02/24/2013 11:09 EST | Updated 04/26/2013 05:12 EDT

How I Narrowly Avoided Self-Medication

Young beautiful woman in depression, drinking alcohol on dark background

I was crashed on the couch, looking at the bottle of wine sitting on the sideboard. Thinking. It had been a rough day. I had felt the darkness coming on earlier and the thought of going into the abyss, again, was just too much. I couldn't face it again. I anticipated the oncoming exhaustion, the downward spiral and did not want to go there. The wine was looking good. And so was the thought of morphine. One hit and I would be in another place.

I had been introduced to opiates after a medical error that led to multiple surgeries with full body screeching pain. The morphine pump had become my friend. Odd, though, I never thought about morphine when I wasn't in the kind of pain that brought me to the hospital, often by ambulance. I never craved painkillers. I never craved alcohol, either.

But at that point, I wanted both. And that's when I made the connection between mental illness and drug addiction. I had been so self-righteous and angry. Why did I belong in CAMH, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health? Why should I, with my mental illness, be clumped with someone with a drug/alcohol or whatever addiction? They choose to be drug addicts didn't they? I certainly didn't choose to be mentally ill. I inherited my illness. Ah, the land of righteousness.

I finally understood the connection between mental illness and addiction. It is called self-medicating. Something undertaken by far too many, especially our young people who do not realize that the emptiness and hopelessness they are feeling is not normal.

Self-medicating ends with disastrous results. The pain of mental illness, the emotional pain and then the physical pain is an exhaustion that plays out like a bout of flu that just knocks you down. The thought of going through that again can be so painful that the only cure is oblivion: alcohol and drugs. And once someone gets on that treadmill, it is difficult to get off without help.

This is concurrent disorder. And it takes time to separate the two conditions in order to treat them. It is a question of the chicken and the egg. Which came first-the addiction that triggered a mental illness or the mental illness that found its way into the bottle for relief?

It was a brief moment, but I knew as the thought of medicating myself flew through my head, that I was in trouble. And I was lucky enough to know the consequences of following that first thought, that craving for numbness. Unfortunately too many, especially our young people, don't know the danger of self-medicating and the hard work required to get well from a concurrent disorder.

Mental illness is best controlled when diagnosed early. The problem is the stigma. Too many people fear the response from others. Almost half the population has indicated they would not want to be around people with serious mental health issues. It is sad but understandable that approximately 75 per cent of adolescents and adults with mental illness do not seek help. This is unacceptable in the 21st-century when there are many wonderful treatments.

We must ask ourselves why we are failing so many of our citizens.

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