Another Round: The Link Between Alcoholism and Trauma

By Liz Lazzara 04/07/17

I’m not proud of what I did, but every shred of me felt helpless, like the men I’d chosen to rescue me from my bruised and battered past were fixing to betray me.

A stressed woman with beer.
Make life fun to forget the troubles.

When I first met my husband at twenty-three, alcohol was for dealing with things I didn’t know how to identify yet. I’d go to the bar with my Applebees coworkers after closing shifts to wash away the pain in my back and body along with whatever weighed most heavily on my mind that day. And almost anything qualified: a string of iffy texts from my emotionally abusive sort-of-ex; a voicemail from my all-around-abusive father, trying to get in good with me after five years of no contact; my mother trying to manipulate me into being her confidante or caretaker; another week of lost sleep due to recurring nightmares about either incest or the apocalypse. Tall glasses of Rolling Rock —at least three 22oz pours— made any or all of that slip away for a little while. I’d drive home in a mellow haze, a half-smile on my reckless face, and nothing past could catch me.

Until I was 28, no one explained to me that the dark things that had accumulated across my life from birth to the present day came with a price: complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), a condition that results in the symptoms of “regular” PTSD but that stems from a different source — prolonged trauma beginning in childhood. According to an article in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, C-PTSD can be caused by anything from repetitive harm or neglect from a caregiver, intimate partner violence, becoming a prisoner of war, or spending time in a concentration camp or cult. In my case, the problematic relationships I had with my parents (and that they had with each other) branched out into problematic relationships with men and, in the wake of my college graduation, the symptoms began.

I began to experience depression for the first time. I lost my motivation to work or write, began to self-harm, and dove deeply into the obliteration that sleep provided. I was neither nocturnal or diurnal, but an equal-opportunity sleeper, crashing whenever I could.

On the other hand, I could explode into violent outbursts of anger whenever I felt a hint of abandonment. A lover could walk away during a fight and something would overtake me, seconds or minutes where all judgement and clarity would fly from my body. I would do things I could never otherwise imagine: shriek like a horror-movie heroine or rip into him like a wildcat, anything to keep him by my side.

I’m not proud of what I did, but every shred of me felt helpless, like the men I’d chosen to rescue me from my bruised and battered past were fixing to betray me. I did everything I could to be the Trophy Girlfriend: dressed to kill, made myself up, flirted enough to make other men want me but not enough to make the girls hate me, and gave my freakiest performance in bed, all to get someone to stay. I needed someone to love, comfort, and shelter me as I hadn’t been when I was a child.

These are all symptoms of C-PTSD, but I wouldn’t know that until much later, long after I’d met my husband, a man for whom there was never enough whiskey, a man who knew the men who owned the dimly lit bars, a man who would always call for another round. He was 34 to my 23 and I was comforted by his age. The fact that he owned a home. That, in so many arenas, he knew what I did not. He had more than enough money to care for me physically and enough stability to hold me when I wobbled.

And, with his help, I often did. I soothed my fears with cheap beers, generous glasses of wine, countless glasses of gin mixed with tonic or lemonade, and shots of just about anything. It was easier to enter that alternate bleary world where no bogeymen dared to follow. The wake of my party was too wide for the big bads to swim through, but once one drinker found another? We were both untouchable.

We’d shut down bars during our courtship and smoke inside after hours along with the other ‘cool kids,’ and he’d drive us home somewhere between the late night and early morning, clearly drunk, and I giggled as we got away with it. I was wasted the first time we had sex. I don’t remember much more than a sloppy, wine-infused blowjob before we stumbled off to my bed. Maybe it didn’t take long nights at bars to say ‘I love you’ and ‘you’re the one,’ but that’s the way it happened.

Once we moved in together, I’d pick him up off the entryway carpet when he’d go out for walks with a barely watered-down flask, throw his long arms over my shoulders and stagger him up the stairs to our bed. I thought this was charming. No one told me otherwise. Then again, friends of people in glass houses probably shouldn’t throw stones either.

If the thought of functional alcoholism had crossed my mind, I could see we had all the symptoms: drinking more than we intended to; using a drink (or several) to relax at the end of the workday; forgetting pieces of our evenings together; planning the day around drinking (Bloody Mary’s with breakfast, white wine in the morning, clear liquor in the afternoon, red wine with dinner, whiskey before bed); knowing that enforced sobriety would cause heavy anxiety, as it did when I had to abstain from all alcohol —including mouthwash— during a particularly bad UTI; and drinking alone.

This was my favorite treat. My husband had co-founded a publishing company and was often required to attend events. I went to the ones without a price tag, but for fundraisers that cost $100 a head, I stayed home, ‘rewarding myself’ with craft beer or a couple glasses of scotch. I deserved it, I told myself. I was facing my fears of being alone. I was ‘improving.’ I didn’t know that one of the most common signs of C-PTSD is substance abuse, that my ‘clever’ tweets about a swig of wine before leaving for work weren’t so funny after all.

The funny thing is that I didn’t leave my husband over any of this. I thought we were somehow better than our ‘boring’ suburban neighbors who had clearly given up on having fun. No, I left for other reasons that I’ve written about elsewhere and won’t regurgitate now, but when I moved back in with my mother and put three-hundred miles of distance between me and the man I married, I could see our problems clearly. 

For once, I was too broke to booze it up like I used to, had to afford my life on a single woman’s shoddy waitressing income. But my husband ramped up his intake to numb the pain of my absence and, when reading his bourbon-inspired witching-hour texts, I was put off for the first time in my life. When I began to date again, I looked back on my drunken confessions and antics with shame, and I cut even further back to save my pride.

Today, I’m two months sober and I owe that to my C-PTSD. Funny how what drives a girl to drink can just as quickly dry her out. One day, I was walloped by romantic insecurity and decided to go out for a beer and a burger, which of course turned into two beers with a high ABV, a shot of Patron, and two of Fireball whiskey. I came home, vomited, screamed and cried at my sort-of boyfriend and broke my streak of abstaining from self-harm, panicking until 4am.

I haven’t touched a drink since, though I have developed a dependence on Polar seltzer and iced green tea. As soon as I get up the nerve, I’m going to an AA meeting to say the words for once and for all: “I’m Liz and I’m an alcoholic.” It’s not everyone’s coping mechanism of choice, but I’m a trauma victim; I want the support.

What I needed, though, was an intervention. I was in therapy and psychiatry for five years before someone mentioned C-PTSD. I was drinking heavily for longer than that before I realized my habits were unhealthy. I only realized this month that the two were related. Why didn’t anyone see the signs?

Maybe I was too young to seem like a viable candidate for alcoholism. Maybe C-PTSD is too new of a diagnosis for therapists to turn to yet. Maybe I said “we went out” instead of “we got drunk” so no one would notice. Probably, it’s a combination of the three. What I do know is that addiction and trauma like to walk hand in hand, that everyone should be aware of their connection, and more work should be done to sever it and repair their cumulative harm so no one goes through life believing another round will drown their sorrows.

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Liz Lazzara is an androgyne writer, editor, and activist specializing in mental health, addiction, and trauma. They have written online copy for rehab centers, and essays, narrative nonfiction, and journalism for multiple online and print publications. They are currently working on a manuscript about complex post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction, and they are affiliated with Active Minds, the Mental Health America Advocacy Network, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the National Association of Memoir Writers, the Nonfiction Authors Association, No Stigmas, and the One Love Foundation. You can find their entire body of work at Find Liz on Linkedin and Twitter.