Name: Alex Rice
From: Burbank, California
You Are Not Alone
Addiction Awareness Scholarship
“I can do it by myself.” My mom says this was one of the first sentences I learned to speak, and repeated over and over. What a mantra. It wasn’t until about 28 years later that I truly accepted, no, I can’t. I grew up in socially rigid, emotionally unsupportive environments; I didn’t know about developmental psychology or mental illness, or people who weren’t like the ones I knew. Because of my anxiety, abuse, and social, gender, and sexual identities, I spent a majority of my life feeling lost, different, wrong, trapped. I was told to get therapy to get “fixed”. I did eventually seek therapy, and a supportive community, where I learned that it’s not about “fixing”, but the transformative power of acceptance, trust, co-regulation, and open conversations about mental health. It wasn’t something wrong with me, it was an environment that wasn’t right for me.
When we hear “addiction” and “dependency”, many people might usually think of opioids, amphetamines, alcohol, tobacco, heroin. Let us widen our perspective, as it can involve much more than that: exercise, food, social media, gambling, theft, relationships, sex, shopping, games. I have experienced a few of these personally at different points in my life, brought on by different circumstances. And for me, the thing that was common among them was a profound sense of isolation. And isolation begets more isolation. I believed that no one else understood me and my experience, no one else was there to support or help me, and I could manage myself alone. I was missing connection, a sense of felt safety, and control. So I disregarded what it was costing me, and tried to gain control in the only ways I could find: these behaviors.
In most spaces, discussions of mental health and identity are enshrouded by darkness, ignorance, stigma. Shame is embedded into our cultural existence – about mental and physical health, sexuality, bodies, finances, ethnicity, accomplishments, addictions. It’s often tied to a cultural belief in, and sometimes a moral judgment on, the imperative of self-sufficiency: many of us are taught independence, external self worth, caught up in the cycle trying to survive. We can do better than just survival. We’re meant to be interdependent; this is how we thrive.
I am pursuing a degree in social work because it also incorporates the truth that, while we have individual strengths, no one exists in a vacuum. The ecosystems perspective shows us that our ability to thrive depends on how supportive our environment is. Identity and physical health and mental health are intertwined. An abundance of research and lived experience has shown these connections, the social determinants of health, and how they can contribute to care disparities and outcomes. For marginalized and vulnerable populations, an obstacle course of barriers may exist between them and the care they need and want.
There is an African proverb that says, “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” Absorb that for a moment, and then let’s think about child development. Studies in child development show us that we are born hard-wired to seek support from our caregivers. (Purvis 2020). As infants, we do not know how to meet our own needs for food, water, shelter, safety, and comfort. So what do infants do when they have a need? They cry. Their sympathetic nervous system is amping them up. Then, ideally, a caregiver comes to comfort them and meet their needs, and their parasympathetic nervous system calms them down. Baby cries, caregiver comes, baby is comforted. This cycle happens over and over, and this is what forms the basis for attachment and mental health and neural pathways for regulation. We only learn to regulate and learn that people can be trusted by having someone consistently come and show us. So what happens when our caregiver isn’t consistent, or is absent, or abusive, or ill, or chronically stressed figuring out how to survive? This child may learn and internalize messages like, “others are not trustworthy”, “I am not valuable and I don’t matter”, “my voice and my needs are not important”, “I am alone” (Purvis 2020). This child may constantly be in that activated, high-stress state, a state that the body is not meant to be in chronically. When we don’t receive adequate nurturing, attunement, and mentoring, we learn that we must find other ways to cope and seek out those brain chemicals. There are myriad paths, and if I started making a list, it would look a lot like the things that we find people being addicted to.
I am not laying the blame on parents and caregivers who have failed, but on a societal system that has failed the parents and caregivers. One that has predicated its success on our isolation, has historically created division by ranking human value, has grown to value people primarily as producers and consumers, has commodified human interaction, and has maintained a narrow range for what means success and what is socially acceptable. If parents and caregivers cannot thrive, their children are unlikely to, without intervention, and a cycle is created. Even when parents and caregivers are able to be at their very best, children must then venture out into a world that is filled with barriers and so often not designed for them to succeed, and not designed supportively.
This is sometimes controversial, but I believe it is harmful to forcefully take away a person’s coping mechanism when they don’t have something effective and solid to take its place. Cutting off the source of a person’s addiction, with no other support in place, will not help them, eliminate their addictive behaviors, or address its roots and causes. Let’s take an environmental look at a person’s life: What risk factors are present? How can we remove some of them? What protective factors? How can we gather and build up more? But it’s not enough to just focus on the person’s life, choices, and resources. We must also take a wider environmental and societal view and how the various systems are either supporting or maintaining barriers for this person’s success, and work towards equity and justice.
The answers are not simple, many are products of our system, and they’re not something a person can solve on their own. Mental health, illness, and social isolation left unchecked can lead down some dark paths: domestic and social violence, overdoses, suicide, addiction, incarceration, burnout. Mental health care is lifesaving. Connection is lifesaving. To me, “lifesaving” doesn’t only mean “prevention of death”, and “healthcare” doesn’t just mean “taking care of sickness”. It also means helping a person’s life to be thriving, filled with support, feelings of value and worth. It’s fighting for justice, equity, and meaning for those who have been denied dignity. It’s empowering people with education, resources, access, and a sense of agency in their life and health. It is not asking a divisive, “what’s wrong with you?”, but an inclusive “what happened to you to bring you to where you are?” In every interaction we have, we have choices: cast judgment and contribute to the toxic stress in their life, which can accumulate to make epigenetic changes towards negative health outcomes; or with kindness and compassion, show them they’re valuable simply because they exist, helping to build their resiliency. By working together, by learning interdependence, by learning to see a person’s humanity before anything else, we can lift up everyone. My work and my passion is to help save lives by seeing it as a process of ongoing investment, empowerment, and togetherness. For me, one of the primary messages of social work is, “you are not alone, and you shouldn’t have to be”. I’m struck by research like The Trevor Project’s 2019 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, reporting that “LGBTQ youth who report having at least one accepting adult were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year” (The Trevor Project, 2019, Summary section). Just one person. I want to be that person for as many people as I can, and help build a world where those people are easier to find. I hope you will join me.
1) Purvis, Karyn (2020, January). Trust-Based Relational Intervention. Training presented at the meeting of O.C. United, California.
2) The Trevor Project. (2019, June 27). Research Brief: Accepting Adults Reduce Suicide Attempts Among LGBTQ Youth. https://www.thetrevorproject.org/2019/06/27/research-brief-accepting-adults- reduce- suicide-attempts-among-lgbtq-youth/