He agreed to meet in a public place even though he knew it would be hard. He knew his anxiety would kick in. It always does.
He arrived at the Starbucks ten minutes before the interview for this story was scheduled. He saw an empty table, but it was too close to other people. He rode his bicycle by the shop a couple times until tables had cleared.
Scott Peters, 41, has suffered from anxiety all his life. Sitting at a coffee shop required the perfect spot, and he also needed to get there early so he could settle somewhere and let the interviewer find him. No way he could go table to table asking strangers if they were the person he was there to meet.
Peters forced himself to buy some cashew nuts so he could sit on a table in the patio—another person was sitting two tables away. He tried to relax.
“I’ve suffered from social anxiety since I was a kid,” said Peters, sitting at a table with a copy of New York Times crossword puzzle, a UT San Diego paper and “Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions: The Life of a Sioux Medicine Man,” a book he is reading a second time.
He’s also suffered from depression and hallucinations. “I would see and hear things,” Peters added.
Public outings may be still be hard, but Peters’ everyday life is more healthy now after decades of untreated mental illness and related substance abuse issues. He is finally sober and on a healthy path to recovery with help of a County program.
Mental illness and substance abuse
Born and raised in Orange County, Peters has known since he was a child he had psychiatric issues, but it was not until one year ago he found out exactly what they were.
He saw police fatally shoot his mother when he was two. Investigators ruled it an accident but he is not convinced.
His father took him to see a psychiatrist at the age of 9, but just once. Peters said his father and his first stepmother were convinced his issues were spiritual. They believed he was possessed by the devil.
His parents took him to a spiritual healer and subjected him to exorcism rituals with people speaking in tongues. That didn’t help. The anxiety continued. The voices and noises were still inside his head.
“It was very traumatizing because I started to believe I was possessed,” Peters said.
At 15, his parents took him to see another psychiatrist who prescribed medication, but he does not know for what. The visits stopped.
As a teenager, Peters found alcohol would make the voices and the anxiety disappear.
By his late teens he was drinking heavily and had also turned to marijuana, mushrooms, and LSD.
He started smoking tobacco and his father and second stepmother kicked him out. He has not seen them since 1989, although he knows they now live in Northern California.
Peters would drink heavily for the next 20 years to calm the voices in his head. His friends encouraged him to seek therapy, but he never did. He was functional and able to keep jobs. He felt he did not need it.
Along the way, he found out he had a child, whom he met when she was five. A girlfriend of 10 years left him for another man. The break up led to heavier drinking.
“I lost my job and ended homeless and then I drank even more,” Peter said.
The alcohol would make the voices disappear but then his drinking intensified.
“I would drink and they would go away, but then my drinking would get out of control and I would end up in the hospital or jail,” Peters said.
How many times? He does not remember. But his use of emergency rooms was so frequent he was placed on a serial inebriate list that required he go straight to jail if he was found drunk.
Alcoholism and drug abuse are often accompanied by a serious mental illness. Mental health experts call them co-occurring disorders or dual diagnosis.
According to statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Mental Health Association 37 percent of alcohol abusers and 53 percent of drug abusers have at least one serious mental illness. Twenty-nine percent of those diagnosed with a mental illness abuse either alcohol or drugs. The percentage jumps to about 50 when a person is diagnosed with a severe mental illness.
Treating both disorders at the same time is key to the person’s recovery.
“These disorders are interactive. Each affects the other and both present a grave risk to the client’s well-being,” said Alfredo Aguirre, director of County Behavioral Health Services (BHS), which offers mental health and substance abuse treatment programs. “A doctor would never wait to treat a patient’s cancer until his diabetes was under control. That would be unacceptable.”
BHS personnel and the County’s mental health and substance abuse partners have continuously worked for more than 10 years to train hundreds of recovery and treatment personnel in dozens of alcohol and drug treatment centers and in mental health programs so that workers can recognize the importance of treating co-occurring issues simultaneously.
“Dual diagnosis of mental illness and substance abuse is so common that if a patient has one, physicians are beginning to look for the other one also,” Aguirre added.
A new beginning
In 2005, Peters started attending Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, but like many people seeking treatment for substance abuse issues, he soon gave those up.
“It’s been a struggle trying to stay sober,” he said.
Thirteen months ago, Peters finally sought help at a Co-Occurring Disorders Program run by UC San Diego Health System and funded by the County.
He was diagnosed with anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, bipolar disorder, and severe depression.
He is now on the right medication and has learned the tools to help with his anxiety.
“I’ve learned how to handle being in a crowded place or trolley,” said Peters, adding that he purposely took a bus line he knew would be more crowded so that he could practice his breathing exercises. “My ups and downs are more leveled.”
He has also been sober for about half a year.
“The last five, six months of my life have been amazing,” said Peters, who just last week graduated from his treatment program, where he now volunteers.
Peters now lives in a federally-funded building—he pays one third of the rent with money from his disability check—and attends AA meetings daily.
Having a permanent place to live, Peters said, has been essential to his recovery.
“It’s a tremendous weight off my shoulders,” he said before getting on his bike to head back to his home in Oak Park. “I wake up every morning with gratitude and a smile on my face.”