Are alcohol and drugs the fuel for anxiety disorders?

The University for Children

At 16 I took the fateful decision of continuing my ´education´ at a college that specialized in providing vocational training for 16-18 year old’s. It was a boarding college and was effectively like going to University, but at the age of 16. I was sharing an accommodation block with 20 other kids of the same age and we were all out to have as much fun as possible. This time of transition felt positive, i´d become more popular and had come across some tools to help with anxiety. Cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana were my tickets to acceptance. With their help I would be cool, and the bad boys would let me be. But at that time I had no idea that alcohol and drugs were the fuel for my anxiety and trouble was on it´s way.

Alcohol and Drugs: The fuel for anxiety

I took to marijuana like a young Bob Marley, determined to show everyone what an awesome stoner I was. I took pride in building weed smoking paraphernalia from just about anything I could find. Even going to the extent of making an exquisite pipe from clay. My classmates loved it, but the teacher was not so impressed. Determined to be at the top of the smoking hierarchy i´d regularly organize gatherings in my room, where we would enthusiastically white box the room with a bong that we´d nicknamed ´Missy´. This all went well , until one day the wafts of smoke pouring out from under my door alerted the college authorities to what was going on. The next day I was dragged off to the Principals office to find my disappointed parents waiting uncomfortably for me. “Shit, was I going to get kicked out of college?” This was not part of the plan. But thankfully with a concerted effort from my parents and a brilliant performance of introverted reflection on my behalf, the principle agreed to drop the matter, as long as I stayed out of trouble in the future.

My clay pipe looked a little like this.

I decided to put the whole experience down to bad luck and carried on from where I had started off. If anything this brush with the authorities had boosted my social standing a little more. I remember feeling genuinely happy at this time, but things were about to get out of hand. Whether it was due to my sensitive nature or something else, weed started to have a different effect on me. Whereas in the past it had slowed me down, now it was making my thoughts race. I started to get lost in them and became increasingly paranoid. Despite this, I had no intention of stopping. I now associated smoking weed with social success, it was the answer to my problems i´d been carrying around since Primary School, so I carried on smoking with more determination than ever. In addition, I was also drinking quite heavily, it seemed to complement the cannabis and the two combined felt like a powerful remedy.

Did smoking weed kickstart my OCD?

My mental health though was in decline and my thoughts became increasingly negative and obsessive. I didn´t know it at the time but this was the start of a much more persistent anxiety problem, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). It became almost impossible to think clearly at all. I treated any self-doubt as if it was true and fused with it. It was a really difficult time, I wasn´t even 18 and I felt like I was losing my grip. Incredibly though, I refused to blame the weed and carried on smoking throughout my two years at college. After finishing I went back to living with my parents in my home town and almost immediately started looking for ways to leave again. I was a bit of a mess, but not wanting to put the blame on marijuana or take any responsibility for it myself, I blamed it on my parents and the quiet old seaside town we lived in.

A new low

Anxiety left untreated can lead to depression.

In my mind I had to escape, so I applied for a place at the University of Cardiff in Wales and was accepted. Off I went, but not surprisingly I wasn´t ready for it and almost immediately dropped out, unable to focus on anything than the anxiety and accompanying obsessive thoughts. I arrived back home to disappointed looks from the parents and a sense of hitting a whole new low. Once anxiety has been bothering you for long enough, depression can become a serios side effect, particularly when you don´t understand what´s going on or have any tools to manage it. I remember losing interest in just about everything. Whereas before i´d loved adventure sports and spending time with family and friends, now the only interests I had were drink and drugs. Perhaps worst of all was the fact that socializing with anyone other than my closest friends had become terrifying and I avoided it as much as I could.

Something had to give

I took a break from the weed, thinking this would stop the constant obsessive thoughts, but as I now know, once OCD has taken hold in your brain, it´s very hard to break free from it without help. In fact, the OCD just kept getting worse as I continued to try and self-medicate with an ever growing mix of drugs and alcohol and no shortage of friends who were looking to do the same. At the ripe old age of 19, having exhausted most of these options and feeling worse than ever I decided to give up on drugs and stick to alcohol (still not great, but…). I´d finally allowed myself to believe that alcohol and drugs could be the fuel for my anxiety. I got a bar job at a local hotel and worked hard for a year. Although I didn´t fully recover from the OCD, the routine and not smoking weed definitely helped and I started to feel like I could cope again.

However if I thought the OCD was in retreat, I was wrong. It has a tricky nature and just as you start to think you are getting over it, it ensnare you in the most ingenious ways. As I was feeling better, I started to think about if I could get back to who I was before the obsessive thoughts took over. I felt like I needed to know with absolute certainty that now I was back to normal and that I wouldn´t have these obsessions anymore. But obviously it was impossible to get this 100% confirmation and there was always going to be some doubt. This doubt is the honey in the OCD trap and the more you fight with it, the more stuck you become.

When you don´t even know you have it, OCD can be infuriating and scary. You feel like you are completely on your own.

This type of OCD is known as Pure O (or purely obsessional), because unlike more classical types of OCD, such as hand washing, there are no physical compulsions. In pure O, the compulsions are performed exclusively in the mind. In this case, the compulsion was to find certain proof that I was back to normal. I could torture myself for hours by trying to find the definitive answer, but in reality there was no answer and I was making myself sick for nothing. Despite my frustrations and ongoing battle with OCD I stuck out the bar work and decided to try and save up money and go travelling. Everyone was telling me to snap out of it and perhaps that would help me to do just that. (Looking back, perhaps the hardest thing was having OCD, but not knowing that I had it. Now i´m able to identify all of the negative thought loops that I was stuck in, but at the time I was completely lost in them and had no idea that it was OCD.)

A land called down under

Travelling to Australia helped to change my perspective.

Six months later and I was in Australia. The change of scenery was really beneficial. I made new friends, saw new places and perhaps most importantly, developed a love for surfing. This was great as i´d always loved adventure sports and it gave me something healthy and positive to focus on. What’s more the land of Oz was a great place to learn. I loved being in the sea and developed a fascination with riding the waves and the whole culture behind it. I got a job in Sydney, worked hard for a few months and then bought myself a cheap old Mazda van that had been converted into a camper. Off I went up the east coast of Australia, stopping off at different beaches to surf. Life was exciting again, at least for a while. But unfortunately, problems don´t respect the boarders of countries and after a few months of partying hard on the backpacker trail, the OCD came back.

Surfing allowed me to focus on something healthy, instead of anxiety.

Actually, I can track down it´s resurrection specifically to a day out i´d spent at a town called Nimbin, a place famous for being Australia´s answer to Amsterdam. Harking back to my college days and wanting to check out if perhaps I could enjoy weed again like I had when I first started out, I bought myself a space cookie and ate it on the beach later that day. Very bad idea… As you may know, edibles tend to be a lot stronger than simply smoking weed and after half an hour I was lying on my back, barely able to move and lost in some intense visuals. As the experience continued I started becoming paranoid and noticed how my thoughts reverted to obsessing and ruminating. After this experience I tried to look after myself a bit more. Although travelling was amazing for my confidence and self-respect, anxiety problems don´t clear up on their own and will definitely follow you, even to Australia.

New beginnings

After a year of travelling Australia and Thailand I knew it was time to go back home and start a new chapter. So off I went. I thought i´d surprise my parents by not telling them I was coming and much to their delight, just turned up on their doorstep with my backpack. After a few days however, the travelling glow soon wore off and I felt frustrated and low again. Being back in my old bedroom, having just spent an exciting year of travelling was pretty hard to take. I decided then and there I had to go to University. It was august and if I was lucky, I might be able to find myself a place on a course somewhere. I got accepted for Southampton Institute and suddenly life felt ok again. I won´t go into too much detail, but University was a messy time. I got through and got my degree, but the partying and an increasingly unhealthy lifestyle took their tole and when I left, the OCD and anxiety were worse than ever. It seemed that every step of the way, educational establishments left me in worse position than when I had entered them.

I´m pro cannabis, but careful, it´s not for everyone

This article is not written as anti-cannabis propaganda. I know first-hand that the majority of people who smoke weed really enjoy it and in fact get a lot of benefit from the relaxation and social connection it offers. If that is you then great (I kind of wish I was like that too). But it is my belief that some people are more sensitive to it and that with prolonged use, this can lead to anxiety disorders becoming worse or more complicated. As the title of this article suggest, alcohol and drugs can be the fuel for anxiety.

I searched for research papers that may show a link between cannabis and OCD, but interestingly there aren’t many published (perhaps it is not an interesting enough area for researchers as drugs only effect a minority of people in this way). However one that I did find, entitled ´Symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive disorder predict cannabis misuse´ claims, as the title kind of gives away, that “there may be an association between OCD and cannabis misuse that is independent of anxiety, depression, and stress, and that is mediated by coping motives.” So in this study, whilst cannabis was not thought of as the cause of OCD, it was associated with some participants using it irresponsibly to manage their obsessive symptoms.

But for me, the big connection between OCD and Marijuana is the paranoia that some people, myself included, experience when they smoke. Could it be this paranoia that kickstarts OCD in some people? The ´paranoia effect´ is so well known in popular culture that its often portrayed in quite amusing ways in films and tv series like ´Weeds´. But don´t let this trick you, the paranoia can get out of hand, leading to disorientation, confusion and a lot of irrational fear (sounds a bit like OCD). In the psychology today article about cannabis and paranoia, Daniel and Jason freeman claim that “many people use cannabis without adverse effects, and indeed with plenty of very pleasant ones. Moreover, there is evidence that cannabis can bring real medical benefits, for example in alleviating chronic pain. But there is also known to be a link between cannabis and paranoid thoughts.”

Whilst it seems to affect a minority of people, it is this link to paranoia that concerns me. In my experience paranoid thoughts are fearful thoughts and fear leads to anxiety and obsession. It is down to each individual to decide what is healthy for them, but if you feel that smoking weed is leading to paranoid or obsessive thoughts, then perhaps you should reconsider.

Conclusion

Can you relate to this story? Do you think that alcohol and drugs can be the fuel for anxiety? If so, then please feel free to comment below. It seems like a huge number of people in our society use alcohol and drugs to manage anxiety disorders, which perhaps unwittingly keeps them stuck. For me excess alcohol and cannabis just makes things worse and even today if I were to smoke weed I know that the paranoid racing thoughts would come back, along with the OCD. In my next blog I discuss the impact of binge drinking on my anxiety and general well being. I then look at the basics of my recovery, the tools and techniques that I have found helpful and how you can apply them to your life. Drop me an email if you have any questions. Or go to my website RobertJamesCoaching.com where you can sign up for a free 30 minute initial coaching session.

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