Logo shape Logo shape

My experience of dual diagnosis

I am writing this blog as I would like to share my experience of Dual Diagnosis, the difficulties I faced and my road to recovery.

I have had problems with my mental health since childhood and have subsequently been in and out of several psychiatric and drugs/alcohol services for many years. I have struggled with anxiety since an early age but the symptoms steadily worsened in adulthood. My behaviour at times became extremely erratic and disturbing: I self-harmed; attempted suicide; misused substances; would talk to myself relentlessly for hours; pace up and down or rock back and forth if seated.

In my late teens I was prescribed sleeping tablets and relaxants for anxiety. In my early twenties I was diagnosed with ‘acute anxiety’ and prescribed anti-depressants, in my thirties ‘anxiety, depression and alcoholism’ and was prescribed anti-depressants and anti-craving medication. I have also had intense cognitive behaviour therapy; person centered counseling; attended support groups looking at stress management; confidence/self-esteem building; life coaching; mindfulness; relaxation therapies; admitted into a psychiatric unit and eventually rehab. The older I got the more I was suffering.

Despite my emotional difficulties I have lived a fairly normal life but due to my struggles every so often would have a ‘meltdown’ in order to relieve my feelings and this would be something that seemed to be out of my control, it was internal. The pattern of my mental health would alter frequently, what I now describe as periods of ‘wellness’ and ‘unwellness’. Wellness would mean I felt happy and content and during ‘unwellness’ I would be extremely stressed, would over think, catastrophize, be paranoid and at worst be unable to decipher reality. This would leave me crying, feeling sad, hopeless, exhausted and I would isolate myself. I’ve noted that these periods lasted around three months in each state but were getting steadily longer and longer.

I always enjoyed drinking in my younger days as part of my social life but as I got older (late twenties) at times when my mental health was frail I found using alcohol relieved the symptoms also known as ‘self-medicating’. Alcohol would suppress my feelings as opposed to being used for fun. This wasn’t a conscious decision per se and I didn’t consider the consequences, I just did it. This is where I believe my alcoholism began, lasting almost a decade and it nearly took my life. Having a couple of drinks after work doesn’t appear to most people as a problem; in fact it is a socially acceptable tradition, but it can so easily take over people who are already vulnerable.

There is absolutely no telling the destruction alcoholism caused in my life – the mental health issue was the primary problem but now I had another and a much bigger one. I had gone from being psychologically addicted to physically addicted. In the last thirty-six months before stopping I lost my car/license, my daughter, my family, my job, my self-respect and spent my days sat in the dark drinking, frightened of the world and totally isolated. I was doubly incontinent, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t execute simple tasks, could barely walk, my hair was falling out – not that I cared because I was emotionally dead inside.

My drinking had become sheer misery and an unfortunate trap I felt I couldn’t escape. My health had deteriorated so badly I was rushed into hospital with liver hepatitis and not much hope of survival. Thankfully for the truly wonderful staff at the hospital my life was saved and after a short stay I was allowed to go home. After detox began the real work and I knew I could not continue on this path. When you have destroyed your life through addiction it is hard to know where to begin putting it back together; and not to turn back to the substance to take the worries away. I felt like I was fighting an uphill battle but I didn’t want to die.

I have had some relapses since then but nothing as marked as prior to going into hospital. I have worked with a handful of organisations who have helped me put life back together as I could not have done this alone. These are mainly addiction recovery services – CHART, The Basement Project and Community Links who have all provide amazing programmes and practical support and are easy to access. There is much pain in recovery but facing it is part of healing and moving forward; eventually my life has taken shape again and the misery caused by my alcoholism is finally starting to fade.

In terms of treatment I feel there is more available for addiction than mental health and it is difficult to get a referral to mental health services and a reliable diagnosis. I have only ever had one diagnosis from a psychiatrist the rest have been from my G.P.  I wonder if there had of been a more successful early intervention, would I have become alcohol dependent? Was my diagnosis correct? Even to this day I’m still unsure and therefore work solely with the recovery from addiction framework as opposed to mental health. I have been fortunate enough to be able to ‘repair’ myself through these services and find a better way to live my life and without the aid of pills. Do mental health problems and addiction go hand in hand or are they the same?

I have also struggled with the stigma of labels. Mental health problems appear to be something society fears although it is an illness. Also if you are labeled an ‘addict’ there is an implication that you have a choice but this is not always the case when there are underlying mental health issues. Labels are not useful and can be damaging and so when asked I will always describe myself as being ‘in recovery’ but not revealing one thing or the other. I am a complicated person who now chooses a simple life, understands myself, recognises my limitations and abilities, celebrates my individuality and is finally free from alcohol and prescription medication.

Nikki Downs

For more information and advise on alcohol and mental health visit www.alcoholconcern.org.uk and www.drinkaware.co.uk

Community Links offers alcohol and dual diagnosis services in the Kirklees area – click here for information about these services