I’ve always felt like disaster follows me around. Or maybe I follow it. Either way, our paths collide far more frequently than I should be comfortable with. If I’m honest, I know it’s not coincidence. If we’re cutting to the chase here, it’s pretty simple- these chance encounters are pain attempting to become purpose. My pain. Because what is it all for, if not to equip you for your calling? Not to say we suffer so that we can prevent others from suffering, but if we must walk through fire (and I’ve come to know that in this broken world we will), well then why not come out the other side carrying a few hurting people you found along the way? I don’t always go willingly, though. I won’t give myself too much credit. The truth is, I’ve settled nicely into a quiet apathy that seems to suit me. Because nobody wants to be strong all the time. No one wants to be in repeated situations where they have to be. The last two years of my life have brought more quiet than I know what to do with- and in the absence of chaos, I finally stopped running. This would be the end of the story, the conclusion of my testimony, if I lived in a vacuum. But no such luck. There are far too many people with far too much pain living far too close by. So instead, I find myself smack dab in the middle of someone else’s nightmare a few times a month. The first on the scene of a car wreck, the phone number someone dials when they lose the desire to live, the one a fist is aiming for when the rage takes over. And Monday night? I found myself with a man who almost lost a battle with a silver tin full of Xanax bars.
In recent years, I thought my sole purpose was mental health advocacy. And while I think that holds true, there are layers to this calling that I am just peeling back. You can’t just stab to the heart of this issue- it’s too great. Too many walls, guards, and moats. So instead, I’ve been mulling over the most common byproduct of mental illness… self medication.
I had my first drink when I was 15 years old. To some that may seem shockingly young, and to others it may seem old. Depends on your trauma, I think. Anyways, it took just one solo cup to quiet the chaos in my head, and one more to silence it completely. It was game over after that. Not to say that I was an “obvious alcoholic”, because my obsession with perfection would never allow that kind of loss of control. I had my moments, though. I leaned heavily on this particular poison through any and all transitions and trauma in my life. If the adrenaline was flowing, well then the liquor better be also. I truly thought that I had found the solution to all of my troubles…because you can’t properly medicate something you never learned to name.
I’ve been sober now for a little over eight months. Doesn’t feel like much, I get to do life with friends who have over a decade under their belts, but it’s not nothing either. It’s 259 days without escape from my restless mind. I didn’t have a horrific rock bottom before I quit (not in this genre… but I’ve found quite a few others and can show you around). It was just a lot of little moments. Tip toeing the line, pushing boundaries, and a lot of gray areas. And knowing myself, my predisposition to addiction, and the unresolved trauma I’d been stuffing down for years… it was a recipe for implosion. It may have been tempting to risk before, but not with two pairs of tiny footprints following in mine. We humans don’t like pain, don’t want to feel it, and damn sure don’t want to do the hard work to grow through it. I miss the warm numbness of a quiet head every single day, but I won’t give in. I can’t. Because now? Now I have tasted and seen the fullness of a life spent feeling.
I don’t believe that alcoholism or drug addiction is ever the root. They are diseases, no doubt, but secondary to something else entirely. If you really break it down, people use substances to escape from discomfort. That’s it. Whether you are running from past trauma, a disordered mind, or monotonous life… it’s all running. It’s all escape. So while the self medication may be the obvious problem, and the easiest to temporarily eliminate… you’re barely scratching the surface. When my youngest son was a newborn, he would cry. Okay that was the understatement of the year- the kid would wail. For hours on end. My husband and I tried desperately to solve the problem, but to no avail. We worried he was too cold or over tired, hungry or over fed. We changed diaper brands, soaps, bed sheets, and swaddles. But he was just crying, right? Babies cry. Why not just let him cry it out? Because we knew there was something deeper. There was a root, and the crying was just an outward expression of the inner turmoil. Do you see where I’m going with this? People aren’t just drunks and addicts. They don’t wake up one day and voluntarily walk that path… it’s only a symptom. So, why don’t we try to dig deeper? Because it’s uncomfortable for everyone involved. The brain is complex- and emotions, feelings, and thoughts can get hairy. So, we let them cry it out. And in comes substance abuse like a knight in shining armor, flaunting peace and release. Chances are, if you have begun to self medicate, you already know the name of the darkness you’re desperately trying to keep at bay. And alcohol and drugs just don’t seem that bad when compared to the looming trauma that took years to experience and will take years to process.
Turns out, once you reveal yourself to the world as “mentally-ill”, you give others permission to spill their guts around you. It’s awesome, because its freeing. And every single time, with every single story, I hear it. The hurt. The limiting belief. The deep-seated fear that if anyone knew me, if I let this cat out of the bag, that would be it for me. But here’s the deal. If we all have the ugly stuff- the obsessive thoughts, the anxiety, the dark depression, the trauma and wounds and the massive baggage… then why are we ALL wasting time hiding it? It’s like going to a surprise party for ourselves, that we helped plan. The gig is up! And I get it, many generations before mine spent their entire lives covering all “imperfections” like their lives depended on it. That breaks my heart for them, but not for you. Because if you’re reading this, you’ve still got time. What would happen if you just spilled the beans? What if you just turned your pockets out, and let all of that shit just fall to the ground? Sure, it may make a mess at first. You’ll probably feel really embarrassed and sweaty for a while (I’m still not used to the responses I get telling people I’ve been to a mental hospital), but what follows is freedom. It’s resources and healing. And you just won’t find that at the bottom of a bottle or syringe. Not for long, anyways.
On Monday night at Shower Up, after the third incident in a row I had witnessed, the sheriff suggested I was “bringing the trouble out.” Maybe that’s true, but I’m happy to do it. Trouble in the light is far less daunting than pain in the dark. I’m not scared of your pain, I doubt I’ll even flinch. I accepted my mental illness diagnosis in 2015, but continued to self medicate for 6 years after that. I made some shitty decisions in that time frame, and I’ll probably make a couple million more before I’m done on this Earth. We’re all a work in progress, and I am grateful for every opportunity I have to be an outstretched hand in someone else’s story. So, bring it on.