Autism and addiction: co-existing with a mind that seeks oblivion
The narratives around autism and addiction are both peculiar. Things are the same while appearing different. On the one hand, autism is viewed by wider society as something that happens to a child, as if an unseen force has stolen their humanity. On the other hand, addiction is seen as a moral failing. We are often told that we chose that life.
The one thing they both have in common? People see you as less human than they are.
There are a multitude of reasons for this, but at the core of this experience are the power dynamics within a person’s life. You could be forgiven for believing that the power horizon within and Autistic or addicted person’s life can only be felt in the immediate vicinity, but it stretches much further. Both autism and addiction narratives are controlled and perptuated by governments and media.
The public views us through the information disseminated by those in power.
This makes for an upsetting experience when we are both Autistic and in the throws of addiction. Autistic people are infantilised and mourned as tragedies, but addicts are positioned as hedonistic and selfish. They contradict each other. Most people don’t understand how an Autistic person could become the monstrous embodiment of addiction (and there have been times when I was in active addiction that I was monstrous).
In a study from the University of Cambridge, Autistic people were less likely to report recreational drug use, but nine times more likely to report self-medicating with recreational drugs. Specifically, we were more likely to report using drugs for behaviour management and alleviation of psychologically distressing experiences.
There is a significant link between trauma, addiction, psychological distress, and perceived challenging behaviour. Trauma underlies all of these things. At this point I feel it necessary to highlight that Autistic people are More likely to experience PTSD. I have also explored our relationship with trauma with Tanya Adkin in a wider context here.
The real issue is that addiction professionals tend to lack cultural competency with Autistic people, meaning that they lack the nuanced understanding of the reasons why we use drugs and what that use may look like. This results in an environment where Autistic service users are seen to not engage well or even resist treatment. Rather than consider how to adapt the environment to suit the Autistic person’s needs, we find ourselves left out in the cold.
For me, this meant that once I was a few months sober, I was left with nowhere to turn but twelve-step programmes that really didn’t meet my needs well. I eventually realised that if I was going to stay sober, I had to learn how to do it on my own. Yes, I had supportive friends and family, but no peers to support me from addiction communities.
This is ultimately how I ended up doing g the work I do. I had to learn to co-exist with myself, and part of that process was to use my suffering for something positive. I can’t take back the pain and the wrong turns, but I can hone them into something that can make a clear path for others to walk. I can’t undo the past, but I can make sure that others don’t have to struggle the way I did.
I had to become altruistic. It was a difficult process because the addicted mind is focused on one thing, instant gratification, instant relief from the pain of existence. Existence can be so very painful. Through altruism, I had to teach myself that not everything pays off immediately and that the time I spend working towards something good will often be far more gratifying than popping a pill or smoking a pipe.
I still battle with myself from time to time. Addiction doesn’t just disappear. I have moments where my brain tells me to throw it all away, but co-existence has taught me that I don’t have to listen to the self-destructive thoughts. I have learned it’s okay to pause and wait.
Addiction is one hell of a fight, but coming out of the other side of it is a beautiful thing. It doesn’t make us less valuable to the world. It gifts us a determination to achieve our goals that nothing else can. Recovery is not a straight path, and there are times when we feel like turning back. The journey is worth it. The grass is, in fact, greener on the other side; I know, I’m here.
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