Erica lived with various mental health challenges, including borderline personality disorder, anxiety, depression, and addictions to alcohol and drugs. She tried for so many years to get better, but the road to recovery was littered with obstacles.
Erica started drinking when she was 12 and, admittedly, I had no idea what to do beyond telling my parents, and I certainly did not understand what was happening or how/if I could help her. I chalked the addictions up to choices she was making, because that was the context in which I had learned about my grandparents’ and my aunt’s alcoholism – they were making choices.As I learned more about what Erica was struggling with and tried to help her navigate the various services that were available to her (when she wanted to use them), I realized just how many obstacles there were.
First, there was the mental health vs addictions obstacle. She would seek help for her mental health issues, which were often debilitating, and she would be told that she had to get “clean.” (I still hate that word. Erica was not dirty). So, Erica would work on discontinuing her use of alcohol, marijuana, and heroin (she used other drugs as well, but these were the ones she used most frequently) by going to detox and various rehab programs and then, when she returned for help with her mental health issues, they would give her a prescription for pills…that were addictive.
Erica struggled with that so much and – often – refused to fill those prescriptions or take the pills, because she was so scared of getting addicted again. “How can they tell me they can’t help me unless I stop using drugs and then give me drugs?” she would plead. Sadly, there is no answer to this question that can satisfy someone who struggles with addiction.
Second, there was the complete lack of understanding – or even attempt to understand – what Erica was struggling with. People told her to just stop using alcohol and drugs, just stop. People told her to just cheer up, just smile. People told her to get more rest, just sleep. People told her to improve her diet, just eat right. And people told her to get more exercise, just walk. Like Erica wouldn’t have done every single one of these if it was just that easy.
This is all too common, unfortunately. Someone living with mental health issues is told to
just cheer up, or someone living with addiction is told to just put down the bottle, needle, etc. I hope the day comes soon when everyone acknowledges that mental health and addiction are about brain health. You can no more easily cure a mental illness by smiling than you can cure asthma by breathing.
The third obstacle may have been the most difficult for Erica to overcome. In fact, I would suggest she was not able to overcome the third obstacle.
There came a point – after a long and frightening roller coaster ride of being in and out of detox, rehab, and hospital – when Erica did her best to take control of her treatment. She found an apartment in an area that got her away from people with whom she no longer wanted to socialize, she found work that she could do at home, and she got a dog. She was – if you didn’t know what she was living with – stable.
There came a point when – if you were the type to criticize her for her choices – she was making healthy choices. Yet, there were people in her life who continued to criticize those choices; who continued to second-guess her; and who continued to undermine the decisions she was making.
I remember having a conversation with her and saying, “Erica, you’re an adult. You’re capable of making your own choices about your diet, living arrangements, and lifestyle. Just because someone else doesn’t like them, doesn’t mean they’re bad or wrong choices.” But it became too much for her. It was too stressful and too painful an obstacle to overcome.
Having watched Erica face and helped her try to overcome these obstacles on her road to recovery, I can say that we have quite a bit of work to do to make recovery an easier transition for people. Reducing stigma, attempting to understand (particularly when so many of us live with or know someone who lives with) mental health and addictions issues, and trusting people are key.