By Michael Farrell, Supportive Housing Peer Support Specialist
I first started struggling with substance misuse as a teenager. Social settings often filled me with anxiety, so the moment I first felt the taste of hard liquor trickle down my throat and slowly work a warm buzz around my lanky, scared, and insecure teenage body, I felt like I had struck gold.
My weekends were instantly transformed from spaces of anxiety and dread to opportunities of binge drinking and partying, where I felt more relaxed and enjoyable to be around. Alcohol quickly and intensely became the most important ingredient of my weekend. What began as high school parties and stealing beer and liquor from neighbors’ garages morphed into regular blackouts, brutal hangovers, and surprising news of my actions the night before. I became a different person…someone I didn’t want to be.
Despite making my way through high school without any major breakdowns or explosions, my drinking caught up to me. It completely, utterly, entirely, and wholly consumed my mind. It became all I could think about and all I could look forward to. Even on days I wasn’t drinking, I couldn’t stop the consuming thoughts preoccupying my mind to plan my next opportunity to drink.
As years went on, I went through phases of attempting to control my drinking. Time and time again, I quit cold turkey only to give in as soon as the next easy opportunity arose. I began smoking weed in an effort to moderate the quantity I drank, which ultimately added weed to my already toxic relationship with substances. Simultaneously, I began experiencing heightened levels of anxiety, paranoia, and guilt, all of which led to more unhealthy substance use. I couldn’t escape the constant and obsessive rumination around drunk experiences as a teenager that filled me with immense shame, uncertainty, and guilt. While this increase in anxiety was not always directly linked with my substance use, the constant drinking and smoking wasn’t masking the emotions it once had the ability to.
When I was 20 years old, I had a drug experience that led me to a substance induced psychosis. I was so high that it felt like a switch flipped in my brain, resulting in terror, confusion, and a deep fear that filled every waking breath of mine. Upon coming down from this experience, I was convinced that I had irreparably damaged my brain. I remember walking into an emergency room to tell doctors that I was experiencing the effects of brain damage. I was offered anxiety medication and told that the high would wear off within a week or two. During this time, I remained heavily delusional and began experiencing severe and debilitating intrusive thoughts and images.
Searching for Help
Upon beginning therapy, I was told to stop drinking and smoking, and was strongly encouraged to begin treatment for anxiety. I was diagnosed with severe obsessive compulsive disorder. I later learned that I suffer from a lesser-known form of OCD, often referred to as “pure-o”, in which the obsessions and compulsions are mostly mental, and the intrusive thoughts and images can be extremely severe, graphic, violent, and sexual in nature.
Navigating this disorder amid my new and fragile sobriety was a challenge. I saw therapist after therapist, was given a variety of medications, was told that the symptoms might improve but the disorder would remain forever, and experienced stretches of insomnia, paranoia, and disturbingly vivid and haunting intrusive thoughts and images. I tried the medications, I became vegan, I ran 50 miles in a day, I did weekly 90-minute sessions in a sensory deprivation tank, I took ice baths every morning. I was desperate to get out of the state I was in—to leave my mind—but nothing seemed to eliminate the thoughts. Nothing could shake the anxiety and gut-wrenching fear. I struggled with separating myself and my values from the intensity of the fear that the disorienting, scary, and nightmarish intrusive thoughts and images induced.
Finding a Community
Eventually, in a desperate moment of Google searching, I stumbled across a community of individuals struggling with the same type of OCD. I read, I listened, and I connected with other people’s stories. I stopped spending time researching the discouraging rabbit hole of severe OCD and its consequences and, instead, I shifted that energy towards learning how individuals recover from this disorder and go on to live happy and fulfilling lives.
I started seeing an OCD specialist who had experience recovering from OCD, and I began Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I slowly and painstakingly made small steps towards a brighter life. I began to learn that one can live with intrusive thoughts and images, and that I don’t have to label them as intrusive. Thoughts are thoughts and, while scary and powerful in their physiological effects, they remain thoughts.
I am learning what these experiences can teach me and how I can humbly acknowledge and accept their presence while living the life I want to live. I am learning that recovery is not about eliminating mental illness but rather learning the skills that promote mental wellbeing. I am also learning to lean on the supportive family and friends whom I am grateful to have.
My journey of recovery from this disorder has taught me much about myself, how to reconcile with my past, and how to actively shape my present and my future. After nearly four years of sobriety, I am very slowly but surely recovering and discovering myself; I am learning to love myself and all that makes me tick.
Now, my recovery looks like exploring spirituality and movement practices such as running and yoga, reimagining my connection to food, and educating myself on the dynamics that social systems such as patriarchy, colonialism, white supremacy culture, and capitalism play in harmfully shaping our society’s collective perception, response, and relationship to substance misuse and mental illness. The deep roots of mental illness and substance misuse are often entangled in these toxic systems of power that disconnect us from land, community, and love.
As part of my recovery, I am trying to learn how to challenge these structures both in my mind and in my life whilst building community rooted in love and connection. The opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it is connection.
My role as a Peer Support Specialist in the Supportive Housing Program at VOA Alaska gives me the opportunity to form relationships that uplift recovery and value connection. I can use my own experiences to relate with others in a way that supports the health of our community. Walking with others in their recovery is an integral part of maintaining my own recovery, so I am grateful to work for an organization that supports others in their own recovery journeys, no matter how diverse, complicated, or roundabout those journeys may be.
VOA Alaska’s Youth Supportive Housing Program connects transitional-aged clients (ages 18-24) with housing, benefits, community resources, employment, education counseling, and life-skills classes to promote independence.