Story No. 5 | Real People, Real Stories Series
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Coping with Anxiety, Depression, and Substance Use Is A Lot Easier When You Have the Right Tools
by Jake Donofrio
Jake Donofrio: Hi Dan, so glad we were able to connect for this interview. First, let’s start with the basics. Tell me about yourself.
Daniel Foley: Hey Jake, I’m happy to be here.
A key part of my background is that growing up, I never thought I would make it to 25.
I don’t know exactly where that idea came from but it was always there. So, I lived extremely recklessly with no regard for own well-being. It was always easier to deal with the consequences of my actions than to actually address the underlying issues.
Though I struggled with substance use and was formally diagnosed with social anxiety, general anxiety, PTSD, and depression I didn’t seek help because I was raised to believe that was a sign of weakness. Mental health was something we NEVER discussed at home.
But then I made it past 25. I eventually realized I had to make some pretty drastic changes in my life. With time I learned that my anger was always a secondary feeling to pain and sought strategies and tools to manage my emotions.
I’m now a person in long-term sustained recovery and as Assistant Program Director of Connect2Recovery with Riverside Community Care I’m a firm believer in the value of peer support and the benefits of recovering out loud.
I’m happily married, and a proud father of two.
My five-year-old and three-year-old sons are the absolute world to me. Everything I do is essentially for them now. I love spending time with my boys, which involve all sorts of shenanigans as you can imagine given who their father is and their age demographic. The apple did not fall far from the tree with either of them, I assure you of that.
JD: Thanks for the introduction, and your kids sound adorable, you’ll have to show me some pictures! Can you tell me about your personal journey and experience with substance use, anxiety, PTSD, and depression, as well as talk about the intersection of substance use and mental health?
DF: Regarding the intersection, I don’t necessarily know which came first, the chicken or the egg.
Did I have mental health concerns prior to my substance use or did the substance use cause those concerns? That’s up for debate and to me it doesn’t matter because I needed to work on both to move forward in life.
I tried only working on my mental health when I was in the throes of my substance use and oddly enough, the treatment didn’t take because I was taking copious amounts of opioids and whatever other substances I could get at the time. I also tried to abstain from substance use without putting in the effort to manage my mental health- shockingly that didn’t work either. I quickly learned that I needed to address both of those problems if I wanted to fix either one.
I remember at a young age that suicidal ideations were a very common train of thought in my mind. The negative self-talk would always lead to “Why are you bothering,” and “The world would be better off without you.” That was always kind of like the baseline in my head and maybe the opioids helped quiet down that conversation but they also made it scream much louder at different points during my youth. I acted on those thoughts a few times and found myself in facilities to help me stay alive.
JD: I’m really sorry you experienced those challenges. It takes a lot of strength to persevere amid mental health struggles and I’m impressed by your resilience.
You mentioned you were raised with the belief that “Mental health is something we never discussed.” And now, with your career you’ve kind of gone in the complete opposite direction. What led you to switch your mindset?
DF: I’m not exactly sure.
I know when I was in my mid 30s things just kind of shifted for me. My norm used to be going to county jail relatively frequently for short periods of time due to misdemeanor minor stuff but after 20 years of repeating the same cycles it just didn’t feel right anymore. When I was 37 years old and getting walked into the same facility that I had been going to for two decades the situation just hit me differently.
All I’m thinking is- Wow, I’m working on a life bid to a county jail. And a payment plan. Now I’m the old guy on the unit. This just doesn’t work- there’s got to be more to life than this.
So, when I got out, I sought my first inpatient detox treatment. It was the very first time in my life I voluntarily pursued treatment. Overall, I was disappointed in the care, but glad I was safely detoxed off the substances I was heavily addicted to.
And then I thought I was good. I really felt that was going to be it. Why would I go back to the substances that wreaked havoc on my life?
I didn’t make it home from that facility before I had picked up more opioids. I don’t really know why, even to this day. Muscle memory kicked in or something and I was like, “Wow, how did that happen?”
And I overdosed within two days of that. My family thought it was an intentional overdose (it wasn’t) because they had the same mindset I did- they didn’t understand why I would go back to the substances that destroyed my life.
Within three days out of my first inpatient detox treatment and right after serving my 30 days in the county I found myself in a locked psychiatric facility. AGAIN. This definitely wasn’t my first time going into a facility like that, and I had a similar realization in regard to my substance use. My way doesn’t work, clearly. It’s not just about the substances, it’s also about what’s going on in my head- that’s what I need to address.
JD: That’s such a powerful insight. What’s it like living with anxiety, depression and a history of substance use?
DF: My day to day life is still affected. Different things that I deal with can cause me to isolate and pull back from the people I love most, even though my recovery has taught me that social and community interactions greatly benefit me. I think my depression is the culprit there, isolating me and making me more susceptible to pick up substances. Substance use and mental health are definitely intertwined for me.
Throughout my struggles as well as my recovery I think the biggest component I had to deal with on a day-to-day basis was negative self-talk. Working diligently with cognitive behavioral therapy was the most helpful tool for managing that script in my head that always self-sabotages and says I’m not good enough. Making a conscious effort to reframe negative thoughts into positive ones had a remarkable impact on my life.
My friends like to razz me as a “perpetual optimist.” I no longer believe in problems, I only believe in solutions waiting to be found. Little plays on words like that for every aspect of negativity in my life really helped me change my perspective of the world. For the longest time, I believed everyone and everything was out to get me. My lengthy short bid incarceration history was never my fault- I had every excuse in the book. Now I see things entirely differently, and understand the world isn’t out to get me. I was the only thing standing in my own way.
JD: I know what you mean, too often we are our own worst enemies. On the path to recovery, were there any nuggets of wisdom that really spoke to you?
DF: Early in my journey I remember attending a SMART Recovery meeting where one of the facilitators was talking about how recovery gets easier over time. I was white knuckling it full of depression, anger, and that whole flood of emotions that a lot of people experience when they are in the initial stages of recovery.
I raised my hand and asked, “When does it get easier? Why am I even doing this? I know I can leave here right now and go feel better.”
Instead of getting frustrated or upset, the facilitator calmly broke it down in a way that just made sense to me. He asked, “What are you doing for yourself,” and at that time I wasn’t doing much. I was going to that one meeting and that was pretty much it. This exchange changed my life and helped me view the recovery process in a whole new light.
Facilitator: You said you worked in construction, can you build me a house?
Dan: You give me blueprints I can do it from form to finish, no problem, I’ve done it a million times.
F: That’s awesome, I’m proud of you. Now let me see you do it without any tools.
D: What, do you want me to start chewing through 2 by 4s? That doesn’t work.
F: Exactly! Right now, you’re trying to build a house. You don’t have any tools. Maybe you have some tools, but you don’t know how to use them. You need to get some tools. Don’t look at attending these meetings, doctors’ appointments, and therapy, as “getting help”. That’s you going shopping for tools.
DF: It hit and made so much sense to me! It completely took my ego out of the equation. I’m simply shopping for tools and learning how to use them so I can be the best version of myself. And I can take pride in that work like I did in my carpentry. Boom mind blown!
Then I started chasing those tools and essentially my recovery like I chased drugs for so many years. I just put in work. I didn’t snap my fingers and become a carpenter that can work on a multimillion-dollar home. That took time and a lot of effort. That required repetition of behavior so I can use those tools blindfolded, and I was aiming to reach the same level of familiarity with my recovery tools.
JD: Dan, thank you for taking the time to virtually meet with me, I had a great time conducting this interview. Before we finish, what makes you most hopeful for the future?
DF: It’s probably my kids, Mason and Maverick. Knowing that I was able to go through life the way I did and still get to a place where I’m truly happy and overwhelmed with gratitude makes me believe that if my kids face obstacles, they’ll find the strength to persevere. You want to make sure your kids walk down the right path in life, and the only way I know how to do that is to walk down the right path myself. I’m just hopeful they’ll follow me.
I hope that by recovering out loud, and continuing my journey with my sons involved they can help to reduce the stigma as they grow because mental health struggles have been kind of “normalized” throughout their lives. The hope also comes from hearing other people’s journeys and stories and knowing what I’ve been through and where I’m at today. Hope comes in a lot of forms.