Addiction, Recognition, and Recovery

Last November, Dana Christensen PZ ’15 learned firsthand what a 5150 meant. In her words, “it’s a 72-hour psychiatrical for people who are a danger to themselves or others.”

During her 13-day stay in a psychiatric ward and her subsequent time in San Diego as an outpatient at Aurora Behavioral Health Care, Christensen began writing a memoir of her story, entitled 5150, which was published by Lummox Press this January. Her story is one of undiagnosed mental illness, substance abuse, and the destructive spiral of self-harm they can cause.

“It was a story that needed to be written,” Christensen said, “and, in a way, it has needed to have been written since I was born.”

Christensen was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, and from a young age she struggled with anger issues.

“I was angry with my [mother]; I was angry with myself; I was angry with the world, and I didn’t know why,” she said.

Her anger led first to cutting and then to alcohol abuse as a way to cope.

“Alcohol filled the numbness and the emptiness in my chest that I couldn’t get rid of, temporarily, and alcohol led to drugs,” she said. “They say marijuana is the gateway drug, but that’s a lie. It’s alcohol.”

Christensen played soccer and lacrosse while at Pitzer College but was kicked off the soccer team early this past fall for drinking, pushing her into a deep state of depression. This led to her first hospitalization, where she was diagnosed with major depression and put on an antidepressant. She soon after returned to Pitzer.

But, as Christensen recalls, depression was an incomplete diagnosis. The antidepressant dangerously altered her brain chemistry, and she would later be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder.

Along with her continued heavy drinking, this would lead to the series of incidents in November that sent her back to the hospital, where she experienced the wake-up call of a 5150. Afterward, she went to San Diego for more help as an outpatient, where she finished writing her memoir and continued her recovery.

Yet, for Christensen, the most important part of writing her memoir goes beyond her own story.

“This story is about me, but it’s not about me in many ways. It’s about all the people who have undiagnosed or untreated mental illnesses or other kinds of struggles … people who need help and who haven’t found that help,” Christensen said.

As she explained it, many people suffering from either mental illness or substance addiction are discouraged from seeking help because of the negative stigma attached to these issues, such as weakness.

“People make fun of AA [Alcoholics Anonymous]; I used to make fun of AA,” Christensen said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, haha, I’m Dana, I’m an alcoholic.’”

One of her goals is to use her memoir as a powerful tool in combating this stigma and helping people realize that it’s okay to need help.

“It’s okay; it’s okay to say I’m an alcoholic. It’s okay to say I’m a drug addict, I’m bipolar, I’m borderline. It’s okay … I don’t think my mental disorder embodies who I am; I am who I am, and these are issues that I struggle with,” she said.

“There is such a negative stigma to mental illness and to substance addiction that shouldn’t be there because it’s a disease,” Christensen said. “I have to nail that in there: It’s a disease, not a choice. I didn’t choose to be an alcoholic.”

In addition to wanting her memoir to help others, writing the book has helped her as well. Christensen said she has been writing since she was three years old and always has had a love for poetry.

“It’s one of the only things I’ve really kept with,” Christensen said. “Writing has always been therapeutic for me.”

Yet her substance addiction almost took this away from her.

“For a long time when I was drinking I couldn’t write. I lost my passion to write. I lost my passion for life. And I could never connect the dots that it was alcohol that was the problem,” she said.

Now, Christensen has connected the dots. She has been clean and sober for 25 days as of last Saturday.

“I plan on making that a habit for life, because I found the confidence and self-esteem in sobriety that I haven’t found with any drug or alcohol,” she said.

Looking toward her future, she hopes to continue to share her story and impact lives, possibly through another book.

“I’m thinking of writing another one right now, on recovery, because this is helpful, but it also ends in a place where it just tells the issues,” Christensen said. “It doesn’t have a solution because I didn’t have a solution when I was writing. I was still in limbo.”

Christensen is happy to be taking strong steps in her recovery.

“I’m doing well; I’m on my way to recovery. I’m here at Pitzer, seeing my friends … I can’t wait to get back, make amends to all the people I’ve hurt, to the school,” she said.

In particular, Christensen expressed remorse over breaking the windows at Pomona College and Claremont McKenna College last semester before she was hospitalized for a second time.

“It wasn’t anything anti-Pomona … [it] also wasn’t anti-CMC,” she said. “I know they talked a lot about that in the paper, but it was nothing against schools—just my personal problems.”

Christensen is looking forward to being back amongst the 5C community.

“I’m so grateful that they’re allowing me back, because this is my home; I’ve always felt that,” Christensen said. “Just sitting here right now, it feels so natural, like I belong here. And I do; my heart is here.”

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