Speaking up to Break the Stigma of Addiction and Mental Health
Although mental health and addiction are a popular topic of public conversation today, there are still many people who treat those who suffer from these conditions differently. Despite the fact that addiction is accepted as a disease by the medical community, much of society still rejects this idea. Instead, many view addiction as a choice. After all, I chose to say yes when I was offered heroin for the first time, and I chose to do it a second time, right?
To me, that idea is wrong. I didn’t wake up one day and decide I wanted to become a heroin addict. I didn’t stick a needle in my arm with the intention of breaking my mother's heart and hurting the ones I love. I stuck a needle in my arm because I was sick - I was an addict long before then.
Before taking my first drug, I had qualities about myself and experiences in my life that made me more susceptible to addiction. I endured both emotional and physical trauma at a young age, I was sexually assaulted as a teenager, and I suffered from anxiety and depression. Individuals who have been exposed to trauma are more likely to abuse substances to run from their emotions, and people who suffer from mental health conditions are also more susceptible to substance abuse. In fact, nearly 50% of people who have a substance use disorder have a co-occurring mental illness.
From a young age, I was under the impression that expressing my emotions was a sign of weakness. I thought should bottle up my emotions and stuff them inside. Not only did this behavior lead to depression and anxiety, but it stopped me from being capable of forming connections with others. I went through the motions of life without being vulnerable or honest with others because I was fearful of what they would think. Today, I’m able to recognize that vulnerability isn’t a weakness - it is a strength. Getting vulnerable to other people is what enables us to have relationships with one another.
When I reflect on my past, I see that it is no surprise that I turned to substances to soothe my mind. I didn’t know how to deal with life, so sinking into oblivion seemed easier. At first, it was my solution. I didn’t start my drug use as an addict - I used recreationally. At that point, I could stop. I could moderate. However, the act of numbing the pain with a substance progressed from something I wanted to do into something I needed to do.
I once heard somebody say, “the chains of addiction are too weak to feel until they are too strong to break.” In a nutshell, this describes how addiction took hold of me. At some point, I crossed the line between a user and an addict, and when I did, my mind was too clouded and my coping skills were so nonexistent that I didn’t even notice. Still, at three years sober, I couldn’t tell you when I crossed that line. Once I did, I lost control over the amount I used and I lost the ability to stop.
When things got bad enough, I finally scrounged up enough strength to ask for help. It turns out that being willing to ask for help and be honest with others was all I needed to start my recovery.
Today you would have no idea that I once thought I would die with a needle in my arm. I have a job where I am valued, I am a daughter and an aunt who is loved, and I’m a friend who is relied upon and trusted. More than that, I am a walking example of hope.
However, when I tell non-addicts that I’m an addict, I get that look - that blank stare of shock and disgust, as if they are thinking “why on earth would you do that to yourself?” I did that to myself because I’m an addict. I have a mind that tricks me into using and a body that persistently craves more. I have a disease and a mental illness that want to kill me. Still, I stay vigilant, and I treat my mental health and my addiction on a daily basis.
As a sober woman today, I like to encourage people to speak up about addiction and mental illness. They often go hand in hand and they are killing hundreds of people each day. Words are powerful tools and they are meant to be used. By speaking up and sharing our experiences in addiction and recovery, we can change the world’s perception of behavioral and mental health while encouraging those who are suffering to ask for help.
Cassidy Webb is an avid writer who advocates spreading awareness on the disease of addiction. Her passion in life is to help others by sharing her experience, strength, and hope.