Managing a Co-occurring Disorder in Recovery

Content reviewed by Karen Rubenstein, LMFT, Chief Clinical Officer at Cliffside Malibu

In recovery, a co-occurring disorder is defined as being diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder alongside one or more mental health disorders. These are often difficult to navigate as it is common for one to exacerbate the other while still in active addiction. However, once in recovery and with the assistance of a psychiatrist, the mental health disorder can become much more manageable, and you may realize how much it once impacted your day-to-day life. It is common for someone to use substances in an attempt to feel better or not feel anything at all without realizing they are just making matters worse. The use of substances to self-medicate is problematic.

What is Self-Medicating?

By using substances to drown out overwhelming emotional issues, you are amplifying the effects of your disorder. For example, if someone is binging cocaine to offset their manic depressive disorder, it can cause a lack of sleep, and the lack of sleep from the drug is masking the mental health disorder symptoms. The stimulant properties of cocaine can also cause severe and unfounded mood swings that result in the individual lashing out emotionally. The ability to rationalize diminishes when one uses stimulants and when one has certain mood disorders. No matter the substance, your co-occurring disorders will feed off each other if left undiagnosed and untreated. As your disorder becomes uncontrollable, you are tempted to self-medicate with higher doses. These substances then amplify the effects of the disorder, and the cycle repeats until you reach a breaking point. Often when the situation escalates to this point, other people tend to step in. This cycle can be broken while the decisions are still in your hands. Entering treatment is the most productive option you will have.

Managing Your Co-occurring Disorder

Upon entering treatment, you may receive a psychiatric evaluation if there is suspicion that you may suffer from a co-occurring disorder. The evaluation will usually occur shortly after you have completed detox when you are in a more genuine state of mind. Diagnosing before or during detox is not optimal since detox is extremely difficult and is not a correct litmus test for your baseline mental health. You will meet one-on-one with a therapist to make sure you are comfortable enough with talking about your personal history to ensure that they come to a correct diagnosis. Being in treatment while this is occurring is the best environment in which it can take place. Not only are you conquering addiction, but now you can focus on the mental health aspects that may have been a catalyst for your substance abuse. You will be in a stable environment where a full analysis can occur with little to no outside influence that may normally occur if you were visiting a doctor’s office outside of treatment, solidifying a more accurate diagnosis.

Once diagnosed, you will work alongside your therapist to come up with a plan of action tailored specifically to your needs. You will investigate your past, present and future circumstances that have led you to or may lead you to further substance abuse. In these sessions, you will learn how your substance abuse and psychiatric disorder have played a role in the instability of your life and what you can do to avoid them better once you have completed treatment. This may include but is not limited to coping mechanisms, setting appropriate boundaries in your life, medications that help manage your disorders together and a referral for a reputable psychiatrist once you have completed treatment to make your transition home easier.

Once acquainted with your psychiatrist, it is of the utmost importance that you remain diligent about your treatment and recovery, for one cannot exist without the other. Continue to meet with your psychiatrist on the schedule you agree on and continue to work on your sobriety. If you are prescribed medication as part of your treatment plan, it is pertinent that you take them on a consistent schedule, even if you believe things are “getting better.” Ignoring your treatment plan and not taking prescribed medications will underhand the progress you have made.

Meeting people in support groups will also alleviate a lot of the mental burdens you may carry with you throughout this process. These groups center around unity to show that you are not alone in your journey to better health. Support groups help to break down the walls that stigmas may build up depending on your diagnosis and help you feel more comfortable with who you are. As a result, you are encouraged to keep working on yourself. In addition, support groups and therapists often encourage you to involve your family under certain circumstances to help them better understand what exactly you are going through. This allows for your family to have a better grasp on what you may or may not need from them for you to continue to be successful on your journey in recovery.

Co-occurring disorders in recovery are just one more obstacle to overcome on your way to sobriety. At Cliffside Malibu, we are here to facilitate this healing process. Call us today at  (855) 403-5641 to get started.