Two Bipolar Chicks

By McCarton Ackerman 10/28/14

Wendy K. Williamson and Honora Rose talk mental illness, drug addiction and their new book.

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Mental illness and drug addiction often go hand-in-hand. Just ask Wendy K. Williamson and Honora Rose, who are among the 56 percent of individuals with bipolar disorder that have also struggled with a drug or alcohol problem.

The paths that led to their dual diagnosis were radically different, but both women were able to receive the treatment they needed for both illnesses and are now clean and sober. They’re now talking about their former drug use and sharing their secrets to managing mental illness in the book Two Bipolar Chicks Guide To Survival: Tips For Living with Bipolar Disorder.

Williamson and Rose spoke exclusively to The Fix about the importance of support groups for people struggling with mental illness and drug addiction, using medication for mental illness while in recovery and why Williamson believes that her bipolar disorder was drug-induced.

How did your drug use first begin?

Wendy: My first introduction to drugs was marijuana in high school. I worked a lot of weekends, though, and wasn’t always at parties, so it was much more recreational. It definitely progressed in college just because it was more accessible, but I’d say things began to spiral in my mid-20s.

I was working in New York City in the hospitality industry and met a guy who did cocaine. We did cocaine every weekend and then I would smoke pot during the week just to come down. It was surprising because I was dead set against cocaine my whole life and never took it when it was offered, but I was in love and doing what he was doing. Eventually, I ended up making crack cocaine.   

Did your drug use come before your diagnosis of having bipolar disorder?

Wendy: I believe that my bipolar disorder was drug-induced. I was using pot quite a bit in my last semester of college and I’m convinced that it was laced with angel dust one of those times. I went to a guy’s house and didn’t trust him, but he had pot and it was free. It wasn’t my brightest move.

Once I smoked there, I started hallucinating and everything eventually changed. I started having a drug-induced hypomanic episode and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder six weeks after graduation.

Did you end up quitting on your own or in a facility?

Wendy: I was definitely brought to get help, but didn’t go into a facility and quit cold turkey. I broke both of my bongs in one week, so I think it was a sign that it was time to quit. When my parents came down, I knew I would eventually end up in jail and that something had to change. I haven’t had cocaine since 1997, but haven’t used any alcohol or drugs for the last 11 years. 

What is the reason that so many with bipolar disorder also struggle with addiction? Is it self-medicating to help deal with the symptoms or is it just chemical makeup?

Honora: In my case, it was absolutely a means of self-medicating. My drug use was not as bad as Wendy’s. but I drank for years as a way to settle my mood and slow everything down. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know that I was bipolar. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 35 and drank up until that point. But I don’t think my bipolar disorder was induced by my alcohol use.  

How does drug abuse make the symptoms of Bipolar Disorder worse?

Wendy: When you’re depressed or have anxiety, you might drink because you think it takes the pain away. However, it doesn’t treat the condition and ultimately makes the depression or anxiety worse. You might feel like you’re doing okay temporarily, but alcohol is a depressant. It’s really dangerous and it’s when people often become suicidal.  

Did you receive a dual diagnosis or were you receiving treatment for an addiction, but not addressing the symptoms of bipolar disorder?

Honora: I had a dual diagnosis.  My doctor was very leery to diagnose me as bipolar because I was consuming alcohol and that does mask some of the symptoms, but he was fairly convinced. I had a really hard time quitting drinking, though. I went into inpatient treatment for the mentally ill and chemically addicted and was treated for both. 

That was in 2005, but I had a rough start getting sober. I would have periods of sobriety for 12 to 18 months before relapsing for a few weeks or a month. I finally got sober for good in 2010.

Have you found it more difficult to manage your addiction or your bipolar disorder?

Honora: Now that I’m level because of my medications and feel stronger with my sobriety, I’m feeling pretty good overall. Maintaining sobriety was definitely harder in the beginning, but everything came together once I found the right medications. It took four years to get it right, though, and I’m grateful it only took four years. It can take much longer sometimes.

Wendy: Mental illness was definitely much harder for me to manage. I got help for my sobriety in my mid-20s and that really went a long way for me.  

There are people in the recovery community who believe that even in the case of mental illness, an addict shouldn’t be using medication. What are your thoughts on that?

Honora: I know someone whose own family tells her she doesn’t need to take medication and she has a very serious illness. People who say that are ignorant. They don’t know what they’re talking about and putting their own opinion on someone else. And frankly, I really don’t think it’s their business. These medications help people because I’ve witnessed some of them when they’re off it. It can be very dangerous.

What are some of the most important ways people can manage their bipolar disorder?

Wendy: You have to get diagnosed first, but the addiction is often what leads to the diagnosis. You have to treat the addiction first because it’s not possible to get a handle on medication and living with mental illness if you’re consuming or using drugs. There’s a snowball's chance in hell of the medication working and you’re not giving either it or yourself a chance.

Are there support groups for people with dual diagnosis or do you need to go to one for bipolar disorder and a separate one for drug abuse? 

Honora: To our knowledge, there isn’t one solid support group that has been streamlined for both bipolar disorder and drug addiction, but I’m sure that something exists. There are so many available support groups, though. You have mental health advocacy groups, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) groups, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) groups. Even if you don’t have a support network in the form of family or close friends, there is support available out there.

Wendy: The biggest thing is to get support and learn about both bipolar disorder and drug addiction. There are plenty of 12-step groups and counseling, so there’s no excuse to not get treatment. I saw a certified drug and alcohol counselor. Get honest with yourself and spill your guts with at least one person.

Both bipolar disorder and drug addiction are chemical illnesses and they’re illnesses you have got to fight. But it can be done and you can have a wonderful life. We’re proof of that.

McCarton Ackerman has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2011. He last wrote about Bad GrandpasJessica Kirson and Reality TV stars busted for drugs.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.