- Friends & Family
- Mental Health
I had the pleasure of speaking with Lisa H. during the Moments of Change conference. She a Unit Director at a treatment facility in Arizona. She is passionate about her work and is grateful to be working directly with the population they serve. Lisa shared her story with me about her journey into recovery with dual diagnosis. – Abby Foster
My sobriety birthday is July 5th of 1999. I’m also in recovery with bipolar disorder. I’ve been maintaining a sober life, because I do address my mental illness and work with a doctor on that. I am in AA to address my issues with addiction. What I didn’t realize was I’ve never shared about both of them, and never thought about how much they go hand-in-hand. That’s why I asked to be able to speak again and share again, because this is my first time to combine the two together.
When I first started in my career, for about 20 years, I worked with the seriously mentally ill, and I didn’t know that I had a mental illness. I love working with people, I love working with my patients. They were clients back then. I was a great case manager. I had so much empathy, and I didn’t know why. I thought I was just this great person. Over time, I dove into an addiction with alcohol and drugs. Diving into that addiction, I really lost all of me. I ended up being a homeless alcoholic addict and untreated mentally ill person, having no idea that that’s what I was. From the beginning, never really understanding that I was an addict, just really thinking I was a bad person. Never had anyone approached me with the fact that I might have a mental illness either, despite having worked in it for 20 years. It’s so fascinating to me when I look back at that history and just say, “How? How did I go undetected?” I think I had developed some pretty strong skills of coping and hiding what I was going through as a child. That’s really where everything started, from my mental illness. I believe I really suffered from depression as as child. I looked at it like it was just because I had gone through trauma. I didn’t look at it as a chemical imbalance in the brain. I looked at it as anybody who’d gone through the trauma I had gone through, I had been molested for many years, would be depressed. What was so unusual is that I was actually a pretty happy person, too. It didn’t make sense that I could be as happy as I could be at times, and yet be as depressed as I could be at times.
When I was 10 years old, my brother and sister were smoking pot. I found them. I caught them smoking pot, and I told them they had to share with me or I would tell. That was my first time to ever use a mind altering substance. I was in heaven. From that first time, I was watching them pass the joint around, and couldn’t wait for it to come to me because then I could feel different. That’s all I was searching for, to feel different, to escape what I was feeling. At the time, I believe that I was wanting to escape trauma, the feelings behind the trauma, the incidents, and not have to think about it. I also know that, that helped when I was depressed. I thought it would help me to, be happier. That was just the start of it all. I found alcohol in 8th grade, and fell in love with alcohol too. Alcohol’s been my story all along.
When I went to college I had blocked out everything I had gone through as a child, I had completely blocked it out. I would have periods of time where I would have lots of energy, and be doing school work, and go to all of the events. Then, I would have periods of time where I really thought I was tired. I just want to sleep. I didn’t want to go to all the events. I was in a sorority, so there were a lot of events to go through. I was different than the other girls. I knew that, because I didn’t want to go, go, go. I look back now, and I understand I was bipolar. Really, that isolation I felt because the times that I’d be depressed and people would be like, “Get up.” I would have this guilt and shame over, because I couldn’t get myself up. I didn’t even want to take a shower. I was supposed to be in class. I couldn’t get myself to go to class. Sometimes if I would go to class, I’d just would look horrible. I was in a sorority, and you’re not supposed to look horrible.
Life is great and wonderful. I started my career, and I’m working with the seriously mentally ill. I love it. I get employee of the year. I get several employees of the month. Meanwhile, I’m smoking pot and I’m drinking alcohol. I do cocaine on the weekends, not every weekend, just sometimes. I don’t see a problem with it. I really don’t. I’m going through these stages where I have a lot of energy. I’m the hero of everything and the super case manager. Then, I would go through stages where I thought I was having burn out. I truly thought it was just burn out, I couldn’t be like my patients…I’m college educated. I’m supposed to know what’s going on for people and help them, not be the same as them and need help myself. That was how I looked at it, truly. I worked with college educated people, so you can’t be mentally ill and have a college education. That was just my denial and my attempt at, I believed, protecting myself from myself. I think that’s how I put it all into a place that allowed me to function, really. My addiction progressed. When it progressed, it was pretty significant. I ended up getting into crystal meth. I was a supervisor at an outpatient center. I was over doctors, and nurses, and case managers, and over 500 clients that we served out of our office. I started doing crystal meth, and everything started to fall apart. I tried to maintain it, and I couldn’t. I felt as though crystal meth made me “normal” for a while. It balanced my mood in ways that I had never experienced before. I really became … I don’t know how to describe it I just felt like I was stable. I was able to work. I wasn’t going through my periods of sleeping all the time. I was getting so much done, too, until it got out of control. Initially, I was using crystal meth on the weekends. It was a party thing. We were having fun. Then, it became a thing where on Mondays, I was really tired because I had been up all weekend long. I would use on Mondays, so that I could go through the week. Then, of course, Fridays are happy days. I would start on Friday, early, when I was at work. Then, it got out of hand. I was, Monday through Sunday, using crystal meth to function, so I thought. I wasn’t really even functioning. I would miss work a lot, because I’d finally crash after 3 to 5 days of being up.
I really just drove completely into that addiction, and meanwhile, never even having touched the thought of having a mental illness. My addiction reached a point, I have three children, I have a wonderful husband. I don’t know how, but I do. I was diving further into my addiction. My husband had partied with me on the weekends. One day he said, “I just can’t do this anymore. I’m so exhausted for Mondays at work.” I thought, “great more for me,” so I was really happy, truly, because I got more. I really dove into that addiction to the point where I wasn’t able to take care of my children. I wasn’t able to work.
I thought, “I won’t be an addict anymore.” I call it my magical thinking. Sometimes in my mental illness when I’m not medicated, I do get magical thinking. I get this thinking, this belief system that when others hear it, just go, “I don’t know about that.” By the grace of God, it’s been a long time since that’s happened to me. I am able to see and understand that it is a symptom of my illness. The term I give it, magical thinking, is just that I was delusional. Now, I understand that. I didn’t, and it was a great coping mechanism for a long time.
My husband couldn’t take it any longer with me still being addicted to, now at this point, crack cocaine and to alcohol. I was in and out of treatment programs, in and out of psych hospitals, over a period of six years. The psych hospitals were because I wanted to die. I just knew that if I screamed out, “I’m going to kill myself,” that I could get into some place and not be out on the streets where I was afraid, where I was scared and lonely, and did not know how to survive. I came from an upper middle class family, doctors and lawyers, just a family that did not teach me the skills to survive on the street.
Going into a psych hospital, at least it was so much better. The insanity of my thinking back then, too, was, “These people, I can go and help them.”While I’m in here, I’ll help all these people. Then, at least I can feel better about myself. As long as I help others, I don’t have to feel horrible about me. That’s a part of my disease. It’s my codependency, which is behind all of my disease of addiction, but also what was, I think, fostered in my disease of my mental illness both. It’s the core. It is my core, for sure, was the only way I could feel valued. Needless to say, the doctors didn’t to hire me to help other people. They would check me out, and then I’d be all upset, because then I was homeless again and on the streets. My poor husband, he just rode the roller coaster with me until finally in the very end, he said, “I can’t keep doing this.” He changed the locks on our house. That’s when I became homeless. That was a really tough thing for me to accept, because how dare him. How could he do that to me? How am I going to survive on the streets, really truly living on the streets now, not just gone for a few days living on the street.
I had told my husband that he needed to give me the last $10 that we had. We were pretty poor at the time, because I couldn’t work, and we were trying to live off of his income with three boys. I told him he needed to give me his last $10. He told me, if he gives it to me, then he would have to change the locks and I couldn’t come home. That money was for the kids, for food. I told him that money came from mom, so you need to give it to me. This is the insanity of the disease. All I can think about is my drugs, not about my kids. It’s very hard for me to admit, but it’s the truth. That’s where I get to in my disease. I pray I never forget about it. If I do, I’m at risk to go back there. I don’t ever want to.
I had him drive me to the drug dealer’s house. My three kids were in the backseat of my car. I had him give me that $10. I remember him handing it to me and him saying, “You can’t come home. I’m going to change the locks. You can’t come home, because we can’t keep doing this.” My children were screaming in the backseat, “No. Mommy, don’t go.” I couldn’t even look at them. I just kept on walking. I went to the drug dealer. I bought crack. I went down into the parking lot of that apartment and I sat there. I went, “Oh, my God. I’m homeless.” The insanity of the disease is how selfish and self-centered we are. All I’m thinking about is, “Wow. I’m really, truly homeless now.” I’m not thinking about my children and my husband.
I was homeless for about 6 months, and had been beat up. It was just really bad. I didn’t do well. I sometimes share that I don’t make a very good homeless person. Some people are very comfortable being homeless. I met some of them. They helped me, but some of them did not help me at all. Finally after about 6 months, I finally showed up at my husband’s door. I said, “I can’t do this. I don’t know what to do, but I can’t do this anymore. I need help.” It was the first time I had told him I needed help. I used to go to him, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to do that. Everything’s going to be okay.” This time I just said, “I need help.” He had me wait outside, and he made phone calls to the people in his support system, which is through Nar-Anon.
I’m waiting outside in the back yard. I just cried out with all of my heart and soul. What we talk about in the program of AA is that surrender. I truly did, with all my heart and soul, surrender. I just said, “Please, God, help me.” I heard, “Hush, my child.” I had a calm that I never, ever in my whole life have had prior to that moment. I was 107 pounds. I was 5’11”. I was skin and bones, and I was just shaking from drug withdrawal, and looking horrible, feeling horrible, black circles on my eyes, my face sunken in, all of that. The shaking of withdrawal is horrendous. There I am shaking, and a calm comes. To just suddenly stop shaking and to be calm, and there had been this emptiness.
I don’t even know how to describe this hole inside of me from abuse from having been molested. That dark hole, nothing, drugs couldn’t fill it. Nothing could fill it. Helping people couldn’t fill it. Nothing could fill it. It felt not so dark, that moment. I told God at that time, I said, “All right, if it has to be you … I could be hallucinating, but there is a possibility. There is that possibility. However, I’m going to do this. I just need for you to keep me sober. I will do whatever you put before me, as long as you keep me sober. I don’t care what you put before me, I’ll do it. I need you to keep me sober.” I didn’t get an answer, so I think I might not have been hallucinating.
That calm was still there, and I had no idea what was going to happen in my life. My husband came out and he said, “Well, we can’t find any place for you to go to tonight, so you can stay here. In the morning, you can figure out where you’re going to go.” I was like, “Okay. At least I don’t have to be out on the street, finding people, trying to figure out ways to get money, and all that other stuff.” I was sound asleep. My husband comes in and he says, “There’s a phone call for you.” I was like, “Oh, my God.” In the past, whenever that had happened, it was a phone call from my old drug friends. They would call me, and I’d be off and running again. I was like, “No. I can’t take this call.” He said, “It’s your life. You’ve got to figure this out. I am not going to protect you from anything. It’s up to you to do this.”
Nar-Anon was working for him. It was so healthy. It’s a wonderful thing that he did. What was amazingly awesome was, that phone call was actually a treatment center. They’re like, “About 6 months ago, you called us and you were saying you wanted to get in for treatment.” I was like, “Who are you?” Honest to God, I have goosebumps, I’m telling you, right now, because I didn’t know who they were. I’m like, “You’re saying I can get treatment.” They were like, “Yes.” I stood there at the phone in awe. I said, “Wow, God, this is the first thing you’re doing for me. Yes, so I better do what I told you I would do whatever you put before me, so I’m going to trust in this.” They said, “You need to be 72 hours sober.” How am I going to do that? I don’t know how to do that on my own. There were no beds available for detox. My husband let me detox at home. I had a 24/7 babysitter. It was horrendous.
Day 3 comes, 72 hours, my husband pulls up to the treatment center, basically says, “Good luck.” When I tell this story when I’m speaking, and I’m saying it all, it’s like he’s kicking me out the door. There you go. Good luck. It was how he was. He was like, “All I can do is pray for you.” He’s right. That’s all he could do for me at the time. I went through the 30 days. They told me number 1, that I needed to be evaluated by a psychiatrist. I just thought, “Well, most people when they’re going through initially being clean and sober, they have depression. That makes sense.” Plus, I was having all these feelings that were making me really depressed because I had stuffed them all of my life. I was evaluated by a psychiatrist. They said, at the time, that I had major depression. That made sense. I was good with that one. I can handle that. That one was okay.
They told me I needed to go to a sober living. At the time, we called them halfway houses. Okay, no problem, went to a halfway house. Then, they told me that the halfway house, I needed to agree to 90 days of living there. I said, “Okay.” At the 90 day mark, I went to them and I said, “I don’t think I’m ready to go home yet. I don’t even know how to live without using drugs. There’s days where I’m scared to death, and I can’t even go to work because I’m so afraid that if I get out there, I’m going to end up using.” They allowed me to stay behind, which isn’t normal practice. They would let me stay home those days at the sober living, and let me call into work. I couldn’t do it, and they knew it.
It was a social worker who ran the sober living, Mo Reynolds. I will always be in debt to her. She’s passed away. We used to write to her every year, my mom and I, and tell her that I was still sober. It’s by her and the grace of God both. I really say that, and my sponsor, she had a lot to do with it too. Anyway, I ended up 15 months at the sober living. I had gone through a few different diagnosis. My final one was bipolar hypomanic. That made sense. I was telling my sister, “I’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness. It’s bipolar hypomanic.” She asked me to describe it. I told her. She said, “When you were a little girl, you would be up in the middle of the night, standing in the corner, and I would ask you, what are you doing?” I would reply, “I’m thinking.” She said, “I think you were that way from a little girl. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a diagnosis until I was an older adult.
When I was diagnosed as bipolar, they had started me on medication. There was a 5 year journey of finding the right medication, with the least amount of side effects that I was willing to take. When I was not consistent in taking my medications or when I would go through a change of medication, I would be able to know that I was at risk of my addiction jumping in there and tricking me. I was vulnerable, and my thinking was not solid. I didn’t have a good chance when it was like that. I would be really scared. I would try to be a step ahead of my addiction. In life, anyone with a mental illness, we go through those periods of times where medications aren’t working effectively. We have to go through a med change, or an adjustment, or something. That’s going to happen. I knew I had to learn how to get through those and not use. That was extremely important to me in my first 5 years of recovery. What I learned was that when my thinking starts to get distorted I start to get fearful of how other people are judging me, how they’re seeing me. I get insecure, extremely insecure about myself and my actions. I start questioning every move I make, kind of thing. I start thinking that people are talking behind my back, that they’re somewhat different to my face.
That kind of thinking only happens when I’m having, what I call, an episode. The episode isn’t just one event. It’s a period of time until the medications get stable enough. The doctors have never said, “You get psychosis.” I don’t hallucinate and all of that, but when I look at it and I just describe it to you, to me, it sounds like psychosis. I can accept that now, because I don’t experience it to the degree that I did. I think that part of that was the addiction. I think that when I got off of the drugs, my brain was very depleted of endorphins. Neurotransmitters were really messed up, truthfully. I believe that it took my brain a while to start functioning to the best of its ability. And, the best of its ability is still with a mental illness on top.
Since that 5 years, I’ve never reached that extreme where I felt like my thoughts were getting the best of me. So my last 12 years of sobriety have been about making sure that I consistently take my medications, making sure that I speak with my addictionologist whenever I may start experiencing symptoms. That I tell my husband when my thinking might be starting to change a little bit. One time, my doctor was moving. I had this belief that because I’ve been sober now for 8 yrs the medications I’ve been on probably helped balance all my brain chemistry out. I should probably be fine. I wasn’t this way before. This is how I looked at it, seriously. I know I’m not the only one that goes through that. I know that. Most of us in recovery do, if we have a mental illness on top of it. I didn’t want to go through the hassle of getting another doctor and have to tell the whole story all over again. Meanwhile, it would have been the easiest thing to do once and just deal with it. But, I make it this huge catastrophic thing.
Finally, I show up at my primary care physician. I say, “I think I might be having some problems with depression.” Meanwhile, I’m bawling. She tells me, “I think you might need to go and see a psychiatrist.” You don’t think you can give me some medicine and make this thing easy for me? She’s like, “No. I don’t think so.” That was one of those times where I really can say, embracing my mental illness was critical for me in staying sober. The longer I was avoiding it, the further down I was going in being off of meds, the more at risk I was in thinking, “Well, maybe I just need to drugs again, because they help me feel normal.” When I had that thought, I knew I don’t want to feel that way ever again. The only way that I can not feel that way is to see a doctor.
I have all along, for the last 17 years, always been involved in AA. I’ve always sponsored people. I’ve always had a sponsor. I speak at conventions. I’m involved in service work. That’s never changed. The only thing that’s ever changed was not being on medications. When I put 2 and 2 together, I said, “Okay. I have a choice here. I can choose to stay off the medications and fall,” because that’s what I was doing, “or I can choose to see a doctor. Do whatever the doctor’s going to tell me to do, if I’ve got to do blood work, whatever I have to do.” It’s not always going to be that way. It’s not always going to feel as overwhelming, because it’s not as overwhelming when I’m stable with my mental illness. It’s really not. I go about doing life.
Today I’m a director at a treatment center. I’m going to school for my master’s degree in addiction counseling. I’m a mother of 3 beautiful children. I’m a sponsor. I speak at meetings. I speak at conventions. I have this amazingly full life. It’s because I balance my AA, and will always keep my foot in that door. If I don’t, I know what will happen to me.
I will start fooling myself thinking, “I got this under control now.” I’ll never have it under control. I have a disease, just like I have a disease of my mind, the chemical imbalance of my brain. I also have an addiction and a chemical imbalance in my brain with that. The only way to keep my brain balanced is to be on medication, to communicate with people about what’s going on for me, to make sure I have that support network of people who can go, “You’re being a little codependent here. What are you trying to fix? What’s really going on?” and people who I can be completely honest with, and they’re honest with me.
I am amazed and so grateful to say that my husband and I will be celebrating 25 years of marriage. We survived this. I moved back home at 15 months sober. I was there for 6 months. I knew if I stayed, I would go back to my addiction. I knew 2 things. One was that I was not mentally stable enough yet. We still hadn’t found the right balance of medications. What I used to tell my husband is I’m mentally fragile. Two, when I’m mentally fragile, I’m an emotional wreck. Truthfully, that’s me. By the grace of God, I’ve never gotten that bad again. I take some medicine. I go see a doctor once every 3 months. That’s it. The rest, I just go on with my life. It’s that simple.
My life would not be this way if I hadn’t accepted that. At the time, when I had moved back out At 15 months, I go back to my husband. I’m 6 months there, and my husband starts treating me as if I was using, still in that old codependent way, that fear, watching every move I make, not trusting. If I say I’m going to the store, am I really? Looking at my eyes when I get home, and I’m trying to live this life truly sober. I’m angry and resentful that it’s like, “I’m living sober. In fact, I’m 2 years sober and you’re treating me like I’m not.” I couldn’t take that, so I moved out into an apartment. This was huge. This was really huge. For 2 years, I lived in an apartment.
I learned how to be a sober mom for the first time in my life, because my husband was doing everything for the kids. Living in my apartment allowed me an opportunity to figure out how to be a mom to them, how to still take care of me, how to take care of responsibilities in life, like an apartment, and paying bills, and going to work, and being a responsible accountable adult, and a sober individual. It was a lot. I really, truly can say I think that, at times, it was probably harder because I had my mental illness and because we were still trying to figure out what was wrong, and what was going to work right medication-wise. I think that those difficult times are what have made me as strong as I am today. I have a strength that, sometimes when I go through things, I’m always like, “I get an opportunity to grow and change.
I think that that’s so much about my gratitude for being given an opportunity at a second life that I was basically mentally, emotionally, and almost physically dead. I know that’s where I go when I’m not medicated. I’m not seeing a doctor. I’m not doing my program of AA. I don’t even want to take that chance to know if I’m going to go down that road again. I really believe I will. The beautiful thing was 2 years after living in an apartment and learning how to be a mom, and learning all of that on my own, I told my husband, “Can we date again?” He said, “Yes.” We dated for 6 months, and decided to move back in. Now I can say, we’re going to be marred for 25 years. It is an amazing blessing. My family, my children, they’re in awe of me, which I never would have thought I could say. All the time, they tell me how proud they are of me.
I think it’s about surrendering to a mental illness and surrendering to a disease of addiction. If you can truly surrender, you can do what you need to do to take care of it. I can just say for myself, until I got into acceptance, my life was hell. It was dark. It was empty. I wasn’t even who I am today at all. If I would have kept on that path, I don’t believe I would be alive today. My children wouldn’t have a mom.
It’s amazing. It’s a miracle.