And my friend had no idea. Dry January Addiction Chronicles, Part 1.
My friend Mara and I were huddled over menus in an East Village Thai place barely wider than a doorway, deep in conversation about an ex of hers that pre-dated our friendship. She’d just returned from visiting him at a state-run hospital in New Jersey, where he’d been diagnosed with dementia.
“He hadn’t been washed or bathed in who knows how long,” she said, shaking her platinum locks. “He looks like he’s in his 70s, but he isn’t even 60.”
Dementia? In his 50s? My decade? Jesus.
“You want any drinks?”
The waiter had arrived and I’d barely begun processing. My life has been nothing if not a response to the fear that my brain might betray me. It’s why I’d quit alcohol decades before.
“Uhh…” I hesitated, already anticipating that moment of disappointment that crosses a waitperson’s face when you fail to pad the tab with booze. “Do you have any sparkling water?”
They had only flat, so we settled on tap and more disdain. It was better than what they’d think if I started drinking.
After we ordered Mara continued, telling me that she and her guy had split because of his mood swings. It was only afterward that he’d begun to drink heavily. “He was never alcoholic, he was self-medicating. He was bipolar.”
Please. How is “self-medicating” because of mental illness different than what people with straight up substance abuse disorders do? What is an alcoholic if not someone who uses booze to make themselves feel better? When people make this delineation, what I hear is that they view mood disorders as something separate from and preferable to substance abuse disorders.
I get it. No one forced alcohol or drugs into me, and I behaved atrociously when I was using. Nonetheless, addiction—like any mental illness—is rooted in the brain, not its manifestations, despite that it’s mostly described by outward symptoms. But it’s been classified as a primary mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders since 1980. And substance use disorders often co-occurs with other mental illnesses. Bipolar or not…