Many persons struggle not only with bipolar disorder, but with the secondary issue of substance abuse—alcohol, drugs or both. If you are someone who has been able to overcome substance abuse, can you share some helpful words of advice with bp readers?
I’ve been living with bipolar for most of my life. I began to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol when I was 15 because I felt like I was different from my friends. I quickly learned that alcohol does not mix well with this illness! Fortunately I was scared sober thanks to the shady crowd I was hanging out with. I started by attending AA and Women for Sobriety meetings. I begin each day thinking, “I’m not going to drink today,” and at the end of the day I thank whatever my higher power is. It really is day by day. I have been sober since July 4, 1994.
—Name Withheld, Toronto, ON
Overcoming substance abuse is a battle on its own. Combined with bipolar disorder, it would seem to be almost impossible. I am not going to sugarcoat the process. I have been sober now for several years. With a dual diagnosis it has been a long and hard process, but it can be done and is a very rewarding experience. In your journey towards sobriety you will learn about yourself, others, and things around you that may in the past have been blurred by addiction. Take one day at a time, be compliant with your medications and remember to praise yourself for your accomplishments.
—Nicole M. , Pitt Meadows, BC
I’ve been sober since 1990 and diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder since 2002. The things that have helped me have been to learn as much about each disorder as possible, to look into all the resources available to help me live with both problems, and to find ways to help others deal with the same issues. Today I’m a psychotherapist and author specializing in addictions, mood disorders, and PTSD, which I also have.
—Jim F. , Albuquerque, NM
I find that nonalcoholic beer is a great substitute for the real thing. It tastes virtually the same as the alcoholic beers and it’s excellent on hot days. (Editor’s Note: Most nonalcoholic beers contain less than 0.5 percent alcohol, but even that amount may pose a risk for alcoholics.)
—T.O.B., La Verne, CA
Long before I was diagnosed with bipolar II I drank to excess. It was always worse in the spring and summer. I now know that was when my mania was in full bloom. I unknowingly was using alcohol to manage my mania. Thank God I was introduced to Alcoholics Anonymous. It saved my life. I am an alcoholic and I am bipolar and I am dealing with both.
—Steven O. , Overland Park, KS
After self-medicating for 38 years (mostly heavy marijuana use), I became honest with myself due to many physical, emotional and mental problems. I finally admitted to myself I had a problem. Not knowing what to do, I told my doctors about my condition. Then I joined a group that offers support for my recovery. But most importantly, I still take my medicine.
—Bruce, Red Bay, AL
Diagnosed bipolar in 1983 but continued to drink. Psychiatrist asked: “Can you go 30 days without favorite food?” (Mexican.) Yes, of course! “Can you go 30 days without drinking?” Yes, of course! “If you can’t, you may have a drinking problem.” Three days later, I started drinking again. My bottom: losing my two daughters to divorce 7 years ago. I now have 7-plus years clean and sober through taking responsibility, dual diagnosis and tons of bipolar support group meetings.
—Marty N. , Fountain Valley, CA
I would like to request that people reconsider the concept of substance abuse as only consisting of the use of drugs or alcohol. Many people with bipolar struggle with eating disorders as well. Binge eaters/bulimics are in essence using a substance (food) to numb them out or feel good for a time. I know this from personal experience. Anyone who has an addiction knows that you don’t really “overcome” (read: conquer or defeat) the problem, but only learn ways to cope and be vigilant. That is what the true focus should be on, not only while facing addiction but also with an illness such as bipolar.
—C.T., Minneapolis, MN
I have had bipolar disorder for 24 years. I love the high of hypomania and have spent my life chasing that feeling. A few years ago, I became addicted to cocaine because it simulated the magic of hypomania which made me feel euphoric. Narcotics Anonymous meetings got me clean. Through the program, I found the will and support necessary to live another way. I have over six months clean, and now I chase recovery!
—Judy K., Holland, PA
Before I was diagnosed with bipolar, I abused alcohol and drugs and became addicted to painkillers because they made me feel “normal,” not high. Luckily, I found a wonderful doctor who is a psychiatrist as well as an addictionologist (a medical doctor certified in treating addictions), who was able to help me by understanding my illness as well as my addiction tendencies. I have two siblings with bipolar who also had alcohol and drug abuse problems. They also have received help with medication and therapy. There is help, but we must always hold onto hope as well. An addictionologist might be very helpful.
—Annie K. , Greensboro, NC
I was 9 when I first thought of suicide. I had no one to tell, but always felt different. I was 16 the first time I drank vodka—I blacked out. I discovered the off switch to my feelings. The madness continued, like a gerbil on a wheel, until I got the courage to enter rehab at 44. My bipolar was finally diagnosed, and with sobriety came a new way of life. Becoming sober made my meds more effective, and with clarity I joined AA. I began a 12-step program, got a sponsor, and worked the steps. I went to meetings, learned tools to guide me, met new friends, and started living and feeling. I may have a dual diagnosis, but I am not my dual diagnosis.
—Lynn M. Moul, Marana, AZ
I have struggled with alcohol and drug use since junior high. Even at 37, I fight the demons. I know how bad using made me feel and how much trouble it brought to my life. Remembering that makes it easier to keep going. I’m also on a medication to help alleviate the cravings and withdrawals associated with certain narcotics. Without it, I know I would be using again. I thank this medication for saving my life.
—Joanne, Westchester, NY
You must be willing to quit drugs and alcohol for yourself, no one else. You must be willing to go to any lengths to stay sober. You must change your play friends, play places and play things. You must surround yourself with those willing to help, not enable. Send friends and family to 12-step support groups like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon. AA and NA have saved my life. Go to 90 meetings in 90 days. Get a sponsor immediately. No matter what, don’t pick up. Your days and nights will get better.
—Leigh, Greensboro, NC
I stopped drinking and using marijuana. I realized they were triggers to my illness and I had a strong desire not to be sick. I just made up my mind to quit and that was it. It took six months to not want even the olive in a martini. After one year, I hate the smell of alcohol. In a social situation where people are drinking, I treat myself to Perrier and other sparkling nonalcoholic drinks, and I keep them in my fridge. I have lost 30 pounds and look and feel physically great. That helps validate my decision to quit. Now the variables to my illness are fewer and more manageable.
—Name Withheld, Anchorage, AK
I have been battling both bipolar disorder and substance abuse since I was a teen. When I received my diagnosis of bipolar, I just didn’t believe the doctors. I wanted to drink, and when that didn’t work to stop the pain inside, I moved on to using hard drugs. I just couldn’t accept that I had a mental illness and chose to self-medicate every time I had a severe manic episode or depression. I found that I could not be in recovery with either issue if I had one foot in and one foot out of any recovery-related program. Today, I am very happy with my life. My 12-step program, my DBSA meetings, therapy, and a great doctor and meds are the best combination to keep me a sane and chemical-free person.
—Robin S. , Tucson, AZ
It is very helpful to have people in your life to whom you can admit you have a substance abuse problem, and who care about you enough to listen and assist you. With the help of loved ones, I have overcome alcohol and marijuana abuse.
—S.F., Fort Collins, CO
My cocaine addiction cost me tens of thousands of dollars before I quit 16 years ago. I had tried quitting for several years, but what finally worked was to simply realize you can’t quit anything unless you just stop completely and never do it again. Nobody else can do this for you. (It’s worked the same for my other addictions, too.) I can’t begin to tell you what a difference being clean and sober makes.
—Skip T. , Mesa, AZ
I abused sex and alcohol before I was diagnosed with bipolar. I realize now that I have an addiction-prone personality. With the help of therapy and medication, I avoid behaviors that I know I could become addicted to: sex, drinking alcohol, gambling.
—Name Withheld, Arlington, TX
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