Self-medication and PTSD: A Path to Greater Complexity and Addiction?
Readers familiar with their own journeys or observing the struggles that loved ones endure know that PTSD symptoms sometimes demand immediate relief. Mood-altering chemicals, especially alcohol and marijuana, often provide temporary relief from anxiety, anger, depression, and other "limbic" surges. For many, alcohol and marijuana "take the edge off." They numb intense feelings, appear to quiet repetitive thinking, and afford some sleep and relief from the aftermath of trauma. In fact, in Western culture, alcohol has been a favored method of "recovering" among warriors, firefighters, and others who engage in vital but dangerous missions. Temporary relief usually comes in the form of "feeling no pain."
Actually, for a small but significant percentage of survivors, alcohol and other chemicals permit relief from the absence of feeling. In other words, getting drunk or high permits some feeling - any feeling - to break through the numbing produced by PTSD. Self-medicating is a devilishly seductive way of managing trauma. Self-medication provides temporary relief - a shortcut with the illusion of healing - but, oh, the price you pay! Alcohol, for example, will add to depression, confuse thinking, poison core relationships and, for some, set off violent behavior. For many, self-medicating will become a full-blown addictive disorder. Instead of one problem (PTSD), they now have two! Self-medication can involve food, sex, and the usual suspects: cocaine, opiates, amphetamines, cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana.
Academics and clinicians differentiate drugs from medicines: Drugs are self-administered without controls for dose, purity, etc. Medicines are taken only as prescribed (but often abused by active addicts). It's an oversimplification to say that all medicines are good, and all self-medication is evil. Many medicines cause harm; benzodiazepines and some sleep medicines can become addictive. However, in the hands of a skilled practitioner, medicines can provide much-needed symptom relief while the patient masters natural techniques that are highly effective in managing PTSD's multidimensional symptoms.
Recovery takes hard work and support. Re-stabilizing one's body and soul requires more than simple, singular solutions, sayings or insights; it is a process we know works. Self-medicating is not only risky, it is often tragic. Too many soldiers and civilians have been further injured by self-medicating. Simplistic, seductive, addictive, compulsive, and self-administered "treatments" too often result in broken marriages, broken careers and broken bodies. Life is hard enough without trauma, and trauma is hard enough outside of addiction.
The path to healing takes work, and work sometimes requires peer and professional support. John Barleycorn and Jack Daniels are not healthy supports or tools for recovery. If you are new on the journey of healing, do not be seduced by the temporary fixes offered by alcohol, drugs or other self-medicating behaviors. Recovery requires new skills. It's a process of integrating and healing, achieving and connecting - not masking, numbing or avoiding. Keep it simple and do not be intimidated, distracted or seduced by the siren song of medicating oneself.