Lockdown is a difficult time for many, if not all of us. Our routines have become unrecognisable, and our support networks have been significantly limited. This puts autistics particularly at risk of forming dangerous coping mechanisms, chief among them, drinking or using drugs.
I will start with the disclaimer that this is not an attack on those who have safely used mind-altering substances for whatever reason prior to this. In fact, it is not an attack on anyone at all. I am a huge advocate for the decriminalisation of ALL mind altering substances (for reasons I will save for another article).
What I am talking about is problematic or risky drug and alcohol behaviour. Behaviour that we so often don’t know how to recognise, because our formative years were used to teach us the unreasonable goal of abstinence rather than the far more reasonable idea of responsible behaviour.
How It Starts
As a recovering addict, I know all too well how easy it was for me, an autistic person, to fall into problematic and ultimately life-threatening behaviour. I know that the behaviour I exhibited also had knock on effects into the relationships I had with those around me. It doesn’t take too much of a catalyst for drinking or drug use to become an addiction.
For me, the catalyst was declining mental health, combined with easy access to narcotics. At a time like this when many of us are facing difficulties with our mental health, I am concerned for the potential generation of newly addicted individuals.
It may be that you had been using drugs or alcohol responsibly your entire life, but now with lockdown in full effect– and little else to keep you going– you find yourself drinking or using more than before, and in more problematic ways.
Perhaps those painkillers you were prescribed for a broken wrist a year ago had sat in your medicine cabinet for all this time, but now you realise they have become your coping mechanism. Perhaps you have already started planning how to get more.
It’s easy to overlook the beginning of the problem. When I was in the early stages of my drug and alcohol use, it seemed as though it was nothing more than a lifestyle choice. Those who advised me against it were ruining my good time, telling me scary stories that killed my buzz. For me it took a number of years before my problem became evident to me; for others, it may become evident quicker.
There were warning signs that I ignored. My treatment of the people around me deteriorated. I would lie, manipulate, intimidate, lash out. Some would tell me that this was not my fault, but the truth is that whatever the reasons for harmful behaviour, we must face the consequences of our own actions. This negative behaviour perpetuated itself as my drug and alcohol use became more prevalent.
So perhaps this is resonating with you, and you are now realising that your drinking or drug use is becoming problematic. What can you do?
Moderate, if you can
First, try to moderate your use of substances. You might be doing something that is not in itself problematic, but you are overdoing it. You might have had a drink or two with dinner or after mowing the lawn or a long work day in the past, but now find yourself drinking more and more to fall asleep or just survive the days.
If you can, set aside a ration of only what you are prescribed with your medications, or agree to only have one or two drinks. Make a pre-designated amount and plan to stick to that and only that.
Try to identify the emotions or circumstances that are causing you to increase your substance use. Are you overwhelmed because you’re not getting any alone time? Are you bored? Are you too sedentary when you’re used to a more active routine? Are you not eating well because of grocery shortages?
If you can identify the cause(s) of what is driving you to try and alter your state, you can put some effort into purposeful self care and try to make adjustments. Autistic people are natural problem solvers, and approaching self care with a specific goal to solve will help you to be more effective at balancing your internal equations.
If you are finding that you can’t troubleshoot, that’s okay. Feeling down on yourself will potentially increase the need for coping mechanisms– which could, in turn, increase your substance use. This isn’t what you want. There’s no shame in needing help.
If you need to use drugs or alcohol to get through the day, it may be time to seek help. Help can take many forms: perhaps confiding in a trusted friend or family member, finding an online community, speaking to a trusted physician, or self-referring to a substance misuse treatment clinic.
You may be in a situation at home where you are experiencing difficulty in relationships with the people around you. Many autistic people– perhaps even most– will relate to this. Having a healthy distance and distractions often help you mitigate personality and sensory differences, but if you’re quarantined together, those differences can become much more difficult to navigate.
You may even be in a situation where you feel trapped, like a hostage, in a house where people are being abusive or controlling. Your efforts to escape to tend to your sensory needs may be met with gaslighting and criticism. People who live with you may be leaning on you to meet their social and emotional needs and angry when you can’t.
If this is happening, being vulnerable to those people could be dangerous for you. Instead of leaning on them for support, ask for a written plan that you can agree on in advance on how your days will be spent. This can reduce your stress because you will have less uncertainty and will have agreed on boundaries.
When it comes to seeking support, there really are no wrong answers provided that person or group is not going to reinforce harmful behaviour.
Remember, there is no shame in admitting that something has become too much to handle. Society has taught us that substance misuse is a problem that makes people ‘less than.’
I am here to tell you that it can happen to anyone, and you should not be ashamed to admit it. Prioritise mitigating harm caused to others through your behaviour, in which case, the responsibility is on you to improve and reconcile.
I know that a lot of you out there are suffering right now, and perhaps struggling with your drinking or drug use. I want you to know that you aren’t invisible or useless.
Your struggles are valid, and you are worthy of support, regardless of who you think needs that support more. Your needs are not a burden. You are worth care and concern and resources.