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Did drinking too much & using drugs in the past cause your mental health problems now?

Drinking too much

There are so many Facebook groups now for music and fashion “scenes” of the past. These are very popular with people looking for some nostalgia from when they were younger and were perhaps a hippy, punk, or raver.

There’s a common question on these groups – and it’s also one that’s often wondered and asked to many therapists: did all the drinking and/or recreational drugs I took when younger cause my mental health problems today?

Looking for an answer to this question is not just limited to people who were part of a youth “tribe”. Others realize that, for instance, in their teens and 20s they drank too much and too often or that they smoked far too much marijuana.

Many people are convinced that all their frequent drinking and especially the use of drugs, including marijuana, LSD, amphetamine, ecstasy, and cocaine, is behind their emotional and mental struggles now. Others are left pondering about their younger excesses: “Did I get away with it?”

Physical and mental harm

Physical and mental harm due to alcohol or drug use

Medical research has proven beyond doubt that excessive use of alcohol and other drugs physically harms us. For instance, excessive alcohol use can cause heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, digestive problems, liver disease, as well as cancer of the voice box, colon, breast, mouth, and throat.

Then, using amphetamine can cause gastrointestinal issues and increase the risk of stroke as well as lead to heart muscle deterioration and bleeding in the brain. In emotional and mental health terms, excessive use of drinks and drugs is linked to all manner of mental health conditions.

These include depression, anxiety, self-harm, psychosis, and suicide attempts. Even in the short term, using marijuana alone can bring on an elevated heart rate, mood swings, impaired cognition, paranoia, and hallucinations.

But an important question that many people want to know the answer to is: would I have got my mental health problems if I had not drunk and/or used drugs so much in the past? Many are convinced that it is their abuse of alcohol and drugs that has left them struggling now.

Causes and effects of alcohol and drug use

Cause and effect

For anyone who’s struggling today with mental health problems, it cannot be said for certain whether any past abuse of alcohol or drugs was the only cause. But it most likely is not.

Abusing drugs and alcohol certainly will not have helped in any way – but the majority of mental health conditions usually start in childhood. It is frequently due to trauma, toxic shame, or some form of a “failure of love”

From then on, into teens and adulthood, people try to find ways to cope with what has happened to them or that they may have witnessed too. What we often think of as character traits are frequently in fact coping mechanisms. They’re not the true self.

Our modern-day society plays its part as well. As physician, addiction expert and author Dr. Gabor Maté says: “Illness in this society, physical or mental, they are not abnormalities. They are normal responses to an abnormal culture. This culture is abnormal when it comes to real human needs.

“It’s not a conscious choice; it’s more an automatic decision the young self makes to stay afloat in stressful emotional waters. Through no conscious will of your own, and for perfectly understandable reasons that had to do with your own emotional survival and thus were valid at the time, you have developed a personality style that has turned out to be bad for your health in the long run.”

So with all this in mind, it is perhaps to be thought that it is not the drink or drug abuse that has caused – or at least solely caused – the mental health issues someone has today. What they can do is make it more obvious that there is a problem or make problems worse.

This is the reason that psychiatrist and author of one of the world’s bestselling recovery books, The Road Less Traveled, said that alcoholism was the “sacred disease” – because it brings people to their knees sooner than most other mental health illnesses. Consequently, with no denial that there’s any problem, those people are more likely to seek the help they desperately need much more swiftly. 

A chemical taste 

Consider that esteemed psychiatrist Carl Jung said of excessive alcohol use that it was: “The equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.”

In the hippy and rave scenes in particular there was clearly a spiritual element and attraction about them that many people were seeking through such as marijuana, LSD, and ecstasy. But there was also the great togetherness of people, as with all of the cultural movements.

For many people involved it gave them the loving family they’d perhaps never had. Excessive use of drink and drugs is often a way of trying to push down trauma, toxic shame, and overwhelmingly painful negative feelings about a failure of love.

When it started in the late 1980s, the rave scene was driven by house music, but also the drug ecstasy. The word “ecstasy” itself derives from Greek words meaning “standing outside oneself”.

For many who did not like what was going on in their insides, it was the greatest antidote for a while. It can be the same with drink, other drugs, and behavioral addictions such as work, relationships, sugar, gaming, and gambling.

Before people danced all night on it, ecstasy had been nicknamed “empathy” and had even been used in relationship counseling. It is a drug that gave people taking it at raves and in clubs from the 1980s onwards the chemically enhanced taste of togetherness, a family, which they craved – that perhaps was missing for many of them from their family of origin.

This can be said to be the same for any of the “tribes”. Also, there is an element of it for sports fans.

Mental health issues develop due to many complex reasons and in a multitude of ways. So it remains extremely difficult to know why some people suffer while others don’t seem to at all. In fact, they may be struggling, but some people are better at hiding it than others. Our friendly experienced team has helped people with all emotional disturbances and mental health problems. Get in touch with us today for a confidential chat about what we can do for you or someone you love.

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David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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