Sunday, February 13, 2011

Alcoholism and Mental Illness: A Double Edged Sword

“To be a good and genuine follower of Christ, there is no need of great things—it is enough to have the common, simple and human virtues, but they need to be true and authentic” ~ Pope John Paul II

The last two months have been up and down but constantly busy. I hit a depressive bottom a few weeks ago that had been building up for about a month.

I have noticed a pattern of late…every few months I suffer from a depressive episode followed by a month of euphoria and lastly, a slow decline into the next depressive state. Up and down, up and down. Such is the life of living with bipolar disease or alcoholism or both.

I discussed the challenges of having both mental illness and alcoholism with a couple of ladies in the program, who have both, and in our experience it is a pain in the butt!

There are some who will say that the two illnesses are one in the same; that as one’s spiritual condition improves the mental twists of these diseases will subside. In my experience, this is true for alcoholism but not always for bipolar depression.

I had a sponsor who did not suffer from depression in sobriety and therefore, couldn’t understand the mental and physical anguish I was experiencing at the time. She implored me to “get out of myself” and do more service work, to work harder on the steps, especially one through three, to get out of my self-pity, make gratitude lists, and go to more meetings.

I did these things and I continued to deteriorate until I tried to take my own life – after years of sobriety. Why? Because I became hopeless. I became hopeless because I was doing all of the things that make a “normal” alcoholic’s spiritual life blossom into a beautiful garden of serenity. Because I was doing what she was doing and it wasn’t having the same effect on me as it was her.

When I came to the rooms of this 12 step program I had lost all hope, I had hit bottom, I was out of answers. I found hope again by working the 12 steps of the program. I was amazed, grateful, humbled, and relieved. I finally found a way to connect with my God and I finally felt peace. I finally felt like I had a purpose in life – like I belonged here. I finally felt that sense of ease and comfort as I placed myself in the hands of my Creator by doing what was suggested to me; by doing what worked so well for others.

So, three years later when these solutions kept working for those around me and they no longer worked for me, I lost all hope once again. I hit another bottom. Alcohol definitely stopped working for me but how could a spiritual program of love and service stop working? I was devastated, in disbelief, terrified, and more hopeless than I had ever been while still drinking. (Even writing about it now literally takes my breath away.)

Now, almost four more years later, I continue to hit emotional bottoms every few months. I continue to ride the roller coaster of mental illness, which has many of the same strange and peculiar mental twists as alcoholism but in my experience, is not as easily managed by spiritual improvement alone.

The book tells me that alcoholism is a mental obsession and a physical allergy. The 12 steps removed my mental obsession for alcohol, which in turn, significantly reduces the chances of me drinking and activating the physical allergy.

Mental illness is not a mental obsession perse nor is it a physical allergy of some sort. It is a medical disease based mostly on the imbalance of certain chemicals in the brain. For many who have both mental illness and alcoholism, medication, the 12 steps, counseling at times, and a number of other interventions are needed. For many of those who are strictly alcoholic, the 12 steps are enough to recover.

Mental illness is real. Alcoholism is real. They both hurt. They both kill. They both affect all aspects of one’s being, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. However, not everyone who has mental illness is alcoholic and not everyone who is a sober alcoholic has mental illness (in the brain chemical imbalance sense.)

Therefore, when I am having trouble coping with life and someone’s tells me to work the steps harder, get out of myself, stop feeling sorry for myself, make gratitude lists, help others, go to more meetings and I do take these actions yet continue to get worse, I know that I need to call a professional in for help.

If I do what is suggested to me and my condition improves then yay! for the steps and this wonderful program for alcoholics (I repeat, “this program for alcoholics” not this program for alcoholics with bipolar depression.)

Now, I can hear some of those in my meetings saying, “You’re not unique. Don’t single yourself out. You’re not different.” These statements are true in and of themselves, however, I think many people use them out of context. After all, don’t we say that we can’t drink like normal people? Aren’t our bodies and minds different than that of the average social drinker? And for goodness sakes, our own Grapevine is singling out alcoholics who are also gay, in their current issue. Why then, can’t my body and mind be different than the average or normal alcoholic?

In summary, I want to reiterate for myself a few things that I have learned over the past couple of years:

  1. don’t lumped people into a big category pot with cookie cutter solutions
  2. don’t assume that I know best about what someone needs to do just because it worked that way for me
  3. don’t forget that we are all individuals with particular needs that only a Higher Power knows how to fulfill and sometimes He does so through the minds and actions of those outside of the program (i.e., medical professionals, clergy, spouse, non-alcoholic friend or family member)
  4. don’t assume that every solution lays at the end of improving my spiritual condition but that it may be possible for the improved spiritual condition to be but the beginning of a road that leads me to the tangible solutions my Higher Power wants to bring me to (i.e., medication, counseling, major life-style changes, etc.)
  5. be humble and try to remember that I don’t know anything as far as what is best for me, you, or the man on the moon
  6. ask for help
  7. easy does it
  8. don’t quit before the miracle happens (or after it happens because for me, the need for and the appearance of subsequent miracles continues on and on, up and down, etc., etc.)


  1. "There are some who will say that the two illnesses are one in the same; that as one’s spiritual condition improves the mental twists of these diseases will subside."

    In 12 Step I think we sometimes get so accustomed to what we have in common that we can forget that not all our outward symptoms are generated from the exact same causes.

    Sometimes people with clinical depression are told "it'll go away" (or "antidepressants are a drug and you're not clean if you take them"), sex addicts are told "everyone does that; don't worry about it," anorexics are told "I wish I could be thin and exercise like you; I don't see what the problem is"... sometimes even by our sponsors!

    It reminds me of a line from NA's basic text (something like): No matter what anyone else says, even an uninformed-about-addiction doctor, it's we ourselves who are responsible for our recovery.

    I've learned to not stand in the way of someone who says they need outside help (therapist, doctor, different 12 Step program, etc). I was "not heard" by my parents & partners for so many years that I try hard not to do the same to others nowadays. But it probably wasn't always that way.

  2. What a wonderful message. I think that the more people share this message, the more people will change their misconceptions.

  3. Mental illness is devastating. I saw what depression did to my mother. She was a broken woman who nearly died. For some, alcoholism is a symptom of some other illness.


Thank you for sharing!