Mental Illness, Escapism, and Addiction

I have been on medication for my bipolar disorder – and depression before it – for a great number of years. The most recent cocktail of drugs has been the same since late 2015, when I nearly ended my own life, and it’s been keeping me pretty steady, as these things go. I’m not perfect, but the extremes of mood, the violent anger, and the crushing depressions are lessened, if not gone entirely.

I also drink. Not a lot – not every day – but when I drink, I usually drink too much. It’s contraindicated with my medications, but that doesn’t really mean much to me. I drink anyway. I drink, very specifically, to get drunk. I drink beer, I drink wine, I drink rum and scotch, and I drink quite deliberately, pacing myself over minutes and hours until I fall into a stupor in bed and sleep it off through the night.

I think, deep down, I’m somewhat of a hedonist. I don’t know if this comes from the depression or some other innate personality trait, but I am, for lack of a better phrase, a pleasure-seeker. I very much enjoy physical pleasure, and the sensation of drunkenness falls into this category for me. It’s a form of escapism that requires very little concentration or effort, and when it hits, I can just lie back and let it wash over me.

With medications keeping me level, why do I need escapism, you might ask. Why do I need a vehicle for altering my state of mind, when the whole point of the ‘official’ drugs is to keep my mind from entering that altered state in the first place?

I think a part of it is that I have conditioned myself over decades to avoid misery. I have been so miserable for so long that I instinctively gravitate to anything that feels good, happy or pleasurable. I have very little self-control in this regard; I don’t set rules for myself, like ‘you can have a drink after you do the dishes’; I just drink, and fuck the dishes.

Another part is, almost certainly, a dangerous level of chemical dependency. As I mentioned above, I don’t drink every day – but I do go through phases where I might drink daily for several weeks straight. I usually drink until I’m out of alcohol. It rapidly becomes habit. The same is true of other vices; I recently acquired a small amount of pot from a friend, and against my original intention of maybe once a weekend, I’ve been smoking three or four times a week.

This all leads me to question my behaviors, and the more fundamental motivations behind them. Do I smoke and drink because I’m miserable, because I’m addicted, or because I really kind of just … like it? Like all behavior affected by mental illness, it’s a difficult question to answer, because the very nature of mental illness is changed behaviors … but there comes a point where illness ends and addiction takes over.

I’m not an alcoholic; I know people who are, and I don’t ‘need’ booze to function. I’m not a drug addict; I don’t blow hundreds on weed, and I don’t smoke before, during and after work (for example). But I am dangerously close to this level of functional need, and I recognize it when the thing I look forward to at the end of the day is getting high and watching Family Guy reruns.

That’s usually when I stop – when I see the signs of tipping into the abyss, and take steps to right myself. So far I’ve always been able to come back from the brink, but I worry about one day …

Yet I continue anyway. I refuse to stop permanently. I refuse to relinquish the physical pleasures of drink and drugs. I don’t ‘need’ them, but I want them. Like, a lot.

And sometimes, I wonder if it’s really so bad. I’m aware of the long-term physical and mental changes and harm caused by alcohol and drug use, but I still can’t help believing that the immediate reward is worth it. Intellectually I know that liver damage, lung cancer and mental deterioration are some of the absolute worst ways to die, but emotionally … I kind of just don’t care. I’ve had people tell me that my health is all I have; I’ve heard the arguments before. But when your mental health fails you, you couldn’t care less about your physical health. And whilst the two are most definitely related, it’s difficult to have the second without the first.

That’s when I wonder if the escapism of physical pleasure isn’t worth it after all. The mental toll each day takes, whilst variable, is still a harsh one, and the ability to use a substance – of one kind or another – to forget it is dreadfully tempting. And I recognize this as a controversial perspective – why, you ask, don’t I deal with my problems instead of avoiding them – but I truly believe life is for living, and should be enjoyed daily, if at all possible.

What do you do, when your brain refuses to let you do just that? What do you do, when your own mind is a battleground of misery and despair? What happens when you wake up and simply can’t get out of bed? What is there to look forward to?

And in those trying times, is self-medication justifiable? Is it even self-medication at all – or just an excuse to escape from reality?

And is such escapism really so wrong?

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27 Replies to “Mental Illness, Escapism, and Addiction”

  1. If your lifestyle choices feel good then what is there to fret about. I am moved to write as I find myself wanting more for you, but this is MY perspective. Because of what I have endured, the abuse from a very young age, which (from where I’m standing) is where we contracted such self hate and desire to make ourselves pay on some level. I’m quite sure I would not be here to write this had I not faced my demons and went for the pleasure – it would have taken a whole lot to keep my abuse out of the forefront. I didn’t want my family of origin to “win” by killing myself with substance. They had taken so much from me already. I wish you clarity and thawing at a pace you can handle. Very interesting post, gave me so much to think about.

    1. Thank you – and thank you for your insight! I’m sorry to hear about your trauma, and if there’s a coping mechanism to be had, go for it. I’m at a point now where honestly, I don’t expect much more change from myself – I’ve become accustomed to the instability and the misery, and balance it with the pleasure. I don’t know where this’ll lead in twenty years’ time, but without the pleasure, I don’t think I’d be around in twenty years anyway.

  2. I hear you. In this struggle it feels like nothing good will ever come of it so why not make the best of it? I used to drink heavily, like til I passed out just about every night. I was a total pothead, smoking as soon as I got up, all day, even at work, and then all evening til the alcohol put me to bed. I am diagnosed with schizoaffective bipolar type and the meds help but they don’t take everything away. there is much pain to be felt and craziness to be dealt with. In my 42 years I have come to the conclusion that there is a God who loves us in spite of how things appear. And I have put my faith in this God. That has made all the difference in my life and I no longer feel the need for the alcohol and weed. You’ve probably heard these things before. Just wanted to share what has helped me. Good luck in your recovery. Thanks for sharing your struggle.

  3. I’m dealing with similar thoughts now. Sometimes I think I either need something to numb my mind, at least for the part of the day I’m not working, or I should put an end to my life. I have too much fear of the unknown to do that, and I have to consider what I’d leave behind, but I can’t find enough meaning in living to care about anything. I’ve always heard that I should try to care for myself, but if I really hate myself, why should I do that? Just for the sake of other people? What kind of life is that?

    Writing is one of the few things that keeps me connected to life, and almost all my writing is about video games and music – all escapism. I keep on writing partly because it keeps me going.

    I hope things go well for you. Too often I find advice about how to improve our lives is too naive and optimistic and ignores the realities of life that most of us have to face. I think only people who have suffered depression, anxiety and similar issues can really understand. We need to stick together as much as we can.

    1. I’m not a big fan of advice; Douglas Adams once write that it must be measured against the life the person lives, and I agree. I can’t really tell you what to do; I can’t say that you shouldn’t feel a certain way. What I can say is that the decades of suffering and joy have taught me that nothing lasts forever. The highest highs and deepest lows, all pass. It’s an impossible trudge to get through the day sometimes, and tomorrow looks just as bleak, but it really isn’t – it’s just unknown.

      If finding a coping mechanism helps get through the day – if going numb has some positive effect – then it really shouldn’t be looked down upon. I’ve spent years numb, and even now I avoid most ‘feeling’ because of the overwhelming intensities that come with it.

      Sometimes all you need is to shut your eyes, and see what it’s like in the morning.

  4. ThAnk you for sharing. I too at times struggle with overdoing it with alcohol. As a teenager and early twenties I often turned to alcohol as a way to escape and deal with my depression and anxiety I did not realize I had. Decades later I now am aware of my mental health issues and employ various tools such as meds, therapy, exercise to help myself but from time to time still fall into old habits. It’s tough and I can relate to your plight. Key is I think that you are aware of this as I am of my occasional lean towards a not so good habit. That I think is huge to keep it from becoming a real problem.

    1. Self-awareness is an important part of mental health, and isn’t something everyone possesses to a great degree. But you’re right – catching yourself as you fall helps prevent that slip into the abyss.

  5. “But when your mental health fails you, you couldn’t care less about your physical health.”
    I feel this on the deepest level. While my escape is food (hints the morbidly obese burden I call my body), i get it. Addiction is something that I personally think is very dangerous. First, I would binge a few times a month, then a few times a week, to where I was four months ago, bingeing at least once a day. Being raised by drug addicted and alcoholic parents, I never got into those things because I knew I had a higher chance of getting addicted… But what nobody warned me about, is how my need for abnormally large amounts of food was just as dangerous.
    Thank you for sharing this post. I enjoy reading everything you write, but this one really touched me.

    -rachael

    1. Rachael, don’t ever think that you’re weaker for bingeing; nor should anyone for their suffering. It’s a terrible cycle to fall victim to – eating because you’re depressed, and being depressed because you’re eating. I’ve had many addictions over the years, now that I really think about it; self-harm, drinking, drugs … I’ve even been addicted, so to speak, to emotionally ‘saving’ people who were depressed like me (needless to say, that didn’t work out too well).

      There’s very little in this world that isn’t harmful if indulged to excess; addiction is the mind’s self-control, knowing the harm full-well, crumbling anyway. Something for me is limiting my access; I don’t buy alcohol frequently, and I don’t have a dealer – what modest amounts of weed I get, I get from friends. When I have it, it’s hard to avoid, but when it’s not there, I find I can live without.

      I’m not suggesting you do the same – I really don’t know much about binge-eating – but I believe there is a solution, and I believe in you. The solution isn’t always obvious, and the hardest part is realizing it isn’t a one-time fix, but a life-long process, but it’s there.

  6. I’ve always told myself that as long as it doesn’t interfere with my functioning in life then I deserve a little escape… I have always struggled with addiction though and can rationalize almost anything so I have to be careful … you sound very self aware & like you’re okay 😊

  7. i really love this post! i suffer with mild depression and some days its terrible. i have started smoking and as much as i know its bad. smoking really helps my emotions.

    1. I’m sorry to hear about your depression. There are a lot of drugs in the world – from alcohol and nicotine to weed and hard drugs – and their basic function is to intoxicate, alter the mind, and generally make the unbearable bearable. The balance is between what helps in the short term, and what’s damaging in the long term. The body is amazing at healing, but it can only do so much. I genuinely ‘smoke’ very infrequently, and prefer to get what I need from (somewhat) healthier means. That said, even vaping – or drinking – isn’t doing my body any favors.

  8. I was in your shoes 35 years ago. I would go to college in the morning, work in the after noon and then on Friday and Saturday nights go out and get wasted. Though sometimes, I would drink during the week but never to excess. I thought I had it under control, then one day, at my college Spring bash, I got absolutely hammered. As a result, I was a social pariah at my college for the next year, though my long hair and eccentric footwear didn’t help during the intolerant times of 80s Regan America. I agree, you’re not an alcoholic or a druggie but you could have a problem regarding both. That was the conclusion I came to all those years ago. Good luck.

    1. Damn … that’s pretty much exactly what happened to me, but in high school. Got blackout drunk at a friend’s house, made a fool of myself and the friend, and ended up completely ostracized my entire senior year. Nearly destroyed me.

      I’m obviously older and wiser now, and am able to limit myself in social situations … but the fact that I drink/smoke alone is probably worrying in itself.

  9. Thank you so much sharing your story. I have dealt with different binges whether it’s alcohol, food and gambling/excessive spending and every time it is to feel good or to escape. I always worry about addiction. I always take it too an extreme point, generally this is when I realise that What I’ve been doing has had consequences. Making a drunken fool of myself at my kids swimming club break up or landing my family in debt for example. This is when I hit severe depression. Weed has constantly helped though, other than money spent. My mind went from suicidal and impulsive, outbursts of anger to a calm person who rarely ever gets angry and although still has suicidal thoughts, they aren’t acted on. I only started smoking 10 years ago, still only casually but before that I have a string of medical and hospital files for suicide attempts confirming to me that weed is more beneficial to me than a problem. Wow, sorry for the long comment. I just wanted to say that I fully agree with do what feels right for you, if consequences are trivial go for it. I just need to learn when’s a good time to stop before getting to the extreme.

    1. Don’t worry – I appreciate your thoughts and story! My saving grace has been medication – proper meds, from a psychiatrist. I used to be a lot like you – angry, incoherent, ranging from fury to suicidal thoughts in a day – and the meds put an end to that. The rest – booze, weed – is really to keep the edge off. The bulk is held back by the prescriptions.

      Marijuana certainly has long-term side-effects that affect the brain and thought process in particular, and a lot of this is still being researched. That said, depression alters the brain too, so I’m not sure which I’d rather have.

  10. It’s as if you were describing myself at this very moment.

    I’m 18 and I’m trying to recover from my routine of smoking in the morning, trying to clean, feed and bathe myself and not feel incredibly sad and worthless.

    I don’t know what else to say but this, don’t give up on yourself, I know I won’t. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Welp, coming from an alcoholic with bipolar, I feel you on every level because I mean fuck it, right. I, on the other hand, have a 17 year for whom I am still responsible for but had it not been for her, I would be an active user, I am almost positive. Why? Because it is where I found my closest to happiness. My chemicals are already a bit screwed so what’s the point if even when they are level I am still a ball of nothingness. I have no debate in this beautifully written confession as I 100% relate.

  12. Oh, and there will be a day you physically become reliant on alcohol. And you aren’t sent a notice when this happens. If you drink the way you say you do. It’s just reality.

  13. It’s interesting that the term self medication has such a negative affiliation, tied to weakness and avoidance. Yet in a way everything we do or take to feel better or get healthy, is self medication. At my worst states of depression I turned to cigarettes and used the addiction to break up my day, motivate myself out of bed or to get me to leave the house to buy more. Everything else had failed me. And when you are suicidal the thought of future illness is irrelevant. I feel like things become a problem when they interfere with work, relationships, finances. When you find yourself missing opportunities to be with your drug of choice, staying stagnant when you are ready to move forward, that’s when it’s time to reassess. For now I would just enjoy the pot and booze and family guy and listen for the subtle signals that you are ready find pleasure in other pursuits. I say this as I am currently in a mixed mood state chasing every high possible to keep back the wave of despair. It’s a challenging balancing act to not make things worse but not limit positive experiences which can feel so rare to us. Take care of yourself, no judgement, celebrate any fragment of stability, you earned it.

  14. I am also a pleasure seeker. In my early teens, I sought pleasure in all the typical, dysfunctional ways teens use to pass the time. It was a way of life I witnessed from my parents, so I thought it was normal. Using drugs as a means to escape almost destroyed my entire family when I was sixteen. Luckily, becoming homeless was enough for most of my family to confront our addiction and start building a better life. It is difficult to build momentum in those moments.

    I’ve found pleasure in healthier pursuits, like hiking and exercise. But having manic depression, I have a hard time differentiating between when I’m doing something I’m passionate about or becoming manic. I smoke weed, mostly because I like to, but I have to be careful not to use it as a crutch. I know it’s not healthy, but that pleasure seeker in me always says “you have to have that one thing that makes you happy but isn’t necessarily good for you, mine is I smoke pot.” Not really the best rationalization, but at least I’m honest. Hopefully someday I will find the medication “cocktail” that works for me, like you did. Thanks for sharing your story.

  15. Thanks for sharing your process. Hope you don’t mind me sharing my journey with drink & drugs:
    For years a part of me was so angry with those who had abused me and those who should have protected me that I didn’t give a shit about anything or anyone as no one had given a shit about me. There was a certain euphoria, freedom and pleasure with saying “Fuck it, I’m gonna get wasted”. And I did. It released me from ever hoping that anyone would ever care, quite an effective way of removing subconscious pain and entering a place of anaesthetised safety. It was all ok until I had kids. It wasn’t such a good coping mechanism then, I had to make myself go in therapy, believe me, I didn’t want to go, didn’t want to give up that amazing feeling of relief when the drugs kick in. It’s taken 7 long painful years in which I have addressed the impact of early childhood abuse & neglect & how parts of me had to dissociate to cope with the trauma. Dissociation is a survival mechanism to remove us from overwhelming situations. I realised a part of me was trying to protect me with the drug use but since I’ve released those feelings that I had to repress for years, I no longer have to numb myself. For the first time I can stay in my body and my life and it not be something I need to get away from. It’s not all wonderful, I still get triggered as it’s hard wired in but I’ve now got more ways to care and protect myself, and I still have the odd spliff but enjoy it now than it being the only way to cope.
    I wish you well. Internal Family Systems therapy worked for me.

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