Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=225928
Story Retrieval Date: 12/22/2014 12:22:25 AM CST

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Alcoholism and mental illness: Pat’s story

by Sara Kupper
Nov 21, 2013


Pat Nakamura, 26, has struggled with alcohol addiction and mental illness throughout much of his life. Here, he shares his story:

I started drinking when I was a junior in high school. A couple of buddies and me got a bottle of fruity vodka and drank it. It gave me this warm effect and it felt good. I drank whenever I could over the last two years of high school. At the time I had not been diagnosed, but drinking was probably my way of dealing with my obsessive compulsive disorder.

In college freshman and sophomore year I drank and smoked pot on a regular basis. I found myself being comforted and I thought the alcohol and drugs were taking my emotional pain away. Sophomore year I was officially diagnosed with OCD and was put on an anti-depressant. The drug was not effective and I put up a wall during therapy so I was not really getting any help for my condition. It is not good to drink lots of alcohol on these medications because it can cause the drug not to work.

They say turning 21 is when you stop drinking as much; for me, it was like giving me the key to a bank vault. I started to drink maybe one or two beers every day and get drunk two or three times a week. I was still on medication but took it only when it was “convenient” for me. I drove while intoxicated all the time; I would get drunk with my friends and then drive home. I didn’t seem to care about the ramifications.

Shortly after Christmas in 2010, I got into a huge fight with my girlfriend. I ended up self-harming and she took me to a psychiatric ward because I told her I wanted to die. While I was there, my girlfriend left me via a phone call. I spun out of control. I lied to the doctors to get out and was released within a couple of days.

After returning home, I drank for about a month straight. I harassed my ex-girlfriend and ended up hurting myself again. Two friends took me back to the hospital.

At the hospital, I was put in a chemical dependency group. For the first couple of days, I would not admit to the counselor that I had a problem. She asked me why I drank and I told her, “to numb the pain and to make my problems go away.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth I realized I had a problem.

After being discharged from the hospital and put into an outpatient dual diagnosis (alcohol and mental illness) program, I went to my first AA meeting. I found a sponsor and got to work on the 12 Steps. I thought I was getting better.

I graduated from the outpatient program, finished school, and moved to the Quad Cities, where I got a job at a juvenile detention/rehabilitation place in Davenport. Since I was “sober,” work became my addiction. I worked over 75 hours a week, sometimes for 16-hour days, because I was scared to be alone with my own thoughts in my apartment. During that time, a friend back home committed suicide by overdose. I had met him in AA and began to hate the program but would not admit it.

I had a therapist and a psychiatrist but was not very truthful with either of them. My psychiatrist told me relapses do happen and I took it as “go ahead Pat, drink.” So one night I got a six-pack of beer and drank. A few days later, I “lost it” at work and ended up going to a co-workers house because I did not feel safe by myself. I was convinced to go to a hospital and the next day I did.

At this hospital, I was diagnosed with bipolar II, so I got a whole round of different drugs. I left the hospital and a few days later entered their outpatient rehab program (I had lost my job.)

I got another job at a non-profit mental health organization. I again made work my life and stopped going to recovery meetings. Like most non-profits, mine lost funding. They had to cut me loose. I moved back to the Chicago area to stay with my parents.

I got my high school job back, found an apartment with a friend and went back to my old therapist. I kept my inner problems to myself, so therapy was basically rendered unhelpful by my own doing. I ended up getting drunk one night and threatening to kill myself. I admitted myself to an inpatient hospital.

After release, I went back to AA. Now on my fourth sponsor (the last three had relapsed and were drinking), I began to try to work very hard on the 12 steps, thinking it would make the depression I was going through get better. It only made it worse.

The day I finished my fourth step, I hurt myself again and attempted suicide. I ended up in the ER and then, once again, back in an inpatient program.

Afterward was different.

My parents sent me for a four-month stay in Houston, Texas; two at one of the best inpatient hospitals in the country, the Menninger Clinic, and the next two at the Houston OCD Program. At Menninger, I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (often misdiagnosed as bipolar) in addition to my OCD, depression, and alcoholism. I gave in to all treatment, surrendered. It was my rock bottom. I told everything, hid nothing.

It was at Menninger that I realized AA just was not for me. I found much more solace in attending support meetings for those who are mentally ill.

Since returning from Houston, I have gone to mental health support groups instead of AA groups and even started my own for young adults. I have been sober for a year and a half, the longest I have ever been. I have also not been in and out of psych wards.

For me, alcoholism was merely a shield for my bigger problems: my mental illness. Getting treated just for alcoholism was not enough for me. I had to dig deep into myself, become vulnerable, and start to become self-aware.

I cannot stress enough how important it is if you are starting recovery that you give AA/NA [Narcotics Anonymous] a shot. Just because it was not for me does not mean it cannot help you. You have to develop enough self-awareness to know what is helpful and what is not.

It also helps to have a psychiatrist tell you that if you drink on your current medications you could go into a coma, have a seizure, and even die. Those are pretty good reasons not to have a sip of booze!

The definition to me of “alcoholism” is having a drinking problem. After “admitting you have a problem” (first step in AA, something I agree with), see what is causing the problem(s). Then work on them, one at a time, and take it “one day at a time” (a great quote from AA). Alcoholism is a Band-Aid for something. It is not the whole problem. Whether or not genetics plays into it or not does not matter to me. We are dealt the hand we are dealt.

Alcoholism can be in various forms. Some alcoholics become physically dependent on alcohol to function; their body needs it or else they go through withdrawal. Other people, like me, are mentally addicted to it. It is our emotional Advil, masking our emotional pain for a short time.

Alcoholism is hard to treat because the alcoholic is usually a stubborn person and it is hard to dig deeper than the addiction. You must give it everything you have. You must face your demons every day; recovery is for the rest of your life. Accepting that is hard, but once you accept your problems, only then can you truly start to work on them.