“You never had a problem with alcohol,” a friend once scoffed. “Everyone drinks a lot in high school and college. You weren’t any different.”
I’ve struggled with substance abuse for years and hearing that dismissal – from a friend, no less – made me feel invalidated and silly. I was never a drunk in the gutter, so I must not have had problems with alcohol. I never smoked crack, so I must not have had a drug problem. That’s the criteria, anyway, right?
No! Substance abuse isn’t a pissing contest – it’s not about who can drink who under the table or how many drugs you’ve done, but rather about the relationship you’ve developed with those substances and the context in which you use them.
There exists a strong link between eating disorders and substance abuse, especially in women: studies show that up to one half of individuals with eating disorders abuse alcohol or illicit drugs compared with 9% of the general population (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse [CASA] at Columbia University, 2003). This is likely due to the fact that both share common risk factors: brain chemistry; family history; low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, or impulsivity; history of sexual or physical abuse; unhealthy parental behaviors and low monitoring of children’s activities; unhealthy peer norms and social pressures; and susceptibility to messages from advertising and entertainment media. Substance abuse, like eating disorders, can be seen as a way of coping with feelings and events; behaviors that begin as self-protective by intent become self-destructive by consequence. (source: Social Work Today.)
I suffered from a number of those risk factors, and throughout high school and college I developed a destructive relationship with substances. I couldn’t go into any sort of social situation without being “a little drunk” or “a little high,” couldn’t feel normal without using beforehand; I used without realizing what I was doing was completely inappropriate. I couldn’t sit alone with myself sober; if I didn’t have substances readily available, I became frantic, agitated, pacing my room. I needed them, the alcohol and the powders and the pills, to feel capable of interacting with other people. I needed them to escape my depression and my anxieties and obsessive thoughts about food and weight. I needed them, period, and that was the problem.
My friends and family weren’t very aware of what was going on because, like with the eating disorder, I was secretive with my behaviors. The blackouts and the nosebleeds, the simultaneous need for control and the desire to lose it – all carefully hidden. At that point I was a young girl in college, so my behaviors were easily disguised as typical college student experimentation – the perfect cover.
Yesterday I celebrated ten months sober from alcohol and chemical drugs, and I’m pretty proud of myself. My body is thanking me, waxing poetic on the clarity and health I’ve given it. It’s been incredibly hard to stay sober both because of social pressures and my own mental state (without the eating disorder and substance abuse, what coping skills do I have left?). I’m learning, though, how to live differently: I’m more present for things and more capable of dealing with my problems and stressors in healthy ways, and I’m more appreciative and grateful for my life and the lives of those around me. Most of all, I’m learning how to be with myself and really explore what it means to be me, and I’m enjoying the process. So these ten months – completely worth it. Here’s looking at ten more!