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Let's Talk About Self-Medicating

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Let’s talk about a topic that is very taboo and the cause of a lot of guilt and shame in the mental health community: self-medicating. Substance abuse is unfortunately very common, especially among those with an untreated mental illness. This doesn’t make it OK, but we need to acknowledge it happens if we’re actually going to deal with it.

The fact is, many people with a mental illness choose to self-medicate. Sometimes you get to the point where you can’t take the mental, emotional and even physical pain anymore and you reach out for anything that can help. Some choices are more destructive than others. Since mental illness can cause irrational feelings, these decisions can be irrational and can cause significant harm in the long run. This can also lead to or influence destructive and fatal behaviors including self-harm and suicide.

Unfortunately, many healthcare providers make the situation worse by shaming their patients when they open up about this topic. Not only does this not help, it causes further shame and can continue the ruthless cycle of self-medicating, guilt, shame and more self-medicating. Poor reactions can also teach people to hide it, which is something those of us with a mental illness may already struggle with. We need to be more open, not more closed off. We need providers who can have the delicate balance of empathy, understanding and willingness to help someone struggling with self-medication.

On this topic, I can speak from experience. I’ve had providers who weren’t helpful at all. Shame and guilt are horrible motivators. Since I have depression and experience suicidal thoughts, the last thing I need is someone to help me feel even more guilty and shameful. I need help getting out of the destructive spiral, not someone to push me further down into it.

The political focus regarding substance abuse is often on the substance itself, but in reality, it is only a symptom of a much deeper issue. If we want to address substance abuse in the mental health community, we need to first deal with the mental health problems that lead to it. Without proper access to mental health services and providers, we are setting people up for failure. I’m very fortunate to have a support system, but many people don’t have that luxury. Just think of how many lives and families could be spared with access to quality help.

If this is a topic all too real for you, I hope you know you’re not alone. Help is available and you don’t have to hide it. There is a better way. Find a doctor and therapist you can trust and tackle the problem head on. We’re all in this together.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure.

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How I Fought the Fear of Sobriety and Won

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The fear. Can you imagine living a life fearing everything and everyone? You fear socializing with people, you’re afraid people won’t accept you, you fear that you will never amount to anything, you fear success, but you also fear failure…

It can be a hard scenario to put yourself into, and it can even be difficult to wrap your brain around, but this is how someone with an active addiction feels. Many people who live with addictions get high because they love the feeling. However, many get high to mask all of the fears listed above. From personal experience, I can say I know what it is like to be handcuffed to my disease and afraid to do anything about it.

Growing up, my number one fear was not being accepted. It was a completely irrational fear, because I always had tons of friends and a loving family who cared for me dearly. However, I never felt good enough for anyone, so I often put on an act. My act of choice? The class clown.

Clowning around was easy. I could always make people laugh, and doing it at other people’s expense made me feel good about myself. I was never serious, and this was the ultimate form of defense. Nobody could ever read me, because the second I was vulnerable, I would crack a joke, put on a fake smile and put on an act. No one could see that on the inside, I was broken, sad and lonely.

Growing up, I felt as if nobody understood me, that everyone around me received a golden textbook to life that explained how to be happy, how to live a normal life, how to maintain friendships and of course how to be a good person. Everyone is born with the ability to decipher between right and wrong, but in my case, I was a maestro in always picking wrong. It felt better than good. In my view, nobody liked the good kid and the bad kid got all of the attention. Again, this was me acting out of fear.

As I matured, I never fully grew out of this class clown/funny guy phase. Instead, I started getting high and I thought that it was the answer to all of my problems. I remember the first time I ever smoked weed. I was at camp with my two best friends at the time. We sat in the middle of woods smoking out of a disgusting bong that one of the kids had made out of a water bottle. Even though I was probably only 13 years old, I felt like I was fully ready for this experience. It seemed like getting high was the single most amazing thing that had ever happened to me. For the first time in my life, I felt my peers truly accepted me, my mind was clear from all fears and I finally felt at ease. I remember promising myself that this was my new way of life.

Unfortunately, my addictions quickly progressed. They went from smoking weed on the weekends to smoking weed every day, to binge drinking and to snorting whatever pill I could get my hands on. When I was intoxicated, my fears disappeared. But in the brief moments I was sober, my fears amplified by 1,000. As times got worse, so did my relationships (or lack thereof). I no longer cared for anyone or anything but myself and my needs. I thought these needs were simple, since the only thing I needed was any substance to make me escape from my own mind.

I finally reached a point in my life where the thing I feared the most was the one thing that was going to save my life: sobriety. Yes, this sounds like an irrational fear, but I think anyone with a drug addiction faced with this ultimatum can understand this fear. If I continued to use, I would most certainly end up in an institution, rehab, jail or worst of all dead. My fast-paced, high-risk, high-reward lifestyle was something I did not want to walk away from but I knew I had to if I wanted to live.

Why does someone fear sobriety? There are so many benefits from staying sober, but so many people who face addiction are unable to do it. Millions of excuses will fly out of an active user’s mouth about why he or she won’t get sober. These excuses include that I can’t afford the cost of rehab, I can’t live without my drugs, I can’t stay sober if all my friends are still using, I get sick when I don’t use, I have tried sobriety and “failed,” or what if I actually stayed sober? The fear of a life without drugs was horrifying to me, simply because it was untraveled territory.

I’ve had all of these fears. There’s also another fear that I didn’t list — I was afraid I’d never have fun again. Drugs and alcohol were my fun, my pastime and all I really did. So, the prospect of learning how to have fun without drugs seemed impossible. I knew that I was kidding myself, though. Getting high wasn’t ultimately fun, but was something I had to do in order to not feel sick. Once I built up a sober support group, it was really easy to have fun. I quickly realized that all of my fears were just that: fears, and not realities.

Getting sober at the age of 19 was difficult. Everything I knew revolved around getting high and I had the maturity of a 13-year-old. I had to face the cost of rehab and its treatment requirements. I had to learn how to grow up and become a productive member of society. At first, I thought my life was over. I wondered how in the world was I ever going to attend a social event that served liquor. I thought I had to avoid everything drinking or drug related, or else I would be toast.

This was not the case. As soon as I got some sobriety time under my belt and actively worked a 12-step program, I’ve found that I have freedom. This freedom allows me to do whatever I want. I’ve attended weddings, I’ve gone to bars, I’ve seen my favorite bands in concerts and I’ve even hung out with my old friends from my drug-using days. I just know that I can’t get high myself. What I thought was the cost of rehab was really the price I paid to earn my freedom.

Today, I only have one fear and it’s a very healthy one. I don’t fear what people think of me, or if I’m going to fail or succeed, or if the dope man has my favorite drug. The only thing I fear is relapsing. Early in my sobriety, I had this fear that I still hold on to today, nearly seven years later. I know I have an addictive brain and that using any sort of substance means I am most certainly signing my own death warrant. This healthy fear reminds me of who I am. As long as I hold on to it dearly, my life in sobriety will only continue to get better.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Mark_Hubskyi

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Ben Affleck's Facebook Post Takes the Shame Out of Mental Health Treatment

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Actor Ben Affleck has moved on from saving Gotham City as Batman to a feat equally as heroic – completing treatment for alcohol addiction. Affleck shared the news on Tuesday, in a post on Facebook, noting, “I have completed treatment for alcohol addiction; something I’ve dealt with in the past and will continue to confront.”

This is the second time the 44-year-old actor has publicly spoken about seeking treatment for alcohol addiction. The first was in 2001. This time, Affleck emphasized how in speaking up about getting help, he’s hoping others — including his children — will be empowered to do the same.

“I want to live life to the fullest and be the best father I can be,” Affleck wrote. “I want my kids to know there is no shame in getting help when you need it, and to be a source of strength for anyone out there who needs help but is afraid to take the first step. ”

Since Tuesday, Affleck’s post has been liked more than 128,000 times, with fans sharing their stories as well as praising the actor for his honesty.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

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Words of Wisdom I Found New Meaning In While Recovering From Addiction

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When I finally gave up drinking, I found myself researching a lot about addiction. Many questions lingered in my foggy mind. Where did I go wrong? Why did such a horrible disease happen to me?

After all, before I hit rock bottom, I’d spent 15 years in corrections, transitioning chemically addicted offenders out of prison. I was paid to construct their path to substance-free living. And lock them up when they failed. A paradoxical reality of stripping the freedom from those who couldn’t stay clean, all the while enslaving myself to the prison of an addicted mind.

During the first year of abstinence, I struggled with the pain I caused my family as well as regret for what I couldn’t change. I was thankful I wasn’t drinking and striving to build a meaningful life but spent many days focused on the brokenness of my past.

Then on a whim, I submitted my addiction story to an online recovery site. And quite unexpectedly, a timely glimpse of awareness shifted the focus of my life. While my story was appreciated, I was told their site focused on recovery, not the problems of addiction. Inquiries about my motivation to change and how my life was different today helped me realize I had spent enough energy draining out the nightmares of my past.

So began a journey of commitment toward true recovery, which I’ve found to be so much more than abstinence. Here’s what I’ve discovered, words of wisdom I’d heard before but never rang so true as now.

“To love others, we must first love ourselves.” — Leo Buscaglia

When I stopped drinking, I united with a forgotten passion that made it possible to believe I could like myself again. I discovered old journals from the most pivotal time of my life that bridged a connection to my younger self, where innocence and pain were deeply rooted. I began to write again, and this powerful energy fueled a passion to heal from the inside out. Hoping one day to grow brave and reach the ones still suffering in silence. I may not like part of my past, but as I begin to understand and accept it, I can use what I’ve learned to help others with compassion because I’ve had to love myself through the same painful process.

“Forgiveness is a virtue of the brave.” — Indira Gandhi

According to psychiatrist Dr. Gabor Maté, the root of all addiction is pain. Hurtful life events that leave us wounded and bitter. Becoming aware of this pain, we allow ourselves to explore forgiveness, a challenging and necessary component for growth. It’s a gift to find the freedom to forgive ourselves and others for our misfortunes. We can’t change the past. But learning and letting go are elements of bravery necessary to overcome and heal.

“We are all creatures of habit.” — Earl Nightingale

Recovery is so much more than no longer consuming our poison. It’s a lifestyle change that requires ongoing practice. If we think about how long it took to become our own worst enemy, we should give at least that much time becoming a better version of ourselves. Early in recovery, I relapsed when I found myself in an unexpected painful situation. I had yet to develop coping skills that would reroute the worn path leading me straight to the bottle. I now engage in activities that promote relaxation to calm my restless mind. A morning meditation, walk in nature and yoga are tools I am purposefully working into my daily schedule.

“It’s in giving that we receive.” — St. Francis of Assisi

The most dangerous place to exist in recovery is isolation. It’s important to stay outside our deeply entrenched negative minds and focus instead on what good our experience can bring to this world. Sharing our story, serving meals at a shelter or smiling at the next person who crosses our path ignites hope in ways we may never know. Everyone else has a story too. It is through our own pain that we understand others who still struggle. And by being the voice for those unable to speak, we receive a blessing of strength from those who will eventually listen.

So how is my life different today? My answer has changed from when I was first asked this question.

I no longer look back for too long. I see my life with an awareness of goodness that brings hope, not shame. I spend my days in gratitude for how far I’ve come. Some days aren’t easy, but I keep moving forward. Keeping my sights on the horizon, where possibilities exists, far from the prison of which I am no longer bound.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo by Alina MD

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Is There Such a Thing as a 'Functioning' Addict?

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My husband has been having a hard time sleeping the last month, and in desperation he went to the doctor for some help. He came home with a few different things over the course of the month to try and help; I didn’t approve of all of them.

You see, I’m a recovering addict, and there are certain substances I do not want in my house for the safety of my sobriety. I’m now 19 months sober, and I want to see that number continue growing.

So, although my husband absolutely needed these medications, we absolutely needed a game plan on how to keep me safe.

We chatted about it back and forth for a couple of hours, and besides the game plan to keeping me safe, one of the things that came up was that I had been a “functioning” addict when I used. Functioning. Should there even be a label, “functioning” addict?

What does one look like? How are they different than “typical” addicts? How do they act? What challenges do they face in regards to addiction? Are those challenges different than from someone “non-functioning?”

How would one define a “functioning” addict?

A functioning addict is most likely a person who’s drug or alcohol use hasn’t caught up to them yet. It’s a person who is able to hide the severity of their addiction to the people close to them, often at tragic cost.

Functioning addicts are often able to perform their tasks on a daily manner, but there can be tell-tale signs. Some of these signs include making excuses for their behaviors, trying to justify their drug use. Who they hang out with says a lot as well. If all their friends are using drugs or alcohol or they don’t want to attend events unless drugs or alcohol will be there, that’s also a sign of a bigger issue. And if they suddenly lose interest in their hobbies, the addiction could be starting to take over their life.

According to the National Institutes of Health, some distinguishing characteristics of a functioning addict include: a high level of education, a stable job, supportive family, commonly middle-aged, family history of addiction (about 30 percent of addicts), and history of major depression (about 20 percent of addicts).

One of the most challenging issue that faces functioning addicts and their loved ones comes from the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to convince them they’re actually addicts. They’ll often point out that nothing bad has ever happened from their use or that they’re able to keep a job and provide for themselves and “addicts can’t do that.”

I denied I had a problem with my medications for years. I hid it as best I could and justified it and explained away symptoms until my face was blue. Years before I was even close to admitting I was an addict, my religious leader suggested I look into rehab, and I was shocked and offended because I wasn’t an addict. He obviously knew something I still could not see. I honestly didn’t think I had a problem. I didn’t doctor shop, I didn’t try to get more meds than I was prescribed, I didn’t lie about my pain or anxiety to get higher dosages. I didn’t buy pills off the internet or from dealers off the street. I thought I was doing quite well, in fact. My kids were generally well taken care of, I worked and went to school. I participated in extracurriculars. Yet I was still an addict. I discovered it’s possible to be an addict and not do any of those negative things, which was an incredibly painful, humbling time in my life.

So the answer for me is yes, it is possible to be a “functioning” addict, but from my experience, it’s not worth it. You go just that much longer before getting treatment, you have just that much further to rock bottom, and you have just that much more to lose.

I hope sharing my story shows just how easy it is become addicted and how much possibility there is after recovery once you’ve admitted you need help. There’s no shame in having an addiction; it is a disease, not a character flaw.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo by Peshkova

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5 Tips for Supporting a Loved One With a 'Dual Diagnosis'

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Mental illness affects around 57.7 million American adults every single year. In addition, more than 23.5 million people are treated every year for drug or alcohol abuse. When addiction and another mental illness occurs in the same person, it is referred to as a “dual diagnosis.” This can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms of addiction and other mental illnesses often overlap. A dual diagnosis can be difficult to treat.

Here are some tips for helping a loved one deal with a dual diagnosis:

1. Forget everything you think you know.

Drug addiction and other mental illnesses are surrounded by a strong negative stigma, which is propagated by the media’s portrayal of individuals with mental illness. The most important thing you can do to help a friend or family member with a dual diagnosis is to forget everything you think you know about mental illness. Take the time to educate yourself about mental illness and drug addiction from accurate sources so you know how to recognize the symptoms of mental illness.

Also, don’t assume you know anything about the individual experience of your friend or loved one. Mental illness and addiction affect everyone differently.

2. Small gestures can mean the world.

You don’t have to spend all your time and energy helping your friends with their dual diagnosis, though you might want to. Small gestures — even something as simple as a greeting card or a text — can mean the world to someone who is dealing with a dual diagnosis. Little gestures can help such individuals remain grounded and centered in reality when the world stops making sense.

3. Be there but don’t judge.

It’s estimated up to 53 percent of drug abusers and 37 percent of alcohol abusers also have at least one other serious mental illness. That’s a lot for someone to cope with, but you can help. Sometimes all you can do for someone who’s making their way through a dual diagnosis is to be there and make sure they know you’re there for them. Be a shoulder to cry on or whatever they need. Whatever you do though, please leave your judgment at the door. People who live with a dual diagnosis may find it hard to do simple things like remember to eat and their diagnosis will affect their entire lifestyle. Judgment will probably come from plenty of sources around them, it doesn’t need to come from you as well.

4. Tough love doesn’t always work.

Interventions and the tough love approach might work in some cases, but for individuals with a dual diagnosis, it’s can drive them away or drive them to more destructive behavior. We’re tempted to try to fix things when there’s nothing we can do to change them. Don’t make it harder for your friends or loved ones to make their way through the world by trying to always treat them with tough love.

5. Don’t expect a cure.

While addiction and other mental illnesses can be improved by treatment, there probably won’t be a blanket cure. Recovery is usually a lifelong process. It’s tempting to look for a cure or offer up homeopathic remedies you read about on the internet, but treatment and lifelong recovery are the best ways to effectively manage a dual diagnosis. A dual diagnosis might seem like a hurdle impossible to jump, but if someone you love has received one, the best thing you can do for them is just be there. No matter what treatment plans they choose or steps they take, your support can mean the world to them.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Archv.

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