The Mighty Logo

Chasing the ‘Good Times’ of Drug Addiction and Bipolar Disorder

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor's Note

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction, the following post could be triggering. You can contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

I’m not entirely sure which came first: the addiction or the mental illness. Science and the evolving study of genetics tells me that due to my family history, these things were both encoded within me while I was still deep in the womb. My cells splitting and replicating, following a blueprint that held a couple of nefarious coding messages to go along with some of the terrific traits and qualities to be laid out, so perhaps they both took root at the same time. A congenital tag team patiently waiting for their chance to wreak havoc.

For the sake of time, let us conclude that it doesn’t really matter here, and we can call this deadly “chicken or the egg?” query a draw because for 16 long years, both untreated addiction and mental illness worked in tandem to make my life a living hell before almost killing me.

It was a terrible seesaw of pain. The drugs and alcohol would temporarily make me feel better, almost “normal,” by easing the terrible symptoms of severe depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.

However, the effects of alcohol and the particular drugs I was ingesting would cause me to become so inebriated that I would lose control and act wildly unpredictable. After a prolonged period of use, they would also greatly amplify the symptoms of the mental illnesses I was initially trying to escape.

I would humiliate myself, drive away friends and loved ones and end up in handcuffs. I would be totally fine and fun to be around one minute, then fighting or engaging in some bizarre, inexplicable behavior the next. All of this coupled with my high tolerance and tendency to drink until I blacked out made me too risky and too embarrassing to be around. I became even more isolated.

Once sober, I would swear off the substances and make sincere promises to enter recovery and lead a clean life. However, this change of heart would usually only last a few days. Very soon, depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder would flare, knocking me back down to levels that seemed to get lower and lower each time.

When these afflictions were active and wailing away, pounding their terrible mental drums, I became withdrawn, quiet and unapproachable, terrified of human contact and cycling through ups and downs with increasing frequency. Once back at this point, drugs and alcohol seemed like a worthy investment, anything to get me out of the pit I was in. I couldn’t bring myself to call my doctor because I was either convincing myself everything was fine or I was so low that making a phone call seemed like an incredible task. This was the map of “madness” I followed during those horrible years, hoping and praying that change would one day happen.

I can’t count how many times the vicious cycle of self-medicating repeated itself. I know it started when I was 17 and took my first sip of alcohol. I know it ended a little over two years ago when I miraculously survived a suicide attempt and began my recovery from these co-occurring disorders. But, it’s impossible to come up with an accurate number of cycles or anything close to a tangible historical chart of them, likely because I was never consciously aware I was doing it.

And it’s something people need to know. Those who self-medicate with drugs and alcohol are either totally unaware of what they’re doing, or they see it as a perfectly logical and acceptable method of regulation/treatment. There may have been some level of awareness there, a small voice crying out for help from deep within my mind, but it was unheard over the furious screams of addiction and denial.

Further compounding this already-complex issue is that there are some good times and moments mixed in with the despair. These good times dangle like a carrot on a stick and we chase them eternal.

Eventually, the self-medicating turned into full-blown mental and physical addiction. Then, on top of the mental disorders I couldn’t get under control, I absolutely needed alcohol and drugs just to keep from getting sick with withdrawals. I had no clue what “normal” felt like. To me, equilibrium and balance was nothing more than a dream, and my version of feeling good was likely unbearable to someone unfamiliar with my state. I was fortunate if I could just feel coherent for a few hours out of the day.

I eventually found recovery, but many don’t.

As the opioid crisis rages all around us, we need to investigate what role mental illness plays in addiction — a two-pronged approach, treating addiction as a mental illness in itself while simultaneously treating the co-occurring afflictions which can sometimes lead to substance use and eventual addiction.

We need to tear down the stigma associated with addiction. By doing so, incredible strides will be made toward eradicating the stigma and shame of mental illness. The brain can malfunction and misfire in many ways. The obsessive craving of a substance initially interpreted as positive by various systems within it is one; the neurological, chemical and cognitive disruptions associated with mental illness is another.

Some alcoholics and addicts are just trying to cope the only way they know how.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Originally published: September 12, 2019
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home