Bipolar Disorder and the Internal Pain of Addiction: A Late Reply to a Reader

Opening up about my struggles with obsession and addiction.
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Many months ago, a reader reached out to ask why I didn’t write about addiction. Sadly, addiction is part of everyday life for many people with bipolar disorder. It was a legitimate question for her to ask, but one I’ve struggled to answer in the months since.

My first thought was, “How can I talk about addiction when I’ve never experienced it?” I didn’t feel like I was qualified to put out content about a topic I hadn’t experienced firsthand.

Trigger warning: Self-harm, addition, suicidal ideation

Her question has stuck with me every day since I received her email. Addiction is a serious topic with mental illness, so it’s one that deserves some space on this site.

I had to dig deep to figure out why I avoided the topic. It took some time for me to figure out I’m fighting internal shame for things I did in the past. Still, the goal of Speaking Bipolar is to open up about all aspects of bipolar disorder. So, it’s time for this post to see the light of day.

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Changing My Understanding

I used to tell people I’d never had an addiction, but that I understood what it was like to be addicted. In my mind, I’ve always equated the word addiction with either alcohol or drug abuse. For many of you, those are the very real enemies you battle every day.

I’ve never used illegal drugs, and while I abused alcohol from time to time, it was never something that I craved. I could drink too much or not at all. Neither option really mattered to me.

The longer I’ve pondered the matter, I realized addiction with bipolar disorder is about more than substance abuse. In fact, addiction can become a personality trait, and you can get hooked on the most unexpected things.

When I took the time to be honest with myself, I realized I understand addiction because I’ve struggled with it for much of my life. Today, I’ll be sharing some of those addictions and how they affected me.

Disclaimer: The intention of this post is not to downplay the seriousness of addiction. Uncontrolled addiction can destroy relationships, careers, and lives. If you’re fighting an addiction to drugs, alcohol, or other destructive habits, please seek help immediately.

Watercolor picture of a man in front of a laptop computer. | Bipolar disorder can be an incredibly isolating experience. This post shares my personal experiences with addiction and obsession as a way of shedding light on the often-overlooked internal pain that comes with bipolar disorder. If you or someone you know is struggling with bipolar disorder, please reach out for help. There is always hope. | #mentalhealth #mentalillness #bipolar #addiction
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Addiction Versus Obsession

The lines can get a little blurry between addiction and obsession. A quick Google search lists the definitions as:

Addiction: the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing, or activity.

Obsession: the state of being obsessed with someone or something.

Yeah, the difference is about as clear as mud.

I’ve always known I get obsessed with things. Even as a kid, I spent hours paging through the Sears and JC Penney catalogs, making detailed lists of all the toys I would one day own. Lists defined my life, and in many ways, still do.

To me, addiction is more visceral than obsession. It includes physical symptoms of withdrawal along with the obsession for the thing you’re attached to. Maybe I’m wrong, but here are a few ways I’ve noticed addiction in my life.

Also Read: How To Deal With Suicidal Thoughts When You Have Bipolar Disorder

Self-Harm

For a while, I was addicted to self-harm. I’ve written a little about it before, but not as much as I should. I always fear that talking about self-harm will encourage other people to try it. I hope you never do. Self-harm is a dark and dangerous path that claims too many lives.

Self-harm is one part of my bipolar journey that I’m ashamed to tell most people about. Yep, here I am sharing it online for the entire world to see, but most of my friends have no idea.

I know the tendency is part of the illness, but it also feels like an unnecessary weakness. Self-harm was a way for me to feel something after the times I’d been numb too long.

I can see now it was an addiction, and one that occasionally returns to mind. During the worst times, I obsessed about it. When I was not actively engaged in the act of self-harm, it dominated my thoughts. I constantly planned my next sessions and fantasized about the various methods I could use.

If I forced myself to go awhile without harming myself, I would develop the shakes, splitting headaches, and chronic insomnia. The only relief was another round with my destructive habit. The thoughts were all-encompassing, and if I didn’t follow through, I felt like the internal pressure would kill me. Quitting was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.

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Entertainment

It’s too easy to form an entertainment addiction. This is especially true in this digital age, when there are hundreds of thousands of hours of digital content to watch.

Most frequently, people talk about entertainment addiction only when referring to either gambling or pornography. Yet, for some of us, even Netflix and YouTube can be as problematic.

For me, my trial is television, and it’s one I fight every day. A good storyline or likeable characters pull me in until I can’t turn the TV off. I’ll forgo sleep and race home from work to watch the next episode of whatever is on my current playlist. There were even times I called off work when I was in an awful place and couldn’t stop watching a show.

Video games have also been a trouble spot for me. When Mass Effect 3 came out, I played it for 60 hours straight. I barely ate or drank anything during that time and never once closed my eyes. It’s heartbreaking to think some teens have died after similar video game marathons.

Arthritis has pushed away the video game problem. When it’s too painful to hold a control for longer than a few minutes, it’s much easier to give up your favorite games. Score one point for old age.

Food

Food can also be an addiction. Whether it’s obsessing about eating a certain thing or struggling with an eating disorder where you feel you can’t stop eating. I have a lot of issues with food, from eating in front of other people, to overeating late at night.

I’ve also had days or weeks where I only ate one thing because I couldn’t get enough of it. And usually it was something bad for me, like the Hershey’s Nuggets with the toffee inside or entire boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

While it’s not the same thing, many eating disorders have similar traits to addiction. An anorexic person may feel consumed with counting calories or measuring portion size, while someone with bulimia can become hooked on vomiting.

Also Read: Is Self-Harm About Seeking Attention?

People

It may sound insane to talk about being addicted to a person, but it’s real. For me, being around the object of my affection can push me into a constant state of mania. However, when they leave, they take all the oxygen with them. I immediately crumble into an uncontrollable mess. I can’t think, function, or care for myself. Nothing matters until I can be with them again.

I’m not just talking about romance either. I’ve had similar connections with friends as well. It’s a weird feeling to think you can’t function unless you’re with the person, but it’s what happens. Everything in your life starts to revolve around finding ways to spend more time together.

Addiction can be a scary hurdle, but you can succeed in conquering it.

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Overcoming Addiction

The first step to overcoming addiction is to admit you have a problem. In Alcoholic’s Anonymous, there are 12 steps to recovery. The most important ones are to admit the problem exists and to accept help. You can read all 12 steps here.

The AA steps are an excellent starting point for battling any addiction. Overcoming the problem requires hard work and the determination not to give up. It’s about trying again and again, even if you relapse along the way.

I have never experienced addiction with chemical substances, but I understand how my mental illness makes me obsess about things in my life. I understand needing something so bad you think you can’t breathe without it, and I know the euphoria brought on by having the thing you’re fixated on.

With time and effort, I followed the 12 steps and have most of my monsters under control. I won’t pretend my mind never meanders down the wrong path, but most days, I’m able to stay strong and stick with the program.

Watercolor picture of a writer sitting at a desk. | Bipolar disorder can be an incredibly isolating experience. This post shares my personal experiences with addiction and obsession as a way of shedding light on the often-overlooked internal pain that comes with bipolar disorder. If you or someone you know is struggling with bipolar disorder, please reach out for help. There is always hope. | #mentalhealth #mentalillness #bipolar #addiction
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Keep Fighting

I’m not a medical professional, so I can’t say for sure I have any addictions, but I think the signs are pretty clear. I believe that the intensity of emotions that come with bipolar is the connector that causes so many to develop severe addictions.

I believe you can overcome any addiction. Even the bad habits I’ve managed to control still flash in my mind at times. Whether it’s self-harm or the need to be with someone, when life hits me hard, my brain goes racing back to the old ways, but I never stop fighting.

If you struggle with addiction, my heart goes out to you. It’s a horrible experience to feel out of control, and that’s what addiction does to you. I encourage you to get help and reach out to your friends and family. Talk therapy was a vital tool in helping me master my habits and has helped many of my friends, too.

I hope you’ll do the work to get better. Follow the steps, make amends, and get the support you need.

Bipolar disorder may make you more susceptible to addiction, but it doesn’t mean it’s unbeatable. I believe in you. You can make the changes you need to.

Until next time, keep fighting.

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