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.
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Thank you for sharing. What a life you have had…! My youngest son is 12 and he got Asperger. Since my father was an alcoholic, I think now as an adult, that he got something undiagnosed, I am really afraid that my son would develope any addiction. My father died at the age of 49 all because of his alcohol abuse.
I really hope you will stay clean and I will cheer for you🌷
Thank you for your honesty. This is such a well-written piece: clear, engaging, stimulating, thought-provoking – and without a shred of self-pity, which, frankly, is remarkable.
I think your posting should be shared far and wide, not just within the autistic community but within the allistic one, too: I believe there is so much about our own experiences that NTs could learn well from.
Wishing you the very best as you continue to forge a positive and well-lived life, free of addiction, full of autistic pride, ability and strength.
The importance then, of not getting told “who I was, was wrong”, actually within the autistic community! from not being in its strongest infighting faction. Intolerance rejection + factional hate within our community is bound to drive some of our community towards addictions..
I actually wasn’t part of the community when I was using drugs and alcohol.
Sure; but because our community inflicts that wrong, many folks who are in the community could be triggered into drugs + alcohol by them. Anywhere where folks get told “who I was, was wrong”: and we know that the autistic community has become such a space.
Notable adverse childhood experiences — especially when their effect is amplified by one’s autism spectrum disorder — suffered by adolescents can readily lead to a substance use disorder. This, of course, can also lead to an adulthood of debilitating self-medicating.
The greater the drug-induced euphoria or escape one attains from its use, the more one wants to repeat the experience; and the more intolerable one finds their sober reality, the more pleasurable that escape should be perceived. By extension, the greater one’s mental pain or trauma while sober, the greater the need for escape from reality, thus the more addictive the euphoric escape-form will likely be.
If the adolescent is also highly sensitive, both the drug-induced euphoria and, conversely, the come-down effect or return to their burdensome reality will be heightened thus making the substance-use more addicting.
As a highly sensitive child, teenager and adult with ASD—an official condition with which I greatly struggled yet of which I was not even aware until I was a half-century old—compounded by a high ACE score, I largely learned this for myself from my own substance (ab)use experience. The self-medicating method I utilized during most of my pre-teen years, however, was eating.
Meanwhile, in many straight and NT minds such addicts have somehow committed a moral crime. But serious life trauma, notably adverse childhood experiences, is typically behind a substance abuser’s debilitating lead-ball-and-chain self-medicating lifestyle.
Generally, there’s a formidable reason why a person repeatedly consumes and gets heavily hooked on an unregulated often deadly chemical that eventually destroys their life and even that of a loved-one. It all really doesn’t happen out of boredom.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I now strongly feel that not only should all school teachers have received ASD training, but that there should further be an inclusion in standard high school curriculum of a child development course which in part would also teach students about the often debilitating condition.
It would explain to students how, among other aspects of the condition, people with ASD (including those with higher functioning autism) are often deemed willfully ‘difficult’ and socially incongruent, when in fact such behavior is really not a choice.
While some other school curriculum is controversial (e.g. SOGI, especially in rural residential settings), it nonetheless was implemented. The same attitude and policy should be applied to teaching high school students about ASD, the developing mind and, especially, how to enable a child’s mind to develop properly.
you gave me something to think about. thank you.
Have you thought about developing a program for people who are neurodivergent? If the prospect seems daunting, I’m sure you could find a whole lot of people to help. We’ve got what, 10 million unemployed right now (assuming you’re American)? Lots of people have time on their hands. I’m sure a whole lot of them are neurodivergent and have great ideas. There may even be some therapists who will help you. My brother is a therapist, but he’s an NT and he works all the time. Actually, he says he has ADHD. Given his history… Yep.
I have ADHD, depression, CPTSD, and I’m 95% sure ASD as well. I need to be tested. I was also told I wasn’t like everyone else. I never fit in. I’ve felt like an alien for as long as I have memories. I was almost 50 by the time I finally figured out I’m fine being ME – I don’t give a fig if people like me or not. Oh, and when I was going through that stage, people really did NOT like me, lol! Cuz I was not a nice person. I had some anger issues. I’ve been through a lot of trauma. I’m figuring out how to be me, express myself, be assertive, yet not be aggressive. It’s weird to be learning that as an adult, but I never learned how. I was always “nice.” Uh, no. That gets you used and walked all over. Plus it attracts narcs like flies.
So… I have a different kind of addiction. I think most people with ASD have something they’re obsessed with. I have a favorite subject, sure. It’s psychology, lol! My addiction is knowledge. I LOVE learning. About anything. The internet is fascinating. My mjnd gobbles up information and data like food. I call it brain food. I read books. Do a lot research. Do a ton of web surfing. The amount of stuff that would pour out of me if I could do a data duml from my brain would be staggering.
I want to know EVERYTHING. Which is insane – but I still get sucked into the cycle of searching every day. It’s so bad I have frozen shoulder in both of my arms – my lower arms are on fire from radiculopathy coming from my neck (osteoarthritis) – AND I’ve flared up the herniated disc in my lower spine – from sitting too much. I have a pretty high tolerance for pain….. so I ignore it and keep going. The back is recent, I have to deal with that, it can get really bad. I know how bad it can get, I had chronic pain in my back for 10 years. There’s no messing with that.
The point is: this tells you how dysfunctional we become. We are willing to do ANYTHING – even put ourselves through pain – FOR NO REASON – to avoid dealing with our crap.
Hi, I’m Elle and I’m an internet addict and codependent. Nice to meet you.
I think your metaphor for what substance addiction feels like was possibly the best I’ve ever heard. Thank you for that. And thank you for your sharing your experiences with the rest of us. It is enlightening and incredibly helpful.