My first day at University (College in some countries), as a 31-year-old, turned out a little different from what I had hoped. It was a big thing I was doing, heading into study as an adult, after about four years of mental illness. I was pretty anxious, and that showed when I found myself sitting in a Chinese language class rather than the Psychology class I had enrolled for. I made a quiet escape, knowing full well that while learning Chinese might be interesting and even useful, I knew I would never pass. Languages and me have never gone together.
Sixteen years later (and a completed degree in neither Chinese or Psychology) I can’t remember whether I eventually found the right class that day. It didn’t matter though, as that was my first, and last, day there.
I caught the train home, stopped at a wine shop on the way, and headed home to drown myself in anything that would take the pain away. I was so down on myself by then that drinking to feel better, or preferably to obliterate myself seemed the best course of action. It was a regular pattern I had adopted in a effort to cope with a life I hated. By the time my (now ex) husband arrived home from work I was passed out in bed. He thought I was simply tired (somehow he was naive enough to think this often). I had hidden the evidence of the drinking, as I had learnt to do in the preceding months.
“I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.”
― Edgar Allan Poe
I did this every day, alone. No one knew, and not even my husband ever guessed. He wouldn’t realise the extent until he read my book years later. I was an addict, and no one guessed. The only person who knew was my psychiatrist. She wasn’t happy.
About this time I was visiting friends. Totally unrelated to my situation, a conversation arose about alcoholics. One of my friends commented that alcoholics were just ‘scum who hung out in parks with their bottles in paper bags’.
Ouch! Was it the ‘scum’ or the ‘hanging out in parks’ I didn’t like? I think I took an exception to both, but kept my peace. I wasn’t strong enough to challenge his viewpoint. What my friends didn’t know about me meant they couldn’t hurt and judge me directly. They didn’t know they were judging me. I felt it though. It cut deep into me, and over years to come I would continually remind myself of what I was. Scum.
My period of alcohol abuse came to a end when I was spending most of my time as an inpatient in the local psychiatric hospital. I have since set rules for myself that I rarely drink, and I never drink alone. When I was drinking with others, I could stop myself after one, but if alone I would go on until I was unconscious. It was all or nothing, and my goal was always to take me away from the reality of life. I know how easy it would be for me to slip back into addiction. Addiction is just another part of me whether it be alcohol, drugs, self harm, starving myself, over-exercising, smoking. They’re were all addictions, just some were less ‘acceptable’ than others.
While my ‘friend’ judged me as scum, he didn’t know. I simply quietly moved myself away from his friendship. With friends like those who needs enemies?
I write regularly on my personal blog about the need to banish stigma relating to mental illness, and it’s something that is dear to my heart. Lately though I’ve heard a lot of people (often with mental illnesses or involved in treating mental illness) knocking those who have addictions. I find that so sad that those who suffer because of the stigma of mental illness, are choosing to judge those who struggle with the stigma of addiction.
Many who have addictions, also have (sometimes undiagnosed) mental illnesses. Really, we are no different to each other. We all have struggles, some with a bottle, or a needle, and some with emotions, mood and relationships. But we all struggle. We are all human beings, but for some reason addicts seem to have been blasted with stigma even more that mental illnesses.
Is this fair? I don’t think it is. I like the phrase, “love the addict – hate the disease”. It applies to those with mental illness too “love the person, hate the illness”. People with addictions are real-life people too. That might be stating the obvious, but sometimes that’s necessary. These people hurt too. We struggle too, we try to cope just as someone with a mental illness does. We just use different tools to try to ease our pain.
I think those with addictions should receive understanding and support from those with mental illness. We all suffer, what are horrible diseases. We owe it not judge people who are really no different from us. We owe it not to worsen the stigma. Surely we should look to support each other.
“Bad enough to be ill, but to feel compelled to deny the very thing that, in its worst and most active state, defines you is agony indeed.”
― Sally Brampton, Shoot The Damn Dog: A Memoir Of Depression
© Cate Reddell and A Canvas Of The Minds 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cate Reddell and A Canvas Of The Minds with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.