We are reaching the final months of 2020 and what a strange and difficult year it has been. With the pandemic, social unrest, natural disasters and more that will go on to define 2020 in the years to come, these peculiar circumstances we are experiencing now have created an unprecedented environment for stress and uncertainty, ultimately affecting the mental health of millions across the country. Poor mental health and substance use disorder are widely regarded as being symbiotic in nature and with October’s World Mental Health Day (10/10) and National Depression Screening Day (10/11) coming up, it’s the perfect time to start the conversation and talk about depression and its relationship to substance use disorder. The importance of good mental health cannot be overstated. Being in a good headspace affects virtually every aspect of our daily lives, so for those in recovery, it is especially crucial that we examine our mental health periodically to ensure we are not putting ourselves in a position that will compromise our recovery.
When we talk about substance use disorder, it’s sometimes hard to describe without mentioning mental health. In fact, research states that mood disorders, including depression and bipolar disorders, are the most common psychiatric co-morbidities among patients with substance use disorders.* If you’ve ever been through rehabilitation for substance use, you’ll remember how much emphasis was put on mental health and how it coincides with the concept of addiction as a coping mechanism, most commonly as a means to relieve symptoms of depression, anxiety, boredom, etc.. While addiction is not dependent on mood disorders, disorders like depression and anxiety do serve as a catalyst towards substance dependence for many people. In other words, people suffering from mood disorders have an increased risk in developing substance use disorder, and vice versa. Thus, in the treatment of addiction, the emphasis on mental health being imperative is not just about understanding ourselves better, but addressing the underlying issues that may have led to substance use and learning healthy coping mechanisms to better deal with symptoms of mood disorders so that we don’t turn to substances in the future when those symptoms arise.
While it’s easy to share some statistics and research about the correlation between mood disorders and substance use disorder, I would rather take it upon myself to share my personal experience with mental health and substance use disorder. Hey, if I’m going to encourage people reading this to initiate conversation about these issues in their own lives, I should be the one to start.
For me, substances were a means of escape from what I thought was reality. My “reality” was being in a constant state of anxiety and depression and in turn, substances offered a short reprieve from my presumed reality. I always had a hard time communicating how I felt starting at a young age. It was even harder being vulnerable and opening up to people about those feelings, whether it was with my parents or a therapist. It wasn’t until much later in life that I learned what I was experiencing wasn’t in fact, “normal.” The relief I found through self-medication was only exasperating the problem, as those painful emotions were left unaddressed and festering. What I created for myself was a near-fatal cycle of self-destruction. To relieve my symptoms of depression and anxiety, I became dependent on alcohol and drugs, which then left me in a greater state of poor mental health. Even though I found short-term relief from the symptoms of depression and anxiety though self-medication, I quickly became physically dependent on the substances I was using, which consequently fanned the flames of my self-destruction. All the while, I never addressed my mental health — as much as I tried, substances didn’t make my depression or anxiety go away. Now in recovery, I have a clear sense of what needed to happen over four years ago in order for me to maintain the sobriety I now enjoy today, and it largely has to do with how I addressed my mental health.
First, I needed to hit that moment where I knew I could no longer go on living like this. It was sobriety or death. Most people in recovery have that moment or event that made them realize they had a problem and needed help. In my own recovery journey, what I personally call “my rock bottom” was painful, yet a necessary step in taking my recovery seriously. A month after being released from the hospital due to a near-fatal case of alcohol-induced pancreatitis, I lost my job due to performance issues related to my alcohol and drug use. Shortly after, my electricity and water were shut off for unpaid bills, and I was served an eviction notice from my apartment. With nowhere to go, I reluctantly accepted the help of Herren Project and agreed to go to rehabilitation once again, but even then, I didn’t accept that I had a problem. On the morning I left for rehab, I was so intoxicated while packing up what few things I could fit in a small suitcase, surrounded by belongings I would never see again, I fell face-first into a closed window in my bedroom, shattering the glass in the process. As my neck was propped up on the windowsill, cradled by shards of glistening glass, I finally admitted to myself that I did, in fact, have a problem and that I needed help.
The second thing that needed to happen in my recovery was a thorough and intensive personal inventory of my past with the help of professionals. Rehabilitation provided a great foundation in addressing my mental health disorders as I had access to therapists, psychologists and consistent meetings. However, it wasn’t until I left rehabilitation and entered a sober living house that the hard, yet rewarding work took place. During my first few months in sober living, I attended a daily intensive out-patient program where I had a personal therapist, group sessions, and a psychologist. Here, I was able to build upon the foundation I had uncovered previously and address the mental health issues in a way that just wasn’t possible in the relatively short, 35 days in rehabilitation. I began to see my depression and anxiety in a new light. I learned healthy ways to deal with the symptoms of my mood disorders and was held accountable for my actions by a caring group of peers and mentors while I learned how to be self-accountable. Moreover, I was finally able to find a sense of self-acceptance – acceptance of who I was in the past, who I currently was in the present, and who I wanted to be in the future.
Lastly, I needed to learn how to maintain sobriety though daily self-checks and what I call “mental maintenance.” All the tools and healthy coping skills I learned in my nine-month journey of rehabilitation, intensive out-patient programs, meetings and sober living arrangements would be for naught if I don’t continuously apply them in my everyday life. As I graduated from these programs, I did so with the self-enforced agreement that I would take all that I had learned and apply it vigorously for the rest of my life. Sobriety had to evolve from a begrudging life-sentence, as I had thought of it in the past, to RECOVERY — a daily gift to cherish, nurture and celebrate. This evolution changed not only the way I think about recovery from substance use disorder, but provided a clear prognosis for my depression and anxiety as well. That’s not to say I don’t struggle with mental health today, because I do – I believe everyone does from time to time. I still need to talk with my doctor about depression and anxiety symptoms and I follow their instructions meticulously, but my attitude and mindset has changed synchronously with my recovery from substance use disorder, which includes the mental maintenance tools I’ve learned throughout my journey.
I share my story in hopes of opening the door of communication about mental health for anyone reading this who may be struggling or knows someone struggling with depression, anxiety, or both. I realize that everyone is different and there are many paths one can take when embarking on a journey of recovery. How I manage to maintain recovery may differ from the next person and that’s okay. The important thing to remember is that being in good mental health is crucial, not only in the treatment of substance use disorder but also for our overall well-being.
So, as we head into October, let’s raise awareness for World Mental Health Day on the 10th by starting the conversation amongst our family and/or peers with a sense of empathy and compassion. If you or a loved one are struggling with depression or other mental health issues, make a commitment to talk to a doctor or a licensed professional about your options to commemorate National Depression Screening Day on the 11th. I’d also like to mention that as I began this process in recovery, I had not a dollar to my name. All of the treatment I received was made possible through Herren Project’s Recovery Scholarship program and I firmly believe that without Herren Project’s help, I would not be alive to share my story with you today. So. if you have donated to Herren Project, thank you for contributing to saving not only my life but thousands of others who have received help through the Recovery Scholarship program. If you are struggling with substance use disorder and are ready to take the first step, I encourage you to please reach out to a member of our recovery team by visiting treatment placement assistance. – it may just save your life as it did mine. And always remember, you are not alone, and you do not have to suffer in silence.