By Sam Thomas
“What about the gym?”
That was my first thought when the second lockdown was announced. Being at the gym when the news came through, I was gutted that this was going to be one of my last visits for a while.
However, as I’ve said many times, the gym is more than for the sake of vanity. My daily workouts have been fundamental to my recovery – both in my sobriety and mental health.
The reality is that my sobriety and mental health come hand in hand. In the summer months, I was finally diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD).
While it had been suspected that this would be my diagnosis after years of trauma, I was at last able to ask this question of my psychiatrist. At that point I had been sober for six months, which was the longest period I’d been sober since I started drinking ten years ago, aged 24.
As anyone who has been alcohol dependent will know, a psychiatrist will be reluctant to make a diagnosis until you have maintained sobriety for a significant period of time.
For years my main coping mechanism had either been drinking or the gym and sometimes both. However, when drinking was in the equation my gym attendances would be somewhat sporadic. Without drinking, one of the major challenges of the first lockdown was that my other main coping mechanism had been suspended.
During lockdown I resorted to a variety of push ups, which was ok for a week or two. But then, after a few weeks, getting out of bed felt like a major feat. Most days I found myself getting out of bed, then exercise, clean the flat, shower, eat, watch Netflix in bed, sleep and repeat. In many ways, this sense of simply existing reminded me of my drinking days. Needless to say, it was an almighty test of my sobriety, considering the lockdown was imposed just three months into it.
What I hadn’t anticipated was the increased frequency and intensity of nightmares. For instance, it wouldn’t have been unusual for me to wake up shouting. Weirdly, in some instances, I would fall back to sleep moments later to pick up on the nightmare where I had left off – almost like nightmares, in instalments.
Other times I would experience sleep paralysis where I would be trapped in my nightmares and unable to wake up. Being at war with my dreams triggered by events of my past was nothing new and an ongoing threat to my recovery.
In the past when I was drinking, anything strange that couldn’t be explained was inevitably put down to drinking. To be fair, I was physically as well as psychologically dependent which had resulted in me detoxing and relapsing several times over, as I wrote about in my previous blog post. However, from the start, I had been clear at every mental health assessment I’d had that it was trauma first and alcohol second. I had lost count how many times I had been given the “chicken and egg” lecture, with me giving an eye roll in response.
But what if the mental health issues that I was experiencing that were put down to too much alcohol use were caused by suppressed emotions as a result of trauma? What if after years of ignoring symptoms that I didn’t even think of as symptoms I inadvertently learned to self-medicate with alcohol?
What if that coping mechanism worked perfectly for a while, until I had reached the point where alcohol was no longer as effective as it once was? Maybe, then mental health professionals would put their judgements aside and just listen.
I had made these points over and over again, whether it be at every A&E or psychiatric hospital admission every time I had spoken with a mental health professional over the past four years.
Yet the problem was having a “dual diagnosis,”. This is where you have both a substance use and a mental health problem. It’s a significant barrier.
In simple terms, the trauma led to the drinking and the drinking compounded the trauma. It’s a catch 22 and yet you, as the patient, are expected to navigate and negotiate a treatment plan.
After one year sober, I have reflected on my experiences and decided to do something about it. While I won’t be at the gym during this second lockdown, I’ll be too busy to miss it this time! My campaign titled “See The Bigger Picture” is calling on the UK Government for joint mental health and substance use assessments. You can help me bring attention to this issue by signing and sharing my petition here.
Unfortunately, the way services are set up often means that drug and alcohol services sit on one side of the fence and mental health services on the other.
If you are someone with a dual diagnosis you will be unlikely to receive any support from mental health services until you are abstinent. In the interim, you may have to manage your underlying mental health symptoms until you can prove your long-term commitment to being substance free.
After all, to recover from a dual diagnosis it ultimately requires a dual approach, from the point of assessment right through to treatment.
Read more articles like this in our Experiences section.