When I left home for university at the age of seventeen, I hit the road running, followed by hell on wheels. I like the way that sounds, hell on wheels. The term, dating back to the 1860s, refers to convoys offering alcohol, prostitution and gambling to Union Pacific railway laborers as they constructed the First Transcontinental Railroad.
Initially, my own hell on wheels didn’t feel like hell at all. Like all stories about serious substance abuse, mine began innocent and clichéd, as harmless fun. As a naïve first year student seeking acceptance, I quickly familiarized myself with the campus-wide culture of weekend binge drinking and recreational drug use. It seemed as if the entire student body had been stricken with a cultural malady, one of reckless indulgence. And even as liquor filled our cups and smoke filled our lungs, we remained oblivious to the potential consequences of our impulsiveness.
Like my peers, I rationalized my growing reputation as a partygoer with a “work hard, play hard” motto, and maintained a commendable academic standing. Of course, one’s luck eventually runs out. There’s only so many times you can roll the dice before inevitably rolling snake eyes.
After I was diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, I sought comfort in drugs and alcohol. I chose a chemically induced reality over the reality of living with a mental illness. There wasn’t a great deal of thought that went into this decision. I would have done just about anything to avoid facing what I knew to be true, that I was sick and needed help.
The capricious nature of my illness troubled me most. That I was no longer able to steer my thoughts, emotions and behaviours was enough to transform harmless fun into desperate escapism.
I explored other substances, harder drugs I had sworn never to try. I began drinking heavily. Substance abuse exasperated my illness, leaving me depleted, depressed, anxious and jonesing. But still, I continued to romanticize the fast life.
I lived a decade in turmoil. However, this was recovery and I have learned recovery is like the stock market- sometimes up, sometimes down. And at the age of twenty-seven, I finally crashed like it was 1929. When you hit rock bottom, you are left with two options: keep digging or climb your way up. So I decided to start climbing.
I have come a long way. There’s no denying the past two years have been arduous work. Leaving “the lifestyle” behind meant starting anew. “This is a process,” my therapist once told me. Managing my illness without the crutch of drugs and alcohol required I abandon old friends, re-evaluate my goals and values, and learn to cope with the triggers and stressors of day-to-day life. This process hasn’t been without its setbacks. Old habits die hard, as they say. But I have learned to direct my uncertainties, fears and anxieties through healthier channels.
Today, I recognize the importance of accepting my illness for what it is – just an illness. Experience has granted me wisdom. I am not defined by my illness, nor need it dominate my life. I regret my past failures to accept my diagnosis. I chose substance abuse as a means of folding the cards I was dealt. We live with the consequences of our choices, and I have learned (the hard way) how dangerous my choices were to my recovery.
From time to time, I question the meaning of recovery. And as I sift through the miscellany of scattered memories, I always come to the same conclusion – life isn’t about finding meaning. It’s about the search for meaning. With that search comes the propensity to make mistakes. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I think I’m likely to make more. In fact, I’m willing to bet on it.
About Andrew Woods
Having been diagnosed with Schizoaffective disorder and OCD at the age of seventeen (while attending the University of Victoria), my struggle with mental illness has been a full spectrum experience. I have made much progress since my last hospitalization (three and a half years ago). I returned to university, eventually earning a degree in Economics and a diploma in Business Administration. Today, I have aspirations of following a career in writing and communications. Currently, I spend my time as a mental health volunteer, working as a mental health navigator, exhibitor and communications support volunteer.