Trigger warning: Mentions of self-harm
As far back as I can remember, I’ve received feedback that my reactions were not ‘normal’, that they were usually too excited or too down. I’ve heard everything from “You’re overreacting!” and “Calm down, you’re being dramatic” to “Just snap out of it, it’s not a big deal.”
To be constantly told that what you are feeling is, in some way, wrong, inaccurate, or strange is a terrible feeling. It makes you feel othered and in my case – very, very alone. Over time, these invalidations can manifest in many ways. For me, it was punishing myself for being ‘wrong’ through self-harm and trying to escape the feelings that others seemingly felt were invalid through drug and alcohol use.
I was extremely dependent on both cocaine and alcohol for many reasons, one of the largest being to manage what I now know were symptoms of Bipolar. When I was in depressions, that were made far worse by alcohol, a depressant, I would bring myself up enough to function with cocaine. When I was feeling anything other than depressed, I would drink to numb out – I didn’t want to feel any feelings. Then if I got too drunk, I’d just do some lines and the spins would subside. This balancing act lasted for about 8 years.
Throughout my ~15 years of drug use, I did make an effort to improve my mental health. I went to therapy, I joined a DBT group therapy program and met with a psychiatrist who diagnosed me as mildly depressed and put me on a small dose of Prozac. However, all of these efforts felt like trying to force-fit a square peg into a round hole. None of them were the right solution for my specific needs.
What it’s like to be sober with bipolar disorder
I was finally diagnosed as having Bipolar II in January of 2020, at the age of 27 and I went to a dual-diagnosis rehab center, which focuses on the intersection of mental illness and drug abuse. Here they were able to pick up on the small moments of hypomania I had experienced over the years, something past psychiatrists could not. My symptoms mostly presented as Major Depressive Disorder, but medications to treat that wouldn’t, and didn’t, work for me. As I write this, it has been a long 382 days of not only sobriety but of being on the correct medication to best help me manage my symptoms.
I still experience depressions, but they are manageable. Alcohol is no longer exacerbating all of my Bipolar symptoms, like throwing a bunch of gasoline on a perfectly large fire. I am in tune enough with my own body now that I am sober to feel them coming on, and I have a slew of resources to help me get through them. I will also say that feeling your feelings in sobriety, whether you have Bipolar II or not, is an itchy feeling. I still don’t enjoy experiencing a lot of them, but I know I have to sit with them, and I know that they are temporary.
I recently lost another friend to addiction and as I sat on the couch crying, my mom asked if there was anything she could do to help me through this. It took everything not to tell her “get me a drink.” I thought about how when my parents went up to bed around 9pm, that I could easily raid the bar and all of the sadness I was feeling would evaporate. Instead, I let myself continue to cry. I called into an AA meeting. I eventually cried myself to sleep. I woke up the next day, not hungover, and not feeling as consumed by sadness as I did the night before.
I’ve had many moments like this, where I have had the option to have a drink and I have chosen not to. I know that that moment is not the first, and it is most certainly not the last. But time and time again, when I get through these moments, I prove to myself that I can do hard things. I can do hard things because I have chosen myself.
Written by Brett Stevenson
Brett Stevenson works in Technology Consulting and lives in San Francisco, California. She hopes to one day be a dog mom, something she looks forward to becoming after she pays off all of her addiction debt (she’s more than halfway there!). Follow Brett at @bipolarandsober or check out www.bipolarandsober.com