In the fall of 1989, I was lost. I had left college at Thanksgiving never to return. I felt completely alone and broken. Looking back I can’t really point to any specific event that led to my full mental breakdown, I only remember how I felt and what I was thinking.
I spent the better part of the late 1980’s trying to figure out who I was, what I wanted, and how I fit into the world. I had graduated from high school and did what everyone thought I should — I went to college. I had absolutely no plans to become a responsible adult anytime soon, but I played along with the whole growing up charade. I acted the part, talking about my major and my goal to go into sports medicine, but looking back now, I knew it was all bullshit. It was nothing more than a role I was playing to shut everyone up.
I quickly learned that college was a great place to hide out and stay a child, with no rules, no boundaries and no one watching over me. When you combined my newfound freedom with being indoctrinated into the teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous, you have a recipe for certain disaster. Looking back now, I can honestly say it played out just as all those AA members told me it would.
From about 10 years old I was told I had the dreaded “alcoholic” gene passed down from my father. He, both his parents and his only brother were all “alkies”, so I was doomed. I was told I had an “addictive personality” just like my Dad, and the truth was, I was an intense kid. I was more than just a bit quirky, and had many of the personality issues that I now know are common in heavy substance users. I could be the life of the party but I also had nasty temper. I could be impatient and intolerant, but I could also be loving and caring. I was as volatile as I was steady, and I was prone to bouts of deep depression alternating with periods of super high energy and over exuberant optimism.
I started seeing a counselor my sophomore year in college. She was kind and truly wanted to be helpful. I think it was my second session that she began talking to me about manic-depression, now known as bi-polar disorder. She knew I was studying psychology and wanted my opinion if I thought I might be suffering from it. Thankfully she was reluctant to stick that label on me, but she wanted me to try lithium, which would mean I would have to stop drinking and using drugs. I reassured her I didn’t need medication, and told her I didn’t believe I had bi-polar even though secretly I was concerned. In spite of my concerns, abstaining from alcohol was not an option for me. The only time I felt happy and carefree was when I was partying with my friends.
Studying psychology you’re led to believe that you can “fix” people. I believed I had some mental health issues and I thought that counseling could fix me. I wanted my counselor to tell me something that would make me a happier, more productive, more relaxed person, but it never happened. I would feel bit happier and more energized right after a session, but within a day or two I was back to my old self and my old struggles: apathy, fear, depression and intense anxiety. I was constantly seeking relief, but the more I focused on finding it, the more elusive it became.
I tried a variety of things to make myself feel better: alcohol, drugs, exercise, sex, food, people; I switched majors 3 times; I changed friends and living arrangements…but with each activity, each thing, each person, the more I chased happiness, the more empty and helpless I felt. You see, I wanted something or someone outside of me to make me happy. I wanted to consistently feel good by some external means or circumstance. It took me many years to realize, happiness doesn’t work that way.
Certainly there are external stimuli that can make us feel good. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of falling love, holding your baby for the first time, your first day at the beach after a long, cold winter and the intense beauty as you wake up to the first coating of snow sparkling in the early morning sun. There are many amazing and wonderful experiences, activities and things that can bring us pleasure and joy, but in order to enjoy them – to truly recognize them, you first have to have an internal level of happiness that can only be achieved… well, internally. This is one thing that really is completely an inside job.
One of my favorite movie lines of all time is from the movie As Good As It Gets. Jack Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, a miserable man suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Melvin barges into his psychiatrist’s office without an appointment expecting that he will be seen. The psychiatrist talks to him for a moment then kicks him out of his office, and as he’s leaving Melvin says to the sad looking people in the waiting room, “What if this is as good as it gets?”
What’s interesting about this scene is Melvin is looking for his psychiatrist to “fix him”. The psychiatrist tells Melvin that he can help him only if he is willing to take responsibility for making his own changes to his thinking and behavior. Melvin is confused, and rightfully so, he yells at him saying something like, “You diagnosed me with mental illness then expect me to not act that way.” The same happens with addiction. People are told they are suffering from the disease or disorder known as addiction which renders them incapable to stop using substances once they start, and makes them consistently in danger of relapsing, then they are expected to make the choice to not use substances and go to meetings and therapy.
Melvin makes such a great point — and that scene — his line, “What if this is as good as it gets?” shows him coming to the realization that no one or nothing exterior to his own mind can actually fix him. That’s the truth that is too often overlooked or ignored by mental health professionals as well as those looking for help. There is not a pill that can fix you. There’s no counselor, therapist or doctor that can fix you. There is nothing from the outside that can make you think different thoughts or take different actions. We each have complete autonomy in our own minds.
This reality is exactly why addiction treatment programs are completely ineffective. People are looking for someone or something outside themselves to make them not drink or drug. They’re hoping that there is a medication, a counselor, a sponsor, a meeting, an activity, or even a Higher Power that can make them not use drugs or alcohol. And they are told when they go to treatment and support group meetings that there is such a thing — that there is something outside them, some mystical force, and for far too many people, it never comes.
It never comes because it doesn’t exist. The big secret is, when people change their lives, it’s because they’ve made the decision to change. It’s because they’ve changed their preferences. It’s because other things have become more important to them. And it’s because they’ve come to believe they can be happier making a change than they can be continuing the behavior. All of this happens within their own mind.
This sounds so simple, I know, and it is for many people. But for others, like me, who were given the wrong information, it’s elusive. For those of us who have been told that we’re broken and we need something outside of ourselves to fix us, it becomes a daily battle within our own mind. We try everything and then wait to see if it will work — and when it doesn’t we feel just a bit more hopeless and helpless.
It was only when I was told that I wasn’t broken at all, and that I had the power within me to change whatever I wanted to change, that I felt hopeful. It turns out that in order to make a change, you first have to believe that you can. Whether you’re struggling with mental health issues and/or addiction, you have the innate power and ability to change you within you right now. There is nothing outside of you that can fix you, only you can do that within the confines of your own mind. All you need is the right information and maybe one or two knowledgeable, kind, compassionate people to show you the way.