Reprinted from "Alcohol" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 2(9), p. 24
The eldest of four girls, I was born in Montreal into a black, evangelical church-going family of Caribbean ancestry. Starting in my teens, I sensed I had problems: I suffered from "bad nerves" and suicidal tendencies, for which my GP prescribed medication. In 1975, when I was 18, my parents moved us to the west coast. My problems, but not my prescription, followed me out to Vancouver.
Life overwhelmed me and led to bouts of severe depression and despair. I was fortunate to acquire well-paying jobs, but used to always encounter interpersonal problems in the workplace. I wasn't a drinker—I came from a family that never drank, and belonged to a church that didn't tolerate drinking—but about twice a year, during my first 10 years in Vancouver, I'd mix any pharmaceutical drugs I had on hand with alcohol to create a 'cocktail,' with the intent to kill myself. Inevitably, in my alcoholic, drug-induced state, I'd call someone for help and then a clergyman would show up at the door, and, though how it would happen is hazy, I usually ended up on the phone with my GP.
It wasn't until my 30s that I began to drink socially, on special occasions. It was a way to fit in. Back then, alcohol did not control my moods except when I deliberately overdosed. My suicidal behaviour eventually became more critical. I'd call out for help to anyone who might hear me, and soon the police or ambulance would appear. I'd be taken to an emergency room, where my stomach was flushed of the drugs and alcohol mixture. Then I'd be discharged, with minimal community support. This self-harming behaviour was the 'norm' for years.
On the job front, in 1988, I began working in a government position that had high-stress demands. The seemingly inevitable personality conflicts with co-workers and management—I've always had trouble dealing with anyone perceived as in authority—led me to use alcohol to take the "edge off" the work day. Working in this department was so hard on me that I ended up on stress leave—and seeing a psychiatrist, who later diagnosed me as having borderline personality disorder (BPD).
When I returned to work, I was transferred to a different area of government service. This department had a notorious reputation for being the most difficult area to work in. Because of my inability to cope in a tense environment, I began to have one or two drinks in the evening, alone in the privacy of my home. That amount increased over a period of years. I stayed in this position for 15 years and had the opportunity to attend product launches, educational workshops and social functions where I could drink whatever alcohol I chose. By the time I was 40 (in the mid '90s), my then boyfriend and I would drink one or two bottles of wine every evening.
I had been on a rocky road of inconsistent psychiatric care since that BPD diagnosis, so generally had various kinds of prescription drugs on hand. As I moved into my 40s, I engaged in a nightly ritual of drinking alcohol mixed with my psychiatric medications—and I had progressed from using cider to hard liquor.
I was not aware of my changing moods, but others noticed the change in my personality. My fluctuating moods became evident to my co-workers, and my family grew concerned about me drinking while taking psychiatric meds. I didn't seek help because I didn't believe I had a substance use problem.
When an EAP counsellor I saw about work stress suggested I seek help from an addictions counsellor, I half-heartedly secured a counsellor through Vancouver Coastal Health's Raven Song Community Health Centre. I still did not believe I had an alcohol issue. The counsellor was empathetic and didn't initially pressure me to quit alcohol. Instead, she focused on reducing my intake because it was affecting my mental and physical health. One day, however, she decided to directly address the fact that I had reached the threshold of what was now a substance abuse issue combined with mental illness.
I was still employed, but I began to experience more mental health issues—lots of self-harming behaviour such as cutting and pulling out body hair. And my drinking now obviously affected my job performance: I was hung over and enduring side effects such as unusual sleeping patterns, irritability and depression, and my concentration was poor. One day I broke down on the job in front of some staff members, screaming and crying that I couldn't take it any more. My supervisor, who knew I had mental health issues, rushed me to the hospital.
During my absence from work, my employer was informed that I had an alcohol addiction in addition to my mental illness. To receive sick benefits, I was required to enrol in a 12-step program and to seek help for my mental health problems. I got my doctor to refer me to Vancouver Community Mental Health's Dual Diagnosis Program. I also arranged to attend the Avalon Women's Centre 12-step program, recommended by my alcohol counsellor.
At first, I attended the 12-step program reluctantly. But, by keeping my various counselling appointments, as well as seeing a single psychiatrist on a regular basis for the first time, I moved toward a plan of recovery.
With time and intensive counselling from these agencies, my alcohol addiction was differentiated from my mental health issues and I was able to deal with the problems individually. Once I had gained some mental stability, I was able to attend the Aurora Centre's outpatient addiction treatment program for women. I came to a point where I asked my psychiatrist to prescribe the drug Antabuse,1 to deter me from drinking. I was well aware that I did not have the willpower to stop drinking on my own, but taking Antabuse was enough to stop me in my tracks.
I am still in treatment for my concurrent disorders, and I continue to receive support from my addictions counsellor. I have not consumed alcohol since November of 2004, two months after my breakdown at work. I can now see how alcohol complicated my mental illness and how it affected every aspect of my life.
The misery I endured while I was mentally ill and abusing alcohol took a toll on my family and friends, spanning a period of roughly 25 years. But sobriety has lifted the mental fog, and I feel that I'm starting my life over.
About the author
A.M.R. is a 48-year-old woman who has worked in various levels of government service for many years and is a mental health consumer recovering from alcohol addiction. She enjoys reading and writing