Guest blog: Alcohol, autism, and me
Nix Renton talks alcohol, living with autism, and trying to access alcohol support services.
At the height of my drinking, I was a fashion stylist showing up to photo shoots drunk or worse, experiencing withdrawal. My hands would shake, and I’d cry on the bathroom floors of unfamiliar places. I would put my friends and family through hell if they got in between me and my next drink. And in the evenings, I was suicidal. I was addicted to various substances. Alcohol to deal with sensory overload, benzodiazepines to deal with social anxiety, painkillers to deal with, well, all of it really.
Living with autism
My drinking habits began with trauma and were sustained as a coping mechanism to deal with undiagnosed autism. Every tiny sound around me was like shards of glass on my eardrums. Intense light would trigger migraines, and I’d be so overstimulated that my only options were to stay inside, or to be drunk all the time to soften the sensory issues I had. I didn’t know any better than that.
Alcohol would have been one of my first hyper-fixations for its miracle cure of sensory overload. It seemed to make it easier to socialise and connect with others, since culturally alcohol is the backbone of most social interaction. Overstimulation was a recurring trigger for my alcoholism. The social issues that come with being neurodiverse would trigger me emotionally into drinking. When you drink to cope with trauma, autism, or other things you just can’t change - it works for a while, but the thing I wish I’d realised sooner is that being drunk only feels like it helps, while you’re drunk. As soon as you sober up, you have the same issues, just amplified. Some people say they had a profound event that made them realise drinking was a problem - not for me. I was certain I’d rather die than not drink.
Accessing alcohol support with autism
Recent studies suggest that up to 36% of individuals with autism spectrum disorder may have a co-occurring issue with substance abuse.1
As an autistic individual, I looked towards others around me for guidance on what was normal so that I could fit in. I was fully aware I had a problem, but I had some weird sort of imposter syndrome at the same time. I wasn’t an alcoholic. I couldn’t be. I was too young, too productive, too functioning. Because I didn’t fit into the stereotype of what it was to be an ‘alcoholic’, I didn’t allow myself to seek the help I desperately needed.
I was referred to an alcohol counsellor once, but she said that because I wasn’t in withdrawal at that moment that I “wasn’t that bad”. This triggered a further 8-12 months of heavy, almost deadly drinking. Other services for alcohol recovery were inaccessible to me as an autistic person because they involved one key hurdle - picking up the phone and somehow conveying a 10-year alcohol problem to a complete stranger. It is essential that there are text or email-based avenues into support for people like me.
Why I chose sobriety
I was 23 when I got sober. I went to one 12-step meeting and met a room full of other people who were wildly different to me but had one key thing in common - we were powerless over alcohol and we wanted to stop drinking. I saw that other people had managed to be sober for longer than I’d even been alive. If they could do it, maybe they could help me do it too. It was true. I’ve been sober for four years, through the joys and more recently through the deep and dark waters of intense grief. I work hard every day to stay sober, and it’s so worth it.
Now, my life is completely different. I’m awake at 6 am and asleep by midnight. I keep a firm routine and I balance three times the amount of work and projects as I used to. I am extremely fortunate to have slowly built-up habits that benefit me and those around me. Because I’m sober, I’m able to help other autistic people find their way to diagnosis and support. I’m able to be a daughter, a big sister, a girlfriend, and once upon a time I was someone’s best friend. I would not have gotten through those four years or achieved any of the things I have without sobriety. Not everyone has the support and resources I had access to. I’m just one of the lucky ones who lived to talk about it.
How I cope with autism and alcohol
Autistic adults with no learning disability are nine times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. Our average life expectancy is 54.2 To me, the odds against our life are already stacked without adding alcohol into the mix. Remaining sober was my way of hopefully prolonging my own life.
The way I see it, is that the cost of being sober for me is to maintain firm boundaries on what reduces harm for myself. To me that means that my socialising is conditional. I don’t attend loud venues unless absolutely necessary. I always wear noise-cancelling headphones. These days I pace, walking back and forth, for as long as it takes for me to regulate myself when overstimulated.
I am open about being autistic and how autism, much like alcoholism, doesn’t have a ‘type’. There is no set archetype of autistic people. I experience true joy and happiness in life that I just couldn’t when I was a drinker. I see more of the world, I save more money and people love me for me, truly.
And the main thing I’ve learned, is that you can’t force someone not to drink. You can only ever show them it's possible. I’m living proof that you can be so close to death and the entire trajectory of your life can change by making the decision not to drink anymore. I’ve never felt more emotionally fulfilled and grateful to be alive than when I’ve been sober.
They say that the opposite of addiction is connection - so that’s what I’ve relentlessly pursued for the last four years. Hearing other peoples’ stories about autism and alcohol has validated my own feelings and struggles. When we see ourselves in others, we know we aren’t alone.
Find out more
- Systematic review of risk and protective factors associated with substance use and abuse in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (NIH 2020)
- Personal tragedies, public crisis – the urgent need for a national response to early death in autism (Autistica 2017)
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