So Helpful it Hurts:A Closer Look at Self-Medication

by Melissa K. Vassar-Belloso

We all deal with stress  and hardship at some point in our lifetime. Whether it’s financial hardship, failed relationships, personal tragedies or stress from a medical issue we will have our own ways of dealing with those events. But while some of us can push through or grieve in a healthy manner, that’s not the case for everyone. Today we’ll be looking at the practice of self-medicating,why it happens and of course how you can seek help from it.

Overview of Topics

  • What is Self-Medication?
  • The Why and How of Self-Medication
  • How to Seek Help from Self-Medication

What do you do when something bad happens? Whether we are stressed, going through hard times or experiencing a loss we all find ways to try to remedy that pain and heal. But not all people people turn to something healthy to do that. The dictionary defines self-medicating as a human behavior in which an individual uses a substance or any exogenous influence to self-administer treatment for physical or psychological ailments. In basic terms this means seeking harmful or unconventional forms of venting or healing. For an example, let’s say there’s been a death in the family. Some of us would simply try to reminisce about times with the person, cry or find solidarity in family but some of us might be more inclined to drink or become unhealthily withdrawn. 

The most common form of self-medication is substance abuse and while alcohol is perhaps the most common and accessible example of substance abuse this can also involve things like prescription or OTC drugs or even illegal drugs.

Understanding why and how self-medication occurs can be a stretch for some of us because it clearly diverges from a normal train of thought. It may not occur to most of us to try to heal with harm but in many cases the self-medication itself isn’t the issue. It is the outcome of something under the surface. Key to understanding self-medication is understanding the human mind. Each of us is wired just a little bit differently when it comes to our brains and self-medication is often an outcome of an atypical thought process. Sometimes this process is tainted by mental illness or a neurological disorder. It can however also be a result of environment or the nature of some of our personal relationships. For example, a child who sees their parent solving problems with drugs or drinking might mistakenly see this as the “normal” way to deal with hardship.

Self-medication can also be born from trauma. For some who have had a difficult or negative experience from consulting a medical professional or reaching out to people around them for help, self medication will make perfect sense because they are coming from a place of paranoia and mistrust. Look at smoking as a practice. If you were to ask a non-smoker why they don’t smoke and a smoker why they did, it’s quite likely the smoker grew up in a home where they observed someone smoking and the non-smoker didn’t. As a teenager growing up I never smoked or had an urge to drink early but I think  a huge part of that was never seeing my parents do those things very much. Human beings carry their life on their back in many cases and many bad habits we adopt as adults can have a source of being from our more formative years and our home life.

But lastly, self-medication thrives mainly in those with a tendency toward addiction. While certainly every person is capable of becoming addicted and some substances can cause a state of addiction, there is also the component that every person is prone to addiction on different levels. When looking at yourself or the person you know who leans toward self-medication consider how easy it is for the person to get hooked on something that appeals to them versus doing that thing in moderation or just not doing it. Having an addictive personality component is often a key factor for many of those who fall victim to practicing self-medication and that can make it more difficult for them to see that what they’re doing is wrong. The addictive pattern is actually pleasing to them mentally in some aspect and feels correct on a deep level.

There are a few things that are key to grasp when we talk about how to end practicing self-medication. The first is one that I think many  people acknowledge often but don’t really understand. Take that alcoholic friend you know who always drinks one too many but says they can stop anytime. They aren’t wrong. Self-medication is at its core a choice. It is certainly a bad choice and one that’s hard to reverse, but it is indeed a choice. Even in the midst of addiction, it is important for our society to start acknowledging the difference between situations that can and cannot be controlled.

Once you acknowledge that self-medication is a choice you need to also acknowledge that our society is handling it completely wrong and actually helping it thrive as a practice. You’ve probably seen addiction clinics advertised on television and think that’s a very good thing. In essence it is but in practice it’s not as impressive. Rehabilitation should revolve primarily around education but the most stressed part is actually enablement. We try to fix addiction to drugs with drugs as can be seen with the massive dollars sunk into meth clinics and prescriptions aimed at this purpose. On top of this, we allow public assistance and social security to basically pay people to sit at home and be addicts or alcoholics.

As an example, there are a number of alcoholics on disability or SSI and in some places you can purchase beer and alcohol using an ACCESS card. In it’s totality, the roadblocks our society sets up for these people are much more numerous and accessible than the help options. If you’re a person impaired in making choices already would you be more likely to buy more beer with the taxpayer dollars being thrown at you or invest out of pocket to get the help you need as most rehab clinics are pricey and not covered by all insurances. Would you be more likely to get in line for a free meth fix or pay for the therapy you need to address the issues causing you to use the drugs in the first place. Our society constantly sets people up for failure and in some cases makes it easier and more affordable for them to self-medicate than before.

The next key factor is to realize that finding a better life outside of self-medication requires an orchestra and not a one-man band. What I mean by that is that treatment for things like alcoholism and addiction can’t be done alone. The person needs support, personal and medical. The amount of support a person has in a process like this is paramount to success. As a loved one you can’t put all your faith into a rehab clinic. You also have to be part of that and are in fact the most important element as your support will have to extend far longer than the rehab clinic’s. You are the long-term support and the person’s key to success in a lot of ways. But in the same sense, medical professionals need to step up and take a good look at how these matters are being handled. Reform and more appropriate treatment will never happen unless it’s agreed upon by those issuing the medical assistance.

But perhaps the most important thing to remember about moving away from self-medication is that it is a long-term commitment. Your rehab may only last a few weeks or so but your healing is a journey. You need to stay strong, educate yourself about the dangers of self-medication, learn better alternatives and realize that’s a battle you’ll be fighting every single day after you check out of rehab. You will be tested to relapse. You will have to make lifestyle changes that most likely won’t be fun and stick to them. Recovery is a hard path to walk but making that choice to avoid self-medicating could save your life. Refuse to be tempted or enabled and find a reason to take your life back from whatever substance has a hold on you, because at the end of the day you are the biggest part of your own recovery process.

 

In Conclusion…

Whether self-medication stems from illness,upbringing or how our brain is wired it is a dangerous practice that needs to be addressed. Over-indulgence is nearly a hobby in our modern society and it can easily put us on the destructive path of wanting too much of something we shouldn’t have or should control the usage of. But tackling self-medication better means taking more steps to understand not just the nature of it but also better ways to handle it. Creating supports and services that do more than enable and handling the issue at the roots is the only way to reduce and hopefully end the growing epidemic of not knowing when you’ve had a little too much of a bad medicine.


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