By Jack Seymour (he/him), Youth Advisory Board member
Mental health and addiction are impossible to treat, or discuss for that matter, without at least tangentially talking about belief. When I say belief, I am loosely talking about values and truths (or at least our feelings of them). To illustrate this, I will follow the traditions of the community that helps me maintain my recovery and share my experience, strength, and hope.
There are two things I am sure of, that I am an addict, and that I am an English major. These are by no means related afflictions, but in my experience, there are some important causalities that can be drawn. Like many of the second class, when I was young, I was enamored with the myths of old. At first, I found a world of imagination in nursery rhymes, then age appropriate and encyclopedic accounts of Greek myths and European fables, and then eventually the stories of Percy Jackson and the Modern Olympian Gods. Ironically, my mother was right to worry about Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and the boy that disappeared behind their paper covers. Already I had shown signs of what people call “an addictive personality.” This manifested in my willingness to steal diet cokes in the middle of the night, read books in the span of days, and unbeknownst to my parents, become obsessed with all things marijuana at the ripe age of twelve. The parallels between my journey through addiction and my attaining a bachelors in English start as far back as I can remember. Similar to the expectations I was under in a freshman English seminar, I hope that my story will challenge you to think about your own and how it has shaped the way you look at the world and your place in it.
I was a sensitive child, and in a cozy and majority middle-class city, I was overcome with a feeling that something was wrong. I oscillated between internalizing and externalizing this belief, protesting sports as being elitist and ableist (although I didn’t have those words for it then) at the same time I was internalizing an equal and opposite image of myself as inept and unmasculine. That same process of thought set me in excruciating opposition to many things, little and large. I began grating against the religious beliefs around me at this point. In the same mental processes introduced above, I swung between interrogating the stories and beliefs of my family’s particular branch of Christianity and internalizing that there was something religiously wrong with me. I remember walking forward in at least three bible study vacations to “give” myself over to Jesus, but it never seemed to pay off with the relief I was hoping for.
My interest in reading made me annoyingly prepared for this stage of my story. I had thought, if Greek myths are discounted as superstitions to explain weather and the seasons, won’t the religions around me fall to similar disuse? I was spurned on down this path of thought by being internally invested in the idea that Hell wasn’t real (as I think all kids probably are). In my case, I was driven hard by the thought that if it was real, that was where I was going. This was about where I was at the end of elementary school. I still enjoyed video games, the original series of Percy Jackson was still being finished, and I had found some success in making friends. I was mostly able to cope with any painful self-awareness using these methods. However, in middle school, my self-image of being inept and unmasculine – helped along by an emerging autoimmune condition – was thrown into the fan of an emerging pubescent sexuality.
I work with kids with behavioral issues now, and I try to keep in mind how vulnerably and insanely honest I experienced the world at their age. It’s hard to keep that in mind when they ask you for the Gameboy they aren’t allowed to have for the fifth time, though. More to the point, facing middle school and a later entrance into puberty than my peers, I became petrified by the thought that I was gay. Sexuality was never really spoken about by my parents, and the other kids around me seemed to know more than I did. What my parents and friends both seemed to agree on was that being gay was, er well, gay… and I had read enough stories to look for context clues: I was a scrawny stick of a kid, with a sometimes-hysterical disposition, who had attempted to give myself to my parent’s religion, to no avail. The idea that all of this was because I was gay, made a sort of harmonious logic to me. I was attempting to fit my personal experience into a framework that could help me make friends and talk with my parents, something I felt like I had a lot of trouble with, and sexuality felt like it could be the missing piece. Spoiler alert: It was not. Probably like many of my peers, puberty just made everything more intense.
Luckily or unluckily, depending on how you look at it, it was around this time that my friends decided to undertake a more chemically induced form of self-exploration. I had started to experiment with alcohol the summer before eighth grade. I didn’t really love alcohol; I had a weak stomach and couldn’t control how much I drank even from the start. I had fun while on it, but it left me feeling like I had watched someone else enjoy being more confident, funny, and carefree while I had to deal with the consequences of throwing up. Weed, however, had me entirely from the moment I tried it. It didn’t stop me from thinking the way I normally did, like alcohol. In fact, it made it more fun to consider life from an abstract. This helped take the personal edge off my anxiety. When I was sober, and even while I was high, I was still worried there was something wrong with me, but the instant effect of inhaling weed had a pretty good chance of stopping the thoughts from cutting into me as bad. At least, that’s what I thought.
Drugs, and reading, expanded my concerns to a more modern and public matter, politics. I was still experiencing the same impulse of externalizing and internalizing my feelings and opinions, but now was assisted by a newfound coping mechanism that made painful things more impersonal and made confounding things more interesting. It was in this state that I entered into high school. I was assigned to read books about slavery, gender, race, and religion. Everything from Frankenstein to Beloved seemed to pop off the page to me. I felt like I could see the issues authors had written about for the last three hundred years still ripple around me. An obvious example of this was the conservative biases against my drug of choice. I was quick to explore the history of prohibition, legalization, and the war on drugs in America, becoming overexcited by all the damning evidence against public acceptance of alcohol and prejudice against other substances. I began to write essays in my head justifying my habits, and the history of mind altering substances in America happened to be great at further disillusioning myself from my parents worldview.
Did you know cannabis was used in American medicine in the nineteen hundreds? It’s neither here nor there, but Marijuana was first criminalized after there was a large wave of immigration from central America. This legislation was repealed, and then thirty years later, President Nixon made possession of the curious plant a class one felony. Coincidentally, marijuana had become very popular among the antiwar movement, a group of people who were equally anti-Nixon. That was the debater in me, but the insecure little kid didn’t just disappear. Weed became the organizing principle in my life: it was what got me out of my house, helped me to make friends, and without my knowledge, left me without a reason to do so otherwise. I was happy to talk about how the criminalization of weed was racist and unjust, and equally and oppositely content to do nothing about it since I was just fine being a kid with no responsibilities who wanted to smoke weed. With weed becoming my end all be all, I became deeply agnostic, felt more guilty over the privilege I had to do drugs and still succeed, and since I couldn’t imagine a life without weed, I felt there was no way to realistically organize around making a difference. At this point, I had internalized that I was just one of a billions of people, and if all the great thinkers couldn’t fix the problems of society, how could I? This was where I was at when I went to college.
College was much of the same, with more drugs. My tendency for anxiety was closer to depression by the time I arrived in college, and helped along by mood altering substances, by my sophomore year it was closer to a drug induced bipolar dissociation. I would swing between periods of furiously penning essays, projects, and poems about the state of my world, and then enter a complete and utter despair or numbness when these essays and arguments didn’t fix me. The friends I had made, mostly through doing drugs, were maybe better adjusted, but not equipped to help me. The only times I saw people was to smoke weed or try new substances. I had become an expert in arguing my own hopelessness by the time school went online for COVID-19. My experience of COVID was dull in comparison to others I have heard. It was just the cherry on top of my cake.
I checked into a rehab by the end of June after unceremoniously reaching an internal point where no relief from myself felt possible. Rehab is by no means a footnote in my story, but I will contain it to two or three anecdotes if possible. I was convinced, going in, that no human power, no SSRI or MAOI, no group or horse therapy could help me, and God bless, I was wrong in that assumption. They helped tremendously, but didn’t fix me. I am confident that if I ever use mood altering substances again, I will end up in similar mental state, but some deep assumptions were displaced by even deeper realizations. The first was that I had not made it that far on my own. This was the turning point for me in many ways. I realized that despite my previously perceived inability to be connected to other people, I only made it as far as I did in life as a result of those unfelt connections. In that, I think I felt connected to my family, friends, and self in a way I hadn’t before. It wasn’t like a cigarette, or a Percocet, or whatever, it was a feeling outside of physical or bodily pleasure. It was the feeling that despite how awful I felt, and I’ll have a story to substantiate just how awful that was, I still felt pulled and connected to people and my world. This feeling outside physiological, mental, or physical pleasure and pain has become the tap root of a new way of orienting myself in the world. It has been like a rock I could build a life on in a desert of shifting ego and self, and it has not been an easy chapter in my new life.
While in treatment, the oscillation between externalizing and internalizing my feelings did not stop, and I feel it sometimes still. I had made such a compelling case against myself, and the world, that I was so timid to take step towards hope. It felt all but impossible actually, until that moment at least. For two weeks after this, I switched between ecstatic revelation that there was hope, and genuine despair that I had gone too far, physically and mentally, to be able to achieve what it was I hoped. With the help of trained psychologists and peer specialists, I was able to temper the most overwhelming despair with the realization that I was capable of a new hope. I can not stress enough how insane this despair and hope both felt to me. While watching a horror movie with the other men in treatment, I was utterly sure that none of them realized that all our experience, my switches between hope and despair too, were the product of meaningless neurons giving and receiving neurochemicals and nothing more. On top of that, I was sure that my ability to experience that “truth” was like peeking behind the curtain of Oz. I felt I had irrevocably prevented myself from ever believing in a power greater than meaningless chance.
That feeling came and went. When the feeling of dread, guilt, and despair went away, I knew it would come and go again, which was hope. When it came again, I knew even if it would go, it could always come again, which was despair. The cycles of these oscillations eventually extended, and I would feel that their relative intensities had diminished as well. This is not always the case, but with time spent sober, my perspective, the feeling that I am bound or tethered to these cycles of mental illness, has been replaced or at least tempered with something new.
I suppose now is when I talk about God, and all her mysterious ways. I won’t here though. I am not sure what I believe in. I shy away from playing the devil’s advocate now adays, but a lot of that mental infrastructure and knowledge remains in my head. Hell, it will be a long journey if I am ever to have a relationship with my more religious side of family, but I do believe there is a pathway through my life that will be infinitely more satisfying and will keep me reasonably stable to any and every end. As I stand today, these are some of the beliefs that keep me sober:
• I am an addict and always will be.
• What is worthwhile about life are the experiences of meaning, purpose, and people that feel outside of human comprehension.
• Given the above, I should do the things I don’t want to do and do it with people I want to be around.
• I am my worst therapist, accountant, and spiritual shaman.
• Action is everything, including a grind, struggle, and trudge.
• Knowledge can be dope, but there is no pot of gold at the end of any rainbow.
I am an agnostic experimenting with spirituality. If that feels impossible to you, believe me, I know. I went from believing humans could know nothing, to knowing no matter what I was still believing something. This is a subtle difference, that in terms of my mental health journey, has made all the difference.