9-minute read time.
Stigma is an incredibly powerful thing. It keeps many of us behind closed doors, isolated and stuck between a rock and a hard place. We embody a sense of shame, a sense that we are just not good people, a sense that we are so abnormal and different that we do not belong.
At least for myself, that kept me stuck for an incredibly long time. I tried everything under the sun to protect myself from the truth of reality. Ego and manipulation kept me safe. My external successes would show everyone that I wasn’t defective and that I was okay. As long as I kept my true self buried and stayed distracted enough, I was going to be just fine. But, as we all know, this doesn’t and will never work. For some, it may work longer than others, but in the end it always comes to the surface.
This is why I decided to begin this blog with part of my addiction and mental health story. It won’t always be about me, and I am certainly not writing this for sympathy or pity, but simply as an overhead view of whom I used to be, and my journey to become who I now am. My scars are no better or worse than anyone else’s, they are just mine and my experience. Hopefully it allows some transparency and clarity into the methods and outlook I have on certain ideas and modalities in the present day. Most of all I hope you, the reader, will be able to connect to it, at least in part.
Over time through this blog I will bounce between my personal experience and the professional knowledge I have and will continue to gain. I wish to weave both together to make cohesive arguments or opinions on certain matters regarding addiction, mental health, and overall wellness. I’m not entirely certain how many ‘parts’ this particular story will be, as memories and relevant experiences come to mind all the time. Now, as mental health issues have re-entered my life after 2.5 years of sobriety, I find it is most relevant to speak on it and some of its possible origins.
Finally, thank you for taking this journey with me. I am excited to see where it leads.
I was 18 and finally out of my parents house, moving across the country to live with a couple of my closest friends. Life, and the world, was mine for the taking. I was invincible. Nothing could stop me. The ego was loud and proud, and of course, I knew all.
In the previous 3 or 4 years to this I was absolutely addicted to many substances (although I would have denied it if asked), including alcohol, MDMA, and cocaine. My life was an ongoing party. I was ‘popular’ in high school, and came to be known as the guy who could party hard. With lots of friends, that meant lots of excuses, pats on the back, and invitations to continue that lifestyle. The story in my head was that it was ‘cool’, I was ‘enjoying life’, and I had nothing to worry about.
I left home within a month of graduating high school and headed to Alberta. Right in the middle of the rockies, it was a picturesque and incredible landscape to reside in. The moment we touched down the party began (and never really ended).
Legal drinking age in Alberta is 18, so the bars were available to us. We had a few favourites, and nearly every night had us sitting at a table in one. Rather quickly, we met the local pill dealer (amazingly enough, he lived on the corner of our street) and the cocaine connection (a bartender where we were employed). Now, we were set. For the next year, we worked hard and partied harder than ever before.
After about a year of this lifestyle, things really began to take a toll mentally. I was worn down, tired, getting anxious, and started to feel like the walls were caving in. Then one night when visiting a friend, everything came crashing down.
I was stone sober, which was an anomaly in itself, and decided to puff on a joint that was being passed around. Within seconds, the usual suspects (although completely unknown to me at the time) of panic set in, and I immediately thought that it was the end for me. My heart was finally giving out, and I needed a hospital as soon as possible.
I arrived at the hospital, saw the doctor, and was told it was “just a panic attack”. I couldn’t believe it. For the longest time I had heard of anxious people, but I honestly saw them as weak individuals. I would always say, “just have a fucking drink and get on with it”, thinking that these people were lesser humans that I was. The beauty of life is that it usually proves your ego and selfish ways of looking at the world wrong. Since that day, I was now ‘one of those people’ suffering from mental health issues. The shame that came with that self-imposed label only made matters much worse.
Shame is a horrible feeling. My ‘better than’, ego-driven attitude towards people quickly shifted back to a ‘lesser than’ attitude, where it had been for much of the earlier part of my life. I was now navigating life from below.
In this frame of mind the masks I wore daily were many, and the pain I felt inside only increased. I was now in a battle with myself. There was the weak, isolated and fearful me on one side. On the other there was the strong, ego-driven, artificially confident me. Depending on who I was with or where I was, one of them ruled. If I simply accepted the good and the bad as just a part of my current experience, maybe things would have turned out differently. Unfortunately I just did not have that kind of wisdom yet and instead of becoming open, accepting, and changing my incredibly unhealthy lifestyle, I chose to go further and deeper into it. Why face this challenge when I can simply avoid it?
The drugs and the drinking increased tenfold. The story I told myself is that drinking meant no panic was possible, and therefore, in order to avoid those awful feelings and situations again, I had to stay drunk. This became my rule for life. I began drinking as soon as I woke up. Every. Single. Day.
As a cook at the time, I worked in a bar that had little control of its inventory. My daily routine consisted of getting to work at 7:00am, having a six-pack of beer down by 10:00am (before the boss came into work), and then two pitchers I used for ‘fish batter’ (which only required half of one). After the lunch rush we could ‘grease the wheels’, as it was phrased, and Jaegermeister shots would do the trick. By 4pm, when I got off shift, I would sit down at the bar and consume as much as I could in the hour before my second job, at another restaurant down the road. Of course, no human can consume this much alcohol and still manage their responsibilities, so what better substance to help me through it than a stimulant such as cocaine.
In the odd moments where I had no substances in my bloodstream, I was uptight, anxious, and would turn into a panic-riddled human in no time. The story I told myself was true, but thankfully I knew the cure. Unfortunately, that cure was incredibly short-lived and only made the problem worse. These avoidant techniques would be the only techniques I would know for many years to come.
After trying to navigate the world with this ‘disorder’ for half a year, I had nothing more I could do but pack it up and hightail it home. I was losing my mind I thought, and I was convinced I wouldn’t make it out of the Rockies alive if I had to stay any longer. Maybe the root of this problem was the place, and not necessarily me?
When I arrived home I was a much different person than when I left a few years prior. I was full chock-full of paranoia, anxiety, had incredibly poor habits, and ultimately a lifestyle that I couldn’t just move away from. It wasn’t that simple. I took me with me wherever I went unfortunately, so all that really changed was the people around me and my location.
At this time I began the pursuit of ‘fixing’ myself, and of course that started by seeing my family doctor and taking more drugs. I started taking medications for GAD (general anxiety disorder) and Panic Disorder, which helped the slightest (more of a placebo effect than anything) but was really just another form of avoidance. The drinking and drug used continued. I never allowed myself to believe that I would have to give that up for good in order to successfully remove this challenge.
For years after I struggled with the feelings, thoughts, and sensations of panic. Ups and downs were constant. One day would be great, and the next horrible. My life was in a constant state of hyper-vigilance to ensure the best chance of avoiding uncomfortable feelings. People, places, and things determined my actions for the most part, and panic (or even the thought of having panic) ran my life.
The fear that overshadowed me when I was sober was incredible. It touched every aspect of my life. I was so caught up in my head all the time that there was such little presence. To be able to go through my daily routine I had a multiplicity of rules I had to follow. The story I had in my head was that if I followed rule ‘X’, I would mitigate the anxiety. The problem was that these rules never really helped and only began to grow and adapt into new and more complex rules. Controlling everything was absolutely necessary. There was to be no uncertainty in my life, or else I would have to face the all-powerful demon of panic. Although never officially diagnosed, I look back on those rules as large red flags for obsessive compulsive disorder. If not OCD, definitely OCPD (obsessive compulsive personality disorder).
When I began to actually attempt to get sober there were of course many triggers at play in my life. Just being in the culinary industry is a difficult place to be for a sober alcoholic. Not to mention being in my early-to-mid 20s, making a decent living, and continuing to hang around with individuals still very much involved in that ‘scene’. I am not implying those aren’t massive triggers, but nothing was larger than panic for me.
Like clockwork, as soon as the sensations, emotions, and feelings came to the surface, the only thing that mattered to me was having a drink and having it as fast as I possibly could. To make matters worse, it actually worked. It worked every single time. As soon as that burning sensation hit the back of my throat I knew everything would be okay, and I could get back to life. But up to that point, it was a mad dash.
That’s the problem with addictive, pain-relieving substances and behaviours — they actually work — and since that was my only real coping skill at the time, how would it be possible to remove it from my life? There was no chance in hell I was giving it up. Even if the long-term consequences were harsh, the ability for it to relieve the short-term discomfort was too beneficial, especially in the moment.
And so, without a program of recovery where I would be learning new coping skills and building a crucial support system around me, it is no wonder I could never get sober for long, and no wonder panic ruled my life. For my entire 20s it was a revolving door of relapse and sobriety.
The panic only got worse, and it continued to develop into depersonalization/derealization over time. Whenever it came on it would be as if I entered into a movie and was watching life from the outside. My visual distortion during episodes was intense and horrifying. It was as if I was not real, as if I was watching my body from above. Furthermore, I would get sensory overload, mostly from light, but from sound and touch as well. There is not much I have experienced that is more uncomfortable than these episodes, especially without knowing what was happening or any coping skills to ground yourself.
Hope and hopelessness, pride and shame, ‘better than’ to ‘less than’, around and around the revolving door went. The longer it went the more I gave up and the more I bought into the story that this is just the way I was built and the way I was going to be forever. I started being convinced, more and more each time around, that nothing was going to or possibly even could change.
It wasn’t until I finally entered long-term recovery (and there is an important distinction between recovery and sobriety) that things could start to change. It wasn’t until I started applying the lessons and knowledge I was gaining in support circles and with counsellors or psychologists that I could start to heal, begin a new relationship with mental health and addiction, and start living a better life.
By Mark Gray