Alcohol and Asperger’s

For the past 6 months, I’ve experimented with a variety of alcoholic beverages — wine, beer, liqueurs, spirits, bitters — even mead and cider.  I’ve always drunk just a little — when asked by a doctor, my standard answer has always (all my adult life) been, “yes, I do drink alcohol — but probably no more than 2 drinks in any given month.”  In the last 6 months, that has changed.  Now I drink an average of 2 drinks a week.  Which is still not a lot.

Why the change?  Because I like the taste of a lot of drinks that I’d never tried before.  Because I like the slight muscle relaxation that is a side effect of alcohol.  And, honestly, because I wanted to find out what the attraction is.  I wanted to know why it is that so many people drink — and why they drink so much that alcoholism is a problem.

My father was a “drinking man.”  I don’t know if he was alcoholic or not, but I know he often drank many ounces of spirits at a time.  I know he occasionally had holes in his memory due to drinking (I really don’t know how often because I didn’t know him as an adult.)  But he drank quite a bit, and I never liked him when he was drinking.  In fact, it was his drinking-self that I broke off relationship with, because his drinking-self was so unpleasant.  Sober, he was a pretty good guy.

That is, in large part, what made me curious.  The recent death of the great actor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman has also made me question both alcohol and other mind/mood/brain-chemistry altering drugs.  What is it that these drugs do — and what makes the mix of good and bad physical/emotional effects worth the doing?

What I’ve learned in this experiment is this:

  1. I like to cook with beer because I like the flavor in things like sourdough bread, soup, chili, etc.; but so far, I haven’t found a beer I really enjoy by the glass.  The closest I get to a glass of beer that I like — is actually hard cider.  I also like mead by the glass — but I like my mead and cider over ice.
  2. I like the social side of drinking wine with friends;  I like cooking with wine (spaghetti sauce, many beef recipes etc.); but again, left on my own I’ll drink something else.
  3. There are several mixed drinks I really like.  My favorites tend to be savory or salty like the family of Bloody Mary type drinks, and the Salty Dog and Margarita and their kin.  I like the taste of several liqueurs.  I also like hot coffee and cocoa based drinks.  I don’t care for any spirits straight up — and almost everything else I drink, I want on ice so that it dilutes and can be stretched out over a couple of hours of slow sipping.

Most of what I’ve learned, however, has to do with side effects.

  1. As stated earlier — there is noticeable muscle relaxation associated with beer, wine, and spirits/cocktails.  The higher the proof/alcohol content — the more muscles relax.  If I drink after dinner, I get sleepy — which is good if I’m having trouble getting to sleep at night.
    –This is a really positive side effect if I’m under pressure or stress.  I can actually feel/see the muscles in my shoulders and back un-clinch as I drink.
  2. Regardless of what I drink, I find that my blood pressure goes up from an average of 120-125/70-75, to 140-145/85-90 when I have an alcoholic drink.  This rise in blood pressure lasts from 2-4 hours after I finish the drink.  Without exception.
  3. 1 average cocktail is enough to cause both slight dehydration (I drink between 1 and 3 extra 8oz glasses/cups of water, tea, coffee or juice because of thirst) AND a noticeable retention of fluids.  This sounds like a contradiction — but both effects happen.  My hands, feet, and eyes are visibly puffy/swollen the next morning.  And — I’m extra thirsty.
  4. Large variations in body-fluid levels (see #3 above) tend to make me more susceptible to migraine headaches for up to 24 hours after a drink containing alcohol.  This effect also happens if I just eat/drink too much salt or sugar (both associated with some of my favorite mixed drinks.)  This makes salty or sweet cocktails even more perilous.
  5. Drinking any alcohol causes “warmth.”  On a chilly evening — this is good.  In the middle of summer — not so much.  And combine this effect with hormonal hot flashes and — no, thanks.  The result is that I only have a cocktail when I have no indications of fluctuating hormones.

Taste and relaxation are the 2 strongest reasons for choosing a Bloody Mary over a glass of spicy tomato juice, or a Margarita over a glass of limeade.

But that doesn’t explain why anyone would drink more alcohol at one time — or more often.  It’s certainly not good enough for me to drink more than 1 drink in an afternoon/evening.

When talking about all this with my husband, I realize that one of the most important reasons why a lot of people drink hasn’t ever been a factor for me.  In fact — it never even occurred to me.

And it has to do with Asperger’s syndrome.

I’ve never been formally tested or diagnosed with Asperger’s or High Functioning Autism.  When I was a child — autistic was a description of children curled into catatonic fetal-position vegetables, and warehoused in state hospitals.  Autism was treated with a battery of drugs, isolation, and institutionalization.  I escaped that fate, I suspect, because my parents were faced with precocious intelligence coupled with severe social and emotional dysfunction — and just didn’t know what to do with me — and were possibly too embarrassed to ask anyone else.

My experience has been that this is true of a very large number of people my age — who are just now figuring out the diagnosis that describes their experiences.

The presenting “symptom” — if you want to call it that — that matters to this discussion of alcohol (and, by extent, alcoholism) is the lack of societal “limits” that I have had for much of my life.  The character of Sheldon Cooper on the television comedy, “The Big Bang Theory,” has this quality.  He doesn’t understand what people mean when they aren’t being literal in their speech.  He doesn’t catch innuendo, sarcasm, or irony in conversation — or at least he doesn’t translate it.  He misses physical cues to meaning — especially when things like body language alter meaning.  On TV, this is played for comedy.  (Neither Jim Parson — the actor who plays Sheldon Cooper — nor the shows writers/creators officially label Sheldon with Asperger’s because of all the potential for backlash and other social problems; but it’s hard to deny the parallels.)  In real life, it isn’t as much fun.

In fact, it has been this disconnect from subtext and implication that has caused me the most trouble in my life — both because I don’t have any — and because I don’t recognize it in others.

Speaking and “thinking out loud” without any social limitations is my default setting.  Even now — I have to remind myself to just NOT TALK when in a group, because I tend to say more than most people want to or are willing to hear.  It’s not even that I “call ’em like I sees ’em.”  That would mean I was doing it on purpose.  But what really is true is that it’s the only way I know how to talk and think.  And therefore — it’s how I assume everybody else is talking and thinking.  And it takes tremendous conscious effort and focus to remember otherwise.   I always assume people are being honest with me.  And it takes a long time for me to recognize when someone has NOT been honest with me.

As an adult, I’ve put a lot of safeguards in place to keep bad things from happening to me because of this.  I’ve also found a lot of “work-arounds” for all the aspects and fallout of this glitch in my wiring.  While I’m neither as intelligent nor as funny as Sheldon Cooper (at least I hope I’m not as funny,) he is still a convenient way to explain myself compared to most other people.

And here’s how all this applies to the topic of alcohol:

Most people — perhaps all people without the Asperger’s syndrome glitch in wiring — have learned and self-imposed boundaries that they use to function in the workplace, in relationships, in school situations, and in social interactions of all kinds.  These self-drawn boundaries that keep them from saying what they are thinking all the time, and from trusting too freely can be seen as INHIBITIONS.  That is, all those things that inhibit Sheldon-Cooperish over-honesty, insulting honesty, thinking out-loud, un-monitored displays of physical or emotional nakedness, and other ungracious and socially unacceptable behavior.

Inhibitions are something most people can only shed under very specialized circumstances, or with alcohol.  Alcohol (evidently) is like a lubricant that loosens these tight constraints in the same way it loosens tight muscles.

But — since I don’t have inhibitors in the same way most people do — I don’t have this effect.

At least, I don’t have this effect with just one drink — which is all I’ve ever have in any given day.

Yet, I am guessing that this is exactly the reason so many people drink more and more often than would seem advantageous to me.  Keeping thoughts, feelings, desires inside — and never being able to just “let it all hang out,” must be a really uncomfortable way to live.  Almost as uncomfortable as having it always out on display.  It must be a very stressful way to live.

And alcohol removes the inhibitors.  The more alcohol — the more inhibitors disappear.2001-Reserve

And this, evidently, is why a lot of people drink.  In spite of the dehydration, the rise in blood  pressure and temperature, the potential for headaches and dehydration/bloating, and the medically observed potential for liver damage — being able to drink away inhibitors is evidently worth all the other side effects for a lot of people.  And while this is possibly the Asperger’s talking — this seems to fall into that category of things that probably isn’t really worth the price.

Luckily, it’s not a choice I have to make.

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