Dual Diagnosis + Early Sobriety: How To Handle Being Diagnosed With A Clinical Disorder In Early Sobriety.
I was officially diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and Severe Substance Abuse Disorder when I went into treatment in 2016. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) , “Bipolar disorder is a chronic or episodic (which means occurring occasionally and at irregular intervals) mental disorder. It can cause unusual, often extreme and fluctuating changes in mood, energy, activity, and concentration or focus.” My doctor had explained the imperativeness of taking my medications every day, explained how they work in my brain and the side effects of each of them.
A disorder? Medications? I felt desperate and confused. I thought going through treatment for addiction would free me from medications, not make me reliant on more of them. I had to realize that I wasn’t the doctor in the situation and that I had been self medicating for about 14 years and landed myself in treatment — so my decisions probably weren’t the way to go. Dual Diagnosis is said to be “… a term for when someone experiences a mental illness and a substance use disorder simultaneously. Either disorder—substance use or mental illness—can develop first.”
Receiving dual diagnosis treatment while trying to get through early sobriety is tough: so many mixed emotions and feelings, physical fatigue and hyperactivity. Learning how to live a new life while paving new paths and reconstructing the neural pathways in our brains can be overwhelming, as we’re trying different types of recovery such as Medication Assisted Treatment, or the 12 steps of a support group, you’re making the decisions of your recovery. Taking medications was an important part of my early recovery and much better than the alternative: going back to active addiction, and living with untreated Bipolar Disorder. All I could do was finally trust in people and give it a thorough shot and thank god I did. I wouldn’t be where I am today without those medications and the program of the 12 steps during my early recovery.
I had been taken to the doctor when I was younger to specifically test for anything that would cause my terrible behavior. My drug use was disguised as behavioral problems in my turbulent household (all caused by me, of course) and my parents started noticing quick. My mother couldn’t stand the idea of having a “crazy” daughter, and took me home without getting medications. It’s easy to ignore all the mental instabilities you have when getting high. Heroin keeps you in the dark about mental illness, keeps you safe from the stigma because when you’re getting high, you don’t have Bipolar Disorder. Since being in recovery, I have noticed that my medications are really helpful with my daily functioning and more importantly, helpful with my behaviors. I always wondered, if I were prescribed the proper medications when I was younger, would I have sought out self-medication with heroin?
For once in my life, I felt whole. I was working a 12 step program and taking my medications daily. I felt invincible… until I didn’t. About 7 months into my sobriety, I started playing doctor and stopped taking my Bipolar meds. I felt as if I didn’t need them anymore because things were going so well in my life. Wrong. That great idea had landed me into a deep depression where I couldn’t get out of bed. I cried all the time, and when I did get out of bed, I found myself driving 85mph on the freeway hoping to get in an accident and die. I quit my job but didn’t have any leads on a new one, and lost all my friends and family. I was like a virus infecting anyone I could. I wanted everyone to feel the pain I was feeling, mentally and emotionally. It was that bad.
The second time I stopped taking my Bipolar meds, I strongly considered relapsing. Alcohol, heroin, pills, anything I could get my hands on to get out of myself and the way I was feeling. I stopped seeing friends, I stopped working my recovery program; I started lying to and manipulating people. All of my character defects were erupting. My life was crashing down around me and I just sat and watched. Around this time, I isolated away from my support system of recovery meetings and everything sobriety related. Because I have a chemical imbalance in my brain, the sudden absence of medications resulted in intense panic and thinking the worst of all situations. I remember obsessive thoughts, aggressive mood swings and complete emotional breakdowns. I was exhausted. I needed to get back on my medications. And that’s exactly what I did. I “told on” myself. I told my friends, my family, and I told my doctor. Although disappointed, she put me back on my meds. It took awhile for me to be myself — outgoing, resilient, and joyful.
People say that addiction is a mental illness, a disease. Harboring two mental illnesses in early recovery can be taxing, it can feel like it’s not worth it, it can be emotionally and mentally depleting. But, if you just keep taking your proper medications, make new friends, talk to a therapist or a counselor, and work your recovery, you will be able to experience that good life that we all deserve. Today, I remember to take my meds and stay on track in my own recovery program. The grass can’t be greener on the other side because I have all the grass I need. If you or a friend or family member feel like they have Bipolar disorder or any other disorders while in early recovery, don’t be afraid to reach out for professional help. We don’t need to self medicate anymore, we don’t need to play doctor anymore, we don’t need to be depressed, erratic or not ourselves ever again if we don’t want to. Take life by the horns, don’t blame the cards you were dealt, and find it within yourself to persevere and conquer these mental illnesses!
As Workit Health’s Intake Coordinator, Corissa Lappin is passionate about helping others bridge the gap between addiction and long-term recovery, as she did herself. She has a BA in Psychology from SFSU, and has previously worked in the recovery field as a medical assistant and clinician supervising those on methadone and buprenorphine.