Substance Abuse and Mental Health Professional Interview

Greg Dicharry

Title: Community Engagement and Marketing Director

Thanks to Greg for contributing to the Mental Health and Substance Abuse resources sections of our site. Here, Greg talks about his personal experience with both substance use and mental health.

I was 15 years old when I started using drugs and alcohol. It started with alcohol and marijuana and soon escalated hallucinogens and ecstasy. Early in my college career I became a daily marijuana smoker, and a frequent user of hard drugs. This continued when I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the film industry. It was there that I experienced what I know now was depression and anxiety. At the time I didn’t know what it was, and remember seeing TV commercials about depression, and wondering if that was what I was experiencing, but never reached out for any kind of treatment or support. 

It was a couple of years later that I experienced my first manic episode. I was arrested for walking naked on a busy street and hospitalized for the first time. At first, they thought I might be schizophrenic but later diagnosed me as bipolar with co-occurring substance use disorder. They told me if I didn’t take medication and stay free of drugs and alcohol that I would keep ending up in places like that. 

Unfortunately, I did not heed that warning, as I was in denial for both my diagnosis. I could see how hard drugs were problematic in my life, however, stopping using marijuana was not something I was not willing to do. I could debate for days about the benefits of marijuana and pictured myself growing old and sitting on the front porch smoking marijuana. I was also in denial about my mental health diagnosis. My manic experience was so vivid and real to me, and I felt my episode was a spiritual experience and not a mental illness that needed to be medicated. 

It wasn’t until about 10 years after my initial episode that I would find long-term stability and recovery and a successful and rewarding career working in the mental health and substance abuse recovery field. Prior to that, I could not get or maintain a meaningful job and was on mental health disability for several years. 

Thanks to recovery I was soon able to acquire a director level position at a major behavioral health company Magellan Health, where I worked nationally with a mental health, substance abuse and foster care youth program I created.  I maintained that position for nearly 15 years and started my own film production company SmileStyle Entertainment 10 years ago. With this company I produced and directed two award winning suicide prevention documentaries that have received national recognition and exposure. In recognition for my work in recovery and film I have been honored to receive numerous national awards from some of the leading mental health and substance use organizations in the country.

As with most who experience co-occurring disorders my road to recovery has not been a straight uphill climb, as there have been a few relapses and mental episodes over the years that have required hospitalization, and some bouts of depression. But today I have a meaningful life working in the substance abuse treatment field, working on film projects and getting to co-parent my amazing eight-year-old daughter. 

So, what has allowed me to obtain and maintain recovery and lead a successful and meaningful life with co-occurring disorders?  

First, I needed to break through the denial. A big part of this was accomplished by having many negative consequences related to not being willing to do the things that were needed to treat both my mental health and substance use disorders. Engaging with peers who were also experiencing substance use and or mental health disorders was also very beneficial in overcoming the denial. 

One interaction that helped me breakthrough the denial was a conversation with my first 12-step sponsor. When talking to him I expressed the dilemma that permeated in my head for many years. 

At times I would think if I just took the medication, it would be OK for me to smoke weed. At other times I would think that if I don’t do drugs and alcohol, maybe I don’t really need the psychiatric medication. Each of these lines of thinking would eventually lead to more time in mental institutions and depressive hopeless states. I was telling my sponsor about this thinking and that I wasn’t sure if it was my mental illness or my drug use that was a problem. 

His response was very profound -“Dude you’re just attacking yourself with your mind”. This simple and frank statement got through to me and made me realize that it really didn’t matter which came first or which was the most severe, the fact was that I was miserable, often wanted to die and my life was a wreck. He went on to tell me that if I did what was recommended related to the 12 steps that I would never have to do drugs or alcohol again, and the 12-step related activities would also likely have a huge positive impact on my mental health. And I’ve certainly found that to be the case. In my experience the recovery for substance use issues and mental health issues are virtually the same with the exception being that mental health issues in my case require psychiatric care and medication. 

Here are some things that have allowed me to survive and thrive with co-occurring disorders.

  1. Supportive Family and Friends – Friends and family members can provide an array of types of support, love and guidance that can greatly benefit the recovery process. It was also very beneficial when they are willing to set boundaries and take steps to force me in to treatment even when I didn’t think I needed it, due to my distorted thinking.
  2. 12-Step Recovery – The benefits of this have been immense. It’s been much more than the removal of drugs and alcohol, as it has provided a path to recovery and a supportive network of others in recovery and willing to help. Early in recovery I’d heard stories of people in 12-step groups discouraging people from talking about mental health issues in meetings. It wasn’t until I had some time in recovery that I realized in the first paragraph of How it Works which is read at the beginning of most 12-step meetings it says, “we have seen those with grave emotional and mental disorders recover if they have the capacity to be honest.” since my mental health can be the most detrimental thing to my sobriety it is important and allowable for me to be able to freely discuss my mental health in 12-step meetings. There is also a 12-step fellowship called dual recovery anonymous which has numerous online and in person meetings.
  3. Psychiatric Care and Medication – working with a psychiatrist who has experience treating individuals with dual diagnosis has been very beneficial. It took some years of trials and tribulations to find the medications that worked for me, but in working with my doctors I found the right medications and have been on the same thing for many years.
  4. Service Work / Volunteering – One of the main elements of 12 step recovery is related to being of service and helping others. During my early recovery I started meetings at juvenile detention centers, psychiatric hospitals and have had various other positions related to holding recovery conferences and other events. Currently I volunteer as a board member for the depression bipolar support alliance (DBSA). All these types of activities have been extremely beneficial for my recovery and sense of self-worth.
  5. Therapy / Counseling – Later in my recovery I began seeing a counselor regularly which I have found to be very beneficial. It may take some trial and error to find the therapist that works for you, but there are many great ones out there.
  6. Work – Obtaining and maintaining meaningful work is beneficial on many levels. Of course, it helps create some financial stability, but it also has many beneficial things related to socialization and giving your life meaning and purpose. I was blessed to get to work in the mental health field, which had added benefits related to me being able to openly disclose and utilize my own experience living with co-occurring disorders to help others.
  7. Exercise – It was very difficult to start and if I’m being honest can be difficult to maintain, but the benefits particularly in the early stages of recovery have been profound. This could be going to the gym, playing a sport, or even just walking in the neighborhood. Getting the endorphins going can really make a huge difference and there’s also the health and cosmetic benefits of looking better and feeling better about yourself.
  8. Meditation – I certainly could be more consistent with this, but I have found meditation to be very beneficial. Many people often think meditation is complex process but in fact it can be quite simple and there are numerous apps or guided meditations on YouTube to provide simple techniques for meditating. Even just five or 10 minutes a day can have a huge impact.
  9. Prayer – I’m not religious and consider myself more spiritual in nature, and I have found prayer to be a powerful tool for recovery. One thing that was taught to me early on in recovery was to pray for the willingness to do what I needed to do to change. I found that this worked, and it is something I often encourage others in early stages of recovery to do. Even if they don’t believe in God, I encourage them to pray to the universe or maybe a deceased loved one and ask for the willingness to take positive actions in their recovery.