Quick: what’s the first thing that pops into your head when you think of PTSD?
Is it domestic violence? Substance abuse? Probably not. You probably thought of soldiers, which isn’t wrong, but it’s far from the complete picture. Survivors of any type of trauma may exhibit symptoms of PTSD, and it’s super important that we recognize all of them. Because if we don’t, as Elizabeth will tell you shortly, sufferers will find their own ways to cope. It may be strange to read Betty’s quote, “heroin saved my life,” but as you’ll see, substance abuse was her way of coping with the domestic violence and trauma that slipped through the cracks. She couldn’t get help, so she found her own. But she doesn’t want you to do it the same way.
Mental Health Monday is all about helping people in their twenties learn how to take care of themselves. Every week, I feature someone else’s story that I think will inspire readers to eliminate stigma, be proactive in staving off their own potential mental illness, or give hope to someone who is suffering. Elizabeth’s story today, in my opinion, does all three.
Like Elizabeth’s story? Check out Grace’s story about battling substance abuse here!
Heroin Saved My Life is about how Elizabeth’s trauma went unnoticed by the people in her life, which led to her substance abuse.
As you’ll read, her loved ones and other trusted adults didn’t seem to want to touch her mental illness with a ten-foot pole. That’s because of the stigma, or shame attached to mental illness. And this happens all. the. damn. time. But stigma comes from fear of the unknown, and I’ve gotten to know Elizabeth a bit through our conversations and her beautiful writing on her blog. She is intelligent and caring and endlessly brave, and you’ll see it all shine through in this piece. I swear, you’ll physically feel stigma about people with substance abuse issues melting away as you read.
I hope that Heroin Saved My Life will also help others stay out of similar situations. Betty writes about many of the points where things could have gone differently; where there was potential for her to get help. If your story looks anything like Betty’s, I hope you’ll pick out those points where you can break the cycle of your addiction, and/or your PTSD by getting help.
Finally, I hope that if Betty’s story doesn’t resonate with you personally, that you’ll share it with someone who might be struggling with trauma or substance abuse, or both. This is how we give others hope. If someone had reached out to Betty even just with a simple message of hope, things may have turned out very differently.
Without further ado, here’s Elizabeth.
“Heroin Saved My Life When I Was Diagnosed With PTSD (But It Also Almost Killed Me)
When I was a new mom, heroin saved my life.
The year after I sent my abuser to prison was one of the loneliest of my life. I missed him. I know how strange that must sound to someone on the outside: How could I miss the man who near-fatally strangled me on more than one occasion, beat me up, raped me, called me names, estranged me from friends and family, and forced me to become a mother midway through college? How could I miss a man I hated?
The human heart is disastrously complex. It somehow holds hate and nostalgic regret together in a painful, malignant balance that neither our sciences nor poetics have yet been able to fully comprehend. My abuser was my abuser, the man who caused me to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but he was also my fiance, the father of my first child, the man to whom I lost my virginity, and my friend. Once he was gone, his loss consumed my life. And with it came all the trauma responses I’d been repressing as a means of saving myself while it was still happening.
Nightmares dominated my sleep, and loneliness excavated all joy from my days. Even when I was with friends, or lovers, I felt alone and unloved. My PTSD worsened each day. My son spent more and more time with family. Then I met heroin.
It doesn’t matter how I started or who was involved. Once I was fully immersed in my addiction, nothing else mattered. There was no beginning, and no end in sight. Each day was the same, dark, unblinking copy of the last; saturated with sweat and cravings, long shivering walks to the cash machine. Or, as things got worse, the pawn shop, the street corner. They were idle hours waiting for the dealer, then the irresponsible, demonic joy of having a bag in hand, the long search for an injection site on the ever-shrinking map of my veins. The stick, the pull of blood, the push of drugs, the rush. The incomparable oblivion.
PTSD and substance abuse are intimately connected.
It’s hard to know exactly how many people with PTSD struggle with a substance abuse disorder, but one study of Vietnam veterans estimates the number between 60% and 80%. Anyone who has walked down a city street has undoubtedly seen the bearded man in worn, stained fatigues, nodding out from dope or reeking of alcohol while he holds a dingy cardboard sign asking for change. I am not alone in my addiction.
“Downers” like heroin, opiate pills, benzodiazepines, and alcohol help temporarily reverse some of the brain changes caused by trauma, such as hyper-arousal. Unfortunately, they also exacerbate other issues, like emotional reactivity, and violent behavior. In my case, it provided me an avenue to escape an unbearable reality without committing suicide, but it also ravaged my life and nearly killed me on it’s own. I’ve overdosed nine times that I can recall. Twice while in recovery. A few times on purpose. Once alone– I still don’t know how I survived.
I am still recovering from my trauma and addiction to heroin. Crawling out of the hole of poverty, shame, and depression that it carved into my life has been almost as daunting as recovering from domestic violence. My son lives with my mom- when he was two years old, I placed him in the care of my family because I knew that my PTSD and addiction issues were so out of control that it would be impossible to keep them away from him otherwise. Our relationship is strained; far from the close, loving bond we shared during his infancy. I expect that is an ache that will never ebb.
When I say that heroin saved my life, I mean only to be honest, not to offer a positive or glorified perspective of chemical dependency.
Heroin addiction is a harsh, grueling existence. One that guts you right down to the soul. I would never recommend it to anyone, and I wish I hadn’t needed it. There are healthier interventions that could have helped me. Should have helped me. I was a kid, in college. I wrote about the abuse, and talked openly about the ex-boyfriend in jail. No one stepped up. No professor referred me anywhere, or expressed an interest in my well-being. As I showed up on campus increasingly thin and wan, no one said a thing. When my grades dropped from As to Cs, and I began showing up late or skipping class altogether, teachers labeled me a bad student. No one offered support. No one suggested care.
My family took in my son, but abandoned me. My friends slowly dropped contact with me. I became a pariah. Those friends who remained either didn’t notice my pain, or ignored it because they didn’t know what to do with it. I tried a couple therapists, but because my son was still in my legal custody, I feared intervention from child services. Eventually, I just stopped seeing them, and none of them pursued the matter beyond a single phone call.
Heroin was available for me when nothing else was. It eased my pain when no one else would even look at it. Heroin saved my life because nobody would help me save myself. I don’t blame all the people who could have done something, not entirely. It’s easy for someone like me to slip through the cracks. By the time I developed PTSD, I was estranged from friends and family because I’d been with a controlling, abusive man for four years. But I do believe, strongly, that it should not be so easy for someone to slip through. It should not take a serious addiction for domestic violence survivors to be noticed; we should not be offered treatment only after being labeled a burden to society.
PTSD is correlated with substance use disorders.
This is a known fact. As such, we as a society need to do more to support those diagnosed with PTSD, so survivors like me don’t have to turn to heroin and other dangerous alternatives to keep from committing suicide. So many policymakers are looking at strengthening the regulations around opiate prescriptions, and “cracking down” on doctors. Almost nobody is looking at strengthening the community supports and screenings for trauma survivors. Heroin saved my life, and unfortunately, this is the case for many others out there. Maybe if we start basing our interventions on loving support rather than laws and fear mongering, we would effect some actual change in this big, scary, opioid crisis.
Bio: Elizabeth Brico is a freelance writer from the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in Writing & Poetics from the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University. Her blog, Betty’s Battleground, was recently ranked #26 on Feedspot’s list of top 75 PTSD blogs. She is also a regular contributing writer for the trauma blog on HealthyPlace. Her writing has appeared on VICE, Vox, Stat News, The Fix, and Racked, among others. You can also find her on her Facebook page, or her website, e.b. writes. During her rare moments of free time she can usually be found reading, writing, or watching speculative fiction.”