I stopped by my 'hood away from home the other day when I was on the road in Washington, D.C. This local hangout of people like me is near Dupont Circle, and there's always a gathering there that meets my need, which is pretty simple: to stay connected to my fellow travelers in recovery, no matter where I am. My well-being demands it.
But the group wasn't exactly what I had expected. The room was full of people with two hurdles to overcome — an addiction to alcohol or another drug and a mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
It is a hideous combo. Many addicts and alcoholics "medicate" their existing mental illness with substances, either to lift themselves up from dangerous despair or to tamp down the stress of runaway fear.
At first, they depend on those very substances to keep going, and then they become dependent on what they must stop if they're to survive. Now they're living without them, even while managing their mental health not just clean and sober but with doctor-prescribed medication or therapy — and the fellowship of their twice-a-week gathering of the "Dual Diagnosis" group.
I am not ignorant to mental illness and addiction, even though I don't face this double challenge. I work at Hazelden, where, as is the case with most treatment facilities, the majority of people seeking help have both problems.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is grappling with a spike in veterans who are returning from war and trying to drink or drug their way beyond the trauma of combat. Among my close friends are many who gain and lose sobriety because their mental health isn't what they want.
But sitting in the last row of chairs, just listening to the stories in the hourlong meeting, I heard the "facts" differently. Or maybe I was just paying attention to the reality in the room. This was a group hard to ignore.
For the first 20 minutes, a woman shared her story — solo, from the chair in front of everyone. What was remarkable about that?
She put it this way: "My anxiety paralyzes me, makes me hide in the corner or chases after me until I run so hard, so fast I collapse and always go back to the bottle, if I don't end up in the psych ward." Yet there she was, all eyes and ears on her.
And she wasn't hiding or running or drinking. "I want this; I want sobriety," she said. "I can't let my anxiety take me down." Everyone applauded.
When it was time for others to share, a woman announced that she was pregnant and, thus, no longer taking the medication to stabilize her schizophrenia.
"The doctor says I need to stop taking my meds until the baby is born. That's still seven months away. How am I going to keep off the booze without my meds?" She paused and then answered her own question. "I'm going to need your help — all of you."
The father of her child was sitting next to her and affirmed her answer. "I'm Neil, and tomorrow I'll have 23 years clean and sober. I've had bipolar episodes that sent me back to the hospital a couple of times, but I'm still at it, still recovering all these years."
He took his partner's hand, and the group murmured various sounds of approval.
Among them was a man about my age. "I'm no PTSD 'survivor,'" he let everyone know, "'cause I'm living with it every day of my life now." He was angry. "You know, I'm sick and I'm tired of people telling me to 'just get over it,' because how are you supposed to 'just get over it' when what you've experienced is real, not just a crazy thought in the head?"
Afterward, on my walk back to the hotel, I pondered his words and those of the intimate strangers I'd spent the past hour with. In a short time, they taught me an awful lot. Unlike the case with addiction, it is impossible to remain abstinent from your own thoughts.
But as this group proved to me, it is possible to live with those thoughts without the substances that mask them.
William Moyers is the vice president of public affairs and community relations for the Hazelden Foundation and the author of "Broken," his best-selling memoirs, and "A New Day, A New Life." Please send your questions to William Moyers at email@example.com. To find out more about William Moyers and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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