My name is Adam. I am a 26-year-old writer and I live in central New Jersey. I live with four cats and my lovely girlfriend and, for the first time in years, I feel like I might have my shit together.
I’ve never been professionally diagnosed with anything, maybe because I’ve deliberately avoided professionals until very recently. I think I was probably a prime candidate for medication at an early age, but I made good grades and did well in sports, so nobody ever looked at me that hard. All I can say with certainty is that I’ve suffered from a high level of anxiety and sudden mood swings for as long as I can remember.
The mood swings were the first thing I noticed. Even as a child, I would become irritable, angry, and sad all at once, seemingly out of nowhere. The worst part about it was that I knew I had no reason to feel this way, but I felt it anyway. When I was experiencing these moments, I would often lash out at the people closest to me.
My mother is a wonderful person, but I remember especially being hurt by her regularly telling other adults, “Oh, don’t mind him. He’s just in one of his moods.” I hated feeling that way, and I hated it being written off like that because I knew something was going wrong inside me.
I started drinking pretty regularly at age 15. At the time, it just felt like fun, but maybe there was something more I was trying to cover up.
By my early 20s, I had started using drugs. I was particularly fond of speed in all its forms, mostly partial to MDMA and cocaine. I fully believe that whatever emotional and mental issues I had been dealing with since I was a child led me to abuse drugs.
I knew there was an issue when I started withdrawing money on my credit card to buy them. There was also a time when I ate a big fucking blue boulder of I-don’t-know-what after snorting a bunch of lines of cocaine. For the next three days, I was wired and couldn’t sleep. Most of it is a blur. The middle of the second day was the first time I said out loud to anyone else, “I have a drug problem.”
I had already tried several times, unsuccessfully, to clean myself up, and I was miserable I had allowed this to happen. I could feel myself beginning to slip; if this went on much longer, I was going to lose everything, quite literally. I never actually felt like I was about to be jobless and out on the streets, but looking back, I know if I didn’t turn around when I did, that was the imminent reality.
After I finally admitted my addiction out loud, I managed to stay clean for about five months. For a while, it even seemed easy, like I was on cruise control. Of course, that’s when I relapsed. For two or three weeks I began using again. It culminated with a binge of Adderall that made me feel like I was going to die the next day. I don’t even want to tell you how many milligrams I did.
The worst part is that wasn’t the end of the relapse; I broke down and bought a big bag of cocaine one night, hounding others around me all day until they finally validated the itch. The next morning, I remember saying to myself, “This has to stop. This is far past enough.”
I felt such heavy guilt for having come so far and then collapsing, going right back to what I knew was killing me and my potential. I picked up and moved forward because I knew I had to, but it would be a while before I learned to forgive myself.
What always hampered my progress was a deep self-hatred for perceived failure. What I learned after conquering my relapse, though, was that it’s okay to fail, so long as you learn from those failures. What that taught me was that my battle with addiction is ongoing, and although the chemicals that invaded my mind have been banished and are no longer clawing at the gates, they remain lurking in the forest waiting for the guards to sleep.
Vigilance and self-discipline is my best weapon against another relapse. Looking at the life I’ve been able to build out of the ash in such a short time is my evidence of the progress I’ve made. It took some time, but the more that evidence piles up, the more I strengthen my resolve to stay clean.
I don’t blame myself for the relapse anymore, and I don’t feel any guilt. At the time, I felt like I had thrown out all the clean time I had accumulated. But in reality, recovery isn’t a straight line, as a friend told me then. The fact that I fell on my face for a moment might not be ideal, but the fact that I stood back up and kept on moving is what makes me resilient. It’s the reason I survived.
If I kept beating myself up over relapsing and decided in my own mind that I had already ruined any chance I had at being clean, I would have found it much easier to give up. A positive mental attitude, even in the face of an army of negatives, was essential to my recovery. It wasn’t easy, but the fact that I was ludicrous enough to hope for better helped me get better.
I got through it because I had the support of some really good people. Some of them were in the same boat I was and were fighting desperately to get out of it, just like me. Others had been through it and offered me guidance and support. Others were just kind friends who checked in on my progress.
That support was essential, but I also dug deep and found my own strength. I knew what was at stake, and even though I had tried so hard to quit before, something inside me was a bit different this time. I finally stopped telling myself I was weak.
As far as the anxiety and mood swings, they’re still a fact of life for me.
I’ve always really hated social situations. Whenever I meet someone new, my anxiety goes through the roof. That nervousness often causes me to get tongue-tied or put my foot in my mouth, compounding the aversion I have to socializing outside of my comfort zone.
The mood swings can be tough from the perspective that traditional notions of masculinity say I shouldn’t be sobbing on the 7:34 a.m. train to New York. However, I personally kind of like that I can openly cry, even if it is triggered by ridiculous things sometimes. I feel like a lot of people don’t cry in public enough, and if some manly man tries to mock me for it, I just think to myself how repressed he must be.
However, I found I can soften the effects by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. No drugs, no alcohol binges, and no cigarettes. Lots of leafy greens, a shit load of exercise, and the self-discipline to be productive even when I don’t feel like working to avoid tasks piling up. I panic when the list gets too long and I don’t know where to start, so by keeping my workload manageable and my mind and body in the best condition possible, it kind of smooths things out a bit. I don’t really anticipate there will ever be a day when I am totally free of these feelings, but I’m learning to manage them.
I’ve begun training myself to take a breath or two before I speak to loved ones when I feel tense or irritable. My words are usually not especially harsh in these moments, but I can see in the way people recoil that my tone and sarcasm can cut them deep. I hate making people I love feel poorly, and sometimes I still fail to catch my tongue before it bites, but I’ve learned the value of an apology, and I try to practice thinking before I speak.
I think I’m getting better at it, but I’m definitely still a bit of an asshole at heart. The worst piece is I’ve never been able to summon this toxicity when someone deserves it; I only ever attack the people who care for me and whom I’m closest to. The fact that they’ve always forgiven me and shown me patience as I learn to better respect them is a graciousness I will never forget and of which I am so deeply appreciative.
At its worst, my substance abuse put a lot of strain on my relationships. I hid it well, so I’m not sure anyone knew what was going on, but it would have been easy enough for them to take a guess. I almost lost some friends for a time, but after I got my feet back under me the ones that matter came back. I was a mess and the environment around me consistently bred chaos.
Anyone who was trying to straighten themselves out or avoid getting sucked into the hurricane that constantly surrounded me had no choice but to steer clear. Even my best friend didn’t speak to me for months while he was trying to right his own ship. In the end, I don’t blame him because he did what is best for himself. Even though I wanted to feel hurt and abandoned at the time, I now see him in a better place than I have in years, and I couldn’t be happier.
I don’t regret anything. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I think the perspective I gained and the lessons I’ve learned have made me a better man. I know I’m going to continue to struggle with the way I think and feel, but recovery has equipped me with the ability to manage my internal turmoil and use it as fuel to continue growing. The best people I’ve ever known have dealt with these issues and worse, and I feel in no way diminished for having dealt with my own.
I’m very open about my history with substance abuse, but I do feel that one can get you in trouble. Even right now, I’m kind of afraid of professional colleagues happening upon this, simply because their prejudice could lead them to make a business decision that adversely affects me. That seems to me to be totally unfair, because some of the smartest and most capable people I’ve ever met have had problems with drug abuse, and those that have beaten it are some of the strongest-willed people I’ve ever known. So, when it comes to recovered addicts (and even current addicts), I feel there is a seriously harmful stigma associated.
I want people to realize that whether they’re diagnosed with any disorder or not, they should talk about their fears, worries, and irrational emotions more often. I regularly discuss my anxiety and mood swings at parties because I’m a total bummer, but I always find there are several people nodding their heads, and usually one or two who exclaim, “Oh my god, me too!” as if nobody has ever related to their feelings before. More people than you think feel like you do, or at least can relate on an emotional level, so be open about what scares you. It could help someone else, and it will definitely help you.
These days, I look back on my recent past and it feels like it happened to a different person in a different timeline and someone just uploaded those memories into my brain. In reality, though, it wasn’t very long ago, and it did happen to me.
The point is, if what you’re dealing with feels inescapable right now, it isn’t. Things could look very different for you very soon, whether you’re facing addiction or a mental health crisis. Even on the worst days, when you’ve been awake for 60 hours because you ate a big blue boulder of some weird chemical, you can find hope and motivation.
Edited for brevity and clarity by Sammi Caramela.
Want to help #BreaktheStigma against mental illness? Contact me to share your story!