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To Those With A Dual DiagnosisAudio Version
My name is Linda and I am an alcoholic. I am writing to share my gratitude to AA and to the wonderful Fellowship I have found here that has enabled me to stay sober for 21 years. I am so glad that I know I am an alcoholic and that the solution promised by AA works for me one day at a time. I am no longer ashamed to be an alcoholic, nor am I proud of it.
I always felt different as a teenager and I used alcohol to help me cope with my feelings. I was an anxious, over-sensitive, only child and I had many fantasy friends because my real friendships were difficult. I felt guilty and not good enough a lot of the time. I had my first blackout when I was 15 and the next morning told myself it hadn't happened. My denial was strong.
One of the reasons that I am writing in is to hopefully give identification to those alcoholics who have a second mental illness. I have bipolar disorder. My mood swings and suicidal thoughts began in my late teens and I medicated these feelings away with alcohol. When I drank my anxiety and my fear of people disappeared. I forgot I was depressed; it was as if I became a different person – confident, uninhibited and free of all the emotions which I found difficult, which was most of them. I drank daily from the time I left home at 19 and at first, I had fun, or so I thought, but outside my working hours where I could not drink, my life was one drunk after another. My drinking baffled me because, no matter how hard I tried, once I took the first drink, I had no control.
I was hospitalised aged 23 for depression and diagnosed on the lower scale of the bipolar spectrum which was deemed not to require any medication. Instead, I medicated myself with alcohol and other mood-altering drugs for the next 16 years. My behaviour frightened my husband and friends dropped away but I listened to no-one and never told anyone how I really felt. Somehow, I still managed to work in a responsible profession, but I had a lot of time off sick and it was my alcoholism that broke me. I was hospitalised aged 39 and my first contact with AA was in that psychiatric hospital where I was admitted as a patient with 'alcohol abuse issues', as the medical staff called it, following a suicide attempt. Two AA members from the hospital AA group came to the wards every week and they took me to my first meeting. About 30 people were there and some women gave me their phone numbers and offered to take me to meetings when I could leave the hospital. I heard a woman share and I wanted to be like her – she seemed, even to my confused head, to be in a far better state than me - emotionally honest and happy in her own skin. I later joined that group and having been told that gratitude needs to be an action, I was honoured when it was my turn to go around the wards and see if anyone wanted to come to AA.
During my drinking I was honest about my depression with doctors and I was prescribed antidepressants but I was never honest about my alcohol intake. When I was 'high' (hypomanic) I didn't visit my GP because I was deluded and I thought I was just wonderful. My bipolar disorder meant that at times I lost touch with reality and suffered hallucinations; these were not the DT's as I was drinking every day. Some of my behaviours, at these times, were the same as those of a practicing alcoholic, which of course I was. I had uncontrolled bouts of spending money, periods of promiscuous behaviour, inability to sleep and chaotic fast thinking but everything, due to my bipolar, was exaggerated. These patterns of behaviour have complicated my recovery because sometimes it is hard to tell whether I am 'dry drunk' or in bipolar relapse. At times, I was totally demoralised and I thought I was incapable of working the AA Programme when in fact my bipolar disorder was out of control. I compared myself to other AA's and felt very bad about my recovery. I had a sponsor but wouldn't contact her for weeks on end. What stopped me drinking again during these bipolar relapses was my dependence on my Higher Power and attending lunch time AA meetings almost daily. I always tried to share honestly and not just say "I'm fine". This meant that people knew my problems and could help me and I slowly learnt to trust. I was given enormous encouragement, kindness and practical help and for that I will always be very grateful.
Sharing so honestly in meetings though, did mean that I have had some very dangerous suggestions made to me by fellow AA members who weren't using Tradition 10 - 'we have no opinion on outside issues ... '. When I was eight months sober, an AA member told me that starting to take a mood stabilising drug would be the same as relapsing. I believed him and put myself at risk by not taking that medication. It was only when my psychiatrist told me that when high, I could lose touch with reality to the extent that I could forget I am an alcoholic and I could drink again, that I started taking this medication for the first time. An old timer also stopped my partner from doing a top-table share because he was on anti-depressants.
I think it is vital that we don't give advice about medication or indeed other issues to fellow members, especially newcomers. I was confused enough and didn't know who to trust in AA and who not to. Eventually I asked my sponsor to tell me who 'the winners' were - old-timers who would share their experience with me and not tell me what to do. I think we need to always have in mind that AA was founded on the unparalleled ability of one alcoholic to gain the confidence of another alcoholic when they share their experience, strength and hope with each other. This is the basis of all 12-Step work.
The chaotic behaviours when 'high' happened again in recovery when I stopped taking my mood stabilising medication for six years. I did not drink during this time, nor did I heed the signs that my recovery was well off course: sponsees said they did not want me to sponsor them anymore; I changed home groups repeatedly; had dysfunctional energy sapping relationships and was often irritable, discontented and in self-pity. Eventually I could see that by putting my sobriety first I can stay sober, but crucially, I needed to learn how to manage my bipolar condition well, to protect my sobriety and to benefit from all that recovery can offer me.
It is challenging to recover from another serious mental illness alongside my alcoholism; I have been given enormous love, tolerance and support in AA. My Higher Power is my daily support and he never goes on holiday! Because God works through people, I am daily gifted by the people around me to help me progress. I have been helped by numerous outside agencies, some suggested and referred to via professionals and some I have found myself. Honesty, open-mindedness and willingness have been essential. I try and live by my slogan 'pray and go' because faith needs action to achieve results and 21 years of continuous sobriety is proof that this Programme works and that it is a spiritual solution that we are offered for free.
I hope this letter will give encouragement to anyone with a 'dual-diagnosis'. I know I am an alcoholic because I drank too much for too long and I became dependent. I have the allergy to alcohol and can never safely drink again. Today my bipolar disorder is well managed; I trust the medical profession for the first time, I am not a know-all. Most of all, I owe this second chance of living entirely to AA and to all the members who went before me, who have kept AA as Dr Bob and Bill W. intended.
Yours in love and fellowshipLinda B