Facing My Mental Health Issues Was Harder Than Getting Clean

By Erin Khar 12/06/15

I started using heroin when I was 13 years old and considered myself a "high-functioning addict." But the truth was, I used drugs to self-medicate my mental health issues.

Facing My Mental Health Issues Was Harder Than Getting Clean

“If you don’t do something to address your weird sabotaging behavior, our relationship is not going to last.”

The heat rose up my cheeks and spread to my ears. Exhaling, I wanted to launch into the many reasons why we should just end it here and now. Instead, I listened to what the man I love just said to me. He was right. I was sabotaging our relationship in both subconscious and deliberate ways. This space was familiar. I’d occupied it most of my life. Though I’d been clean for almost nine years, there was a pesky part of my behavior that was still wreaking havoc in my life. 

I started using heroin when I was 13 years old. I used it off and on for the next 15 years. Hiding this from most everyone in my life until I first went to rehab at age 23, I considered myself to be a “high-functioning” addict. The truth was, I used drugs to manage my own mental health issues, masking behavior that was more noticeably disturbing when I was off drugs than when I was on them. I was aware of this on some level, but had not yet faced that reality. 

Once the truth about my addiction was out, I found it easier and easier to be frank about admitting I was an addict. But, I did not understand the underlying issues that drove my addiction. After my first stint in rehab, I had some extended periods of sobriety, but I relapsed several times. The problem started with addiction, but it didn’t end there. I was no stranger to therapy. I had been in talk therapy off and on since adolescence. A year after rehab, when some of the painful issues from childhood could no longer be ignored, I started seeing a therapist again. 

Dr. L. was great. She was a tall, handsome woman with wild hair, always sporting an oversized sculptural necklace. I loved her cozy office, full of dark wood, smelling of eucalyptus. The therapy helped, but it didn’t help enough. I mistakenly thought that I had left my darkest moments of depression and suicidal thoughts behind me. When those suffocating feelings came back, and I was able to admit them to Dr. L., she referred me to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist, after an hour-long consultation, suggested “we” start with an SSRI, a Selective Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitor, AKA a member of the Prozac family. Reluctant but open, I began taking my first anti-depressant. 

It didn’t work, it made me feel worse, more depressed, more suicidal. After two months, I threw in the proverbial towel and decided that medication was not for me. On my last visit to the psychiatrist, he explained that finding the right medication can take time, and there may be a little trial-and-error in the process. He handed me a prescription for a different SSRI, which I threw in the trash on the way to my car. 

Over the next three months, Dr. L. noticed I was getting worse, and she suggested I try another psychiatrist. Psychiatrist Number Two prescribed me Wellbutrin, a brand name for bupropion, a different family of antidepressants. Though Wellbutrin was, at that time, commonly advertised to help smoking cessation, it is often prescribed to treat general depression and as a mood stabilizer for certain cases of bipolar disorder. Psychiatrist Number Two said that I might be suffering from rapid-cycling manic depression, or general major depression and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), stemming from a sexual abuse incident I experienced as a child and had spent all my years suppressing and minimizing. Whatever it was, it was choking the will to live right out of me. 

I was desperate. So, I started taking Wellbutrin. Despite my convictions that it would not work, it did. Among some of my peers in recovery, suggestions were made that true sobriety did not involve medication. Others supported my decision. I wavered. Two months later, feeling better, and convincing myself that this had all been a fluke, that I didn’t need it anymore, I stopped taking it without telling anyone. 

Within six weeks, I fell into a another black hole, inflicting harm on myself by way of a box cutter, fantasizing about killing myself, and pushing everyone away. Those closest to me, concerned about my behavior, threatened to talk with my therapist and parents and suggested we look into a treatment center. Dead sober, I felt crazier than ever. But, damn it, I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t like "those people." I promised that I would start taking Wellbutrin again and go to more 12-step meetings, and that I’d throw away the box cutter. I did what I said I would, sort of. And what I “sort of did" didn’t last long. 

I relapsed, again. I relapsed in a way that was worse than any time before. I was back on heroin and smoking crack, spiraling down into a vortex so confounding that I believed the only way out was suicide. In a moment of clarity, after the worst four months of my life, I reached out for help.

Back in rehab for the second and last time, I was in a facility that operated primarily as a mental health hospital, with an inpatient rehabilitation unit. The rehab was down the hill from the main building. I looked up the hill at “those people” and felt frightened and ashamed that maybe we weren’t so different. I had no problem standing up at a 12-step meeting and saying, “I’m Erin and I’m an addict,” but to admit that I had something that qualified as mental illness, felt more threatening than an overdose. I had spent my entire life petrified that everyone would find out I was damaged, broken, crazy; that the straight-A student, super social and outgoing young woman was an impostor, hiding the ugly monster I felt I was. 

It was in that rehab that I first began to acknowledge that I had mental health issues. I continued in talk therapy, went on and off Wellbutrin a few more times, and had a couple more relapses. My life, though more stable, still felt uncertain, ready to unhinge, and crumble, once again. Then, I got pregnant. I couldn’t use drugs and I did not use again. 

The birth of my son did a lot to improve my well-being. The moment he was born, I instantly loved him more than I hated myself. And over time, with that self-hatred having melted, I began to like myself more and more. I haven’t used in 13 years. My son is now 12. I’d like to say that removing the drugs entirely for such a long period of time solved the mental health issues, but it did not. 

So there I sat, four years ago, across the table from the man I love, who had never known me on drugs, and I heard him. Yes, I was clean, I was a good mom, and had my life together. But, I was still dipping into dark places, sabotaging relationships, fantasizing about self-harm, and fighting the urge to destroy everything around me. I was white knuckling my mental illness. 

I went back to talk therapy and got back on the Wellbutrin. Three years after that fateful conversation, that man and I married, and my life is leaps and bounds from where it was then. For me, the medication has saved me from myself. I still don’t have a clear diagnosis. Maybe it’s regular old depression, maybe it’s a little of the PTSD, maybe it’s a form of bipolar disorder, maybe it doesn’t matter. I am okay with needing the medication. I am okay with facing my mental illness, without all the jokes and minimization. I’m okay with admitting I need those pills to keep me stable. Why? Because I’m happy, not in an artificial mercurial way, but in a day-to-day fulfilled and grateful way. I only wish it had not taken me so long to get here. 

Erin Khar is a writer, living in New York City. She is a weekly contributor for Ravishly and is working on her first book, a memoir. You can follow her on twitter @RarelyWrongErin. 

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