Addiction is a cunning monster, but it doesn’t always work alone. Often times, it has a ready and willing accomplice that allows it to thrive. There are a lot of components to addiction, and a lot of different behaviors and mentalities contribute to its ability to destroy lives. However, the number one partner to addiction has always been and will always be mental health.
Over half of all people with a substance abuse problem are diagnosed with an additional mental illness. This number is staggering, especially when you consider how many people out there have a mental illness and have not been diagnosed. There is also the issue of misdiagnosis among addicts, because their use effects the way their disorder presents to a professional. Many people are diagnosed with mental illnesses while they are in active use, or in early recovery, and then find that the medications they are prescribed are not working, so they ditch them.
It is important to remember that mental illness has no cure, just like addiction. It is a living problem, that continues to grow and shift and change as time goes on. Our daily lives can affect our mental health. Our progress in recovery can affect our mental health.
So many factors contribute, and it is vital to our recovery that we continue to work on our mental health just as hard as we work on our recovery.
Reluctance to treat these mental illnesses sometimes stems from involvement with the Twelve Steps. While the original program promotes the treatment of medical issues, including behavioral ones, many groups have twisted the intentions of the founders and built this renegade program that frowns upon medications of any kind. Some people believe that the use of any drugs, including those that treat mental illness, means you are not truly “clean”. Other people believe that their problem is strictly a spiritual malady, and that their symptoms will be cured by working the program of AA or NA. This is one of the many problems caused by this program. The fact that each group is autonomous allows for some of them to plant the seeds for warped perceptions of their literature and this is very dangerous when it comes to people who need treatment for their underlying mental illness.
Then of course we have the shame factor. People can admit that they made a mistake with their addiction. They can admit that they did something wrong, maybe they were weak then, but they get into recovery and say “that was then and this is now”. They want to say that today they are better. Admitting that there is still something wrong with them, and that they have an issue that they have no control over, makes many addicts uncomfortable.
Mental illness, just like addiction, is a chemical problem that masquerades as a behavioral problem.
It walks around in disguise, making people look and act crazy. Depression, for example, is a problem caused when serotonin is not properly absorbed by the receptors in the brain. This is a chemical problem, not something you can think yourself out of. When pathways are damaged and neurotransmitters aren’t firing correctly and their reuptake is interrupted, medication corrects what is broken. It allows the brain to work as intended. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, or SSRIs, are the most common medications prescribed for depression and anxiety. They literally act like a lid, holding the serotonin down in the receptor so it can be absorbed as intended. It is not some kind of happy pill that helps you forget your problems.
Some drugs, like lithium, have less information available about how they work in the brain. We just know that for some people, like myself, they are lifesavers. When my kidneys revolted against lithium earlier this year, I was and still am devastated. After fifteen years, I had to go back to the drawing board and find a new base to my medication cocktail.
Finding the right drug or combination of drugs for your unique mental illness is complicated and takes time. You have to allow the drugs time to work, which can take a few weeks. Then, if you are not seeing desired results, you have to make the decision to try and change the dose, or toss it out and start over with a different drug. It is all about trial and error, and no matter how good your doctor is, no one can predict which drug is going to work for which person with 100% accuracy. Be patient, and don’t give up on a drug right away. I had to go back and try drugs that didn’t work for me ten years ago and give them another chance. I’m glad I did, because after almost a year I’ve finally found a combination that seems to be working okay.
There is also the issue of psychiatric drugs with the potential for addiction. Benzodiazepines are the number one culprit for opiate addicts to get addicted to. Some people find that they really help, and they are willing to take that risk. Buyer beware, these drugs can reignite the monster for some people. If you have any reservations about this, tell your doctor that you don’t want to take any benzos and would prefer to try drugs that are not a risk for becoming habit forming. Common benzos are Valium, Clonopin, Ativan, Librium and Xanax. These drugs are also a risk for those on Methadone or Suboxone, as they can cause respiratory depression when combined.
Medications are not the only ways to treat mental illness. It is a fact that proper exercise and nutrition work wonders to increase the production of serotonin and improve one’s mood and state of mind. Exposure to sunlight also helps, just remember to wear your sunscreen! Many people are able to get insurance to cover a sun lamp, which can be great especially for people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Another old school method is ECT, Electroconvulsive Therapy. This procedure gets a bad rap because it used to be very invasive and scary. However, today it can be done outpatient in your doctor’s office in as little as a half hour to an hour. The brain is an electrical system, and sometimes it just needs a little shock to the system to get it working right. Don’t rule these options out, especially if you are adverse to medications or have health issues that make taking medications impossible.
Some people suffer relapse after relapse while refusing to address their mental health. Taking care of your complete self is key to long term sobriety. Do not be afraid to seek professional help if you believe you are suffering from some kind of mental health issue.
Of course, finding a doctor is tough, especially for those on state insurance. A great place to look is in your town or city to see if they offer counseling services as part of their community programs. Many treatment centers provide medication management and therapy services to their clients, and sometimes it can be worth it to enroll in an outpatient substance abuse program, even if you don’t feel like you need it, just so you can gain access to their psychiatric services. They will then help you get a more permanent support system in place when you discharge from their program. Some programs do not want to work with clients on Methadone, which is based mostly out of prejudice, and is truly a shame. This is why finding a comprehensive program is critical if you are a Methadone client. Make sure you enroll in a Methadone clinic that offers support for your mental health as well as your addiction.
There is so much to talk about when it comes to mental illness, especially as it relates to addiction. For this reason, our next workshop will focus on this topic. Please join us Wednesday, March 1, 2017 at the Mildred A. Wakeley Recreation Center at 7 Linsley Street in North Haven from 6:30 to 8:30pm. We will discuss mental illness as it relates to addiction and have resources available for those who need them.
Please keep in mind that this workshop is a SAFE SPACE for those interested in attending. Don’t worry about feeling ashamed or embarrassed that you or your loved one is dealing with addiction and mental health issues. Everyone else who is there is dealing with the same problems you are, so no one is there to judge you! We always provide index cards so that you can ask any questions anonymously if it makes you more comfortable. We are here to support you!
If you have any issues related to mental health and addiction that you would like us to address during the workshop, please let us know! As always, if you have a topic you would like us to feature in a future workshop, let us know that as well! In Angel’s Arms is here to serve the community and meet your needs in whatever ways we can!
©Copyright 2017 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin