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The Mentally Ill and Addicted

Posted Apr 21 2011 5:25pm
I've become friends with a couple of people online who are both alcoholic and suffer from schizophrenia, both of them happen to be men, but could just as easily be women.  The fact that they are men is of personal significance to me because until this past year all my online friends have been mostly straight women.  Because I've lived with an alcoholic and also have used marijuana during my relationship and afterwards, my perspective on addiction and drug use is less ignorant and less critical than perhaps some of my friends online.  I think most people who haven't been caught by the darker path of addiction don't have a clear view of the hell of being tied to an addictive substance (and I'm not referring to marijuana which I have found to be helpful and non addicting).  Some of my friends do, however, have a clear idea of what it's like to be tied to mental illness.  In some ways, I see psychotic mental illness as similarly addictive, whether one suffers from schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder or bi-polar disorder.  For schizophrenia sufferers, it is a thought addiction.  For schizoaffective sufferers, it is both a thought and mood addiction and for bi-polar sufferers it is mainly a mood addiction.  We, the afflicted, keep returning to particular and often ego oriented thoughts and moods; we get stuck there for a time until we right ourselves through medication, therapy, support groups and the individual application of some mental health program in our lives.  The way these things right us is through self-reflection, self-honesty and sharing our stories with others who have been through similar experiences.  This applies not just to mental illness but to addiction.

I have a strong respect for addicts, especially those who try to face and conquer their addictions.  I myself am a lesser addict because I still fall from time to time into cigarette addiction.  Of course, when addicts are actively using they are caught like a fly in a spider's web, stuck, struggling.  What frees them is sometimes hard circumstance (jail or hospital time) or some subtle yet powerful shift in perspective.  I have found with smoking cigarettes that I got so sick and tired of being chained to a smoke that eventually I took steps to free myself, but that happened after years and years of blindly using.  I did manage to make a break from my addiction, though I have had several temporary relapses.  Relapse is part of the addiction cycle.  If you're any kind of addict, I think you have to expect it.  The main thing is to love yourself enough to stop the cycle as soon as you're able.  Yes, I know there are those who quit and stay quit for decades and that's great for them, but for the rest of us there is a need for tolerance and compassion as we struggle up the stream.  The all or nothing attitude of many 12 step type people is not as helpful as they think it is.  What's key is having a stretch of sobriety and that's the hard part for many addicts because when you try to quit, you have to wish for it to be forever and that's a scary thought for anyone who is chemically dependent.  So initially you aim very high and work very hard.  That span of sobriety is such a relief when it comes; it shows that yes you can do it and your mind begins to clear and you begin to reflect on your life and get a better perspective.

I once met a man online 4 or 5 years ago who suffered from drug resistant schizophrenia and who was a recovering addict.  He called himself "good soldier" because that's what it's like when you're fighting the good fight, hanging out in the trenches, occasionally finding yourself in an open space with sunlight on your shoulders.  Mental illness is bad, but lay addiction on top of it and you really do have to be a kind of warrior: skilled, focused, tolerant and with a sense of humor.  And there are a lot of these warriors out there on the streets each day.  It's easy to call someone a drunk or a junky and sort of dismiss them as hopeless, but that's a viciously bad attitude, because the truth is the drunks and junkies who achieve sobriety (without stinking thinking) are like little heroes and heroines.  They've got both heart, intelligence and courage and I think they need to hear that more from folks who are blessed enough not to be chemically addicted.  I certainly count my blessings.  I know if I were ensnared by alcohol, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, etc... that I would be right down there in the pit with the best of them.  And I can also empathize because I have been in the pit of acute mental illness.  I've been to the other side;  I've been to hell, but hell is not all there is, though when you're in it, it feels like it.  I just think it's very important for those of us with mental illness to be respectful and protective of those of us with an even harder burden to bear, that of mental illness and physical addiction.
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