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Adjusting your social group to meet the needs of sobriety

Achieving sobriety is an uphill challenge. There are a lot of complicated moving parts that contribute towards a person finding sobriety, but one that needs to be talked about is social groups.

Social isolation can increase the risk of relapse, and for this reason it is important that we as sober addicts have a social group that we can interact with in whatever way works for us; but how do we ensure we have a safe social group?

As substance addicts, it is likely that our friend groups have consisted of other drug and alcohol users. In my experience, it is impossible to maintain sobriety while surrounded by the very thing we are trying to escape. In order to let go of our past behaviour and embrace the future, we often must make the difficult decision to remove certain people from our lives.

When I achieved sobriety, I was forced to cut off a lot of people. It was a difficult but necessary step. The good thing was that the people I had left behind during active addiction, slowly rejoined my life, and I also met new people. So what were the needs of my sobriety?

I needed friends who were going to support and encourage me in my sobriety, celebrating my successes with me, while helping me work through my struggles. I needed friends who would not tempt me with drug use. While my friends do enjoy the occasional drink, none of them pressure me to partake, and none of them treat me differently for being the one person who chooses not to drink.

On the other hand, the people I removed from my life did nothing but bring drugs and alcohol to the forefront of my mind, and make me feel uncomfortable for not wanting to partake. They couldn’t fathom a life without using, and that was what I needed to get away from.

The friends I have now go out of there way to help me protect my sobriety, they consist of friends I have known since childhood, and the new people I have met along the way. I explicitly trust my friends, and know that they would never put me in harms way.

This has been vital to maintaining my sobriety. My social group has been a driving force in my new life, and while it has been difficult leaving others behind, it was necessary to cut that toxicity out of my life.

One piece of advice I would like you to take away from this is the following; if you are struggling to find sobriety, start by looking at the people around you. Changing your social group is not the only path to sobriety, but it is a vital step in honour of this.

Disclosing your neurotype: My battle with authenticity in a world filled with stigma

“Every time someone steps up and says who they are, the world becomes a better, more interesting place”

Captain Raymond Holt, Brooklyn Nine-Nine

I try to live my life being my true self these days. I am upfront about who I am and what my experiences are with as many people as I can, unfortunately this was not always the case.

There was a time when I was afraid to tell people about being autistic, and my experiences with psychosis and addiction (yes, I do consider psychosis and addiction to be tied in with my neurotype, they have shaped the identity that I have today).

Why was I afraid to be my true self? Simply put, it’s the stigma surrounding my existence. Even without psychosis and addiction, being autistic is complicated in a world dominated by neuronormative rhetoric. Being an outlier means facing the judgement of others, for reasons that are so numerous it would be impossible to list them all in one piece of writing.

People have preconceived notions about what it means to be autistic. I have had people doubt my autism diagnosis because I was both too normal, and not typical of the idea of autism they had built up in their mind. Some expected me to be a savant, while others believed that I should be incapable of taking care of myself on even the most fundamental level.

The neurotypical opinion of autism has been shaped by a world consisting of functioning labels, while it ignores the very fact that ones functioning is a constantly moving target, shifting from day to day, hour to hour. What I am capable of on Monday, may be impossible on Tuesday.

For this reason I know that when I disclose my autistic neurotype to a person, it is likely that they start picturing something that is very different from the person I actually am.

This is compounded when taking my experience of psychosis and addiction into account. Society has spent at least the last century painting the psychotic as dangers to society, and presenting addicts as a worthless drain, stealing resources from the more deserving for what they consider a moral failing.

It’s terrifying to face up to. How does one break these preconceived notions and show themselves for who they truly are? I know that for anyone getting to know me, there is a great deal of learning to be done about what it means to be me. I don’t ever want someone to feel uncomfortable around me, but I also need to be sure that whoever I am discussing my experience with is going to take the steps necessary to leave behind the ideas of the past.

I am blessed. The people in my life currently are incredibly accepting, and where they have an incorrect idea about me, they are willing to learn without judgement. So many I know are not as lucky as myself. They face the judgement of the world, and have to choose whether or not to disclose their neurotype in a world that has literally murdered people like us for simply being who we are.

This is why the work of advocates is vital. We must continue to dismantle the stigma surrounding neurodiversity and mental health so that people can see us for who we are. The diversity of minds in this world is one of the things that makes life beautiful, and we must fight to show the world our beauty.

It is up to us, as the voices of lived experience to teach the world to take pride in it’s own diversity. Where it is safe to do so, we must always be authentic. We no longer live in the shadows; it is time to stop being the proverbial wall flowers and step onto the dance floor.

To my friends and loved ones that have supported me in being my authentic self- thank you. I will continue to show you what I love about being me. Thank you for celebrating my strengths, and supporting me through my struggles.

To the autistic person struggling to disclose their identity- you are beautiful, don’t ever be ashamed to be the real you.

The language of addiction through the lens of the autistic community

Anyone who has spent time withing the online autistic community will be aware that there are particular ways that we as autistics prefer to talk about autism. Identity-first language is vastly preferred by the majority, with many rejecting the phrase “person with autism” while opting for “autistic person”.

These well documented preferences have had a significant impact on how I talk about myself as an addict also. I have different ways of talking about addiction depending on what stage of recovery I am talking about.

I myself am almost four and a half years sober as of writing this, and consider myself to be fairly confident in my recovery. I have overcome the initial stages of stopping using, and learnt important techniques to keep myself from returning to using. While I am at this stage, I am aware that I am just a few bad decisions away from using again if I am not strict with myself. For this reason, I refer to myself as an ADDICT. Take note of the identity-first language. I am no longer “suffering from addiction” as many would say. Instead I acknowledge that addiction never goes away, but the core experience of active addiction can end.

When I refer to people prior to entering the sobriety stage of recovery, I usually say “experiencing addiction”. The person is still experiencing the negative effects of actively using. I tend to shy away from the word “suffering” because people who are in active addiction do not need the word “suffering” to remind them of where they are at. Addicts know they are suffering when using, and using the word does nothing for them, and perhaps further stigmatises the experience of addiction by turning it into a pity party.

Let me tell you something as an addict. I don’t need your pity. Empathy, yes. Pity, no.

Addict can also be used as an umbrella term to refer to anyone with a history of addiction. This is because, much like autism, addiction is a core part of our identities. Those of us who have experienced addiction know that it never goes away. It is something that we carry with us throughout the rest of our lives. Addiction is more than just using drink and drugs, it is a particular way of thinking and behaving that leads us to compulsively repeat actions that bring us good feelings or relief.

Addiction is so much more than the medical model. It is a series of adaptive changes that happen within a persons mind. It comes with a lot of negative behaviours, but also creates people who are a perfect fit for altruistic work. As an addict in recovery, I have been able to turn my compulsive behaviours into something that I call “radical kindness”. With radical kindness, you take the single minded drive to use, and exchange it with a focus on helping others. This has been key to my recovery.

Being autistic has taught me that the way we talk about ourselves, directly influences our perception of self, and the perceived energy that we put out into the world. When we focus only on suffering and negative behaviours, we paint a negative picture of ourselves in our mind. There is no need to other ourselves by using the pathologised terminology that the medical community and the media has used to discuss addiction for decades.

Being autistic and an addict has created a lot of challenges for me, but it helped me settle on one immutable goal that I will focus on for the rest of my life; help the world feel a little less broken. Addiction is a selfish state, always seeking personal relief at any cost. For that reason, we must focus on others in order to maintain recovery. Altruism is the gift that sobriety has given me, and I intend to make good use of it.

Rediscovering my boundaries after achieving sobriety

Drugs and alcohol are endemic to our society. It’s impossible to go out socially without coming across them. There were a lot of complex reasons for why I used drugs and alcohol, but a big one was that they helped me feel more comfortable in social situations.

As an autistic person, I have never found socialising easy, at least not in the way that my neurotypical peers have. I am an awkward and anxious person, constantly second guessing myself and working hard to maintain a neurotypical mask. Maintaining that mask has been a heavy burden, which is part of why drugs and alcohol appealed to me.

When I popped a pill or snorted a line, I was the same as the others around me. Suddenly I was in a world where people interacted with me in the same way that they did everyone else. My anxiety was easier to cope with, and I could flit from situation to situation in a social setting.

The problem was, that my mind and body had boundaries, and when I was using, I did not recognise those boundaries. I would constantly push myself beyond what I had spoons for. The resulting burnout would cause me to use more drugs and alcohol just to cope with the feelings of emptiness. I was trying to pour from an empty cup.

When I achieved sobriety, I had to work to reestablish my boundaries. I no longer had my chemical fix to help me cope with a world that was, quite frankly, hostile to people with my neurotype.

I was still able to enjoy socialising with my friends and family, but at a certain point I would just hit a wall. In the space of seconds I would go from happy and laughing, to withdrawn and unable to speak. Often I would find myself needing to escape situations, feeling panic creep up on me. Sometimes I would take myself off to the toilets and have a meltdown out of sight of those I was socialising with.

I had to learn what my limits were. I had to anticipate that moment when my spoons would run out, and listen to my mind when it said it was time for me to go home.

This wasn’t easy. I wanted so much to be like everyone else. It took me some time after achieving sobriety to find a place of self-acceptance. For a good two or three years I beat myself up for not being like everyone else. I would try and force myself to be like everyone else, while knowing deep in my heart that this was causing me a great deal of psychological harm.

An important part of establishing my boundaries was self-acceptance. I could not have found it without discovering the online autistic community. It seems absurd to me that no one tells you that there is a huge community of autistics, I had to discover it for myself. I suspect some may never find the community because they do not use social media.

The autistic community taught me to love who I am, that it was okay to have boundaries that were different to my allistic peers. Even more so, they taught me that it was okay to have boundaries that differed from other autistics. Suddenly I was in a world where it was okay that everybody was an individual with individual needs and strengths.

I learned that it was okay not to have the energy to maintain a neurotypical mask, and I learned that it was okay to walk away from situations before reaching the point of panic or meltdown.

I am blessed to have very supportive friends and family. They help me maintain my boundaries, and have become adept at recognising when I have met my limits, often encouraging me to go away and do what I need to do to regain those ever so elusive spoons. I can now walk away from uncomfortable situations without blaming myself. I have learned to love my own self-advocacy.

Of course, learning to respect your own boundaries is a piece of work that never ends. Our boundaries shift and change as our lives progress, and what may be reasonable on one day, may be impossible on another. I am constantly learning how to budget my energy.

Some days I still make mistakes. Even recently I have gone through burnout because I over worked myself both socially and professionally; and yes, socialising IS work. However, I have learned to accept my mistakes and learn and grow from them. I no longer attack myself for failing to meet my needs, humans are imperfect, and autistic humans are living in a hostile world that constantly works to oppress them.

If you’re new to sobriety, I want you to know that it is okay to make mistakes. Sometimes we screw up. It’s an uncomfortable fact of life, we can’t be expected to do everything perfectly. The main thing is that we do not allow those mistakes to snowball, and make us give up. Life only moves forward, so once you make that decision to embrace a more positive future, you can’t look back.

Psychosis and autism: My tenuous relationship with reality

Psychosis is a topic that (much like addiction) is rarely talked about in the autistic community. I suspect that it is more common than people care to admit; I also suspect that most in the community would not have any particular knowledge of what psychosis is besides Hollywood’s stigmatised take on the subject, and possibly what they have found on google.

The simplest answer I can give to the question “what is psychosis?” is this; psychosis is a total split from reality. When psychotic, the world is a vastly different place for the person. For me, it was a world of paranoia and persecution. I was no longer able to tell the difference between fact and fiction.

The first indication that something was wrong (for me) came when I was 18 years old. I had just moved out of home, and my three year long relationship came to an end. I started hearing disembodied voices calling my name. Very quickly they progressed to voices telling me that I couldn’t trust my friends, that they didn’t really like me and that they wanted to harm me.

For years I drowned out the voices and paranoia with a vast cocktail of illicit drugs and alcohol. The stigma attached to hearing voices was too great, I was scared to tell anyone what was going on, so I self-medicated. It started with cannabis and alcohol, and eventually I found myself heavily addicted to opioids, benzos, and spice.

The problem really came about when I achieved sobriety. I no longer had my buffer. Without the chemical crutches, the voice hearing became extremely intense. At the height of it, I was hearing multiple different voices including;

-A demonic voice that told me paranoia inducing lies about how dark forces in the world were working to harm me.

-A voice that i called “the sociopath” that would ask me to harm people.

-Two voices that never spoke directly to me, but would comment and bicker over everything I did. All day. Every day.

-There were other voices that I didn’t hear with any great regularity.

I also started to see a women in a black dress in my house. She never acted to harm me, and was not particularly threatening, but it was unsettling to say the least. Among other visual hallucinations, I would see spiders in my bed, and demons following people around. The visual hallucinations were as real as my best friend who is currently sat across the room from me.

The final nail in the coffin was the delusions. Delusions are difficult to explain. Imagine spending your entire life looking at a blue sky, but suddenly everyone is telling you it’s green. They present you with mountains of evidence that the sky is green, but all you can see is blue. The more you try to tell people the sky is blue, the more concerned they become about you.

I had many complex delusions, but the most notable ones were that I believed I was trapped in a computer simulation, that I had a microchip under my skin broadcasting my thoughts, and that my family had been replaced by imposters.

Of course this subsided with medication, but it threatens to return any time I experience stress. It taught me that my reality can change over time. For me, the boundary between what is real, and what is imaginary, is so very thin. My symptoms are largely controlled by the medication, but it is always there, under the surface.

This situation was made all the more complicated by being autistic. Professionals told me that I didn’t meet the criteria for a schizophrenia diagnosis because I wasn’t “typical” in presentation. My position on that has always been this; I am autistic, nothing about me is typical.

As an autistic, I pride myself on having a rigorously logical approach to everything, and yet, my brain can invent its own reality at a moments notice. I still have bad days where I hear voices and experience paranoia. I have learned that it is when I lose the ability to recognise that these things are not real, that i have a problem.

Psychosis was and still is a terrifying experience to me, but it has made me resilient. I have learned to survive in a multitude of different worlds.

If you or a loved one may be experiencing psychosis, please speak to a psychiatrist. Psychosis is an incredibly complex state that can not be willed away by lifestyle or all the good intentions in the world. No one deserves psychosis, and I mean that honestly. It has taken me years to trust my mind again, and I would not wish that on anyone.

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