My name is Toni and I am a dually-diagnosed polysubstance addict. This means that, in addition to the disease of addiction, I have a medically diagnosed underlying mental disorder which is not caused by the use of drugs. I was asked to write candidly about my journey, and I fully intend to be as straightforward and honest as I can be.
For as long as I can feasibly remember, I have felt different from the people around me. I distinctly recall being convinced that something was profoundly wrong with me as far back as age seven or eight. Around that time, I became genuinely suicidal for the first time. One day, having been overcome with despair, despite having probably the best quality of life an eight year-old could ever hope to have, I resolved to end my life. I went to the bathroom and grabbed a bottle of air-freshener spray which was boldly marked “TOXIC,” held the spray-end in my open mouth with my finger on the pump, and sobbed for what seemed to be forever. I can picture it as vividly as the day it happened, and in a morbid way, it seems comical; a spritz of this “toxic” citrus air freshener likely wouldn’t have done much more than leave a bad taste in my mouth, but the sentiment was very, very real. I wanted to die. My life seemed hopeless and unlivable, as an eight year-old! Only recently, nearly twenty years later, did I finally tell my mother about that incident. She was shocked, and simply couldn’t imagine me feeling that way as a child.
You see, I’m great at hiding the way I feel from others. When I was younger, my family described me as being “sensitive.” Never would they have guessed just how much anguish and sadness I really felt. I had very little control over my emotions, but I learned very early on to suppress my expression of them, because the reactions I observed when I did show how I was feeling were nothing short of crushing to my already low self-esteem. For the most part, this allowed me to stave off unwanted attention. However, when a person consistently bottles-up anger, sadness, fear, and shame, the results are eventually pretty ugly, and generally much, much worse than if those emotions were freely expressed in the first place. To this day, when I hear certain words or music, and occasionally for no reason that I can discern, I will have intrusive flashbacks to my emotional outbursts and the embarrassment they caused me. Despite the fact that most of these incidents (which I won’t detail) happened years ago, the accumulated pain of those memories is still sometimes problematic for me to deal with, and in the past, was a perfect excuse to use drugs and alcohol.
It should be mentioned here that, as a result of my parents opening a business and working for themselves, we were required to travel, a lot, and when I say a lot, I mean that I had been to 45 of the 50 states by the time I was a teenager. In many ways, I am very grateful for the experiences we had, and the time we spent together. Indeed, some of the most joyful moments of my life happened during these long journeys around the country. However, it was also during these trips, always by car, that I found my first way to escape the festering loneliness and sadness I had been carrying with me: Indulgent and obsessive mental fantasies. Silly as it may seem, I look back now on the way my thought processes were developing with unease and sadness. I would mull over the same topic for hours and hours, as if playing with a purely imaginary rubix cube. I would probe concepts and ideas for new angles, bleeding them of their profundity and novelty, until I came across something new in a book or magazine I was given (these were well before the days of portable internet access). This pattern of thinking and the antisocial behavior that came with it served me well in school, and I frequently won awards for academic success. In other areas of my life, however, my developing obsessiveness was certainly a liability.
At some point, my parents resettled in south Florida, in a rather affluent town. I loved being free, being able to socialize, being normal. Rapidly, however, my obsessiveness latched onto the idea of exploring my consciousness, and I was off to the races. I should note, for the sake of honesty, that my first real experience with drugs was not a good one. I drank a pharmacist’s bottle of Robotussin cough syrup, while in class at middle school, and ended up overdosing some ten hours later. I can vividly recall my mother taking me to the hospital, driving frantically, while I felt the distinct sensation that I was drowning. This turned out to be my inability to breathe fast enough to keep up with my heart rate, which was 221 beats per minute, sustained, for around eight hours. I’ll never forget the purple color that spread over my body as my tissues were starved of oxygen. I should have died. To this day, my parents believe I took some sort of illegal amphetamine, refusing to believe that such an innocuous and “harmless” product as cough syrup could nearly kill their son.
This wasn’t enough for me to stop experimenting with drugs. I tried cocaine for the first time within a year, and had a full-blown stimulant habit before a month had past. I brokered illicit ADHD medication from students around me, and took everything I could. By 11th grade, I was failing nearly all of my classes, drinking every night, and abusing opiate pain medications. Suicide was all I could think about. My parents routinely kicked me out for a day or so at a time, and would always rethink their decision and let me come home. My life began to develop a striking and undeniable pattern: I would remain sober for three or four months (during which the idea of relapsing was unthinkable), and then totally collapse into a serious depressive state, and then subsequently begin to use drugs and alcohol again. My pattern of behavior didn’t change for years; I have been in-and-out of psych wards, rehabs, and twelve step programs, each time regressing and relapsing.
Along the way, I’ve had friends stop me from swimming into the ocean while blacked out (with the intent of suicide), I’ve been sedated and brought to jail, I have overdosed several times, and I’ve lost nearly everyone and everything I’ve ever even remotely cared about. The truth was easily identifiable, but I didn’t want to admit that I was anything but “normal.” I had some irrational fear that acknowledging and treating an already existing mental illness was worse than just toughening up and living with it. It turns out that doing so was well beyond the scope of my powers, and I continued to relapse and come crawling back to AA or treatment. Eventually, a therapist at one of the several rehabs I’ve attended found me to be annoying and backwards enough that they felt it necessary to (gently) point out the obviousness of my insanity. Perhaps she was fed up with one-sided conversations expressing my cynicism and unwillingness to go on. In any case, she convinced me to try medication again, despite my misgivings. This simple act has changed my life forever.
I wish now to remind anyone who may still be suffering to have patience with the process of finding the correct psychiatric treatment for their particular case. It took five years to find the combination of medications that work for me, but I couldn’t be more thankful that I didn’t give up when it seemed hopeless.
“The unhappiest people in this world are those who care the most about what other people think.” -C Joybell C.If I could describe to you the freedom I feel today, from drugs, from impulsive recklessness, from manufacturing my own misery and ill-health, and from my own mind, I would; but I cannot. I cannot accurately express to you the joy of being able to manage my emotions and having self-esteem. All I wish is that you might find the same freedom and happiness for yourself, too. You are worth saving. You deserve happiness and freedom, no matter what anyone says to the contrary, or what unfair judgements they may pass on you.