Mental and Self-Medicating

Self-medication is a term used to describe the use of drugs (including alcohol) or other self-soothing forms of behavior, such as shopping or sex, to treat untreated and often undiagnosed mental distress,  anxiety and stress, including mental illnesses and/or psychological trauma. Obviously, one can self-medicate even while being treated for mental illness, and such is the case with me.  There are positive forms of self-medication, such as exercise, but I’m going to write about the kind I’m most experienced with.

Self-medicating individuals, like myself,  use the consumption of a substance, without physician input, to compensate for any medical or psychological condition.  It is very common amongst people with mental illness, both diagnosed and not.  The goal of self-medication usually is to feel numb, or, often in my case, just “normal” (or what I imagine normal would feel like, since I really have no idea).  Many people would rather use non-prescription or street drugs as opposed to prescriptions, as they don’t really want to go to their doctor and confess to feelings of mental instability.  Self-medication is often seen as gaining personal independence from established medicine.  In my mind, self-medicating is something I’m in control of, rather than my doctor; it gives me a sense of empowerment similar to what I feel when my eating disorder causes me to starve myself.  It’s interesting to note that a large percentage of drug-addicts are also suffering from mental illness, although many never seek treatment for it.  Sometimes the drug abuse is seen as the problem, rather than as a symptom of a bigger problem.

Sometimes people may use alcohol or drugs to help cover up or mask symptoms of a mood disorder. For example, if a person’s mind is racing because of mania, a drink of alcohol may slow it down. If a person has intense sadness or hopelessness because of depression, an “upper” may help him or her feel happy or hopeful for a period of time. This self-medication may appear to help, but it actually makes things worse. After the temporary effects of the alcohol or drugs wear off, a person’s symptoms are often worse than ever. Self-medication can cause a person’s mood disorder to stay undiagnosed for a long time.  This was a problem for me; my alcohol and drug use made it difficult for any doctor to clearly identify my symptoms and make a proper diagnosis.

The self medication hypothesis began appearing in medical journals in the 1970s, as clinicians noticed that heroin addicts were using the drug to cope with problems such as stress and loneliness. This led to the idea that drug use develops as a way of coping with stress in the absence of satisfactory solutions.  According to the self-medication hypothesis (SMH), the individuals’ choice of a particular drug is not accidental or coincidental, but instead, is a result of the individual’s psychological condition, as the drug of choice provides relief to the user specific to his or her condition.  Drug users compensate for deficient ego function by using a drug as an “ego solvent”, a solution to their particular problems.  This acts on parts of the self that are cut off from consciousness by defense mechanisms.  The drug’s effects substitute for defective or non-existent ego mechanisms of defense. The addict’s drug of choice, therefore, is not random.

Some mental illness sufferers attempt to correct their illnesses by use of certain drugs. Depression is often self medicated with alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, or any number of other mind-altering drugs.  I am guilty of having used all of these things, in any given combination.  While this may provide immediate relief of some symptoms such as anxiety, it may evoke and/or exacerbate some symptoms of several kinds of mental illnesses that are already latently present,  and may lead to addiction/dependence, among other side effects of long-term use of the drug. Sufferers of post traumatic stress disorder have been known to self-medicate, as well as many individuals without this diagnosis who have suffered from (mental) trauma.  All I know is, if I have a few drinks, smoke a little weed, or pop a few pills, I feel better.

Chemical dependency may help a patient cope with some of the symptoms they may be experiencing due to their mental illness, but it will not cure it. In fact, in many circumstances addiction can cause more problems for the individual which may worsen their illness.  Of those who seek help from mental health services for conditions including anxiety disorders such as panic disorder or social phobia, approximately half have alcohol or benzodiazepine dependence issues.  Alcoholism is actually one of the most common forms of self medication in patients with mental illness. I, personally, am a benzos girl.

Often in the mental health field, one may encounter individuals who have an underlying mental illness that they have been self-medicating for months or even years with substance abuse. Whether it is alcohol, drugs or even sex, in order to overcome the mental illness, the individual will also need to confront their addiction as well. There are a number of mental illnesses in which this may be encountered, such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

I began self-medicating regularly while in college.  At that time, I was in between therapists, and I had stopped taking my anti-depressants.  I began smoking pot to alleviate my feelings of sadness and emptiness. Pot made everything better-I felt better, I was more outgoing, I was funny, people liked me.  I started smoking pot most every time I left my house in order to relax and feel comfortable out in public.  Drinking was always there for me as well, but it never caught on for me to the degree that pot did.  I didn’t like the way it tasted and I hated getting the “spins” and I often got sick, plus there was that nasty hangover to deal with in the morning. So I preferred marijuana.  Always have.  And yes, I still use it. It is far and above my favorite form of self-medication, followed by Xanax (Alprazalam) and champagne.  I combine each or all of these things with a bubble bath, some candles, and some music, and there you have my favorite means of self-medicating.  I’m certain my psychiatrist would disapprove of the drug and alcohol use, but that won’t stop me. NOTE: Not all of the K’s self-medicate.  Some alters do not drink or use drugs of any kind.  But most of the time, we have very little will-power in these areas. Plus, it helps me feel not so mental, even if only for a little while; a mere moment of peace is worth nearly any price.  The escape is what I jones for, not the drugs.