We Do Not Choose!

By Sara Berelsman

We do not choose mental illness, and we do not choose addiction!

If you think otherwise, get on your knees and thank God you have never experienced the horror of addiction, the suffering of mental illness – that you were born with a “normal” brain.

I didn’t choose to become an alcoholic. Addicts like me are born addicts. We have a genetic predisposition – our brains don’t signal us when enough is enough. And it’s never enough. Never!

Anxiety is real – very real. Depression is real – horribly and terribly real. I’m a person with everything going for me. Please tell me why I’d choose to feel suicidal or choose to be bipolar. It hurts when people minimize depression and trivialize the very real thoughts I’ve had about wanting to kill myself.


Addicts crave a high. Once the high is achieved, the brain automatically chases the next level of high. It’s an elevator rising to the top, but stopping at every floor. Suddenly it takes off by itself; no one is pushing the buttons except the addiction.

I was feeling better in many ways, so I stopped taking my mood stabilizers. This often occurs in people with a bipolar disorder; I thought I didn’t need that medication anymore. The thing was, I was feeling better because I was taking the remedy. In order to continue to feel good, I had to keep taking my prescription. But when you’re manic, that doesn’t make sense.

I started having a bit of writer’s block; so I thought maybe by ingesting as much caffeine and nicotine as possible, I’d push myself into a nice manic mood and feel inspired to write. I did become manic, but it was not a good manic – wasn’t euphoric this time. It was filled with agitation, restlessness and extreme discomfort. Thoughts at lightning fast speed, flashes of colors and lights. A manic brain burning, burning and burning.

I ran out of Ativan. I was out of cartridges for my electronic cigarette. I wanted more, but I didn’t have any more. It was the middle of the night, and I’d been awake for days. I started having withdrawal symptoms. I was shaking all over. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t lie down because when I tried my legs would thrash around involuntarily. My arms were flailing. I paced and paced and paced around the house.

Really scary stuff started happening. My lips were involuntarily making the puckering motion made while inhaling a cigarette. They would pucker up and then twitch back to normal. I was scared as hell. I woke my partner, telling him I didn’t feel right. I couldn’t stop. This went on for hours.

For the next 24 hours I would lie down, get up, lie down, get up, lie down and get up. When I was walking, I felt uncomfortable. When I was lying down, I felt uncomfortable. I was painfully uncomfortable for hours. My heart was beating out of my chest. My skin was crawling so badly; I wanted to jump out of it. I couldn’t breathe. With every passing millisecond, I told myself I would live through this.

In the midst of this withdrawal hell, I decided I really did want to live.

Thursday morning came. I couldn’t drive my daughter to school. I couldn’t function. I was outside of my body looking down at myself. I was having a panic attack.

I called about ten people before someone answered. It was my daughter’s preschool teacher. I told her, “Ummm . . . I was wondering if there’s any way you could drive [my daughter] to school? I’m having a panic attack, and I can’t function.” My voice cracked, “I’m gonna start crying.” She said it’s okay, and she would drive my daughter to school.

When she got to my house, she came in; the sun was shining directly on her through the kitchen window. She was an angel – here to save me.

Due to pacing around the hardwood floors and walking up and down the stairs of our house nonstop for days, my feet were raw. My body ached as if I had just run a marathon; my joints were swollen; every part of my body was throbbing.

My mom came over and confiscated my electronic cigarette, which I gladly handed over. Part of me wanted to lie down now, but I was still anxious. I pulled snow boots on, threw a coat on over my sweats and took a walk.

As I walked down the street, suddenly everything seemed perfectly peaceful. I was still in pain, but all of a sudden I knew that everything would be okay. I heard the birds chirping in the trees, which for the first time in months sounded beautiful. The snow was pristine and sparkling. I could see my breath; I knew I was alive.

On Friday I went to the psychiatrist, and I’m back on mood stabilizers. This time I will stay on them.

When I was living through the darkest, scariest part of this ordeal, I knew I was no different than Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was hurtful to read the comments on Facebook following Hoffman’s death.

Addicts are addicts! I completely get it. The feeling of not wanting to feel is not something we choose. We do not choose this.

Addiction is an equal opportunity disease. It doesn’t care how much money you have, how well you can sing or how many Oscars you’ve won. We do not choose this!

Having a mental illness is a disease just like cancer. Should you ever experience it, you’d understand. You’d realize the difficulties of living with abnormal brain chemistry.

We do not choose mental illness, and we do not choose addiction.

Sara Berelsman has an MA in literature and writes for a couple of newspapers in a small Ohio town where she lives with her husband and two daughters. She is in school to become a substance abuse counselor. Berelsman’s memoir about her alcoholism, My Last Rock Bottom, was recently published.

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