Many people can drink for fun, have a glass or two, and then walk away. My drinking was always bigger. If I went out to a concert, a pub, or a party — any place or event where I’d be around loud noises, bright lights, or an uncertain social landscape (or, my total nightmare: all three!) — I was quick to order a drink (or three, or five) to settle my extreme overwhelm.
It didn’t help that my mother was a social butterfly. She liked her home time, yes, but when she went out, she went all out, and she made it look so natural. In contrast, I was quieter, the type to observe and read a room before making my move (preferably to a corner, with a book or a sketch pad). But it was hard to get her voice out of my head repeating the advice she gave me time and time again as I grew up: Be more outgoing. Flirt. Get out more. The world is your stage.
Looking back now, I can see how alcohol helped me handle social situations as a highly sensitive person (HSP) — someone who processes information more deeply, making them more physically and emotionally sensitive than most people. Decades ago, when I first read about the signs that you’re a highly sensitive person, it was a lightbulb moment. It explained why the world felt so overwhelming.
I startled easily. I was sensitive to loud noises. A wool sweater felt like agony (so much poking, so much itching). Strong smells gave me headaches and a sore throat. Bright lights felt too intense. I had a rich inner world. And I was very unsettled by change — good or bad, it didn’t matter. The list went on.
But there was something else. As I learned about my high sensitivity, I realized I had picked up a habit of numbing myself from overwhelm by turning to alcohol.
Discovering Alcohol Felt Like an Answer
Alcohol was a big part of life growing up. My mother developed quick camaraderies against a backdrop of empty beer pitchers, cigarette smoke, loud music, and laughter. Seeing it in action as a child, it never seemed right. Playing bartender in the house as a teen, watching the grownups she’d invited over laugh and stagger around — and sometimes fight and bicker — it didn’t feel right either.
Then I discovered something that helped my anxiety: Vodka. And sweet red wine. Those were my early poisons of choice. They were plentiful in the house, and I was permitted a glass or two when mom was around, mainly because I think it cheered me up and made me jolly, something of which she approved. (Plus she was European, so a teen consuming a glass of wine was no big deal.)
When my mom went out, I’d experiment with the contents of the liquor cabinet. Me plus vodka and juice meant I didn’t feel so alone. Me plus rum and cola meant I didn’t feel so anxious. I felt like I’d found the answer.
Bottom’s Up, Worries Out
College amplified my dependency. In class I felt fine, but going out was painful. Park me next to a neon beer sign with the music turned up high, and I felt clumsy and shy, like I had nothing in common with anyone.
I wasn’t into flirting with — or even just casually chatting with — any random guy. I wasn’t the girl who made fast friends or who always had dates. That kind of thing felt like a violation. I didn’t want that much intimacy with someone I barely knew. I wanted a connection, but I didn’t find that in the nightlife. It hurt. Alcohol helped. It blurred and muted any anxieties when I felt out of place.
Because sober in a packed club, I felt like the third wrong answer on an episode of “Family Feud”: Three vivid red X’s and a loud, grating sound to announce my disqualification. When I drank, it felt better. Or rather, I felt less wrong. Sometimes I was even fun! And funny! Having a drink before heading out calmed jittery nerves. In retrospect, I was only getting ridiculously blitzed, but I felt better simply because it made me unable to feel.
When Alcohol Became a Bad Habit
Fast-forward a few years: Now I had a full-time job but the same old anxieties. Drinks to the rescue! I was scared walking into any place, even if it was to meet coworkers after our shifts were done, but what kept me moving forward was I knew I could rely on liquid courage. One drink put me at ease. Three made me funnier. Five made me not care. I may as well have been in a room of blurs and blobs and noise.
The self-medication exacted a toll. I never totally blacked out, got arrested, or woke up with a stranger in my bed, but I usually paid the next day. After being sick to my stomach, sleeping horribly, and waking with a killer headache, I would experience horrible lows. I came to call them my Dementors, after the prison guards in the Harry Potter series that sucked all the joy out of a soul. I couldn’t see those filmy glee-suckers hovering over my chest, but I could feel them.
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Signs You’re Drinking to Numb Your Sensitivity
I tried to tell myself to try to stop earlier in the night, so I wouldn’t get so sick or feel so low. Just have two and quit, I’d say. I failed the first time I tried that. I also failed the fifth time, and probably the twentieth. I knew I was hurting myself, putting myself and others at risk for accidents, and making myself more vulnerable to assault. Never mind the wear and tear my liver was getting.
Then by chance I started to read up on problem drinking and alcoholism:
- Did I need a drink to get through the day? No.
- Was it getting me into trouble with the law? No. Well, not yet. (If I was being perfectly honest with myself, I was playing a game of chicken with getting a DWI. At that rate it wasn’t a matter of if but when.)
- Was I binging (four drinks on an occasion, for a woman)? Yes, pretty much every single time.
- Could I stop at one or two? Honestly, I hadn’t been able to thus far. My resolve always vanished quickly.
I only started to connect the dots between being highly sensitive and trying to numb that part of me at that point. I began to see how I was drinking to self-medicate, to protect myself from feeling so overwhelmed. Everything was too bright. Too loud. Too hectic. Too crowded. Alcohol helped shield me from the reality of a night out. But that meant lying to myself about who I was. When I finally realized that I pulled back and refocused.
‘Me Time,’ Not ‘Long Island Iced Tea Time’
In the months and years that followed, I quietly began focusing on myself, and finding ways to connect with others that didn’t involve alcohol. It wasn’t easy, but one day I started chatting with someone at my job, another quiet soul. The conversation flowed — we had enough in common to connect, but enough differences to keep it interesting. The best part: I didn’t feel like I had to be anything other than myself around him.
I’d finally found something I’d wanted all along: Someone who I wanted to be around, and somebody who wanted to be around me. Nearly 17 years later, we’re still married. We like the quiet. And bookstores. And staying out of crowded, noisy spaces. And we’ll have a drink now and then, but it’s to enjoy the flavor. Not to numb. Not anymore.