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My Experience With Mental Illness and Addiction

I am twenty-seven years old as I write these words. I own my own home and I have a dog I adore. I cook and I clean and I talk to my family on a regular basis.

I am publishing a book on mental health and addiction. I work hard to put a face, a name, to mental illness. I am aware that those of us diagnosed can work to shatter the stigma. I do my best.

I am healthy. I am functioning. But I take pills in the morning and more before bed. I have a psychiatrist I see when times get rough, and they do, but I always become well again.

My feelings on mental health awareness stem from my experience as a child. It is impossible to separate my illness--my life–from the child I was not long ago.

Living With a Mental Illness as a Child

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was twelve-years old. The diagnosis was not rash; everything else was ruled out first. I was not suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) nor was I exhibiting symptoms of Oppositional Defiant Disorder. I did not have an anxiety disorder–although I experience a high level of anxiety–and my behavior was not that of a child living with serious depression.

I was sick. I was a very sick little girl. My family suffered as they watched me become more and more unwell; as my siblings went to school and played sports I spent months in a children’s psychiatric hospital waiting to become well.

Years past.

Fifteen-years old, I found a combination of medication that worked. But I was frightened. I wondered: What does it mean to be ‘bipolar?’ Can I have children? Will anyone love me? Will I become sick again?

Above all: Do I even want to live with this illness?

I was afraid. Despite this, I went back to school. I graduated and went to college. And then I became an addict. Because I was afraid of mental illness. I was afraid of myself.

Addiction and Mental Illness

Is so common it’s become cliche. They often go hand in hand and I shook hands with drugs and with alcohol. I fell in love with the reprieve. If I were using, I could forget about bipolar disorder. I would rather be an addict–despite having almost died. Bipolar disorder had never killed me; addiction nearly did.

Cocaine became my best friend. My only friend. It replaced my parents and my siblings. It replaced the medication that had made me well. It replaced me.

People talk about hitting Rock Bottom in the realm of addiction and I hit it many times before I got sick and tired of falling. Of waking up in the hospital after having seizures. Of making my mother cry.

I got sick, sick and tired, of wanting to die.

Recovering From Addiction and Embracing Bipolar Disorder

Recovering from addiction is a long process and one that pains me to write about. But I recovered. Most of us do. Accepting my mental illness? Well, that was harder than quitting cocaine. That was harder than looking my mother in the eye and asking her if she still loved me.

I found myself back in my psychiatrists office. I found myself picking up medication at the pharmacy. I spent one night a week counting the different pills; two mood stabilizers, an anti-depressant, an anxiety pill and a sleeping pill. It was weird; quitting drugs and taking drugs. But these drugs made me healthy! They allow me to write these words.

Four years have passed. In this time I have stayed clean. I have worked very hard to understand that my illness will not go away. But I can make amends with it. And I have. Slowly, like the seasons, I have learned to find positives in having bipolar disorder. Yes, Positives.

Those of us who live with a mental illness are often more empathetic. Having experienced such a huge level of pain, we are able to understand that other people also suffer, and sometimes they need a hand to hold.

We appreciate life on a different level. I relish in each day I stay well. I have learned how to take care of myself. But it isn’t easy. I do not suspect it ever will be.

When I think of Mental Health Awareness Month, this comes to mind: It should not be limited to a month. I wish, more than anything else, that social awareness would happen every single day.

9 thoughts on “My Experience With Mental Illness and Addiction”

  1. Natalie,

    I’m sorry for what you went through as a child and young person. You are such an eloquent writer, and while I’ve just found your blog, I can see you work really hard on it and are passionate about helping others.

    Take care,
    rl

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I think you are an amazing woman. I am 48 yrs. old and I was diagnosed with Bipolar 12 years ago. I have 5 children and each one of them have challenges with depression, bipolar, or anxiety. My oldest son turned to alcohol to numb his depression when he was 16. That led to marijuana, then to pain killers, and then to heroin. He completed an addiction recovery program last Christmas Eve and is now at a junior college playing baseball at the age of 26. He gave up a college baseball scholarship right out of high school because drugs became more important to him than everything. 10 years of destruction and now he is beginning to rebuild his life. It hasn’t been easy but he has completed his first semester and is doing so well. Nothing could make me happier than watching him find himself again. I am always appreciative to hear from others who have been clean for a significant amount of time. Relapse is so common and stories like your gives me continued hope. Living with a mental illness is the hardest trial of my life, but like you and many others, I have found that it is possible to live a relatively normal, happy life. I have been blessed with a tremendous support system and I am surrounded with love each time I spiral into an episode. I somehow survive the deep depressions and I appreciate greatly my good, happy days. I know without a doubt that living with this illness has created in me a deeper love and compassion for those around me. I am a changed person. I believe that each experience we go through in life can in some way be for our good, even if it is just to be more understanding to others who struggle with mental illness. Thank you for sharing your story. Those of us who read it are blessed because of you and your strength. God bless you always.

    1. Hi, Dina
      Thank you so much for the positive feedback. It makes it all worth it. I cannot imagine how tough it is with five children who struggle; my parents had a heck of a time with just me. My heart goes out to you and might I extend the compliment; you are an amazing woman/mother!
      Sincerely,
      Natalie

  3. “I wish, more than anything else, that social awareness would happen every single day.” I love this and I’m right there with you. Daily awareness would not only help create better understandings but would allow people to feel a bit more included in every day life.
    Thanks for sharing this.

    Mark

  4. Thanks for sharing. Difficult words to read let alone write. You struck a cord with me so I wish you well.
    Keep getting stronger, feeling better & living life & laughing hard
    Xx

  5. Natalie, thank you for sharing. I also wish mental awareness every single day. It’s also hard for me to think that I will be living with bipolar for the rest of my life. But I carry on, I have to.

    Michele

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