Living on the intersection of autism and addiction is a frightening experience. I have tried to discuss it as much as possible, and yet many still have misconceptions about the experience.
This time I want to lay it all out— why I used drugs and alcohol, what it felt like when I tried not to use them, and why achieving sobriety was a steep challenge.
On the face of it, I started using drugs and alcohol because I was developing a psychotic condition. It was scary, and I didn’t know where to turn, so I self-medicated my troubles away, using increasingly stronger and more dangerous drugs. But there was more to the experience than that.
As an autistic person growing up, I had been taught by society that who I was, was wrong. Everything about me was made to feel like an offense to society. By the time I was in my late teens, I was deeply uncomfortable with my own identity.
Enter drugs and alcohol.
Suddenly I could take my identity and replace it with one I had control over. When I was drunk or high (or a combination of both), I was the life and soul of the party. People wanted me around. I had social standing. When I started selling drugs, I had social capital. It’s difficult to feel unwanted when people need you around to enjoy the party.
Autistic people don’t often enter into anything new with apathy or moderation. When we go into something, we go all in. We become specialists. Our special interests become how we connect with others. We thrive in contexts where we can become an expert.
I completely replaced who I was. My entire life was about drugs and alcohol. It was literally all I spoke about. All I thought about. All of my hopes and dreams washed away and were replaced by what I thought was a “lifestyle choice.” My denial about addiction was intense.
I destroyed my relationships, annihilated my credit score, and made so many enemies that I ultimately had to move 300 miles to start over.
A choiceless grief
I couldn’t stop using drugs and alcohol. People seem to misunderstand this aspect. It wasn’t a choice. It was suffocating.
Have you ever tried to hold your breath for as long as you possibly can? Try it. Try for 30 seconds, then a minute, why not try a minute and a half?
Do you feel it yet, that desperation to take a breath? Do you feel that relief when you finally do take a breath? That’s what it’s like when you’re addicted to substances.
You try to not use, and it is suffocating. You so desperately need to take a breath, the world is darkening and your head is spinning. All you can think about is your need for release. When you pick up the substance and use it, it’s like finally having oxygen in your lungs.
Despite this desperate need to use to survive, you hate yourself. You don’t understand what is so fundamentally wrong with you that you have to be this way. It’s the same shame I felt after being bullied my entire childhood for my autistic traits.
Now you need to get sober. Unfortunately, every piece of infrastructure intended to help you was designed without Autistic people in mind. They don’t even consider your existence.
They claim to tailor programs to your individual profile, but most of the key workers know next-to-nothing about autism. They know the definition of “individual” as it applies to neurotypicals.
Many programs place weight on re-forming the connections that you burned during your addiction, but so many Autistics didn’t have those connections in the first place.
It’s like trying to build a house without the mortar and cement. Everything is precariously balanced, and nothing is fixed in place. You know it can come tumbling down at any point.
An unnecessarily steep climb
I don’t want to be a defeatist. Recovery is possible. I am nearly 5 years sober now, and for the most part, I love my life. But, it took years of hard work and introspection to get to where I am now, and not everyone neurodivergent will be able to get there.
There will be many more years of work to come, but I am privileged in that I have a support system of loved ones who want to see me thrive and an avenue to contribute my perspective and experiences to the world.
That’s a luxury many Autistic people don’t have.
Many Autistic loved ones from our community have lost that battle already. These lost-but-loved souls couldn’t relate to the 12-step programs not designed to meet their needs or written for their values.
Autistic people have a tough time with addiction, not least of all because very few in our community even admit that this is a problem. We need to be having this conversation together, in order to support our fellow Autistics also experiencing addiction.