drifted from job to job, often spending down to his last few dollars before he was motivated to look for another.

His house is disorganized.  Dirty clothes are strewn everywhere.  The dishes are unwashed.  Mail comes through the slot and stays on the floor.  But his tools are all in order and his books are lined up with precision on his shelves. When things get bad enough, he will clean up the place and make it presentable.  I marvel at this because he has the ability to take apart a car engine and put it back together without a problem.  Yet basic household cleanliness seem so unimportant.

His constant companion is his dog that he loves fiercely.  And he takes care of her with great love and much kindness.  He has never so much as raised his voice to her.  Yet, he has discussed with me the rages that sometimes overcome him when he is frustrated with objects or people.   These melt downs occur without warning.  His fuse is short and he erupts in a tantrum that involves cursing and throwing things.  The melt downs are reminiscent of an 8-10 year old who can't get his way.

I have read that children with ADHD are believed to be at risk for alcoholism because of their impulsivity and distractibility, as well as other problems that often accompany ADHD such as school failure and behavior problems.  My friend started heavily drinking when he was 16.  And his drinking continued to progress until he nearly died. Along the way,  he engaged in risky behavior, bar brawls, multiple DUI's, driving under suspension, and assault and battery with intent to kill. 

Studies have shown that alcohol and drugs are often a way that the ADHD kids self-medicate. They don't fit in well with their peers and are often the trouble makers and cast offs in school.  They begin to realize that they don't think in a linear manner and feel "different" from their peers. Their impulsivity often brings them into contact with others who are also "different" and part of the "cast offs" at school.  This is what my friend did.  He hung with the other bad boys, cut school, drank and smoked dope.  His slippery slope began.  

He has told me that he wanted to be in the Air Force and be a fighter pilot like his dad.  But his father who has a very linear brain told him that he didn't have the math skills to be a fighter pilot.  Teachers labeled him as "lazy and stupid".  His self-esteem plummeted.   After a while he just gave up caring and began to self-medicate and use alcohol as a social lubricant to overcome his deep shyness.

I have encouraged him and have learned to not react to the melt downs that occur.  He is 19 years sober but very much still entrenched in the "isms" of his disease.  I wonder how it is possible to separate the ADD from alcoholism.  Maybe that's not important.  But if you are wondering about anger, lack of ambition, lack of achievement, and disorganization, check out some information on ADHD (or ADD in adults).  I was surprised at what I learned.  Here is a good article that describes a lot of the reasons that those with ADHD are prone to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs.

Hope that you are enjoying this Friday.  I'm off to take a boat load of kids for an educational tour and lecture.  I may be driven to distraction too!


  1. I like the reorganization of the blog-space.

    I was diagnosed ADD as a child, and I probably still am. I can tell you that heavy drinking brings relief from this condition. Of course, heavy drinking brings 'relief' from a lot of conditions. It's just not worth the side effects.

  2. Good luck with the kids. Kids make me nervous.

    This was an interesting post.



  3. Syd,

    My son went into an in-patient rehab yesterday. It is a 4-6 month program and he has ADD and is addicted to DXM. (Over the counter cough medicine)

    I see him in everything you wrote...

  4. I am extremely ADD. It is a constant challenge and frustration, bringing me to my knees sometimes. The man you described describes me except that I keep my anger to myself and usually direct it toward myself. I too have a dog for whom I would walk on hot coals to save if it came to that. I too get bored easily, shift from job to job, can have friendships but keep them at arm's length. I am not a drinker, but largely because of fear, having seen my Dad almost die from it and lead a hard, tormented life. I stay far away from bars or parties where booze is around. So, for me, growing up with alcoholism fostered an inner chaos that I'm still living. Whether the ADD is just a brain thing or created from that environment, I just don't know.

  5. My son has and is all of the above. He is recovering from heroin addiction. Along the way the docs tried many different ADD drugs with mostly failed results, he didn't like the drugs but he liked alcohol and pot and soon enough pain killers and heroin. Self esteem and shyness problems were huge in his slide.
    I can't remember any docs, along the way, saying that he was at risk for addiction...but that is my acceptance issue. For now, we're right where we should be and we WILL make it through today.

  6. When I was in grade school ADD was the word which preceded "and subtract"...

    Imagine all those who HAD this (and other serious mental illnesses) and were left undiagnosed.

    It is good to be reading your sensibleness once again, Syd.

  7. This post is well written, easy to read and follow the information. I haven't read much about ADHD. I like the way you describe your friend's behavior with facts and not judgment. Sounds like you know him pretty well. He is fortunate to have someone like you for a true friend.

  8. I too have ADD, and thankfully seem to be on the right meds for me. There are differences in it between men and women, as well as different types within the genders (ex: "inattentive" "classic hyper-active" "over-focused" etc). I wanted to point this out in case anyone reading might generalize.
    BUT, that being said, you brought up hugely important things, especially the coping with self-medication (which I too did heavily in my younger years). Not only substance abuse, but other coping mechanisms as well, can add to the low self-esteem, self confidence, insecurity issues.
    Great post, thanks for bringing this up.
    God bless. Hope your day went well with the kids :)

  9. OMG! I have ADD. Please don't write about schizophrenia. I'll think I have that too. (Seriously--I learned a lot from your post.)

  10. unlike what's portrayed in the media,...unfortunately, ADD & ADHD are still very underdiagnosed today. I see it every day and do what I can to help parents consider this as a possibility. I'm a 4th grade teacher and a mom of 2 ADHD sons (1,an addict)& an ADD husband that suffered in school at the hands of nuns back in the '60s. I also have ADHD myself, finally figured out when our oldest son was first diagnosed years ago. As teachers, we are not allowed to say that we think a child has ADD/ADHD, but can suggest that he/she is seen by a pediatrician to be evaluated. Parents are still often very opposed to medication,despite the effectiveness of it. However,if a child needed medication for asthma or diabetes,no hesitation would happen. All are physically caused conditions. I feel that we are still in the early stages of really understanding this condition and its lifelong implications if untreated. Untreated ADD/ADHD is very correlated with addiction.
    Thanks for a great post...your description was so classic of what can happen from this condition. Great website to check out about this disorder is:

  11. ....either driven to distraction or just plain driven nuts.... :) HOPE NOT!

    Have a great weekend.


  12. As I read your post, I tried to see if my brother, my son or even I fit the descriptions. I had this discussion with the therapist I've seen a few times recently concerning my son and when she brought up the possibility for him, I said, but he made straight A's in school until the drugs came into play. She said that doesn't always matter.

    As for myself, I have always been a stimulus seeker (sky diving, bored with relationships and jobs, etc. etc.), but I seem to handle life well, so I'll assume I'm just a Type A personality!

    I like your new blog look!

  13. I hate the concept of alcoholics "self-medicating."
    If we had cancer would we be self-medicating that if we drank too much?

    I drank alcoholically because I am an alcoholic. Once I drank, I had no control over the amount I drank. Period.

  14. He is lucky to have you as a friend Syd. My son was diagnosed in the fifth grade with ADD inattentive type.

    I knew about the propensity to addiction. He is not addicted. He does have many other characteristics in common with your friend.

    There are good strategies out there for coping with this neurological condition. I found the best books were written by parents of or even adults with ADD.

    It can not be cured. The person has to learn to go around the problem areas. Very limited short term memory is part of the problem for many people with ADD.

  15. "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a sick society". Krishnamurti.

    It is interesting to read your post Syd after your comment about my son's tantrum. I would say the sort of tantrum your friend has is like that of a 2-3 yr old rather than 8-10. My concern is that far too many children are being diagnosed with this condition and medicated when they could be acting out due to the sick world we live in (children are very sensitive), bad parenting or trauma (and trauma for children can be very different to what we consider trauma as adults - having a new baby in the family can be a trauma to a young child if not handled well!).

    We live in a world of lies and pain. We are very emotionally immature as a society. By that I mean that we are out of touch with our emotions, are not taught the best way of managing emotions, sadness and anger are seen as being weaknesses rather than valid responses.

    It's great that you can understand your friend and accept him. It sounds like he's had a rough life. I see temper tantrums as storms that erupt and like storms they slowly fade away. I believe it's possible to overcome any condition with the right help.

    A book I would really recommend if you are working with children, have children, want to learn more about teaching children emotional maturity is "How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk". I have also found the ideas helpful in the relationship with my partner and working with people with mental health issues.

  16. what a life that fellow leads.... it has to be painful. To an extent you've described me, but I'm not nearly as severely impaaired as this fellow. i hope he can find some help.

  17. I have those same symptoms, I find as I let go of my ideas of disorder vs. disease and just work toward an awareness of each of the defects experienced in those things these steps DO work on all my is's whether it's dISorder or dISease.

    all it takes is working on the directions in each case.

    Good sponsorship and the ability to take direction have really helped me to grow in each direction.

    I try to reflect on each diagnosis just as I reflect on God. Maybe each of my defects can be pigeon holed into a diagnosis that becomes something that I am, or maybe God is bigger than that and can continually shape me beyond any box that I place around my defects.

  18. :) great post

    Lois Wilson, the Woman Behind Al-Anon

    Have you seen this? I ‘think I heard you mention it before..

    Have a great weekend Syd :)

  19. Interesting thoughts Syd. We are all so complex in our own ways aren't we? Hope your field trip went well. I just gave one Thursday for the local college in long leaf pine habitat and had a great time. Any time in the field is better than sitting behind our computers.

  20. i have add, so does my son. and in hindsight, i can see how it played a role in my life too. fortunately i can warn my sons about the danger he faces. i hope it sinks in...

  21. I have wondered about this myself. Ryan has ADHD. He took ritalin until one day Joe walked in the house unexpectably and caught he and a friend crushing it up ready to snort it. Ryan has told me for years that he didn't want to do that, was pressured by his so called friend. He was a freshman in high school at the time and we took him off of it. He barely graduated. School was always very hard for him. He was unorganized and was forever forgeting stuff. With that said, my daughter is also ADD and takes adderoll. She has never smoked weed or taken meds even though she told me she has been offered many times. She drank 1/2 of a beer once and hated it. She has learned from her brother just how bad it can get. If I have anything to be thankful for with Ryan's addiction is that Steph has seen first hand how it can/will be.

    With that said, I feel that I have ADD myself. I always blamed it on their dads but more than likely it was from both of us. But I don't have problems with drugs or drinking.

  22. I was labeled as ADD as a child when it was not a common term. My parents were like yours and wanted to take the natural route for everything and didn't give me drugs. I don't know why I ended up in Alanon instead of AA and figured it was my need for control. Recently my friends in the program have recognized this part of our personality and that we need constant new things to stimulate us. I have accepted this about myself and know that I have to change things up regularly to stay happy. I think that for me the chaos of a relationship with an alcoholic satisfies the ADD in me. Even sober they are as complicated as we are and I can admit that is appealing in some way. What do they say not a dimes worth of difference.

  23. I think there is a significant connection between these types of things and addiction. I see it so often. Interesting topic!

  24. Far too few people know about dual diagnosis conditions such as this. Simply put, a dual diagnosis is one where the individual has both an addiction and a serious mental health problem. They are common at an alcohol rehab center, yet most are unaware of how common they are. Thanks so much for helping shed light on the condition!


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