Everyone is guilty of self-medicating at one time or another. After all, to self-medicate is simply to take one’s problems into one’s own hands. If you are feeling down and you decide to eat a few pints of ice cream, you are self-medicating. If you are in pain and you decide to numb yourself with whiskey, you are self-medicating. And if you decide to treat mental issues such as chronic depression by excessively smoking cannabis, you are self-medicating. Forms of self-medication range all the way from occasional overeating to abuse of illegal drugs such as heroin.
Not all self-medication is necessarily dangerous, but it often can be. This is because the relief offered by self-medication often leads to alcoholism and drug addiction. Even sex addiction and various eating disorders may initially stem from attempts to self-medicate. In some instances, the addict wasn’t even trying to self-medicate when they first engaged in these addictive activities. They simply realized that their addiction of choice made life a bit easier, and they decided to keep abusing this benefit until they were no longer able to control it. In fact, this is one of the most common manners in which the disease is formed.
There is no shortage of reasons for which a person may begin self-medicating, but they all lead down the same path. We will discuss some of the more common reasons below, after which we will go into the inevitable downward spiral that self-medicating addicts tend to experience. We will then talk a bit about how addicts and alcoholics who self-medicate can be treated, and how this fits into the treatment model employed by Amethyst Recovery. If you recognize any of your own behaviors below, we urge you to seek help before the problem becomes any worse.
Common Reasons for Self-Medicating
Many of those who self-medicate are battling mental or emotional disorders. In a number of cases, these disorders are not diagnosed. A person may exhibit symptoms of chronic depression or uncontrollable anger, but they may not always see the need to seek help for these problems. Sometimes, there are far worse co-occurring disorders at play. The patient may suffer from horrible PTSD as a result of some traumatic past experience. They may be bipolar or even schizophrenic. They may also suffer from issues that most laypeople would not think to consider, such as borderline personality disorder. No matter what the case, all the sufferer knows is that they don’t feel right unless they are under the influence of one or more addictive substances or behaviors.
Aside from those who do not realize the extent of the harm that their various co-occurring disorders may be doing to them, there are also those who feel guilt or shame over their condition and believe that they cannot share their feelings with anyone. Wentworth Miller, star of TV shows such as Prison Break and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, once wrote an open letter about the period of time during which he used overeating as a means of self-medicating his suicidal thoughts. He noted in this letter that many others have done the same thing, turning to drugs, alcohol, food or sex because they felt there would be some stigma against telling people how they felt.
There are those, too, who do not realize they are experiencing any mental or emotional symptoms at all. When we wrote about gambling addiction, we noted that some sufferers actually have problems creating dopamine in the normal way. They need increased thrills to feel any joy at all. Many who suffer from the same issue have turned not to gambling, but rather illegal drugs. Opioid addiction and heroin addiction are incredibly prominent in the discussion on self-medication, as those who abuse these drugs are able to spike their dopamine levels in ways that those who suffer from depression or other mood disorders usually cannot.
Heroin and opioids are also common among those who suffer from physical problems, such as chronic pain. When we see addiction in the military, opiates are almost always the drug of choice. And since many of those who serve are prone to experiencing great trauma in addition to their physical pain, it is common for them to seek the simplest means of self-medicating. Many other addicts and alcoholics who have undergone trauma find themselves in the same boat. And it may work, for a time. But eventually, self-medicating will begin to lose its effects.
Self-Medication and the Jellinek Curve
One of the easiest ways to illustrate the effects of long-term addiction is through analysis of the Jellinek Curve. This is basically a diagram that illustrates the downward spiral experienced by addicts and alcoholics over the course of continuous use. As the Jellinek Curve slopes downward, the addict begins to lose their tolerance. At this point, mental and emotional regulation will not be as effective. Regulation of chronic pain may become more difficult as well. So the addict begins to use more and more, until they are less concerned about self-medicating than they are with the simple need to fulfill their physical cravings.
Around this time, addiction will reach its lowest point. Every day becomes a cycle. The addict engages in drinking, drug abuse, sex, gambling, overeating, etc. For a short while, their physical, mental or emotional pain may subside. But it quickly surfaces again, at which point the addict needs another fix. Addicts and alcoholics may begin to realize at this point that their attempts to self-medicate are failing them, yet it will be incredibly difficult to stop. Because at this point, the fear of withdrawals has become worse than the fear of addiction.
But the cycle has to stop somewhere if it is to lead them anywhere other than to their grave. Now, the normal progression of the Jellinek Curve indicates that things will get better rather quickly as long as addicts and alcoholics are able to deal with their internal issues, accept their disease for what it is, and work on their recovery. In the case of those who have been self-medicating, this can be true—but only if the addict is willing to face their underlying problems. This is a problem, since many may not have known they had underlying mental or emotional issues to begin with.
In other words, one of the first steps toward reaching the upward slope of the Jellinek Curve is to identify the cause of the addict’s disease. If the addict does not know why they are self-medicating, they can’t be expected to stop for very long. Fortunately, we have realized this at Amethyst Recovery, and have factored it greatly into our treatment model.
How We Treat Self-Medicating Addicts
One of the reasons we offer personalized care at Amethyst Recovery is that not everyone abuses drugs or alcohol for the same reasons. Someone who has been in a bad car accident may be abusing opiates for chronic pain, whereas another patient may drink alcohol and smoke cannabis as a means of regulating their depression. We must assess each patient individually and learn about their backstory if we are to discover why they are self-medicating and how they might go about putting an end to it. The answer will differ greatly from one patient to the other.
For instance, those who have suffered abuse or any other sort of trauma may require EMDR trauma therapy. This is the case with more addicts than you might expect, which is one of the reasons our JCAHO accreditation requires us to run a trauma-informed program. Those who suffer from other mental, emotional or physical conditions may require other forms of therapy or non-addictive medication that can allow them to treat their symptoms without succumbing to the addictions that have made their lives far worse than they were before they began self-medicating. We are well-versed in the many co-occurring disorders of addiction, so finding the best forms of treatment should be relatively easy once the underlying problem has been diagnosed.
If need be, we can also teach our patients healthier ways of self-medicating. There is no shortage of healthy activities that can help the mind to feel more balanced. Proper nutrition often lends a hand in this, while exercise can help boost serotonin levels and cause people to feel much happier. Maintaining decent social skills can also help, as it will enable patients to interact with people in healthy ways, thereby enabling them to make new friends and engage in harmless social activities. Note that all of these healthy self-medication techniques also entail an improvement in the patient’s general life skills.
Those who are self-medicating through alcohol or illegal drugs should most certainly consider the benefits of treatment. In many ways, recovery will be easier for these individuals because they will find that their compulsion to self-medicate through illicit substances will die down greatly once the problem has been diagnosed and addressed. Through therapy, non-addictive medication, and an adjustment to the patient’s everyday routine, these underlying issues can be solved. If you or someone you know has been self-medicating, contact us today and we will discuss the best approach to finding a solution.