Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Pain (and Pleasure) of Addiction and Mental Illness

As human beings, we typically seek out pleasurable experiences as opposed to painful ones. But when it comes to those living with addiction and mental illness the pursuit of pleasure can often end up with the person being in pain.

There’s an old saying that says, “No one ever asked to be born as an addict.” And I echo that sentiment. For those of us who have been afflicted with this brain disorder (and yes, I believe it is a brain disorder) it has helped to keep people enslaved to behaviors that are difficult to overcome. Drugs, food, sex, gambling, shopping, and even internet/social media use can all be a harbinger of fractured relationships, lost jobs, and even death.

Sure, when I took that first drink and drug it was fun and felt good. But this quickly changed and I found myself caught up in the obsessive and compulsive disease known as addiction.

Many people live with a dual diagnosis of mental and addiction disorders (7.9 million adults in a 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). These co-occurring conditions are often more difficult to manage than they are alone. I happen to be one of these people having lived with Bipolar Disorder and a co-occurring substance use disorder.

For those who struggle with addiction daily, it can be extremely painful – mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, socially, and even occupationally and financially. Basically, addiction affects one’s sense of wellness (or lack of).

In my case, my addiction not only affected my mental health but I also experienced problems with my relationships with family. It also affected my behavior. I lied, stole, and cheated to obtain my drug of choice. I am not proud of this but this is what using led to harmful behavior.

As both a Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC) for over 12 years, and also being in long-term recovery, I have met literally hundreds of individuals who have (and are still living) with the horrors of addiction.

There’s another adage that says that your worst day clean is better than your best day using. This may seem to be an abstract concept to some however I have to agree. I vividly remember this one so-called good moment. It was a sunny and cool October day. I had scored some of my favorite substance for myself and some friends and we proceeded to get high. I even bought an album later that day (OMD’s “Crush). But despite all of this I was still dealing with the effects of my addiction. My mental health was comprised and I subsequently ended up in one of the area hospital mental health units.

And then there’s the worst day clean. I’ve told this story many times. I was seven years clean and my wife was pregnant with our first daughter. As a result of a medication change I found myself in a full-blown manic episode that resulted in a 3-month leave from work (as a Counselor at Buffalo General Hospital) and a crippling depressive episode that took every bit of resolve for me to recover from.

But it was also during this time that I truly felt the love and support of my family and friends. My friend Mark took me to recovery meetings and allowed me to simply hang out with him. The love I received through the actions of those around me was the evidence of God working in my life. For every person who helped me during this time I felt God’s love. So yes, it was an incredibly hard experience to live through but I wouldn’t change any of it. It was through this good fortune that I was able to learn how to better take care of myself. This was in the spring of `1995 and I have not had a manic episode since.

And what about the pleasure of addiction and mental illness? You’re probably saying, “What’s so fun about that?” Well, I believe we can “flip the script” and use our mental health and addiction disorders and enjoy life. Now before you think that I’m being Pollyanna, I must first say that recovery is a process and isn’t the same for everyone. It’s also hard work. But once one is able to gain some traction and make even small progress then it’s possible to enjoy what life has to offer.

Despite the fact that I still consider myself as someone who lives with a mental health and co-occurring addiction disorder, I have had a multitude of pleasurable experiences. Sharing time with my friends and loved ones, running and cycling, enjoying the beauty of music – both recorded and live, and traveling to places that I once never could have imagined I’d to are all things that help to make life a little bit better.

The key for me has been to, despite how difficult things could have been, was to keep moving forward, sometimes an inch at a time. As long as I kept moving then there was hope.

Today I embrace both the pain and pleasure life brings. Yes, living with a mental and addiction disorder have often magnified these things but they simply make life that much more worthwhile. If we had no pain we could not experience pleasure.

Be well!


  1. Wonderful, helpful, encouraging disclosure!! You rock, Karl!

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