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Mental health issues compound difficulties of recovery

Addiction and mental health issues often interact to make things a lot harder for some people to recover.

A guy I met, named “David,” always had physical issues – problems with his vision, a heart valve problem when he was young and several other things. His parents were understandably protective, but the protection went to coddling and then to enabling. “David” started the drug and alcohol trip quite young, as did several of his siblings, but he also developed some fears the others didn’t have. He became obsessed with appearance and would spend hours in bathrooms – so much so his family jokingly called his bathroom his office.

He started using harder drugs, ending with heroin, which added legal issues, sleep disturbance, employability, gastrointestinal problems and a complete inability to function normally to his list of issues. The consequences of his addictive problems added to the intensity of his mental health issues, which made his way of life unbearable to him and those around him.

He wanted to get off heroin, so he went to his psychiatrist and was put on an opiate replacement drug called suboxone. He stayed on the suboxone with no other mental health or addictions counseling or help until the doctor told him it was time to cut down his dose. When he tried to detox, the sleeplessness and obsessions worsened.

His obsessiveness about every physical discomfort made enduring the physical detox symptoms, at least in his mind, out of the question. He was given medication for the obsessiveness and anxiety but soon began to abuse that medication. He was given medication for sleep and abused that, too, in an effort to take less suboxone.

The doctor restarted the suboxone, changed the anxiety and sleep meds and required him to get counseling and go to 12-step meetings. With much resistance and anxiety, he began both and so started a slow improvement.

“David” stayed on the suboxone for six more months before he finally reduced his dose to zero. He remains on some minor anxiety-reducing medications and uses only over-the-counter medications to help him sleep. He has a part-time job and has a couple friends. Both he and his parents have come to an understanding of the devastating nature of his disorders.

He may never be what his parents had hoped, but he is becoming all that is possible for him and is happier than they have seen him in a long time. He is sober today and not ruled by his obsessions as much as he was.

• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor.

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