May is Mental Health Month. Mental Health America’s theme for 2016 is “Life with a Mental Illness.” My posts this month will cover personal experiences and opinions dealing with my own mental illness issues, which may be triggering to the reader. I am also simply a person in recovery- not a medical professional and my writing should not be taken instead of or in lieu of the advice of a health expert and/or professional. Feel free to join in on the conversation by posting in the comments below or sharing with the tag #mentalillnessfeelslike. Stop the stigma, start the conversation.
One of my favorite things about recovery is doing things I never thought possible in sobriety. Beyond getting a solid office job, graduating from college, and leading a pretty stable existence, it’s venturing into “the real world” beyond the safety bubble of treatment centers and support groups. I don’t say that in a disparaging way- we addicts and alcoholics need spaces like these or at least somewhere to feel safe. But these were places that I hid out in for the first few years of my recovery. It was incredibly easy to do so: the communal sense of support groups can become a double-edged sword of elitism and fear of the unknown- at least for me.
Let the phrase “at least for me” underlie everything I write because recovery is such an intensely individualistic, subjective process. I have danced around writing about this topic for some time because I knew it would be a sensitive one. Please know that everything I write is based on my own experiences, tendencies, and feelings. I would not take back any part of my recovery process because it has all led me here: sitting in my bed after two days of alternately feeling sweaty and soggy at a local music festival, as sober as I’ve been for the past five years (though slightly sleep-deprived.)
When I first got clean, I thought it would then become necessary to forgo certain experiences for my recovery as some sort of junkie penance. One of which was going to any sort of music festival, as while using, I never had the money- or, well, I did have the money but it went primarily to drugs (surprise.) Three years into my recovery, I attended Bunbury in Cincinnati which had no camping and quite a clean-cut feel. I thought about the masses shown all over social media going bananas at various mass festivals. I could never do that now, I thought even with three years clean. Of course, yes, I had the physical ability but it seemed impossible to enjoy that culture without the aid or enhancement of some illicit substance. And yet, almost two years later and still sober, I did.
While aspects of modern addiction recovery existed as early as the 1700s, our culture understandably clings onto the first modicum of success: the 12-step model. This is what I learned in my first and second treatment center. This is the model I (more or less) tried to follow for about four years. And it worked. It provided me a solid foundation of principles to revisit over and over again to do this day, such as letting go, being of service, finding gratitude in every situation, addicts helping other addicts, and the physical allergy. Whenever I am approached by someone struggling with substance abuse in some way, I always suggest starting out by going to meetings (plural) and keeping an open mind. Rather than the spiritual emphasis of the program, I latched onto the hope personified for me in my fellow recovering addicts. Having a social network of other recovering folks was also essential, especially while living newly-sober in a college town.
However, just like any organization or treatment, Alcoholics Anonymous and it’s subsequent support offspring are not without flaw. Still, it’s our society and government’s go-to as a cure-all, which is of course a step-up from asylums of old. A largely influential concept at the core of A.A. is the disease model, which our government has (very) slowly been warming to rather than strict criminalization. While this has been gradual progress that I appreciate, I’m just not comfortable thinking, much less speaking, of my addiction as a disease. It never quite rang true when I said it. I wish I could be more eloquent with exactly why I find that particular word problematic. I certainly believe in the genetic aspects of addiction but still… it seems too polarizing. Either you’re an addict or you’re not. You have the disease or you don’t. It leaves out those who (unlike me) can responsibly enjoy every substance outside of something that’s highly physically addictive like opioids, which have been causing overdose deaths in epidemic rates the past few years. So where do these people fall when it comes to treatment and recovery, if they don’t fall into one of two starkly opposing categories?
You don’t have to go far to find dissidents of the disease model, whether it’s in the form of research, blogs, or books. I don’t consider myself a dissident exactly but, on a personal level, I just can’t completely identify with it. But a recent book rethinking our approach to addiction has been circulating in the headlines on an inescapable level. Maia Szalavitz’s book “Unbroken Brain” contends that addiction is not a disease or moral failing but instead, a learning disorder. It’s an interesting and controversial standpoint that is polarizing in the medical, scientific, and recovery community. This, to me, is just as conversely limiting. Yes, maybe for some, addiction is much more like a learning disorder but one can’t blindly ignore the role that genes play in addiction.
At least for me- remember the importance of that phrase- I’m not comfortable thinking of my addiction as a disease or a learning disorder. Instead, I think of it as an allergy with physical, emotional, mental, and social repercussions. And here’s the biggest part- I don’t think every person who has struggled with addiction need feel this way. While we argue over nature versus nurture, people are dying, families are suffering, and taxpayers are shelling out some serious dollars. Approaching addiction with a single blanket solution is just plain not working, no matter what kind of blanket it is.
It would pain six-months-clean-me to say this but complete sobriety may not be the answer for everyone just because it has worked for me. While I hesitate to say that, at 26-years-old, I will be sober without interruption for the rest of life, it is what I’m planning on, hoping for, and working toward. In the minds of some, I’m not sober: I take medication for bipolar II, I drink caffeine (sometimes in problematic amounts), I smoke cigarettes at social gatherings while my peers are imbibing. But at least for me, this is the new sobriety, this girl who is functioning and happy and growing and helping and living sober on her own terms that do not presently include “disease” or “learning disorder.” Our culture’s new concept of recovery and sobriety should be just that: individually-focused, authentic rather than forced, multi-faceted choice.
These terms didn’t just magically appear in a moment of intense meditation or in a 12-step meeting or a therapist’s office or a singular spiritual and defining experience. To borrow a phrase from “the rooms” of AA/NA: “take what applies and leave the rest.” This is difficult for me. While occasionally stubborn and claustrophobic in the face of confining ideals, I love rules and labels. After all, I am a writer; what is more comforting than putting your understanding of the human experience into tangible, knowable letters and syllables? And believe that I struggle to make the most menial day-to-day decisions. God forbid that a date asks me where I want to eat or what movie to watch. Imagine applying that to the complex and dynamic nature of mental illness.
So for many years, I looked for a certain ideology that would encompass everything I needed in recovery. But no one thing ran entirely true. It took me a long time to realize that this approach is not just incredibly reductive but indicative of why our current approach to addiction is failing. We want it to be simple. We want it to be easy and neat. The truth is that recovery is sometimes incredibly ugly. After coming to terms with my opioid addiction, there was a seemingly never-ending waiting list of other issues to confront: an eating disorder, abandonment issues, trust issues, money issues, relationships of any kind, a mood disorder, and on.
This is still ongoing. None of it is settled. It is all organic and dynamic. At least for me, recovery is a road without end. And yes, another phrase borrowed from 12-step recovery: I feel I am “trudging the road of happy destiny.” While I’m not a believer in predestination, there’s something to be said for likening sobriety to a determined- sometimes dogged, sometimes joyous- stride without a mecca or destination waiting at the end. Present process, not end product.
This set of terms that I rely on so heavily were found in the strangest of places. For instance, there was the time that as a sober individual, I actually took cold medicine as prescribed and still felt fucked up. There was the time I cut my hand slicing an avocado and, after a few minor stitches, had to refuse pain medication twice from the attending doctor. There was the time I got my dreaded wisdom teeth taken out with only local anesthesia and extra-strength Tylenol, yet still no complications or severe healing circumstances. There was the time I ate some creme brulee and realized on the second eager bite that I had just ingested a very strong layer of liquor. There was the time this weekend at the music festival that a dear friend (who knows of my past) asked if I wanted to take acid.
And so, these terms were set: I use nothing stronger than Emergen-C, Vick’s Vaporub, and zinc tablets when I feel a cold coming on. I always disclose that I’m in recovery during the intake process for any medical situation, no matter how minor or seemingly irrelevant. I can trust medical professionals to help me in a situation that may or may not require pain medication without either being a martyr or begging for a relapse. I ask servers if there’s alcohol in any dish that seems questionable. Last night, I swallowed my incredulity before gently replying to my friend, “No. I know you’re asking this from a place of love but I’m good. Be safe, have a good night.” Over the course of five years, these are only a few moments, a fraction of lessons learned.
None of these self-made rules are universal. These are things that may or may not work for other people who also have issues with substance abuse and addiction. I didn’t read them in a sacred text, self-help book, or piece of 12-step literature. Therapy, spirituality, and support groups gave me some direction and advice for the choices I would have to make. But in the end, at least for me, my recovery is made of unforeseen lessons I had to experience.
Too often I see the ironic application of an all-or-nothing thought process to addiction recovery: only 12-step attendance, only therapy, only medical assistance, only spirituality, only religion, only abstinence. It’s incredibly tempting, especially to someone like me who is prone to falling into black-and-white thinking. The truth is that while the extremes may work exclusively for some, many of us need the shades of grey between.
Mental Health America has a fantastic infographic on general mental illness recovery that’s very much in line with what I hope to have outlined here in my post-festival daze:
We need support, guidance, advice, and hope from others, whether it be a sponsor, therapist, loved one, religious leader, or even pet. However, we also need on a cultural level to instill that recovery is not synonymous with the end of new experiences, excitement, enjoyment, or fulfillment. It doesn’t mean we are better or worse than those who are still struggling or those who can actually use substances responsibly or those who abstain for reasons outside of substance abuse. At least for me, I need to be able to act on the belief that there is life after addiction. Insane, joyous, frustrating, tedious, overwhelming, fucking beautiful life. A life made of choices. We need to be able to choose the terms of our own recovery because providing only a singular, narrow path forces so many off the road and into the gutters.
I define myself as an addict but being an addict doesn’t define me. It’s a road- not a locked door- to the messy, complicated, confusing, wonderful outside world that needs what we have to offer. I’m not a therapist or a doctor or a politician but that is where I believe we need to focus our time and attention: on allowing addicts to recover not just in a detox or a church basement or a jail cell or in a window of 28 days. We need our recovery to be synonymous with our lives. What my life and my recovery are made of… well, that’s entirely up to me. And today, I trust myself to live in recovery and recover in my life. Even if that means having to be responsible and unpack a mud-covered car right now.
Be kind. Live authentically. Practice gratitude. Hustle daily. Work hard. Stay humble.
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