My Struggle with Mental Health (Bi-Polar Disorder) and Addiction
I want to share something very personal here. My hope is that that others who need help, will be encouraged to get it and feel comfortable reaching out before it is too late.
For the better part of the last two decades, I have struggled with addiction and type 1 bipolar disorder. The addiction started with binge drinking in college and quickly manifest itself as a gambling addiction during my senior year at West Point. In the early years of addiction, I didn’t consider drinking to be anything other than a controllable, recreational activity or at worst, something I did to “keep up with my friends” (this was just an excuse).
On the other hand, the gambling, hooked me the first time I did it online from my dorm room at West Point as a senior in college. I knew I was addicted the first time I placed a bet online. I would go on to spend the next 17 years lying, cheating, hiding, covering up, and finding excuses to feed that addiction. The pursuit of that addiction would lead me to pursue money over all things personally and professionally. It would lead me to other addictions, countless trips per year to Atlantic City, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Shreveport, and many other places in between. Simply put, the gambling obsession drove all other things in my life for many years.
The disease of addiction spread to other areas of my life. After the Army I began using various substances numb myself from the pain I created in my life from not only gambling, but my struggles with bi-polar disorder. I started to frequent strip clubs, and then eventually that led me to seeing sex workers. I began to embrace the “party” life style of Las Vegas on my dozens of trips per year, which further drove me into a dark place where addiction seemed to fuel addiction.
In addition to the addiction issues, I have struggled with mental health all my life. Early in my childhood I was mis-diagnosed as ADD and given Ritalin. I was in the early stages of showing bi-polar tendencies with a bent toward manic episodes. The Ritalin acted as “speed” and made things worse. Just imagine giving someone in a manic state an “upper” of any kind.
“I’d seen the way my friendships ended consistently in dramatic disaster…”
As I got older, I heard feedback from friends, teachers and coaches that I was often viewed as the “life of the party” when you first meet me, but then that quickly fades, and I burn bridges. I’d seen the way my friendships ended consistently in dramatic disaster, the way people shun me, the way people react to me, the paranoia that I feel about what is being said about me that often turns into self-fulfilling prophecies. Why? Mood swings.
In a manic state, everything appears great to me (regardless of reality), I can do anything, I can do well at West Point or work 120 hours a week on Wall Street. In a depressed state, I am self-sabotaging, catty, gossiping, insecure and paranoid. I can only imagine what the roulette wheel of interacting with me over those years must have been like.
I had considered getting help at many times in my life. Each time I sat in front of a psychiatrist or psychologist the Stephen they got, depended on my mood. I would stop going once I felt like I was getting caught in my mixed stories and lies.
One of the reasons I lied was because I thought mania was my super power. It seemed like I was productive on a super human level when I was in a manic episode. I cycled so rapidly into these states that I began to feel like I could summon these cycles on my own (which I’m not even sure is possible). For instance, I could plan a trip to Las Vegas, and start to feel my mood improve and because of the relief I felt with that trip on the calendar, and then I could leverage that increase in mood to be productive.
“I didn’t want to give up my super power.”
The downside was that if anything interrupted me from that manic state, then I could lose control of my temper, or worse, want to kill myself suddenly. However, the positive benefits outweighed the negative in my mind so I really didn’t actually want to get help. I didn’t want to give up my super power.
August of 2018 was when things all came to a head. Several incidents during the year had left me really struggling with my mental health issues. I found myself in Las Vegas late in August, trying to cope with a lot of my issues. On this trip I stayed at the Wynn Hotel but I booked an extra room at the Cosmopolitan solely because they had balconies. I knew I was at the end of my rope and I wanted an escape route. I expected not to survive this trip.
I lost a lot of money, I attempted suicide, and I hit rock bottom with all of my addictions. My father and wife came to Vegas to get me one morning and bring me home. After that I went to a therapist for the first time and told them the truth about everything I had done. I asked my wife to sit in on that session with me so that I wouldn’t lie to the therapist. I trusted myself that little.
After that session, the therapist recommended I attend an in-patient rehab facility in Arizona called, The Meadows. I spent the next 2 weeks really struggling with the idea before I agreed to do go to rehab.
When I arrived at The Meadows in Wickenburg, AZ I was informed that every patient was required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or another meeting in the evenings. The first night, I went to an AA meeting and at this point, I was still not convinced that I was an alcoholic.
“it hit me for the first time… I am an alcoholic”
There were about 30 people in the room that night and we all took turns sharing one by one as we went around the circle. After about 15 people had shared, it hit me for the first time. I’m a lot like these people. I’m an alcoholic. When it was my turn to share, I admitted this for the first time and broke down emotionally. The next 44 days were full of realizations like this.
On the second day I met with a psychiatrist. I later found out she knew I was bi-polar within about 5 minutes of meeting me. She said my speech, my erratic communication, the intensity of my stories, the experiences I’d had in manic states and the frequency of the mania gave it away immediately. She prescribed a medication for me called Lithium.
“For the first time in my life, I felt balanced”
After just a few days of taking Lithium I was able to tell a difference in how I felt. I felt more balanced. My peers told me that on my first night, I was very erratic and almost scary when I told my story of how I ended up there, but that all subsided when I started medicating. For the first time in my life, I felt balanced, and I felt accepted for who I am and I didn’t have to pretend to be what I thought people expected me to be.
When I left rehab, I was on cloud nine. I thought I was “cured” in a way. The funny thing about rehab is that the more screwed up you are when you arrive, the more pats on the back you get for being there.
“I felt as if the fun part of me had died”
It took me just a few days after returning home to realize that the real world was still full of difficulties. I still had all my problems, but none of my coping mechanisms. I also felt as if the “fun” part of me had died. The manic, partying, dice slinging good time Stephen had been buried. How would anyone think I’m fun or like me if I couldn’t bring a party to their lives, I thought?
For the next two months I was in a dark depression. I didn’t leave the house for weeks except to attend therapy where my therapist and I would sit there and stare at each other. He implored me to begin going to “12-step” meetings (AA, and others).
“I had spent years convincing myself that there was not a God… to reduce the shame and guilt I felt”
One of the biggest reasons I struggled to go to AA meetings after rehab was that I was battling with this idea that shows up in several of the 12 steps of the program, a Higher Power (or God as you understand Him). I had spent years convincing myself that what I was raised to believe about God was wrong. I had convinced myself that there was not a God. This allowed me to reduce the shame and guilt I felt as I continued to do bad thing after bad thing.
Right after I returned from rehab, I met with a minister from Prestonwood Baptist Church who was hired to form a recovery group in the church community. I told him my story and he seemed to be able to relate. Little did I know it, but he asked a guy named Bob, to reach out to me who had a very similar story to mine. So, one day this guy Bob asks me to meet him at Starbucks. It was on a therapy day for me, so I was already going to be out of the house, which was convenient.
We sat down and talked, and he told me his story. It sounded a lot like mine in many ways. He had found peace and recovery through his relationship with God and he invited me to a bible study on Wednesdays. I told him where I was with religion in general and he said to come to the bible study anyway because there were a bunch of guys in there who had ended up in prison or had addiction issues that had turned their lives around and they would be a good influence on me. So, I went.
This bible study is what I needed to turn my life around. I was headed to a dark place and this Bible study brought me back to what I had learned early in life about God. I started to open up to the messages I was hearing. This allowed me to believe I could attend AA and other meetings and progress through the 12 steps because I was able to believe in a Higher Power again. I started attending 12-step meetings and I got a sponsor. I started to work the steps. I started attending the Prestonwood Life Recovery Group and going to Sunday school with my wife.
Fast forward to today. I feel the best I’ve ever felt. My wife and I are the best we have ever been. My kids are the happiest and most well behaved they have ever been. What was the thing that got me here? I don’t know specifically.
I couldn’t have done it without Bob and the Bible study. I couldn’t have done it without my wife. I couldn’t have done it without my Dad. I couldn’t have done it without sponsors in various 12-step groups encouraging me.
I am far from “healed” and in fact I don’t think I ever will be. I found a solution for the mental health issue which was the primary driver of all my problems. By stabilizing my mood with medication, I can function like a relatively normal human being. Then by attending 12-step meetings, church and working the 12 steps, I’m able to continually take an internal moral inventory, address my deficiencies and work hard to be a better person daily.
“Why am I sharing this?”
Why am I sharing this? I want others who struggle with the problems I have, to get help, before it becomes life threatening. If telling my story helps one person, then it was worth it.
I leave you with these thoughts. There are a few burning questions that I have. I hope the answers to these questions, or at least, the discussion about them, leads others to get the help they need.
1) What would it have taken for me to listen to someone who told me I needed help sooner?
2) What are the warning signs that others can look for to identify those who need help with mental health sooner, rather than later?
3) How do we reduce the stigma associated with getting help for mental health issues?
4) How do we encourage people to regularly assess their mental health and seek help when needed?
I hope that anyone who needs help, or thinks they may need help, or thinks they may know someone who needs help would reach out to me. My email is stephenrhays at gmail dot com or on LinkedIN or Twitter.
Since writing this, I have had the chance to create What If Ventures, a venture capital fund focused on seed stage mental health and addiction related startups. With the blessing of my wife, and the help of an amazing advisory board, I hope we will be writing checks by January 2020.