I “aged out” of the mental health system at 17, after having spent much of my adolescence under the influence and control of the amphetamine Dexedrine, which was used to treat attention deficit disorder (ADD) for “hyperactive” children in the days before Ritalin and Adderall. For the following 23 years, I wandered from job to job, relationship to relationship, and street drug to street drug, trying to calm the anxiety and the uncontrollable need to move, talk, think, and do something—anything. I suffered classic hypomania symptoms of bipolar disorder throughout my adult life, and eventually gravitated towards those drugs to help me slow down the noise and activity in my mind and body.
Throughout those decades, the idea of experiencing a mental health condition never really occurred to me. After all, I had been “cured” back in the 1970’s, and there was no way I was crazy; I was just “high energy.” Frankly, this served me quite well until I would “overamp” and make inappropriate decisions due to my inability to gauge and tailor or control my own behavior and responses effectively.
Worse, even if I would have been self-aware that I was experiencing a mental health issue, I would have never told anyone because being branded with a mental illness brought with it almost certain scorn, ridicule, ostracism, and blatant discrimination from those in my immediate circle and the larger community. It wasn’t until I entered counseling and a methadone maintenance program in early 2000 that I began to understand there was something underlying my compulsion to use, a need to self-medicate symptoms of my mental health challenges away.
Fast forward 15 years later and today I am in the final stages of a medically supervised withdrawal from methadone. More importantly, I am acutely aware that I suffer from some mental health issues, exacerbated by trauma experienced as a youth and repeated retraumatization—accompanied by “collateral” trauma—of decisions and behaviors related to a life spent in addiction.
Today, I wear the scars of my addiction and underlying mental health issues on my sleeve. I do so because when I was open to and seeking treatment, I didn’t ask the service provider I approached whether they were “addiction” or “mental health.”; I asked, “Can you help me figure out what is going on inside?”
Unfortunately, what I found was that very few were able to work with me on both fronts and that treatment delineation, to a large extent, continues in provider organizations today. Strides have been made, to be sure, but we as providers, as people in recovery, and as people needing the support of both groups, are still seemingly light years from effective and complimentary dual treatment options. Worse, the discrimination, ignorance, and fear of those experiencing a mental illness are still rampant in our communities and show little sign of abating anytime soon.
To help combat this, I and many others now talk openly, freely, and regularly about co-occurring disorders and work daily to raise awareness, reduce discrimination, and promote mental health. Good mental health provides not only recovery from the condition, but a liberating freedom, self-esteem, and genuine self-worth as well. We stand as a testament, along with millions of others—colleagues, friends, and peers—that recovery from both addiction and mental health challenges is not only possible, but to be expected.
From my perspective, what my peers need to do to help support those who are both in recovery and experiencing acute symptoms is simple:
- Provide easy-to-understand information that helps us identify and understand what’s happening to us as we endure our mental health challenges
- Offer real treatment and “return to life” options that are tailored to—and driven by—our complex needs and conditions
- Suggest opportunities to join our larger community without fear of discrimination, verbal and/or physical abuse, and/or marginalization
We are making progress every day, and the more we share about our lived experience and our journey into recovery, the more we raise awareness, smash stereotypes, and reduce the ignorance associated with mental health issues. Make no mistake, however, we still have a very long road to travel. It will be up to us to walk in the daylight along this path so that others are unafraid—and in fact, empowered—to join us.
This article was originally published as a Voices from the Field blog post to highlight the theme of Mental Health Awareness. Find the latest SAMHSA Blog posts about behavioral health and homelessness.
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