Self -Medicating An Addicts Story
28 May 2019
I haven’t touched drink or drugs since I was 25. That’s nearly 10 years - and yes, I do miss it.
I’ve never written about my experience before. Basically, I’m too dim to engage with the academic hows and whys of addiction. Folks much smarter than me can disagree about those.
I only have my experience kamikazeing from self-medication into addiction. I don’t know where one stops and the other starts but I can tell you that the nomansland between the two is littered with bodies, missed opportunities, and pieces of what once made you you.
Strap in for a cheery read.
Self-medicating & addiction
Addiction is a broad a term. Really, you can get addicted to anything that changes the way you feel. The usual dictionary definition of addiction covers activities as well as substances - so shopping, fighting, sex and exercise as much as food, fags, caffeine, booze, drugs and sugar.
There are 12 step programmes and therapies for virtually every problem behaviour. Shrinks, doctors and researchers can spend whole careers trying to figure it all out but as yet the all-knowing Addiction Compendium is unwritten.
For what it’s worth, I’ve come to see addiction as a matrix of probabilities in nature, nurture, experience and emotions. So chaos theory, really. One thing I’m relatively cool with is that it’s an equal-opportunities ass-kicker. I’ve met people from all backgrounds and all walks of life who’ve licked the same toilets as me. More or less, it can happen to anyone.
I also know people who’ve gone through damaging phases of self-medication but clawed their way back to normality without a major intervention.
For years that described my story. Until it didn’t.
Self-medicating had always played a part in my life. I grew up in a bad situation and a traumatic family event ruined whatever sense of security I had as a kid. Devil’s advocate, however, I know many people had it much worse than me. People who lived on my street, for example.
I’ve got no family history of addiction - at least not drinking and drugs - and of all my siblings I’m the only one who ever danced with the demons.
From the age of 14, I drank and used drugs regularly. You might think that sounds young but where I grew up it wasn’t. It didn’t start as a conscious attempt to self-medicate or blot out real-life, it was just fun.
In fact, even at 25 - when hospitals, creditors, police, emotional devastation and soured relationships all started to feature - drinking and using was, one time in ten at least, still fun.
It still did what it was supposed to do: it shut me down and lit me up like the Las Vegas strip.
When I was drinking I saw no problems, just a fluffy world fizzing with opportunities, bright lights and lovely, lovely people. In real life I saw the exact opposite of all of the above. No, under-the-influence I was covered in a dense, wonderful candy floss force-field. It was sweet as sin, twelve inches thick and guaranteed to protect me from life’s sharp bits.
For some reason my life came in waves of good and bad. During good times I’d use less, be more productive and progress. During dark or stressful times, I’d use more, regress and do some damage. Usually nothing irreversible.
For every three or four good months I’d have one bad. That was OK. The bad was a small price to pay to get to good.
When I was 21, I’d already been chewed up and spat out by the music industry. I now see that as a blessing - success would have killed me dead. But I was at university and had even managed to kick the drugs all by myself. I did a BA, got my MA and was, after a daring pitch at just 23 years old, handed a business by a prominent celebrity millionaire.
I was suddenly my own boss with a staff and a budget and a future written in financial language I still don’t understand.
Apologies I’m being vague. Without accreditation this all seems a bit spurious and sensational. I’m writing anonymously for obvious reasons and the point isn’t so much to tell my story but to urge anyone who is or may be self-medicating to address it before you get to where I got to.
The flight to addiction
Self-medicating isn’t just for the down-and-outs you see, or the A-listers you hear about. It’s for all us normie chumps in the great big middle. As much as it depresses me, I’m just not that special and different.
In that spirit, at 23 I had a good job and money in my pocket. I had a partner and a life and a circle of friends. I was making my way in the middle - just like everyone else. And like everyone else playing the great social spin game - I’d tell everyone just how fine I was doing.
As I said, I often turned to drink to self-medicate during my waves and this post-uni period was no different. Drink was a good way to avoid decisions, obligations, truths, people and life.
My job carried a lot of responsibility and I went through periods of needing drink. But as ever, I’d ride those waves and soon - when circumstances changed or a full moon shone - I’d be out again. When the bad was over we hit another productive cycle. Drinking to excess ceased being a need and reverted to being a lovely, cuddly, sociable want.
I don’t think anyone consciously, willingly toddles into addiction just to try it out for a bit. Again, I’m not sure what the academics say. All I know is that drink, for me, was a faithful friend and always there when I needed it. But that was becoming more and more often.
Remember when I said my good-month-to-bad-month ratio was circa three to one? By the age of 24/ 25, the depths were getting lower for longer. My good-month-bad-month ratio had evened out to probably 1:1, or maybe 4:4. Drink was facilitating and causing as many problems as it was theoretically solving. And by that point drugs had crept back in.
Damages and body counts
Whenever I’m asked to tell my story - which I have never written but many times delivered in speech form - I’m often tempted to sensationalise the tabloidy bits. I still think there’s a cool factor wrapped up in the fact that yes, I got arrested. Yes, I got naked a lot. Yes, I have scars and stitches. And so on and so forth.
But the clubs, pubs and Hollywood nights represent about 0.25% of my drunkalogue. The reality was an infinitely more boring downwards spiral where I just got sadder and lamer. I spent many more evenings than I didn’t self-medicating in front of YouTube, and movies I’d seen 20 times before. Inglourious Basterds was a particular favourite.
What was at the root of it all? See intro - I’m not sure. A matrix of factors. Chiefly, I was far too young and immature - emotionally speaking - for the situation I was in and I simply wasn’t talking honestly with anyone around me. I had no outlet. I was stressed out about work, about money, about a romantic life I was utterly sabotaging and I was spinning plates and lies to keep it all under control.
I wanted to give the illusion of someone who was truly kicking life’s ass. I wasn’t talking because that’d make me look weak. And where I come from, you can’t afford to ever look weak. The cost of keeping quiet? A tragic roundabout of drinking and anxiety and shame and drinking.
As I said in the intro, I’m not sure where the line between self-medicating and addiction is. But for me the nomansland between the two is measured in damage. There’s the physical, tangible, financial damage: the not cleaning, the constant lethargy, the sickness, the not paying bills, the nothingness of it all …
But there was also the body count - and the chamber of horrors inside my head.
My partner soon had enough - drink was more important. Numbing emotions out was massively preferable to letting them seap in. My friendship circle had dwindled to a couple and patience was running thin. My hangovers devolved into deep psychological nightmares. The old remedy of a fry up and a puke had long stopped working.
Without drink, life was constant fear, anxiety and doom. Drink helped to dilute everything. By the time the damage was piling up, my conscience couldn’t get through the day on its own. Yep, we were solidly on our way to addiction here.
Making matters worse, to outsiders this looked like a reasonably successful period and I kept up the charade. I lied a lot. I still ran the millionaire’s business but by this time I was in negotiations to buy it - and for more money than a chump from a bad postcode thought possible. I was trying to keep up the day job while flying solo in a negotiation - and a life - that I was utterly unequipped for.
What helped? Drink and more drink. It was self-medicating, sure. Just a lot of it, all the time.
Let’s start talking?
In the last ten or so years I’ve met a lot of addicts and alcoholics. It’s common that they give up their vice because, they say, it stopped working for them. By that, they mean that the substance or behaviour stopped holding up its end of the deal. And when your magic medicine can’t dampen the pain/ the noise/ the anxiety, you have to find another way. You have to.
For too many that means descending into harder stuff to find relief deeper down in the abyss. For too few that means talking, pleading. Asking for help and trying to get back the life you know is possible.
But at 25, I was done. I’d run out of try agains. Constant self-medicating had turned my gorgeous candy floss force-field into a hardened cocoon. Instead of sweetening my view of the world I relied on it to protect me from everything. I know - we all wear masks, we all do a bit of the self-protection gimmick.
But I reinforced my cocoon on all sides to be harder; better; faster; stronger. Ultimately, it was a stronger and more acceptable front than the person cowering inside.
After a while, I was only prepared to show the world the cocoon - there was none of me left. Worse still, the inside of my cocoon was covered in mirrors so a fat, mad, sweaty, dishonest stranger stared inescapably back at me 24/7. Yeah, time to ask for help.
Stopping? Not easy. You have to talk your way out honestly yet it’s been a long time since you faced the truth or had a true voice with which to deliver it. Fessing up time was tough. As I said - and I think it’s true for many - weakness, or perceived weakness, doesn’t have much play in 2019.
When you hear the phrase chemical dependency your brain may replay the scene in Trainspotting where Renton’s seeing dead babies in the ceiling as he cold-turkeys off heroin. People assume chemical dependency is physical; or at least the intersection of physical and psychological.
But it’s also social. I miss the confidence and lightness drink gave me. Drinking is - at its heart - supposed to be a social thing. That was my chemical dependency. I was dependent on booze to function socially. That’s the bit I miss and the bit I find hardest when doing life neat.
Talking. Talking is difficult yet I’m someone who needs it to stay right.
Self-medicating and addiction. I’m not smart enough to know if one definitely leads to the other. It probably can. For me it did. I didn’t want to leave the house without my marvellous cocoon protecting me from fear, anxiety, people, news, emotions and reality.
If you or someone you love might be self-medicating then try to take action. As LifeSearch research found, we’re not talking to each other and the best of us - even those moderates - lie about this stuff in significant numbers. Plenty probably lied to the pollsters so maybe we’re staring just at the tip of the iceberg.
No one’s trying to go moral police force on you. Hey, it’s fun getting pissed and messed up. If you can handle it then go for it.
But if you’re lapsing into regular, problematic, spiralling self-medication, you need a healthier solution before your want to numb becomes a need.
The cocoon works for a while, but just like in nature they’re not meant to be permanent. Some twee stuff about beautiful butterflies breaking out …
It gets pretty dark in the cocoon, claustrophobic. Ultimately there’s only room for one and your sanctuary soon becomes a prison.
If that even remotely describes you then, sorry pal, it’s time to talk.
Thanks for reading x