#BellLetsTalk Day, which is Wednesday, January 29, will see social media inundated with stories about people’s experiences with mental illness and stigma.
By writing this, I want to help bring addiction – which is also a mental illness – into the conversation.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission states: “There is often significant cross-over between addictions and mental health issues, with many people experiencing both.” It also says, “People with addiction disabilities have the same right to be free from discrimination as other people under the Code.”
My back gets up when I hear people judging or blaming those with addictions, in most cases substance use disorders, as if it’s a choice they make every day. Yes, in the beginning, they may have chosen to try drugs or alcohol, but few actually choose to have this alarming illness take over their lives.
These aren’t just “junkies”, “drunks”, or “addicts”. They are our fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and friends.
Psychology Today sheds some light on why people become lost to their addictions: “A person with an addiction uses a substance, or engages in a behavior, for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeat the activity, despite detrimental consequences.” It goes on to say: “Because addiction affects the brain’s executive functions, centered in the prefrontal cortex, individuals who develop an addiction may not be aware that their behavior is causing problems for themselves and others.”
DrugRehab.com puts it more bluntly: “Addiction is a chronic brain disease that causes compulsive activity despite health, social and legal consequences. The disease is caused by a variety of factors and (can) lead to long-term negative consequences that can be deadly.”
Such was the case for Robert Emond, a client and friend who was addicted to cocaine. He also has a rare mood disorder, cyclothymia, that was never properly diagnosed due to his substance use. Symptoms include brief periods of mild depression and hypomania, that are less severe than full-blown bipolar disorder.
“When you have cyclothymia, you can typically function in your daily life, though not always well,” Robert says. This helps explain some of his risky behaviours.
He describes borrowing large sums of money to put into the stock market, exuberant trips to many locations and generally living beyond his means. “This was all while being in a complete state of mania. Then, I’d have the lows and that’s where the cocaine abuse was most destructive.” Robert says that after a good long run, he couldn’t function for days, sometimes weeks and was suicidal much of this time.
Eventually, it all became too much. “I checked myself into recovery at the Top of the World Ranch Treatment Centre in Fort Steel, B.C., far away from the community where I’d lived, worked, and partied for so long,” he said. “I owe them my life.”
Addiction cause and effect
While addiction can be related to genetic or environmental factors, Robert’s story is deeply embedded in trauma. “I watched my father die a slow, painful death, succumbing to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) at the age of 45. I also witnessed a murder at a young age. I was deeply affected by these and other stressors and turned to alcohol and drugs to numb my pain.”
He was emotionally and physically absent throughout much of his dad’s illness. “I had enormous guilt after he died, regretting that I hadn’t spent more time with him when I had the chance.”
Today, with proper medication and under the care of a psychiatrist, Robert feels he is more in control of his reactions to the stresses of life. “I still have a pretty deep hole to dig myself out of, but I am starting to make positive progress due to finally being properly diagnosed.”
The recovery journey
Robert is now a certified recovery coach and runs White Wolf Inspired Living, where he and his team focus on harm reduction and abstinence-based coaching.
He shares how, as a problematic substance user in recovery, you experience new things every day as part of your emotional sobriety. “My new life is filled with more peace of mind, fewer racing thoughts, and new, deeper relationships with my family, and probably most importantly, my new spiritual connection to the universe.”
He adds, “I am profoundly grateful that I could have crashed, but I caught it in time. That’s what I want to bring to the lives of others — that incredible experience of getting your life back.”
There are many, like Robert, who need our understanding and support so that they can get the help they need. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health shares that, in any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians experiences a mental illness or addiction problem and that, by the time Canadians reach 40 years of age, 1 in 2 have—or have had—a mental illness.
Robert’s story is indeed, one of survival, resilience and hope.
These are the stories we all need to hear.
Please consider sharing this post to help create more understanding about what addiction looks like for someone who has been through it OR add your supportive comments below. If you wish to reach out to me personally, please do at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can read more about addiction and mental illness:
For more stories I’ve written about how we can look differently at substance use disorders: