Choosing Freedom, After Decades of Switching Addictions
You may have heard a friend or family member, suffering from Substance Use Disorder, refer to their drug use as a means to “fill a void.” An emptiness inside of them, that is only replenished with actions that dole out instant gratification. As a recovering addict, I can personally attest to the legitimacy of this. For far too many years, producing happiness from within was a seemingly impossible task for me.
By the tender age of thirteen, I knew there was something about me that was different. Yet, I was unsuccessful at identifying why I deviated tremendously from the likes of societal norms. I was in a constant state of anhedonia, lacking the ability to experience life’s pleasures. Forrest Gump’s metaphor comes to mind, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” My perception of this timeless statement is that while we may not have control over every aspect of our life, we do possess the capability to implement a more optimistic perspective. As an adolescent, my “chocolate” was mold-ridden and stale. I longed to feel complete, but I couldn’t dismiss the unfortunate fact that I resembled a puzzle. With one missing piece.
*Trigger warning: This article includes references to self-injury, intravenous drug use and disordered eating.*
One in five US high school students have reported being bullied. Approximately 160,000 teenagers have skipped school as a preventative measure. I encountered bullies for the first time in second grade, in the midst of such an innocent time of my youth. I dreaded entering my elementary school classroom, as I was well aware of what my presence would entail. I endured both verbal and physical harassment from my fellow peers for nearly a decade. I was passive, inevitably leading to the acceptance of my “fate,” in addition to suffering in silence.
My mother was exceedingly popular in bygone days. She was a cheerleader, with a whole host of friends. I admired my mom, but I was fearful when it came to the possibility of disappointing her. When I considered unveiling the truth about my school life, my undoubted hesitation drove me to opt out.
Holding in so much agony and depression compromised my sanity. I craved an escape from the turmoil that ran rampant inside of me. Plastering a fake smile onto my face each day to appease my mother only worsened the matter. One evening after school, I filled my void to satiety. I can vividly recall cutting the flesh of my inner forearm with a razor blade. Self-mutilation releases endorphins that can produce euphoria and calmness, making it a dangerously addictive habit. I proceeded down this road for several years. The benefits I reaped initially from cutting myself gradually faded and thereafter, my depression returned with a vengeance. The emptiness within me was gaping, and I was placed in several psychiatric wards. My doctor prescribed me a medication that increases serotonin levels to rid me of my depressive nature. While I did remain on this antidepressant for years, to no extent did I experience relief.
I experienced an epiphany at the age of sixteen: perhaps illicit drugs would better suit my needs. An acquaintance of mine was an active heroin addict. Sure, I had smoked marijuana, sniffed a few lines of coke and popped MDMA sporadically, but heroin? I was on a journey to find contentment and I was receptive to new ideas, even radical ones. I asked my friend if I could try some, and he obliged. I watched eagerly as he initiated the process. He transformed a powdered drug into a liquid preparation, which he proceeded to pull up into a syringe. He carefully located a viable vein in my arm, then injected me. Instantaneously, I was consumed by the rush of sensations this drug incites. I felt warm, joyful and care-free. The negativity that had been occupying space in my mind all dissipated. I had unearthed the secret to my sorrow; I was happy.
Addiction is an insidious disease that 240 million people struggle with worldwide, and about 15 million from that statistic use injection drugs. Switching addictions is not an uncommon affair. I had a love/hate relationship with heroin. I was in awe of the impact it had on me, how it unburdened me from life’s hindrances in mere seconds. However, I was ignorant to the detriment this potent drug can precipitate, when I initially began abusing it. Heroin took me down a frightening path of homelessness, prostitution, many overdoses and the loss of trust from my family. I sold all my valuable belongings and maxed out my credit cards. When I ran out of iPads, expensive cameras and high-end handbags to pawn, I entered the gates of Hell — offering my body as collateral to solicit money from strangers. Heroin was not saving me from despair, like I formally believed. It was demolishing my life, and devastating my loved ones.
I was living in my small car in a Walmart parking lot by age nineteen. The recurrence of waking up each morning in violent withdrawals became painfully tiresome. Being the root cause of my parent’s distress contributed to profound shame, weighing heavily on my conscience. Being fully cognizant of the fact that I needed help, I admitted myself into a substance abuse detox center, followed by a 28-day rehab, which was arranged accordingly. Upon discharge, I felt like a new person — strong, sober and confident.
I was slightly underweight when I said my goodbye to drugs, however starvation during drug-use resulted in me becoming ravenous. My body craved the nutrients I had been depriving it of. I initiated a spree of eating anything in sight. In a way, food provided comfort, filling my still-existent void. I gained a concerning amount of weight. I loathed my body, so I only wore baggy clothing in an attempt to hide the fat that accumulated. I delusionally suspected that bystanders inside of stores were eyeballing me in disgust. Essentially, I was projecting my own beliefs regarding body image on to random people. I took pride in abstaining from heroin, but my lack of self-restraint when it came to overindulgence was disappointing.
After several months, I embarked on a healthy diet and exercise regimen. I was determined to reach my goal weight. This well-devised plan lasted a mere two weeks before becoming terribly unhealthful. My daily caloric intake proceeded to drop lower as each month passed me by. I lost over 20% of my body weight in five months. My doctor diagnosed me with Anorexia Nervosa, as I undeniably met the criteria. I had been restricting energy intake for a substantial period of time. My perception regarding my appearance was distorted. I meticulously counted calories, but the most crippling symptom was my intense fear of weight gain. I’d graze my fingertips across my protruding bones, to ensure my body hadn’t changed over night. I’d measure the gap between my thighs and the circumference of my wrists. I reached the point of being critically underweight. My parents saw this foreboding of a disaster, they were afraid for my life. Anorexia takes more lives than any psychiatric illness; it accounts for four times the amount of fatalities of those suffering from depression.
My immune system was weakened from malnourishment. My mom would bring me food from my “approved to eat” list whenever I was struck with a virus. One afternoon, she dropped off groceries from the market and left my home in tears. I was wearing semi-revealing pajamas, making my slender physique more apparent. She wanted me to be happy, to love myself… and to cease the act of substituting one addictive behavior for the next. After she left, I walked to my full length mirror. Gazing at the person that stood before me, I was able to see myself accurately, for the first time in years. I hardly recognized myself. My entire skeletal frame was visible, my eyes were sunken in and I looked gravely ill. At the outset, starvation gave me a sense of control, which I found satisfying. I realized in that moment though, I was the one being controlled. Anorexia was slowly killing me.
I spoke with Joelle Porush, Registered Dietitian about swapping addictions. “The overlap between substance abuse and eating disorders is very high,” she said. “Many people battle the same struggles with food as they do with drugs and alcohol. The hardest part is, when someone becomes sober, they become completely clean; with food that can never be the case. Telling a person with anorexia, binge eating disorder or bulimia to eat, is the same as asking an alcoholic to sit in a bar all day. We can never become clean with food, we need to make peace with it. We need to learn to see food as fuel and enjoy it as it is part of culture, religion, celebration and everyday life. Food is an addiction just like any other substance. With anyone battling this, I strongly recommend finding help, both professionally and in your everyday life. You are not alone. Remember, everyone deserves to eat. Making peace with food is no simple feat, but once it’s done you’ll be glad you asked for help.”
I underwent a lifetime of swapping addictions, but today I choose freedom. Tomorrow upon awakening, I will choose freedom again. I am taking life one day at a time. Recovering from my eating disorder has been mystifyingly more challenging than kicking heroin. The mantra I repeat daily, “my body is simply housing for my soul” has helped me vastly. I haven’t picked up another addiction. I remain mindful of subtle cues that may indicate I’m entering dangerous territory. If you or a loved one is struggling, there are many resources at your disposal. Early diagnosis and treatment will significantly increase your chance of long-term recovery.
National Eating Disorder Association’s (NEDA) helpline to find treatment in your area or if you just need someone to talk to: 1-800-931-2237. Visit NEDA.com for more information and assistance.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24/7. If you are experiencing depression or suicidal ideations, feel free to contact them at: 1-800-273-8255
The Self Harm Hotline has trained Crisis Counselors helping people 24/7. In the US, text the word “CONNECT” (no quotations) to number 741741. In Canada, text 686868. A volunteer counselor will respond promptly and assist you.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a confidential, national help hotline for addicts (and family members of an addict.) While their trained information specialists cannot provide counseling, they can help you find treatment options that accept your health insurance. If you are uninsured, they will refer you to state-funded programs, facilities that accept Medicaid/Medicare and rehabilitation centers that offer scholarships or sliding scale fees.
Lane, M. (2020). Choosing Freedom, After Decades of Switching Addictions. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 27, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/choosing-freedom-after-decades-of-switching-addictions/