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Interview With Beth Burgess

We are pleased to feature a guest blog written by author, speaker, and addiction specialist Beth Burgess. After overcoming her own struggles with alcoholism, she founded Sort My Life Solutions to help others recover from addiction and mental health issues. She may be reached at beth@smyls.co.uk and followed on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google+.

What is your history with addiction/alcoholism? How did it start? How did it progress?

I always believed I became an alcoholic because I had an anxiety disorder. I had something called Social Phobia, which made me afraid of doing anything which might draw attention to myself. Eating in front of others, going shopping, even walking down the street became infused with terror for me. From the age of 18, I drank in order to be able to go outside, make it to college, and just about feed myself. Drink took the edge off the fear.

Of course, as I drank more, my tolerance and dependence grew, and what started out as a few shots at breakfast and beer at lunch became 24-hour drinking, including waking up in the middle of the night for a glass. That then led to all sorts of other problems; to say my life was hideous, chaotic and full of shame would be an understatement.

It was only later, once my anxiety disorder was cured, that I realised that my problem with alcohol went deeper. Looking back, I saw I had always been a candidate for developing alcohol issues. Even before the serious anxiety disorder developed, I struggled with being in the world, and often used alcohol to cope.

How did your co-occurring disorders affect your struggles with alcoholism/addiction?

I don’t believe I would ever have stopped drinking if I hadn’t been able to cure my anxiety disorder. At the same time, drinking daily to medicate that led me down the road to severe alcohol dependence much faster.

I also had a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, which definitely affected my attempts at recovering from addiction. As a borderline, I was self-destructive and impulsive, and my thinking patterns were decidedly screwy. Even when I had decided to quit drinking, all these things, left untreated, were ingredients for relapse. It was necessary to work on all of my issues before I could be free of the worst of that self-destructive cycle.

Did you attend a treatment center? If so, what was your experience in treatment like? How did treatment impact your recovery?

I was very much against rehab when I was in the worst of my addiction. I was stubborn about maintaining my independence, even if it was always on the edges of falling apart. Not only that, but some of my mental health issues made it excruciatingly difficult for me to ask for, or accept, help.

Back then, I also had a mental image of rehab as somehow punitive, almost like a prison that locked you up so you couldn’t drink. I realise now that treatment centers are very different from what I imagined. When I worked for frontline addiction services, I often went into rehabs to run workshops, and I realised they were largely great places with caring staff and lots of helpful resources that I had struggled to find on my own.

On recent visits to rehab centers, I was delighted to find a range of tools and techniques used to treat the problem holistically, from mindfulness to addiction education to nutrition. If my idea of rehab was ever remotely accurate, treatment nowadays has certainly moved on.

How do you regard recovery from dual diagnosis alcoholism? Is it important to address all mental health issues at once? Is recovery made more difficult by these extra challenges?

I think, if we’re honest, most addicts are dual diagnosis in some way. If you’ve gone down that path of being an addict, you have most likely started out with some issues, and perhaps added more on in the process. Most addicts will have some issues with mental health, even if the severity of these problems varies among individuals.

While an addict can get clean and sober without addressing any mental health issues, they are likely to be white-knuckling their sobriety, and ending up very unhappy as a result. As an addict, I think it is important to treat your problem holistically. This means dealing with all issues: whether they are physical, mental, emotional, or environmental. Doing otherwise leaves you much more vulnerable to relapse. Of course, it is a challenge, but one that is deeply rewarding and improves all aspects of your life.

As a Life & Recovery Coach, you employ a wide range of therapeutic techniques and approaches. What are the merits of addiction therapy, both during and after rehab?

I think strong therapeutic work is essential to overcoming addiction for good. What many people don’t realise is that addiction is a symptom of underlying problems. There are very few addicts who aren’t medicating some sort of problem, whether it’s an obvious one like an anxiety disorder or a more subtle one like low self-esteem. But all of these feelings drive an addiction. If biological factors are the engine, mental health issues are the fuel.

By releasing and resolving these traumas, an individual can feel much freer. Without the burden of those painful feelings, recovery becomes more straightforward. While a certain amount of recovery work is about learning to deal with painful feelings without using drink or drugs, therapy is about reducing the number of painful feelings you are likely to encounter in the first place.

When I work with a client who is stuck and struggling, doing some deeper healing usually produces a very powerful positive shift.

What is the most rewarding part of your life, both as a recovering alcoholic and as someone who’s helped others recover? Are there any closing remarks or advice to struggling addicts/alcoholics you’d like to give?

As someone who has personally been through difficult experiences, I feel grateful that I am able to connect with others who are suffering and help them feel validated and understood. That privilege comes second only to the ability to help them to heal. One of the most profoundly rewarding parts of my life is the ability to help others on their journeys to recovery from addiction and mental health issues, whether that’s through my books, articles, videos, or 1:1 sessions.

For anyone who is struggling, I’d advise you to learn as much as you can about addiction and how it works. Understanding your problem means that you can start to look for effective solutions. Seek help sooner rather than later. The difficulty of facing your problems is not as great as the rewards you get from a strong, holistic recovery. If you think early sobriety is tough, then imagine just how amazing long-term recovery can be.