Sunday, April 21, 2013

Substance Abuse & Mental Illness: A Match Made In Hell

I have a degree in psychology, and have worked in the human services for 6 years if you count the 2 years I spent volunteering at Hospice. My current job--at a homeless shelter--puts me in contact with folks who have mental illness and substance abuse issues (often both) frequently.

In spite of my education, and in spite of my experience, I only have two years of sobriety, and received a diagnosis of Bipolar II within the past year. You would think my education and experience would have helped me address these concerns earlier, but no such luck. My experience with mental illness and substance abuse (which I talk about in more depth here and here) fits a very common pattern with other folks who struggle with the same issues. As clever and unique as I often think I am, I fell into the same trap so many other people fall into all the time.

Our bodies naturally seek remedies for what ails us. Not doctors ourselves--and very often even if we are doctors--we seek medication that is available to us. Mental illness often contributes to substance abuse, and substance abuse worsens mental illness in the long run. It's a vicious cycle.

I am so glad to have my sobriety, and so thankful that I was able to find whatever courage I could to face up to my mental illness. With a combination of talk therapy and medication, the support of loved ones, and my continuing education and experience, I hope to stay in this pretty-good-place for as long as possible.

And I want more people to look at the roots of their substance abuse. I want more people with mental illness to find the courage to seek help. There is no shame in having mental illness, and there is no shame in being in recovery. In fact, it takes bravery to address both of those issues. If it wasn't for the examples made by so many people I admire in facing up to these problems, I don't know if I'd be able to find the strength in myself to do the same.

There is a lot of stigma attached to mental illness and substance abuse. Only by talking openly about these problems, and by honestly evaluating our own issues, can we make any progress on them as a society, and individually. If you are so inclined, share your story. If you suspect you might have these same problems, reach out to someone. You still have so much life to live, and so much to offer.

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