Back to the corner: Psychoactive drug use, my Autistic experience

Some 4(ish) years ago, my debut blog post on this website was Standing on the corner: Where autism and addiction meet shortly covered by Recovery services as an Autistic adult. Back then My writing was merely an attempt to scream into the void, offloading my frustrations. Little did i know that in 4 years, my articles would have garnered over 25,000 views, and that people would ask me to go places and do things. I was also pretty surprised to discover that for the most part I don’t mind going places and doing things.

With that in mind, I decided it’s time to take another crack at this one, seeing if 4 years of experience makes for an improved experience for you, my wonderful readers and followers.

So here we are.

I’m David. Born Autistic at the dawn of the 1990’s. My life was pretty standard for what you’d expect of a truamatised, psychotic, recovering addict. So let’s consider where this particular part of my journey started.

October 2008.

My long term relationship came to an end (mutually, but still painful none-the-less). On that very same day, I had a peculiar experience. I heard a number of voices calling my name, but it seemed that it wasn’t the people around me that were doing so. Interestingly, this was the day of my first ever cigarette as well. Hindsight tells me that the fact that my first cigarette led to me smoking an entire pack in a number of hours should have been a huge warning for what was coming. Sadly, hindsight isn’t good for much, and I have a traumatised AuDHD brain that at the time was going through what some might term a “prodromal phase” for the psychotic condition I would later be diagnosed with.

Over the next week I discovered that smoking cannabis really helped my growing paranoia and auditory disturbances chill the f*ck out, and that when drank a litre of vodka, I just didn’t give a sh*t. Just a note here for anyone who can’t see what’s coming; drug-use and trauma is a volatile mix. Some people use psychoactives safely and medicinally their whole lives, with no real negative outcomes. I on the other hand came to resemble one of those warning videos your school would have shown you about the dangers of peer pressure and drug-use.

So, naturally I did what any normal AuDHD’er would do when they discovered something that makes them feel good. I did it again. And again, and again, ad infinitum. Each time I used, my consumption grew. Each new environment I entered I would break down another boundary in my life. First it was cannabis, then alcohol, and I figured that since these two weren’t the dangerous and hellish things my school had made them out to be, perhaps other psychoactives would be okay as well. Side note: this is why using scare tactics and abstinence based approached to stop young people from getting high is f*cking irresponsible, because when they find out they’ve been lied to, they don’t truat you on ANYTHING.

My time at university can be summed up by quoting myself “I don’t think you’ve ever seen me this high, have you?” and the phrase said to me most often “How the f*ck are you still alive?”. You see, I hadn’t noticed it, but I was taking drugs by the shed load. I was out of my mind on pretty much anything I could get. It’s easier to list the drugs I haven’t used than the drugs I have used; To date, I’ve never used “street” heroin, or crack cocaine. More on this in a moment.

What this meant was that when I ran away from my environment, making the 300 mile journey back to my mother’s house, I swore I would never use again. After all, I had nearly died on a couple of occasions, and found myself on the radar of what one might describe as “less than savoury people”.

More on my drug use…

Yes, I have never used Heroin or Crack, but what did happen was that I got addicted to Oxycodone, Diazepam (Valium to my american followers), and Spice (you know, that zombie drug that everyone was talking about for a matter of months until it became illegal and everyone decided to pretend like the problem was solved). Of course, I was drinking a litre of whiskey most nights, and I also had excellent taste in red wine and ales.

Unsurprisingly, I found myself under the treatment of what would describe itself as a “Substance Misuse Service” (SMS), interestingly, there seems to be an unwritten rule that when you spend more time in hospital from drug overdoses than you do at home, they get a little angsty with you. Here’s where I start getting pissed off.

By the time I was under the SMS, I actually wanted to stop using, but had completely forgotten what normal life was like. I hadn’t been sober a number of years, and was quite frankly spending most of the day looking like I had just left the set of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. My keyworker was a wonderful person, and conveniently specialised in Novel Psychoactives like Spice. Sadly, that’s about as far as my good experiences go.

You see, I had also been referred to the local secondary care mental health service, referred to as the “Assessment and Treatment Service” (ATS). Again, they took umbridge with my repeated unaliving attempts, and decided they should probably do something about this obvious wild card called David.

Here’s the problem though.

The SMS needed my mental health to be treated. How can a person stop using drugs to hide from trauma, when that trauma is still ongoing and not being processed? Luckily, the ATS had a stellar response; “We can’t treat your mental health until you are sober”. Thank goodness that we could all agree on absolutely nothing.

I was quite privileged eventually, because my lead practitioner at the ATS actually spoke to my keyworker at the SMS, and we eventually got somewhere. It was a psych ward, but it was still somewhere, and that’s what matters.

I detoxed off the psychoactive stuff, and then detoxed some more in the community. April 7th 2016 I had my first day of sobriety in close on a decade. This warranted a celebration, naturally, so naturally I threw myself into a monotropic spiral, had a major psychotic episode as a result, and earnt myself a free trip back to the psych ward. Oh, and by the way, being Autistic on a psych ward is a huge steaming pile of bullsh*t that has been placed in an already burning dumpster.

So what other issues did I face? Services were woefully ill equipped to take on a neurodivergent client on just about every front.

The entire system for appointments was clearly designed by and for neurotypical people who assumed that everyone had a good grasp of time-keeping, sensory regulation, emotional regulation, and their short term memory. It was an absolute nightmare.

So what was different about my drug use compared to a neurotypical?

I think the largest difference was my approach. Drugs were my special interest, still are to an extent (just without the use of said drugs). I used myself as a science experiment. I kept detailed journals of what I’d taken, what dose, what I had combined it with, and how it affected me over a number of hours. My ultimate goal was to find the sweet spot where I was no longer aware of my existence, but still alive.

Another interesting aspect of my drug use was my blatant identity crisis. Growing up Autistic meant being constantly told that who I was, was incorrect. Everything about me was a target for the neurologically provincial bigots. So when I discovered that drugs allowed me to build a new identity, one that I felt was better accepted (says something when your addict identity feels better accepted than your Autistic one, doesn’t it?), I leaned into it and allowed psychoactives to become my ENTIRE identity.

Of course, I was still Autistic and ADHD as hell, so drugs often served to extend my spoons reserves far beyond their limit.

The biggest pull of drugs though? I could switch off my feelings, or change them in a matter of minutes to hours. I had the control, I felt what i wanted to feel. Take that, brain!

Of course I tried things like the 12-step program to get sober. It really wasn’t my sort of thing, but apparently voicing that in meetings is a huge faux pas that means none of the 12-steppers continue to talk to you when you leave the program. I ended up taking things I had learnt from multiple sources and building a life where it was easier to not use anymore. When I was struggling, I would reach out and help someone who needed help. It became a philosophy that I lived by. These days I have to be a bit more careful with my spoons, but still essentially try to live life by helping others out of the dark spaces that litter the world.

The fundamental problem with my experience in “the system” was that no one had any appropriate training around neurodivergent people. To be fair, I didn’t even know of things like monotropism, double empathy, meltdowns, burnout, or really anything to do with actual neurodivergent experience, so I couldn’t really act surprised when services didn’t either.

Life hasn’t been perfect since I got sober, but I’m glad I got to experience it. Sobriety has been a gift that I gave to myself, I don’t intend to ever return it, but one thing I have learnt more recently is that if you spend your entire life trying to predict the future, you’re not going to have a fantastic experience of the present.

A set of final words? If you are struggling right now, with any of the stuff in this article, I want you to know that it CAN get better. I don’t say that to bullsh*t you. The ugly truth is that not everyone survives this stuff. I do, however, urge you to give yourself the best chance you can. 7 years ago, as I embarked on my recovery, I could not have imagined being where I am today. The suffering I was experiencing seemed unending and inescapable. I got out, though.

I truly believe that everyone deserves a chance to be a happy and content member of the society they live in. Of course mental health and addiction are only a small part of peoples experiences, which no doubt I have already, or will, elaborate on in some capacity.

I just need one thing from you, dear reader, don’t give up. Keep trying.

Published by David Gray-Hammond

David Gray-Hammond is an autistic mental health and addiction advocate living in the South East of England. He is in recovery from addiction and psychosis, as well as other complex mental health conditions. He was diagnosed as autistic seven months after achieving sobriety, and is resolved to share his experiences with the world in the hopes of being the person that he needed when he was younger.

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