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Alcohol & Other Drugs

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

The Pursuit of Wellness

Natalie Jeanne Champagne

Reprinted from "Wellness" issue of Visions Journal, 2013, 7 (4), pp. 14-15

Wellness is a strange word when connected to bipolar disorder. Diagnosed with the illness at the age of 12—I’m 27 now—I cannot recall the word being part of my life. Stability was important to find, and balance crucial to achieve, though at such a young age I wasn’t sure what that really meant. Did it mean the different medications would work soon? Would I never have to go back to the psychiatric hospital again? Maybe, I thought to myself, it meant that my family could be happy again. Maybe the illness would disappear entirely.

At the age of 14, I had my first drink and by the age of 19 I was addicted to a multitude of drugs—all of which nearly killed me. Wellness at that time in my life was connected to the substances I digested on a daily basis in order to numb the fear of living with the illness. Bipolar disorder is a frightening diagnosis, particularly at the age of 12, and I was not yet able to connect the illness to my addiction. In hindsight, it has become clear: the nature of bipolar disorder, the terrifying highs and lows you experience when unstable, mimic the cycle of addiction. I used drugs and I drank excessively to experience the high that comes with mania, and I abused medication like Valium so I was able to sleep for days, similar to the key symptom of the deep depression that had crippled me throughout my life. Drugs and alcohol took away the severe anxiety I had experienced throughout my life.

Despite the similarities between the illness and the addiction, there was a crucial difference between the two experiences. I felt I couldn’t control bipolar disorder and the rapid-cycling that defined it, but I could, I felt, control what I put into my body. I was certain that I could control my drug and alcohol use. I was certain it would never control me. By the age of 23, I had suffered two seizures and numerous suicide attempts and had lost the most important and only stable thing I had ever had: the support of my family. They had stood beside me when I was sick; patiently waited for me to recover and did everything they could to ensure our family, as a whole, remained close. They would support me in my recovery, but not in active addiction.

I had two options: keep abusing drugs and alcohol, or work to get better. To get well. I wasn’t sure what wellness really was—after all, I hadn’t ever experienced it. But for the first time, I decided to approach life with the goal of achieving sobriety and stability. It wasn’t easy and I wasn’t sure where to start. All I knew, with absolute certainty, was that if I were to continue using drugs and alcohol I would die and would never have the opportunity to establish healthy and loving relationships with those I loved most. It’s a frightening thought, even now, and pushed me towards recovery.

I decided to take an active role in my recovery. I saw my psychiatrist on a regular basis and mustered as much patience as I could while we worked to find the right cocktail of medications to manage the bipolar disorder. I worked hard to stop using drugs and alcohol. It was difficult, because abusing substances was the only way I knew how to feel some semblance of peace. At first, I wasn’t sure how to approach it. I realized I would be need to step outside of my comfort zone and connect with other people—something that was terrifying to me. I began attending regular Narcotics Anonymous meetings and took small steps—little things like raising my hand in a meeting and speaking. I also reached out to family again. They were worried I would relapse back into addiction and so they were wary but as time moved along we began to trust each other again.

Towards acceptance

I have yet to meet anyone who achieved stability easily. Bipolar disorder is a difficult disease, even when controlled. Acceptance was a large part of my recovery. I started to accept that the illness would never go away, but that I could learn to work with it.

It took two years to finally find myself in a place of acceptance and wellness. I focused on four things in my recovery: establishing a healthy relationship with my family, sleeping and eating properly, being active in my recovery from using drugs and alcohol, and preparing for the highs and lows I still experience even when taking medication daily. Achieving wellness has been an uphill battle for me. Accepting the illness has been difficult, but embracing my life has been crucial in my recovery. Wellness to me is defined by acceptance.

These days, it’s the little things that keep me well. I wake up at the same time and make sure I eat breakfast. I exercise as much as I can and practice yoga to calm my mind and my body. I talk to my family each day and do not drink or use drugs. I still go to Narcotics Anonymous on a regular basis and have created a network of people I can call if I need support.

Supporting others has been a huge part of my recovery. I published my memoir in 2012. I want to lend my life experience to those who struggle with the illness as I did and still do.

My psychiatrist and I have developed a plan of action if my mood becomes low, as it often does during the winter months. As part of that plan, monitoring my mood is essential and so is communicating with those who know me best, because they often see an episode coming before I do.

At the end of the day, wellness in my life is defined by accepting the cycle of life itself and embracing the little things—like the sunshine after weeks of rain.

 
About the author

Natalie is an advocate for mental health and lives in the Greater Victoria region. She has recently published a memoir on bipolar disorder and addiction, The Third Sunrise: A Memoir of Madness. You can learn more about Natalie on her website at www.thethirdsunrise.com

 

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