Getting sober was one of the hardest things I’ve achieved in my life. What I didn’t expect was for it to reveal a long-standing history of mental illness. I had thought my depression was just a symptom of substance use disorder — a particularly bad comedown or the effects of using substances for years.
It takes the first few months – perhaps even the first year – for your brain chemistry to even out. All of that drug and alcohol abuse causes a lot of damage to your brain and hardwired it to seek pleasure-releasing substances: caffeine, nicotine, food, sex, gambling, etc. It also explains why we feel like we’re playing a game of Whack-a-Mole: We put down one substance only to develop a new reliance on another substance or behavior. Once we realize that common rite of passage for most people in recovery, we can stop blaming ourselves and can get help for the underlying illnesses.
Getting Sober Revealed Mental Illness
In my case, I revealed long-standing mental illnesses: depression and anxiety. I’ve had them my entire life and recovery showed me that it was actually the reverse of what I had thought — the mental illnesses caused me to self-medicate. My substance use disorder had not caused mental illness, although it certainly exacerbated my symptoms.
I wasn’t one of those people who was on a pink fluffy cloud when I first got sober. Even though I was grateful to be sober and to not have hangovers, I was not bouncing around happy, joyous and free. I was depressed, lethargic, exhausted and couldn’t stop eating, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. I was suffering from severe depression. The advice my sponsor gave me was to keep up my recovery program: meetings, step work, group coffees, checking in regularly, service, and light exercise – then see what happens.
Despite everything I did, I still felt the same way and it appeared to only get worse.
It was at that point that I saw my doctor. Knowing what I know now, I wish I had gone to my doctor earlier. People in meetings are not qualified to give medical advice – even the AA and NA literature state that we sometimes need to seek outside help (sadly, many people in fellowship don’t follow that guidance). My doctor immediately took action and helped formulate a medical plan.
After seeing my doctor, and following her guidance and medication, I felt better after just a few weeks. I often wonder if I had gone earlier if I wouldn’t have had to feel so terrible those first few months of recovery. I guess that’s why I feel so passionately about sharing my experience today.
Managing Mental Health in Recovery
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of managing mental health in recovery. If I feel mentally unwell, my recovery activities slip: I go to less Refuge Recovery meetings, I reach out to my friends less, and I am more isolated. It can lead to me sinking into a deeper depression. As a matter of principle, I ensure that I undertake the following activities to keep my mental health in check:
- I exercise regularly
- I get outside even if it is just for a few minutes each day
- I journal my thoughts and feelings
- I check in with another person in recovery
- I see my doctor on a regular basis and I take her advice – following through with the actions she prescribes
- I eat omega-rich, and serotonin-producing foods (oily fish, walnuts, turkey, yogurt, dark chocolate)
- I drink lots of water
- I have regular therapy
- I attend yoga.
As it happens, these activities also improve my well-being in recovery. Bonus! Over time, my mental illness has become mental health and, consequently, I live a pretty enjoyable life in recovery.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder and mental illness, The Recovery Village can help. With centers throughout the country, The Recovery Village offers comprehensive care for co-occurring disorders so you can get to the root cause of addiction. Call today to learn more.