How Much Do Drink And Drugs Stop Us Getting Over A Break-Up?
The Debrief: Caning it through your heartache might seem a great way of numbing the pain, but is it actually helping?
‘Most nights would end with me in tears after a few too many shots of tequila’ says 27-year-old Babs. She is, of course, talking about a breakup. And no matter how amicable the intentions of a breakup, they’re always pretty messy. Whether it's untangling yourself from shared flat rentals and bills, letting go of their friends and family, or even just returning the old T-shirt of theirs you've been sleeping in since the second date. There are stereotypical ways to handle these things - the ice cream, the sobbing, the days in a dressing gown - and there’s advice, but so little of it can seem to help.
‘When you're young, emotions in relationships run very high. Developing a relationship is not just about having fun together, but also about forming your own identity in relation to the other person,’ explains Marc Hekster, consultant psychologist at Insight London. So, when a relationship ends – particularly if it's been really intense – it can feel like you're losing a part of yourself,’
It's no wonder, then, that so many of us turn to drink and drugs for a little relief from the loss and confusion of heartbreak. For 25-year-old Alana, going out drinking is her typical response to a break-up: ‘Getting dressed up and having a confidence boost on a night out helps me to feel ok about myself and think, “Yeah, I don't need him, his loss”. The alcohol calms my anxiety over the break up, at least to start with,’ she says.
‘I've always been very social and quite a big drinker but, after my breakup last year, I felt the need to constantly be out drinking,’ says 27-year-old Babs. ‘My ex and I had been together for three and a half years, so alcohol seemed like the perfect route to escapism. It was much easier than being at home sober, left with my thoughts.’
But is getting on it actually helping us get closure on a relationship, or just keeping us in a self-destructive loop of heartbreak and resentment? ‘I honestly think it helped, as it forced me to spend time with friends instead of locking myself away,’ says Babs. ‘It showed me that I had a lot of people around me who cared.’
‘It gets to the point where you don't want to answer questions about how you're feeling or whether you think the breakup was the right choice, and it's much easier to avoid those questions if you're out drinking rather than at a tame dinner! That said, despite my best intentions, the tequila tears would soon come.’
For Marc, the key to successfully drowning your sorrows is remembering to keep it in moderation: ‘Drugs and alcohol can create a euphoric experience, where everything immediately but momentarily feels perfect again,’ he explains.
‘There's a certain level of constructive coping, but I think it's all about moderation. If it starts to affect your normal way of functioning, or you're getting into other self-destructive patterns like risky sexual behaviour, not eating, or self-harm, that's when it becomes problematic and suggests you might not be coping.’
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Of course, the other risk with getting wasted is that sudden uncontrollable urge to speak to your ex – which is never going to help anyone. ‘The night usually ends with me getting blackout drunk, crying, and not having my shit together, and then when I'm hungover I'll start to feel bad about the relationship and get the urge to text or call the ex,’ Alana says. ‘I once got really drunk, ran off from my friends, lost my phone and purse, and went knocking on my ex's door just to shout and cry hysterically. Not my best moment!’
The problem, Marc explains, is that: ‘When you're taking a lot of drugs or alcohol, you aren't processing anything, and one of the most important aspects of dealing with a breakup – after you've gone through all the initial emotions – is to be able to process what happened and actually make sense of it.’
29-year-old love and self-worth coach Hannah Jane Thompson of Your Sunshine Life (Unf*ck Your Love Life) knows these struggles well. She now uses her experiences to help millennials reset their post-breakup, dating and relationship mindsets, and tells The Debrief: ‘It's perfectly normal to want to numb our feelings when something painful turns our world on its head.’
However, she adds: ‘The key is to remember that drinking is just an accessory to the heart of the night, which should be about spending time outside your bedroom with friends who love you, in a fun environment that will allow you to be yourself and remember what it feels like to have a good time.’
Don't underestimate the importance of the people around you, and remember to reach out when you need to talk – either to friends and family, or professionals like a counsellor, psychotherapist or coach. It's absolutely fine to give yourself a few weeks of grieving, crying and hiding away from the world, but try not to isolate yourself too much or too for long.
‘Think about more constructive things like hanging out with your friends, going for a walk, getting into creative activities or sports,’ Marc suggests. ‘These are all things that are so easily rejected when you're in the middle of a nasty setback, but it can be very helpful if you're struggling.’
For Babs, finding a happy medium between partying and moping was key to helping her move on. ‘Some nights, get completely shit-faced, flirt with everyone, and wake up wondering how you got home. But make sure you break up those days with ones where you stay at home crying into your pillow, have a sleepover with your friends and let them tell you how awful your ex was, or binge-watch Women Who Kill on Netflix in the dark.’
Likewise, Hannah says: ‘Give yourself time and space, and allow yourself to do whatever you need to feel better. Focus on what you love, and make your life as full and vibrant as you can – whether that's by doing yoga or meditating, travelling, or going to a different restaurant or museum every night or weekend – and then you'll start to figure out what really brings you joy.’
Above all, she adds: ‘Practise forgiving yourself, and speaking to yourself in a compassionate way, instead of self-critically. Being single, even if you didn't choose it, is a bloody great opportunity to figure yourself out, to re-frame and re-evaluate. Work out what's truly important to you, and start making it happen.’
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