Words || Erin Christie
I, like most awkward teens, had high hopes for my eighteenth birthday. From my limited knowledge of alcohol, all I could really confirm was that it was going to take the edge off my hyperactive brain, so filled with anxieties, and suddenly allow me to dance around nightclubs and strike up conversation with good-looking strangers. At the stroke of midnight, I was going to transform into a glamorous, confident, legally-drinking queen, and it was often this fantasy that pushed me through the more challenging moments of my battle with mental illness. What I forgot to account for was the medications I was taking that would render my drinking dreams impossible.
At my eighteenth birthday party it took two vodka lemonades, one shot and half a Cruiser to put me to sleep by 10.30pm – not the most dazzling start to my drinking career. At that point I was only swallowing pills to put a series of tremors at ease, so imagine my horror when, in 2015, I was put on antidepressants. After an on-and-off battle all throughout high school with generalised anxiety and bouts of debilitating sadness, the stress of changing universities halfway through my first year, and the cultural shock associated with leaving a twelfth grade class of 45 kids and going into a communications course with a thousand strangers, broke my final tether. How was I going to make friends in this mad new world without alcohol to help me?
University students are known to enjoy a schooner or seven. A 2012 study found that more than one third of university students met the criteria for hazardous drinking, and of those almost half passed the line for serious harm at least monthly. This is unsurprising in a country where both retail and alcohol consumed on premises total an average of $26.7 billion annually. We are famed for our beer commercials, souvenir stubby-holders and love of a ‘cold one’. Australia’s drinking culture is overwhelming – we all sat through the grungy anti-binge-drinking videos in year 8 PDHPE. But contrary to these campaigns, social drinking isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the people around me were bonding quickly over anecdotes of drunken escapades, and a few vodkas saw them bypass strained smalltalk entirely. Amidst conversations driven and aided by drinking, I was left with little to contribute.
Alcohol consumption while on antidepressants can be a really shit idea. Combining the two can exacerbate the symptoms of anxiety and depression in both the long and short term. It can increase the likelihood of experiencing side effects, lead to drowsiness or even sedation, and easily weaken your alertness. Drinking while taking certain types of antidepressants can even dramatically increase blood pressure, with dire consequences. This all depends on which particular medication and dosage you’re taking, which varies from person to person. For me, a case of the shakes and some intense nausea was usually the worst of it, but the fear of what might be going on inside my body and brain was enough to scare me off anything more than the occasional small Midori. Overall, drinking alcohol will slow the effectiveness of antidepressants, making them a waste of time and money. I wanted to get better more than I wanted to belong, so I cut out the minimal amount of alcohol I drank on rare occasions and soldiered on.
When I told people I didn’t drink, I was often met with a confused “like, ever?” One charming date called me a “little bitch” when I refused to have a drink over dinner. I tried making adjustments – practiced a ‘drunken’ slow blink in the mirror, and listened to tips from my older bosses at work on how to pretend you were still drinking once you were ready to stop (soda water and cranberry juice looks a lot like sparkling rosé, if you’re curious).
When a time actually came for me to try coping without medication, I was pretty damn excited. Predictably, I was a lightweight, and one frozen cocktail had me stumbling around the house, giggling uncontrollably and telling my family members how much I really, truly, really loved them. So this was what I had been missing out on.
Sadly, it didn’t last. After only a month I knew I’d have to go back on the dreaded meds. I had a good cry – mostly because my declining mental health had turned me into an anxious wreck, but also because being able to drink had given me this new and fleeting sense of inclusion, and already I was having to give it back. It seems trivial, but chatting over a beer, or buying a round, or downing shots in a club are all foreign experiences to me, and to so many others suffering from a mental illness that needs medicating. O-Week, Law Camp, and even Grapeshot parties turned into distressing events for me as I sat there, self-conscious and sober.
I worry that people don’t realise how significant Australian drinking culture is to socialising until you’re sitting outside of it. If you’re a fellow sufferer, then I want you to know that I understand how you feel, and that it’s not trivial at all. All I can really suggest is getting yourself a soda water and a lime and telling everyone it has vodka in it – though it’s likely they’ll be too drunk to notice. Or, offer to be designated driver. Everyone loves a good deso.