Self-Medicating

By | March 13, 2019

Okay, everyone – hands up if you’ve ever heard this term. Now, hands up if you’ve ever done it? Yup, that’s what I thought.

People with mental illnesses are likely to use substances in an unhealthy way in an attempt to relieve their pain and suffering.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work very well. It may work for a few moments or a few hours, but then you’re right back where you were – with the added guilt, shame, and remorse to boot.

PERPETUATING STEREOTYPES

I was just talking with my mother-in-law about drinking. She told me about a good friend’s granddaughter, who “isn’t into anything”. She said this young woman is a “smart cookie” for staying away from drugs and alcohol. (For the record, alcohol is a drug, and a drug is a drug is a drug.)

To me, that made it sound like people who abuse or become addicted to substances must not be “smart cookies”. I disagree vehemently.

This view is not unique to her. Seeing people who drink or use as “stupid” (for lack of a better word) and those who don’t as “smart” is dangerous; effectively, it’s saying that intelligence (or lack thereof) determines what coping skills a person uses and it dooms an entire group of people from the get-go.

I have so many issues with this outlook, there’s not enough room here to share them all. One thing I know is that substance addiction is a disease, a medical condition. It is most certainly not a matter of character.

I have a theory (I have lots of theories; you’ll come to know many of them eventually) that goes something like this: It’s not my fault I’m an alcoholic, but once I realized I was, it became my responsibility to take care of it.

By the same token, it’s not my fault that I have depression – it is a disease of the brain, after all – but once I realized what was going on, it was up to me to change it.

Now, let me tell you, these may sound like simple statements, but none of it is easy.

The kicker is that the addict or alcoholic or depressive or whatever has to accept that there’s a problem before anything of consequence can be done about it. In other words, you might think your significant other is an alcoholic, but unless they also think so, nothing’s going to come of it.

The problem with this is that people often don’t know why they drink (or use) and often don’t realize it’s a problem, even if everyone around them does.

DRUNK AS A SKUNK

Becoming addicted to a substance is not a choice. Using it in the first place (that first drink, hit, etc.) is a choice, although it doesn’t necessarily feel like it is. I can tell you from experience, once the thought arises and becomes an obsession, there’s no stopping us. But no one chooses to become addicted to anything. That’s crazy-talk!

When I hear people judging alcoholics and addicts, my toes curl. I’d like to walk up to them and shake them, slap ‘em up a little, set them straight. Depending on the situation, I may share some of my experiences with them or set them straight on some facts in an effort to counteract their misinformed opinions.

I took my first drink when I was 13, during the summer before my first year in high school (my birthday is in late November). My best friend and I snuck some vodka from my dad’s stash in the kitchen. We made amateur screwdrivers (of course – it’s the only drink we knew about). If I remember correctly, my friend had just one drink. But, right away, I was raring to fix myself another. So I did.

That episode was an experiment for both of us. When you’re a kid, alcohol is (usually) this mysterious, taboo substance that we are warned to stay away from or else we’ll get in Big Trouble. Most of us try it at one point, though, and either we like it or we don’t.

I thought it was the coolest thing that had ever happened to me in my thirteen years.

But, being the rule-follower that I am, I didn’t drink again for over a year. When I did (at my brother’s wedding), I got really drunk. Apparently, people thought this fourteen-year-old could – and deserved to – handle a few drinks.

What do you think happened? Bingo. I got so drunk I couldn’t see straight. I readily accepted every offer of a drink that was made to me.

I can’t tell you how much I drank that night, although, by most social drinkers’ standards, it was a lot. Here is a rough approximation of my alcohol consumption that night:

5 rum and Cokes
1 gin and tonic
1 glass of champagne
Age: 14
Weight: 120 lbs.
Time elapsed: 2-3 hours (?)
Resulting blood alcohol concentration (BAC) = ~ .22 or higher
(source: www.bloodalcoholcalculator.org – scroll halfway down the page and hover over the picture. The “next” button will appear.)

In case you’re not much of a drinker or don’t know much about BAC’s, a .22 (read as “point two-two”) is 2x over the legal limit to drive, which, at the time in Michigan, was .10 (it’s now .08 in every state). In other words, I was beyond drunk, especially for a first-timer.

Drinking that much alcohol, especially as a rookie, can be very dangerous. You don’t know how your body is going to react to it and you have no history of behavior patterns to be wary of (i.e., you have no idea what you’ll do while under the influence). Not to mention, it puts your safety (and that of others) at risk.

Drinking at that pace was ridiculous for someone of my age, experience, and physical stature.

So I drank an awful lot that night. But you know what? I couldn’t help it. My brain is missing that piece that says, “Okay, self, let’s stop now.”

(As an aside, I just had to ask a few social drinkers I know what kinds of things they tell themselves to stay in check if they don’t intend on drinking “too much”. As someone who crossed over that invisible line in the very beginning, I don’t have the faintest idea how a “normal” brain reacts to the stimulus of alcohol, or even the idea of it. Almost all of them said they didn’t even have to think about it; it is not an issue for them, so they don’t obsess over it like alcoholics tend to. They don’t need to try and control their drinking.)

Instead, this is the kind of thing my brain has always told me after I start drinking, right from day one:

OMG. This. is. AWESOME!!!! I don’t believe it, I feel relaxed! I can stop worrying about everything! Look at me, everyone, I can dance! And oh my God, everyone’s laughing at my jokes! I’m a hit! Hahahahaha!!

Etcetera, etcetera. I felt happy, free, relieved of worry. Invincible.

Now, listen up please, because this is important to understand.

I did not set out that night to get drunk. I had no preconceived notions of what it would be like. But once I started drinking, I immediately fell in love. It just felt like the answer to all my biggest life questions. I kept getting handed drink after drink and thought nothing of it. In essence, I was an alcoholic waiting to happen.

WHAT’S MY POINT?

My point – and I do have one – is this: In all my years of being in recovery (most of the last 29 years), and after meeting thousands of others in various stages of recovery, I have never heard anyone say that they had intended to become an alcoholic.

That’s right. No one – young or old, male or female, rich or not rich, LGBTQ or straight, mental illness or no mental illness – wakes up one day and says, “Boy, those alcoholics have it easy. No job, no family, no responsibilities…Where do I sign up!?”

(In addition to being terribly stereotypical and statistically incorrect, that statement is obviously ridiculous.)

If there is one suggestion I can make for you, it’s this: Try not to blame the person for becoming an alcoholic or drug addict. It’s a miserable existence, and believe me, it ain’t easy to live that way.

And I repeat – no one would ever choose such an unstable, unpredictable, unhealthy life on purpose.

Once that person “comes to”, though, once she realizes in both her mind and her heart that she does have a problem, give her lots of support and love.

That’s all anyone really wants, anyway, isn’t it?

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Is anyone in your life recovering from addiction? Anyone you think *should* be in recovery? What are your personal attitudes about alcoholics and addicts? Can you stop drinking when you want to? Please join me in the comment section!

Thanks for reading!

Originally published on Depression Warrior

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