Updated: Jan 5
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1979 when I was twenty-nine. My bipolar diagnosis predated my drug addiction by six years when in 1985—at thirty-five years old--my lust and obsession with cocaine began. That is when my bipolar disorder entwined itself with drug addiction, making me dual-diagnosed in clinical terms, leading to a total mental dysfunction that lasted for over twenty years. I rejected the bipolar diagnosis and the prescribed medications: I stayed in denial for many years, choosing a reckless life over an organized life of accepting the norms and values of society. I was out of control.
Bipolar disorder is generally defined as a mental illness characterized by high and low mood swings. Long before I started using cocaine, mental illness afflicted my life with high mood swings that made me feel self-righteous, powerful, and invincible. I took great pleasure in breaking the rules and laws of society. I believed that rules governing other people were not rules I had to follow. There were low mood swings when I felt depressed and hopeless, as if the Devil the Bible speaks of was attacking my soul and existence, sinking me into a bottomless pit.
Mental illness diagnoses are unmanageable and can be even deadlier than the diagnosis itself. Moreover, the stigma of having a mental illness can be both shameful and embarrassing, affecting relationships and self-esteem and bringing about a sense of despondency and raging emotions that twist me into knots. Treatment often requires seeing a psychiatrist and therapist, taking medications with side effects, endless hours of praying and meditating and even monitoring by a doctor, family member, or friend.
I felt bullied by my thoughts. The effect of being mentally ill and addicted to drugs was a lethal combination. For twenty years, I was unhinged and vulnerable to suicide. I was frequently locked up in mental health institutions. I was viewed as a threat to myself and others. I unknowingly and knowingly marched down the road of self-destruction that nearly killed me when I attempted suicide, rejecting medications or treatment that might have helped me manage my mental illness.
Using cocaine to treat my bipolar disorder had severe consequences. What was once casual indulgence quickly became everyday use. I was desperate and helpless to resist the pleasures of getting high. When using cocaine, my moods would swing low, deepening into a depression lasting for days or weeks. The more I used cocaine, the more depressed I became. The more I smoked crack, the more alienated I became. I used every ounce of my existence and energy to get money to buy cocaine. Because the high only lasted for minutes, I had to smoke crack to keep the high going incessantly. I came to enjoy and need the high to escape the reality that I felt worthless, unloved, and unwanted by my family.
I would go days without eating or bathing, without human contact, and long stretches of euphoria that temporarily eased the anxiety and reality of being unemployed, homeless, or both. I regularly dismissed the notion coming from mental health professionals that I was a crackhead, a drug addict.
Even after years of drug abuse and suffering the consequences, I was not ready to accept treatment. Then my girlfriend, Tina, at age forty-eight, contracted ovarian cancer. I was fifty-two years old. That got my attention when nothing else would. She needed me while she lay feeble in hospice. I remembered the years she loved me unconditionally despite my human deficiencies. Amazingly, I gained strength from her sickness. I sat with her. I talked to her. I prayed with her. Losing her life saved my life
On my last day of smoking cocaine, I was homeless and living in my car, which had stopped running. All of my clothes and belongings were packed in the trunk. I was unable to engage in my usual activities of hustling for drugs. I could smell the stench of needing a bath and feel my thin ribs protruding against my chest of having not eaten a solid meal for weeks. I was so hungry, exhausted, and malnourished that my thinking was tortured and disjointed. And yet, somehow, in my state of feeling lonely and scared, crushed, humiliated, and controlled by the disease of mental illness and addiction, I could open the car door, get out, endure the stares of onlookers, and take myself to rehab. I learned at the rehab that I had lost fifty pounds.
After Tina died, I sought help for my mental illness. I committed to taking the prescribed medications. The medication took a few weeks to kick in, but I persevered without getting high. I was God's miracle. Today I am drug-free, having shaken off the years I abused cocaine. It was not easy but loving her enabled me to begin living again wrapped in God's grace.
Chapter from forthcoming book, Bullet Proof Soul: Personal Essay. Pre-order at