From: Void My Bowels & Fill Me With Truth Serum: A Look at Aversion Therapy for Alcohol & Drug Abuse
by Drew Gibson, Virally Suppressed
Sometimes I miss it. Not all of it, but some of it.
The part of it that made me feel like nothing. Not nothing in an empty way, but nothing in a weightless way, as if the physical properties that guided the rest of existence no longer applied to me. For a brief few hours, I was impervious to my own thoughts. I could sit in quiet and not be forced to listen to the whirring drone of my own dysfunction. Whether it was drink or drugs, the only thing I was looking for was a respite from myself. I wanted that click. I had wanted it before I even knew what it was that I was wanting. I wanted to feel all of the atoms in my body being slowed to a turgid crawl, blocking up my veins and capillaries until the blood coursing through me moved at the pace of a lazy river. I wanted the same thing that my grandmother did. The grandmother I never met. The grandmother whose liver gave out before I was born. The grandmother who left me her Big Books as heirlooms. I wanted it all to stop.
When I got sober I was 22 years old.
Luckily for me, my path through alcoholism and addiction involved jumping out of the blocks quick and falling flat on my face almost immediately thereafter. I am what you might call a “dysfunctional alcoholic.” A dysfunctional alcoholic is not someone who is particularly bad at being an alcoholic—I think I was pretty solid on that front, at least if speed is any indicator—but rather someone who is bad at being a functional member of society whilst drinking. My using history is really a series of uninteresting 1 to 2 months spurts in which I would give up most of my earthly responsibilities in lieu of getting fucked up, only to realize that I’d turned my entire world into a shambles and needed to jump back on the wagon for a spell. At the time, it was infuriating how often my life would cave in on itself and force me to adopt a temporary guise of sober responsibility. In retrospect, it was actually a gigantic blessing that I turned out to be constitutionally incapable of contemporaneously drinking and even pretending to be a productive member of society, as it got me into treatment sooner.
Another reason why I may be so ineffective a drunk is the fact that I, like roughly 43% of all Americans with a substance use disorder, also suffer from a co-occuring mental illness. When I was still in high school my psychiatrist diagnosed me with Bipolar disorder because, apparently, it isn’t normal for a 17-year old to sneak out of his parents house at 10 o’ clock on a Friday night and, without telling anyone, drive 6 hours to Chicago in order to sell a manuscript that he hasn’t written to publishers he’s never met. This same psychiatrist also told me I suffered from Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Attacks, for which he gave me a prescription for these delicious little blue pills called Klonopin that were supposed to even me out and stop me from shaking like a chihuahua in a walk-in freezer. What this psychiatrist did not tell me was that Klonopin was a benzodiazepine and, like its pharmaceutical brethren Xanax and Valium, is ridiculously addictive and only meant to be used for short periods of time on account of the likelihood of developing an emotional and physical addiction to the drug after prolonged use.
The way I had the clinical efficacy of Klonopin explained to me by a competent psychiatrist is that drugs like Klonopin are essentially band aids. If a client comes into his office with debilitating panic attacks and crippling anxiety, he may prescribe a month’s supply of a benzodiazepine to help stop the proverbial bleeding for a second while the two of them work out some of the underlying issues of the client’s mental illness and find a non-addictive drug regimen for use over the long term. Essentially, you take away the band aid and replace it with a surgical suture and some thread. What my psychiatrist decided to do was to prescribe me band aid after band aid after band aid until the wound had become infected and gangrenous. Every day, for nearly 6 years, I took 2 mg of Klonopin while cultivating a burgeoning addiction to alcohol, turning me into a living, breathing black out machine. You see, alcohol and benzodiazepines are both Central Nervous System depressants, which is just a fancy way of saying that they slow down your brain function. If you’ve ever put back a few adult beverages or popped a Xanax and felt a little lightheaded or relaxed afterwards, it’s because the chemicals in the drink or drug are manipulating neurotransmitters in your brain that decrease brain activity. That guy over in the bathroom who is so drunk that he’s unable to button his pants is having so much trouble doing such a simple activity because the electrical activity in his brain has literally slowed down.
Now, the reason that I could black out faster than local coverage of a Jacksonville Jaguars home game is because my brain was already operating under the influence of 2 mg of Klonopin a day before I even started drinking. I didn’t feel anything because I had long since grown a tolerance to the daily dosage of benzos I was on, but that didn’t mean that those chemicals didn’t interact with the river of liquor that was going into my bloodstream. My repeated experiences with the combination of these two drugs in my system led me to create what I call the Theorem of 1 + 1 = 3. Basically, what it says is that if a man begins to drink while under the influence of benzodiazepines, his brain will feel the effects of a “bonus drink” for every two drinks he actually imbibes. For instance, if a guy on Xanax and guy not on Xanax go out to a bar and drink 4 rum and cokes, then the guy on Xanax with be two drinks drunker when they leave, even though they both had the same number of rum and cokes. Of course, the reaction of the two men would vary based on the amount of Xanax taken and the tolerances of those involved, but you get the gist of it. I’m an alcoholic who spent his entire drinking life getting 3 drinks for the price of 2.
Not surprisingly, my drug and alcohol abuse quickly escalated to the point that I ended up having to take a “psychiatric leave of absence” during my senior year of college so that I could check myself into rehab.
Since I was still on their insurance at the time, my parents were able to send me off to the frigid confines of Minnesota to attend an inpatient rehab clinic run by the Hazelden Foundation. For the uninitiated, Hazelden is essentially The Mothership of all 12-Step-Based treatment. Outside of Alcoholics Anonymous itself, there aren’t many organizations in America that have been fighting alcoholism and addiction longer than Hazelden has. In fact, they have been around so long that, when they first opened up shop in 1949, the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness had yet to be published and Narcotics Anonymous had yet to be founded.
Hazelden were the originators of what has come to be known asThe Minnesota Model of drug and alcohol treatment, which emphasizes the goal of complete abstinence for its clients and provides them with a host of therapeutic tools with which to achieve it in the short and long term. Despite being the most widely used substance abuse treatment modality in America, the Minnesota Model is controversial for it’s focus on the use of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous as a the bedrock of their program. In addition to the 12-Step work, Minnesota Model programs place a high emphasis on the BioPsychoSocial-Spiritual approach to patient care, employing a full range of physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, substance abuse counselors, spiritual advisors and support staff to work on the development of the entire person during the beginning of their recovery.
When I first spoke with the intake counselor at The Hazelden Center for Youth & Families, I was told I would only be there for 28 days. At least, I think they said that the program was 28 days. I don’t know for certain because I was blacked out when I did my intake interview and have no idea what actually happened beyond the fact that I woke up the next morning and was informed by my parents that I had agreed to fly to Minneapolis for substance abuse treatment. I mean, I assumed I’d be there for 28 days, because who has ever seen a movie or a “very special episode” of a TV show where the rehab wasn’t for that length of time? To my great relief, Hazelden held to form and provided a 28 day inpatient program…for most patients. There was an extended program for a lucky, hyper-dysfunctional few where patients were sent to a separate wing of the building for an additional 3 months of therapeutic incubation before being sent out to a halfway house situated somewhere in the big, bad, drug-infested world. Naturally, despite my most ardent attempts to present myself as an emotionally stable member of society, I was placed in the extended care program, where I would stay for 90 additional days before being sent to a halfway house in Washington state for 4 more months.
I left for treatment a week before St. Patrick’s Day and returned home the day before Thanksgiving. 8 months of rehabs and halfway houses. It might seem like overkill, and for many people in active addiction or alcoholism, it would have been. But not for me. It took the bulk of my first 28 days at Hazelden for me to simply stop compulsively shaking and sweating from the benzodiazepine withdrawals. Had I been let out then, I probably would’ve convinced a psychiatrist to give a me a script for Klonopin within a week. For the better part of my adolescence and adult life, I had been self-medicating my problems away with booze, bowls and benzos. When those things stopped working like they always had, I was out of options. Outside of putting a foreign and often illicit substance in my body, I had nothing resembling an effective coping skill. What I needed more than anything else was time. I needed time to sort through emotional issues I’d buried under a mountain of pills and liquor my whole life. I needed a safe environment to find the medications that would help treat my mental illness; a place where I could taper off my current psychotropic meds and enter the trough-level neurotransmitter hellscape that would allow me to switch to new ones. I needed people around me who could help me learn to deal with life as it happened, not as I wished it would be.
My aim in telling you a much abridged version of my story is not to present myself as a paragon of recovery or someone who has all of the answers regarding how to fix our nation’s woeful treatment of addiction and alcoholism as legitimate medical conditions.
On the contrary, my success in getting sober young and, more importantly, staying sober has little to do with my own personal actions. If it weren’t for the staff and residents of The Hazelden Center for Youth & Families and Gray Wolf Ranch, I’d say it’s fairly safe to assume that I would not have gotten sober when I did, and if it weren’t for my serendipitous birth into an upper-middle class family, I wouldn’t have been able to afford either of those programs in the first place. According to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, only 1 out of every 10 Americans suffering from active addiction and alcoholism are receiving the treatment they need and nearly half of those who did receive care say that they had to pay for it out of pocket. Despite nominal victories like the Wellstone and Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, a piece of legislation which was passed in 2008 to prevent health insurance companies from providing inadequate care for mental health issues in relation to medical issues, there is still nothing resembling equity for mental health and addiction services in practice. Without any appropriate enforcement measures from federal and state governments, there have been no real ramifications for health insurance companies who fail to provide addiction services that are equal to other chronic diseases like Diabetes or Rheumatoid Arthritis. Until the insurance companies are taken to court for their negligence, it looks like mental health and substance abuse issues will continue to be treated as second tier disorders.