Recovering From Mental Illness and Addiction

Mental illness is a difficult thing to live with. Sometimes, it feels impossible. To make things even more complicated, the diagnosis of mental illness often comes with "dual diagnosis", a fancy term for living with more than one illness.

Part I of this blog will focus on addiction and Part II, later this week, will focus on eating disorders and anxiety disorders.

Defining Dual Diagnosis

Mental illness combined with an addiction is called dual diagnosis

Before I ramble on here let's refer to my favorite website-- sadly, Wikipedia--to define "dual diagnosis."

"The term dual diagnosis is used to describe the condition of a person considered to be suffering from a mental illness and a substance abuse problem... Making a dual diagnosis in substance abusers is difficult as drug abuse itself often induces psychiatric symptoms, thus making it necessary to differentiate between substance induced and pre-existing mental illness."

Alright. That is simple enough. As simple as a complicated topic can be. A personal perspective, an experience, is important. I wish it were not my story, but I would not wish it on anyone else. It is what it is and what happened happened.

My Experience With Addiction

Left something to be desired. A heck of a lot. It's hard to describe it, but I can try to summarize the worst five years of my life:

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of twelve, I achieved stability at the age of fifteen. A combination of medication that worked well enough for me to make my way into college.

The suicide of one of my close friends--a friend who also lived with bipolar disorder--drastically altered my life. I cannot blame my addiction on this, but following this event I started using hard drugs. Street drugs. Dirty, dirty drugs. Masses of drugs and alcohol that left me flat on my ass: waking up surrounded by empty liquor bottles, pill bottles, empty drug bags, and unable to walk. Once I could walk...Well, I did it all over again.

What followed? Five years of absolute hell. A couple of seizures. Waking up in the hospital attached to tubes as a result of overdose or suicide attempts. I quickly lost all stability. I dropped out of college and surrounded myself with bad people. Very bad people. People that hurt me. Situations, experiences, that I cannot forget.

A short one day stint in rehab before I insisted on leaving so I could use more. I used for two more years. It's foggy, the memories, but clear enough to remember. I found sobriety at the age of twenty-one.

I don't have enough words to go into detail, but I can tell you that living with a mental illness and addiction made me a very sick woman. A woman who cheated death despite wanting to die.

Addiction almost killed me and, unfortunately, I am not the only one. Dual-diagnosis affects more than 50% of people living with a mental illness.

Why Do People Diagnosed With a Mental Illness Struggle With Addiction?

I am going to simplify this: When you live with a mental illness you often feel out of control. I did. I felt, despite the recent stability, unable to control my moods. The time I spent in hospital as a little girl--the white walls that surrounded me and the terror I felt--I used drugs and alcohol to medicate these feelings. The flashbacks and the post traumatic stress I experienced as a result.

The death of a friend, a friend who lived with the same illness, woke me up to the reality that bipolar disorder would not go away. It would always be part of me, and at that time in my life, still young and not as jaded as I am writing these words, I wanted to be free. Free from the illness. Addiction allowed me to adopt another identity: I was an addict. And that--that--seemed better than being bipolar.

Denial is the home that the addict lives in.

Recovering From Addiction While Living With a Mental Illness

Here is the reality: You cannot treat the primary illness--mental illness--while you are abusing drugs and alcohol. It never mattered how many medications I took to stabilize my mood, I used more cocaine and alcohol to "balance myself."

It is important to note that a person is often diagnosed with addiction before mental illness. It's complicated: What came first? Are the psychiatric symptoms caused by the addiction or vice versa? In this case, our mental health team has a heck of a lot of work to do.

I wanted to die. They say addiction is a slow form of suicide and whether this is true or not, in my life it certainly was.

My experience with addiction is dark, it keeps me up at night sometimes, it reminds me that sobriety is to cherished.

Recovering from mental illness is hard enough, that is why we have an entire blog dedicated to it, but when it is complicated with addiction, it becomes harder. But not impossible.

If you struggle with addiction, or are worried you might self-medicate, seek help, please. Resources are vast, they are more available then those for mental illness and your stability depends on your sobriety.

It's a tough thing to learn but I would not take it back; I now understand that I need to take care of myself. You do as well.

APA Reference
Jeanne, N. (2012, July 5). Recovering From Mental Illness and Addiction, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 25 from

Author: Natalie Jeanne Champagne

Janet Marshall
July, 6 2012 at 9:52 am

I just wanted to commend the writer of this blog as well as CAMH for sharing this. I have often said that I wished there were more attention payed to addictions and agree that addiction must be treated first and secondly, if need be, the mental illness aspect. Thank you - an excellent "blog".
Janet Marshall

Grace Cherian
July, 6 2012 at 10:30 am

Dear Natalie,
I put my family through hell when I attempted suicide. I was so depressed I couldn't imagine living another moment. I wouldn't want them to go through that ever again.
So for your sake and those of the people who love you, please do take care of yourself.
All the best,

July, 7 2012 at 6:51 am

You're a very strong person!

July, 8 2012 at 5:26 am

I was a cocaine/ crack addict and oxycontin abuser until this past January. At the time I didn't realize how bad I was. Now 6 months later, with the fog starting to lift, I can see I was a mess. I never got a helping hand from anyone I knew. They all knew I used, but I don't think anyone knew what to say to me. Finally, in January a friend invited me on a trip to Boston to watch a Patriots playoff game. Didn't want to risk getting arrested at the border so I took it as a chance to cut off myself from my drug using circle and clean up. I took some light pain killers for my back and figured I could use them if I had bad urges to at least help me through it. Anyways, long story short; the last line of coke I did was Thursday January 12th, 2012. I came back on the Sunday ready to start my new life. Looking back, getting sober wasn't as hard as I feared. I know it's not as easy for most people, and feel blessed it was for me. I can't believe I went from spending $200/ night on coke and smoking it one week, to stone cold sober the next. Amazing what the human body can do when it wants to. Fear knocked at the door. Faith Answered. There was no one there.

Michelle C. Danda
July, 11 2012 at 5:35 am

The relationship between mental health and addiction is definitely complicated. As a nurse who works with concurrent disorder clients (those sufferring with mental health plus addictions issues) I have seen the struggle than people go through before, during and after treatment. And I wonder, how does the health care professional serve someone best in each of these stages? Sometimes I feel like we get so caught up in the addiction piece of it that the mental health stuff takes a back seat...

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Natalie Jeanne Champagne
July, 11 2012 at 7:00 am

Hi, Michelle,
Thank you for this comment. You are absolutely correct. It is hard to treat both---to separate the addiction from mental illness.

Richard Toney
March, 14 2013 at 11:48 am

with so many chemical enhancements in everything today; it's not that amazing we have such dependency addiction problems. but the reality is there is so much more help available because the disease is so widespread

December, 2 2013 at 5:30 am

My ex was a absolute mess of an alcoholic,heard thru grapevine since we broke up
He's drinking more...
Yes it is slow suicide..
He drinks working now too....
Anyway,I've taken just about every drug there is including the hardest.
I'd never IV use as I'm needle phobic,thank God.
My main drug of choice ( s ) were cocaine & amphetamines....great huh?????
Then some wine or beer tequila to ease me off...nice... Hell...
It got so bad I did things I thought I'd never do w guys for a damn drug,no I never stole
But I paid w my money and,worse,my soul.i had to use everyday at work...didn't matter.
It cost a hell of a lot $$$$ and like I said left my heart soul spirit broken.
Then one hellish hangover and sick morning,I guess was my Aha moment...
I was simply: skeletal .
At 5 feet 9 inches lweighed 118 pounds...pale as a ghost..broke..sick..OMG so sick.
So I said ok that's it !
Game over, your dying in case you haven't noticed & something is making you do most others posting I always felt different...
Well,I took my coke,flushed it...
Lay in bed in the fetal position & bawled .....till the pillow was completely soggy.
Then I got real,no,no rehab for me..
It wasn't to be,I started to ask questions...and finally after all these years,writing this,bringings tears to my eyes from the intense pain....get the right help I needed and deserved.
We all do.
The other way leads to a road of pain/ self destruction even death...
I was one of the lucky ones
We all have rights,but we must be heard!!!!!!
No matter how small or insignificant you feel your voice is,it's not.
Voices carry.
Voices carry....HOPE..

ime usen
December, 30 2014 at 3:58 pm

i need help for my son who is going through pains of schizophrenia but refused to go to the hospital. please i need help

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Mike Ehrmantrout
December, 31 2014 at 2:09 pm

Hi. Sorry you and your son are suffering. We can't make specific suggestions given the medical aspect of your son's disease. What I would urge you to do is research mental health agencies in your local area and try to find some trained professionals to assist you. Just keep calling until someone listens to you. Or, if your son has had treatment before, try and get him to go back and get his meds again. You can certainly contact his prior mental health providers. While they won't discuss your son's treatment with you due to privacy laws, they may be willing to reach out to your son and maybe they can convince him he needs to be in treatment. Lastly, if you feel unsafe with your son or you feel he is a danger to himself or others, you need to call law enforcement to assist you. I so hope it doesn't come to that for you and your son. Best Wishes!

June, 24 2015 at 10:23 pm

Nice comment

June, 24 2015 at 10:24 pm

Very important

November, 15 2015 at 11:14 pm

I hope many more people read this great article. Self-medication seems appealing and perhaps the only way ain times of trouble, but it does nothing but compound the problem. I am one of millions who have tried this and it just doesn't help. You can visit my site at for articles about addiction and mental health. Regards, Paul.

Leave a reply