Misunderstood, Misdiagnosed, Misled: My Story of Illness and Addiction
by Christina Johnson
Listen to Editor in Chief Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
Podcast (mental-health-aloud): Play in new window | Download
In July of 2005, I found myself standing in front of a judge at the age of nineteen for my first DUI. One hundred pounds and standing at 5’2, I found myself in front of Judge Trebetts, as I listened to the sentence being handed down to me. All I could think is how am I already in trouble with the law?
This question repeated in my life over the next fifteen years, how am I in trouble again?
During this first bout with the law, I felt like a loser, a failure. Guilt would eat at me every day which turned into a vicious cycle of depression, drinking more, which then led to more depression. I wanted to prove that I was better than what my life had unfolded into over my first nineteen years. I wanted to prove that nothing would stand in my way.
Alcohol became a pattern in my life because I allowed it to. I would come home from my day job or my second job, that I had in the evenings, and drink alone. This is when the depression started to sink in; I felt all alone in this world. I recognized this as a pattern but I also associated it with adulthood. I was young and this is what young adults did, I never thought of it as a problem, even when I felt depressed. I thought, this is just life. I didn’t even recognize it as a problem when I lost jobs, my license, my freedom; it didn’t hit me until my physical health actually took a turn for the worst and I started to experience detox symptoms the first time, but this didn’t happen right away.
I started battling anxiety and depression as a young adult. As a teen, I always worried about what other kids were saying about me or doing behind my back. This created an unbalanced feeling; my heart would pound rapidly and often I felt as though I would black out, my body shaking uncontrollably. The world was sinking around me.
My anxiety took a turn for the worst when I was nineteen after my DUI. My first panic attack occurred at this time. One day at work the phone rang abruptly, it startled me and sent me into panic mode. I felt like I was losing my mind. At this moment I thought, this is it, there is something terribly wrong with me. I didn’t know what to do or who to call. I was helpless. After this incident and many others, I worked with a doctor to receive my diagnosis and started to treat my symptoms. With my internal medicine doctor at my side, I was able to begin treating my anxiety and depression. I was happy to be able to treat something, maybe I wasn’t crazy after all.
Because I didn’t want to burden anyone with what I was going through, when I met with the doctor, I accepted the diagnosis handed down to me at this time. It was not until I was twenty-one that I started to encounter a shift in my sleeping patterns. I would lay awake in fear and not get a wink of sleep. I experienced sleep walking, as a side effect to medications. In one of my sleepwalking episodes, I caused a domestic violence situation.
I had been experiencing long periods of not sleeping, so the doctor attempted prescribing sleeping aids, not knowing at the time that the insomnia was due to manic highs. But because I had not yet received the proper diagnosis, the doctors had a sleep study performed and prescribed a sleep aid. On this particular October night, my partner and I went to the cornfield maze and had a great evening. Upon returning home, I took my night time meds. I had fallen asleep on the couch and when my significant other tried waking me they thought I had awoken but in fact I was sleepwalking. I became very aggressive, whaling my arms at which point I couldn’t be controlled. 911 was called and, when I came to, I had a domestic abuse charge for becoming aggressive with my significant other.
I was angry that people in my life, who I thought loved me, would call the cops and attempt to handle the situation with police involvement. The police would take me to jail and charge me, instead of realizing there was an underlying issue and condition, even the judge wouldn’t read my medical records. I felt bad that the situation happened with my partner but I would just joke it off, saying things like, “Good thing I didn’t grab a knife.” I tried my best to make light of the situation as I was the one struggling with court proceedings, probations, fines, and a loss of dignity.
So now, by the age of twenty-three, I had three DUIs and a domestic violence incident.
As the years progressed, so did my mental illness. I experienced bouts of high energy in which I would do risky, dangerous, and outright stupid actions; driving erratically, drinking and driving, trying to be the bouncer at bars to stop fights, and most commonly, getting involved in situations where my mouth got the best of me. I felt alone and misunderstood. Because I felt this way, I thought I would be better off dead, no one would ever know, they wouldn’t miss me. I experienced racing thoughts that caused my violent behavior. I would often throw punches while in a manic upswing. I added alcohol to the mix, hoping to regulate myself. I was not managing my mental illness. My family would call the police, seeking help and all they would do was arrest me, take me to jail, let me sleep it off my drunkenness, and then slap me with a disorderly conduct case. This pattern became my norm.
8 Tips for Telling Your Own Story
Do you have a story to tell? Chances are, you do. This free guide will walk you through our Editor in Chief's top suggestions.
The court system required me to meet IOP, intensive outpatient program, requirements four times. The process for IOP was to meet the required fifteen sessions three days a week for five weeks; I actually learned a lot in the classes but I was not yet able to maintain sobriety. I’ve been through the rooms of AA countless times. AA may be great for some people but when I first started at age nineteen, I would sit in the rooms feeling scared as I was so young. I would sit in the back and hope no one would talk to me, as I got older it became a meeting place but not in a good way. I saw a temporary sponsor give up and drink, I felt discouraged.
Outside of AA and outpatient programs, I’ve spent my fair share of time in jail and every time I’m there I know that is not the appropriate place for me. In jail, I experienced what detox was like for others and knew I never wanted to detox from alcohol in this way again. The first time I was in jail, I did five days, and I witnessed others detoxing from alcohol. My last stint was thirteen days. Jail has felt scary, sleepless and uncomfortable. I experience boredom, loneliness, guilt and countless other emotions each time I find myself in a cell.
I was always cycling through programs and incarceration but I once had a four year stint, in which my life was calm. However, my mental health was not controlled. I falsely believed that I had finally found calm and I decided I wanted to stop taking my meds, I didn’t think of the greater effects.
I found myself living a carefree life, without meds, enjoying the highs very much but the lows were always difficult and became unmanageable in August of 2019. I went to the DMV to get my new license and had a full blown panic attack. I managed to walk out of the DMV in my heightened state. I headed to the bar next door to have beer in an attempt to calm my nerves. While drinking that beer I recognized that something had to give. I needed to do what I needed to, to survive and change. Sitting at a bar again, drinking again to get rid of the shakes from an anxiety attack, I realized it is time to try to get this under control. I knew I had to be sober to get the correct diagnosis and help. So that’s where I started.
As I hemmed and hawed about my next steps, I continued to drink, my drinking became heavier than ever before. There was never a moment that I was sober, but at the time you wouldn’t know it. I was never a fall down drunk, just crazy as hell, but I never stumbled or slurred.
I have been in Intensive Outpatient Programs a number of times. I’ve learned to pay attention to all the signs: the coping skills, the triggers. I also learned about DT’s, detox tremors, and what to expect during detox, how it can make you feel. I told myself that if I started to experience DT’s I would seek help. After the experience of more minor detox in jail, I knew if my addiction got worse I would need to seek a higher level of care and help.
So in September 2019, I made the decision to go to Detox. I thought three days in Detox would be the magic wand I needed to bring normalcy into my life. So, I sat researching for hours on detox, mental health, and rehab facilities. I couldn’t find a facility that took my insurance, that had any beds available. This went on for some time and I began losing hope. I found a detox center that would admit me for three days, at which point I’d be on my own. After three days of detox, I didn’t want to continue to do the necessary work but instead I thought I was cured. No one was there to guide me through what would come next and assist with my mental health struggles. I instead was confronted by everyday stressors, courts and judges, bosses, coworkers, jobs. The busyness of work stopped me from taking care of myself, let alone face my mental illness or addiction. I fell back into old patterns.
But after determination and another family fight, I found a detox center that appealed to me. As I started the process of detox again, I knew I needed to get in front of my mental illness. I was experiencing the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It was time to gain control over my life, my health.
Before I entered the facility, all I could do was sleep in bed until 4pm, and wake up in search of a bottle of something. I found myself staring out the window asking to be normal, wondering, ‘is there really life out there that is going on without me?’ I locked myself in my house for six months and when I did leave, I experienced anxiety driving, or in a line at a store, the littlest things sent me into a spiral. I decided to go back into rehab.
Rehab was a three month stint where my mental health was not the central focus. At this point I felt so irritated, frustrated and frankly, done with counselors and quacks. My anxiety became more difficult to manage after becoming sober from alcohol. The body cramps I experienced since my muscles and fibers didn’t have hydration for some time were painful. The positive part was that I was sober.
In January of 2019, I stood up at a meeting to say I had three months sober. It was at this point I made the goal to get mentally right. After ups and downs with finding the right doctor and almost giving up, I found a new doctor and decided to give that doctor a shot. Finally, someone took a proper assessment of my health. Through a proper diagnosis, I came to find out I have bipolar I with manic episodes, severe anxiety disorder and ADHD. My life changed because I finally could say, ‘hmm that makes sense.’ I had a reason for why I feel the way I do and now I knew I wouldn’t have to drink to self-medicate.
So finally at thirty-five years old, I am battling a lifelong mental illness that went untreated and unmanaged for almost fifteen years. In those fifteen years, I have made irrational decisions and was able to score up a long rap sheet. I was mistreated and misdiagnosed, not only by physicians but also by law enforcement. Every day I am faced with a new battle of anxiety, manic episodes and crashes. All I can do is manage the symptoms.
Now I am an advocate, sharing my experience and hoping it can help others. As I sit here today, I am still trying to manage my medication the right way and maintain my sobriety. It is constant work and I’ve learned to remind myself of this and keep focused. As I sit at thirty-five, I am still learning about my diagnosis and what made my symptoms so severe. I am thankful that 2019 was my breaking point. I still struggle day in and day out as my meds still aren’t perfect but I am well managed and sober today. I am mindful of my mental status.
EDITOR IN CHIEF: Gabriel Nathan | EDITOR: Laura Farrell | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman
See Related Recovery Stories: Addiction, Anxiety, Bipolar Disorder, Depression, Mental Health Aloud, Mental Health First Person Essays