I am a blessed man. At age 40, I was badly in need of recovery and was one of the fortunate ones who received the help I needed. Granted, I met the prerequisites of being ready and willing to make a change; and in my situation, the resources were there for me in every way. I had hit a low bottom. I immersed myself in groups, meetings and classes with the vengeance of a man in need of another chance.
I worked and lived the Twelve Steps of anonymous meetings and Double Trouble in Recovery (DTR). I studied and practiced the principals of both Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). I attended basic life skill courses such as Problem Solving, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Mindfulness, Anger Management, Assertive Communication, Empathy Training and Man’s Search for Meaning. I also took classes dealing with mental illness: Signs and Symptoms, Suicide Awareness, Distress Tolerance, Crisis Survival Strategies, Responding to Failure, Cognitive Distortions, Emotion Management and Self-Control.
Because the skills I learned are now so important to me for successful living, I wonder why I didn’t have some of this education in middle school. I believe if I had, I would have had less trouble with mental health, substance abuse and all the tough issues that go along with being dually diagnosed. Why was I spending hours memorizing all the rivers in Europe, only to forget them the day after the exam? Why did I need to know the kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species of a bullfrog?
I am no expert on education; and, of course, we need people who know these things. It makes more sense to me, however, to teach children the basic principles I learned in my recovery process to help them avoid tough predicaments. Some of these difficulties affect not only those who have mental and substance abuse diagnoses, but affect their family, friends and society to one degree or another. Let’s face it; most of us have some characteristics of these very human diagnoses, if not the full-blown illness. Most all of us wind up recovering from one thing or another. Have you ever heard this joke? If you don’t have some features of a personality disorder, you probably don’t have a personality.
Now, I don’t use all of what I’ve learned as I negotiate through my life. That’s way too much for me to remember. What that training did, though, was provide me with a toolkit of ten to fifteen concepts – concepts that specifically resonate with me and help me trudge through circumstances that used to throw me for a loop and send me on a bender or into mental and emotional turmoil, which eventually led to bad outcomes.
For example, earlier in my life, relationship conflicts easily caused my emotions to soar. The interpersonal effectiveness training I received helps me negotiate my personal relationships so that clashes do not occur as often.
The distress tolerance I now have helps me with upsetting emotions when the inevitable conflict happens. The concept of living life on a rigorously honest basis, so fundamental to Twelve Step programs, builds trust with my family and friends that is needed to maintain strong bonds. Empathy training taught me to be sensitive to what it is like to walk in another person’s shoes.
Back in my partying days, booze and drugs were my primary excitement in life. I could not imagine having any fun without them. When I cleaned up, I needed the ideas from the Man’s Search for Meaning class to find activities to replace that artificial happiness.
It is so important to my mental health to have meaning which gives me a positive sense of worth and which motivates me to move my muscles on difficult days. In addition, I cannot forget to mention the necessity of balance that Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) taught me. I must have equilibrium between work and “easy does it” time to keep stress and anxiety manageable so relapse episodes will not be triggered. These examples could go on and on, but I think you get the idea that recovery treatment improved my life and has been helpful in many ways.
Exposing people to this type of education at an earlier age could help de-stigmatize mental illness by bringing the topic out of the closet. A trip to a mental health professional for a check-up would not be considered “abnormal”. This education could also decrease substance abuse among young people by giving them coping skills to deal with issues that so often drive them to drink and drug. It might even decrease bullying in schools.
Another positive effect of this education might be that our jails and prisons would not be as overcrowded with people afflicted with these illnesses who wind up getting into trouble with the legal system. Hopefully, a suicidal teenager bent on killing his fellow classmates, then himself, would get the help he needed before a tragedy occurred. I know I would have benefited tremendously if I had been exposed to these concepts at a younger age.
As a society, we must develop better and earlier interventions. As the old saying goes, we need to close the barn door before the horse gets out!
Bill W. brings his life experience to print in a series of articles dealing with the many aspects of recovery. In a sequence of personal reflections, interviews and round table discussions, he shares with the reader, peer to peer, his effective and helpful insights into the world of addiction and mental illness recovery.