My Secret Weapon Against Depression

Some of the memories of events in my life that others recall as exciting, happy or fun always seem to be recalled in my mind with at least a little bit of emptiness, sorrow or a “blue” feeling.

Not all of them, for sure, but enough for me to recognize a pattern as time passed.  I’ve lived with depression for as far back into my childhood as I can remember, I just didn’t know it at the time. I wasn’t treated for it, and it was never mentioned, until I was in my late 20s.

Since then, I’ve tried therapy.  I’ve tried meditation.  I’ve tried so many different types of antidepressants over the years that I felt like a study subject. SSRIs, SNRIs, TCAs, and MAOIs. If you can throw three or four letters together, I’ve probably taken an antidepressant in that category.

They all worked about the same. Great at first, with side effects following soon after with most of them, while others seemed to do nothing at all. In fact, I was even one of the unlucky seven percent of people who went through what is called “paroxetine withdrawal syndrome,” which I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Months of tapering off a medication that had side effects during use, and sometimes worse side effects as I tried to stop using it.

I’m not saying paroxetine or any other kind of medication is bad.  It just wasn’t good for me. I’ve known people who it has worked well for and had no side effects.  I just wasn’t one of them.

I’m not a doctor, and I would never tell anyone what they should do regarding depression or anything else. I can only share my experience.

The “great at first” parts of medications or therapy, for me, surely could have been the placebo effect, as much as it could have been chemical changes in the brain made by a pill.

Webster’s dictionary defines the placebo effect as, “improvement in the condition of a patient that occurs in response to treatment but cannot be considered due to the specific treatment used.”

A few examples might be sugar pills for pain management, or to relieve anxiety.

Therapy was another avenue I tried, with mixed results. Sometimes I saw a therapist while prescribed antidepressant medication, and sometimes independent of it. Either way, seeing someone seemed to help while I was there, but I wasn’t able to take some of the things outside the appointment. Again, maybe it was the placebo effect. I was talking with a professional who was trained to help people and make them feel better. They were non threatening and most of their offices were comfy and cozy. It was a good environment in which to believe that things were going to be okay.

But that only lasted for so many hours after leaving the appointment.

To emphasize, this went on for years and coincided with a battle with addiction. My experience wasn’t a one-and-done conclusion. I saw many professionals who tried to help with my version of depression over a span of several years by all sorts of means. I’ve gathered real world data for the only case I have any experience with, and that’s my own.

I’ve read articles and studies. I’ve tried to break down research papers and collaborative works of groups of people with more sets of initials after their names than I could make sense of.

I tried self help books.  At one point I had a pile of them. From Peele to Robbins, to Frankl and Covey. Religion, spirituality and meditation. Existentialism. CBT, REBT and all kinds of behavior modification.

They all worked, to some degree. But they only seemed to charge my battery, so to speak, while I was in the moment, reading or working hard at it.

What I realized after years of working to not feel depression and the anxiety that accompanies it, was that I was putting in so much effort without much return. Self help was tiring me out.

Ups and downs are natural in life. Good days and bad days string together due to foreseen and unforeseen events. But I was tired of the extreme lows and I was just as tired putting in all the work to prevent them.

I am grateful that through the years I have managed to live long enough to have had the exposure to the many sides of treatment for depression, even with the less than stellar results I gained from it all. I use some of the techniques and exercises I learned years ago to navigate the day. It’s been a little like a psychological and physiological salad bar. A lot of the stuff isn’t all that appealing, but there are a few things that are really good. I have learned how to use these weapons with practice, and a lot of trial and error.

Depression is a condition, I’ve often heard, where your brain works to destroy you. If nothing else, that makes for a complicated relationship with oneself.

I had become worn down over time from trying so regularly to change what always has been, and seemingly will always be, a large part of me. I got to a point where I wasn’t really sure who I was anymore, to an even greater degree than was the norm prior to all the work. I was tired of self help, positive thinking, buzz words and catch phrases. I was tired of smiling. I was sick of being grateful for what I had, when it didn’t feel like I had time to enjoy it all.  I was tired of reading books from transformational gurus who were late on a rent payment one month, contemplated suicide due to that one hardship, and then were delivered from the abyss miraculously from a shift from the Universe. After all, suicidal ideation for a depressed brain is child’s play.

I apologize if it seems as though I am making fun of someone’s life-threatening ordeal, and, honestly, that last part was made up. There is a place for motivational people. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry. But, again, learning how someone went from dead broke to living with power and influence, which could be guaranteed with $497 and a three hour seminar, just wasn’t for me.

I was completely sick and tired of things not working, and with the situation I was stuck in.  So, frustrated by it all, I finally got angry. I developed an attitude. I was fed up. I wasn’t going to take another day of the same old dark, empty garbage.

I didn’t act out. It’s not like I became a bully with this change in attitude. I didn’t start going around giving people wedgies or throwing rocks through windows. The change was inside, and what I received from that experience has become my favorite weapon in the all out war I wage on depression.

That weapon is defiance.

It was incredible, that instant in my life. Defiance. Who would have thought? It was then that I went from reacting to acting. Instead of always trying, usually with the skill of a novice Whac-A-Mole player, to stop the downward cycles and ever changing pits of emptiness, I went on the offensive. Instead of defending the battered castle, waiting for the next attack, I went out and looked for the enemy, which was that part of my mind that controlled the constant, everyday shit show that is depression. I didn’t figure I had anything to lose.

Not in a thousand lifetimes, and not with a thousand armies.

In my practice, defiance is simple. I have a healthy respect for what depression can do, but I am not afraid of it. Under no circumstances will I bow down to it.  Ever.  I will use every weapon I can bring to the fight I will win, even on bad days.  Period. 

When I’ve shared this with the few people over the years I’ve talked to about it, they sometimes react as if my answer is the product of a previous psychotic break. I’ve had some supportive and inquisitive responses as well.  I had a counselor tell me years ago that my idea of defiance may actually be hope masked as such.  I’ve often thought about that, and it’s an interesting way to look at it.  For what it’s worth, although I like hope, somehow defiance seems more assertive and battle-ready.  Whatever it takes…

Defiance has been defined as open resistance and bold disobedience. After decades of playing defense and often being woefully unprepared for the next barrage, the mind shift of taking taking the fight to the enemy has been liberating.  I follow the “open resistance” and “bold disobedience” parts of defiance in cooperation with the other weapons I have at my disposal in the battle against depression.

Self care, hope, resilience, gratitude and self awareness are some of the other things I practice and work at today, day in, day out. It’s a system that often works well in solving conflict, challenging thought patterns and checking reality with the information coming from my brain.  When I use them.  When they are working in unison, things seem to run more smoothly.  When they don’t, defiance kicks in and I put on my armor and fight until I can get the system up and running again.  I will use every weapon I can bring to the fight I will win, even on bad days.  Period.

A Sunny Thing Happened on the Way to My Demise

The July sun glared through the living room window and onto the wood floor. I sat in a puffy old chair, leaned forward, elbows on my knees.  I counted the floor boards that were bright in the sunlight.  Twenty-four.  Right to left.  Twenty-four.  Left to right. Twenty-four. Over and over.

On the outside it may have looked as if I were daydreaming, peacefully enjoying travels in my head to some far away place as I stared blankly at the floor. But on the inside churned chaos.  My mind was a mess.  My body was a wreck.  Emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually, I was a disaster. 

While I counted, every department in my brain was assessing damage and calculating my next move.  Each department was giving information at the same time, with no organization or priority.   Critical thinking and linear thought were abandoned in favor of  haphazardly throwing information onto a growing pile in the center of my brain.  The overall message amidst all of the chatter was that my current state could not, and would not, continue.  I was battered.  I was tired. Twenty. Four.  I stopped counting.

I stood up and continued to look mostly at the floor as I walked back and forth on the boards I had just spent the better part of an hour counting.  The frenzy of information whirling in my head had finally ground to a halt.  Chaotic and disorderly as it was, the information was in.  It was time to make a decision.

This day was the end result of a three day drinking spree after a year of dry time.  Dry, in that I didn’t drink or drug during that year, but I didn’t do anything else, either.  There were no meetings, there was no self care, no counseling-  no recovery plan of any kind.  I just stopped using.  I was hard to be around.  I hated everything.  I was frustrated, angry, and miserable.  I was so miserable after that year that I returned to what I knew. I knew how to drink.  I went back to it just as I had left it the year before, fully understanding the probable consequences.

That three days led me to sit in a chair, to count floor boards, and to arrive at an undeniable conclusion:  Not only could I not live clean and sober in recovery, but I also couldn’t live anymore as a practicing addict.

As I paced the living room, in and out of the sunlight, the idea that I had failed so miserably at both addiction and recovery weighed heavily on me.  I no longer felt the euphoria that chemicals once provided.  I could no longer use to feel, or not to feel, and it was clear I couldn’t abstain from using in a consistent or predictable manner. 

I could no longer even temporarily escape the mundane, painful, or scary.  Earlier relapses had often lasted months, but not this time.  In the past I would drink, use, and dig deeper holes, but there was always some relief.  There had always been a trade off, in a completely irrational way that only an addict can truly understand.  Of course, my using or drinking would almost certainly hurt people, especially those who cared about me. But it was all written off as collateral damage in the master plan of textbook insanity that is addiction. 

For me, using was a self-medicating, self-absorbed break from anxiety, insecurity and the constant, consuming emptiness of depression.  Even the partying portion of my using was smoke and mirrors; what was genuine was the disconnect it afforded.  Substances provided a diversion from reality, and I was willing to pay an often considerable price for chasing a distorted, chemically enhanced version of peace.  But even that was gone now, and it took only three days to arrive at the deepest, darkest place I’d ever been, and this time I couldn’t find a way out.  I didn’t want to do it anymore.  I’d had enough.  I sat down and leaned back into the old chair.  It was over, and I knew it.

It was then that two familiar inner voices stepped out from the shadows of my mind and joined me in the living room.

****************

The easiest way to explain it, I guess, is perhaps you’ve seen a movie or a cartoon where a little devil pops up on a character’s one shoulder, and a little angel appears on the other. The appearance of those additional characters signals the back and forth battle between good and evil, hope and despair, and so on. These two sides of struggle and conflict are as old as life itself. For the sake of simplicity, and with apologies for sounding silly, I’ll just call them Sunny and Rainy.

In my head, Sunny is the quiet, patient, empathetic one, with the emphasis on quiet. Sunny never yelled.  Sunny had never argued with Rainy, and never forced his views or acted in haste.  It was because of these traits that I came to believe Sunny was weak.  In fact, I blamed Sunny for not speaking up during some of the most crucial events in my life to that point.  Sunny was more abstract.  Parables and feelings, dreams and memories, rainbows and sunshine, all in the hushed tones of a whispering librarian.

On the other hand, Rainy had a tendency to be impulsive and easy to provoke.  Rainy was the bull in the China shop.  Where Sunny was a fine-tipped brush used to put the final touches on a beautiful oil painting, Rainy was the guy throwing gallons of paint at a huge canvas, buckets and all.  Rainy possessed little patience, was quick to judge, and rarely used diplomacy during times of conflict.  In a crisis, Rainy was the one who showed up first, and I could always hear him coming.  But to be fair, and for all his faults, Rainy had served me well at times, and actually saved my life during a few dangerous situations I had walked into over the years.  But on this day, Rainy was different.

“No,” Sunny said firmly.  “This isn’t the way.  Think about what you’re proposing.”

“Well, well, you finally left the circus.  The other clowns must be heartbroken,” Rainy said, sarcasm on full display.

“This is absurd, you can’t be serious about this,” Sunny said, looking at me, and then to Rainy.  “There is so much left to do.  There is so much left to see.  You have a lot of life to live.  I won’t be a part of this.”

“You’ve been filling his head with this garbage for years,” Rainy began.  “Sobriety and relief from depression and the beauty of life and all that other crap.  When does that finally happen, Sunny?  Never, that’s when.”

I sat quiet in the chair.  Sunny stood quiet in the corner.  Rainy stood in the middle of the living room like a speaker at center stage.  The debate was on.

Rainy continued, “What would you know about anything, Sunny?  What would you know about life?  Haven’t you seen the suffering, the mistakes, the failure?  When you finally say something, it’s always the same old nonsense.  It’s over.  This will never, EVER get better, and you have only yourself to blame.  Leave.  We have a job to finish.”

Rainy then turned to me while Sunny stood, still quiet, in the corner.  “There is no shame in admitting defeat.  This has gone on far too long.  You’ve hurt everyone you know.  You’ve tried this addiction stuff for fifteen years only to get your ass kicked.  You’ve been depressed your whole life.  You have been thinking about this for a long time and it’s not coincidence that we are in the same goddamn spot today that we’ve been countless times before,” Rainy went on, his voice becoming more stern and his body language more aggressive.  “What you’re doing is not living.  You, my friend, have been dead for years, you’re just too stubborn, or too dumb, to admit it.  Today is the day.”

“That’s just not true,” Sunny said.

Rainy spun around and stomped toward Sunny in the corner.  “Sure it is, and you know it as well as he does,” he said, now almost nose to nose with Sunny while pointing back at me. “How many times have we followed him to treatment?  How many times have we gone to detox?  Psych wards?  How many tickets?  How many nights in jail? How many times have we gone days without knowing what the hell was going on? How many times have we been talked to by cops, priests, counselors, doctors, neighbors, friends and people we don’t even know?  Do-gooders, well-wishers and the like?  Sob stories, calls to arms, pep talks, threats and a boat load of other advice and care, and here we sit.  It’s time to get this over with.”

As Rainy finished with Sunny, he maintained eye contact as he backed away.

Turning again to me, he said, “Too damn many.”

“What?” I asked.

“You heard me.  Too damn many.  That’s how many times you’ve been to treatment,” he replied.  “That’s how many times you’ve been to detox.  That’s how many times people from all walks of life have tried to help you.  And for what?  It makes me sick.  Doctors and lawyers and counselors and hurt friends and family.  Bad relationships and dead end jobs because you can’t get your head right.  We could be living the good life, but you insist on messing things up.  You’ve taken beds at treatment centers that others could’ve used.  You’ve been in detox so many times they know your name.  You know every cop in the area because of the crazy things you’ve done during your career in the lunatic business.  You aren’t even trying anymore.  This is over, and if you don’t follow through with this, so help me, I’ll do it myself.”

Rainy sat down on the arm of the couch on the other side of the room.  He took a deep breath and paused, trying without success to calm himself.

Leaning toward me, he said, “I think you’re making the right decision.  Life is hard.  It’s unfair.  You’ve done your best.  All that pain?  The depression?  The disappointment?  It will end today.  It’s time.”

Rainy wasn’t wrong about a lot of what he said.  His delivery was harsh and crude, but he was quite accurate about it all.  We had been at this crossroads together before.

It was hard not to admit what I at least half-believed most of my life.  It was time.

For what it’s worth, I never really used the word “suicide” in my head. For me, suicidal ideation had never been a constant cycle of thought, but more of a nosey neighbor that occasionally stopped by unannounced.  I always used words like “escape” or “relief” or something more comforting and less… final. But the idea, complete with planning and attempting to project the resulting fallout for those left to deal with the aftermath, was a subject that was visited more often than I’d ever felt comfortable admitting to anyone.

It’s not a smooth subject to talk about, ending one’s own life.  There’s just no easy way to make it comfortable or attractive, because it isn’t.  In fact, I struggled a lot with not only the idea of writing this, but during the writing itself.  Not because I’m afraid of my own demons, but because it is such a heavy subject, and due to concern over how it may impact those who read it.  It is always final.  It is always tragic.  It’s more common than anyone wants to recognize or admit. And no matter what, those left behind are always, always, always, left with questions that will never be answered during our time on Earth.  There are some things we just don’t talk about, yet each of us knows someone…

I walked over to the secretary and shuffled through the drawers to find a suitable paper and pen, and went back to sit down on the old chair.  Rainy stood up to come closer, while Sunny remained in the corner.

As I looked down at the paper, Sunny asked, “What if?”

It was a quiet, almost unnoticeable question, as if he had mumbled it to himself.  Rainy looked up from the paper to turn and smirk at Sunny, rolled his eyes, then turned back to focus on the paper.

“What if?” again Sunny asked, a little louder.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Sunny, don’t complicate this with your silly, hypothetical bullshit,” Rainy snapped.  “You’ve had your chance.  For years you’ve had your chance.  Today’s the day this ends.  Sit down and shut up.”

Again, “What if?” Sunny asked, calmly.

“Stop it, Sunny,” Rainy said.  “All you’ve ever done is delay the inevitable, trying to sell hope like there’s a market for it here.  Hope is for fools.  Hope is for those with nothing left, and we are beyond nothing now.  You are grasping at straws and you sound like an idiot.”

I looked up from the still blank paper to Rainy.  “Hold on.  What did you say?”

“Inevitable?  Fools?  Grasping at straws?  Idiot?” Rainy recited the bullet points from his rant.

“Hope,” Sunny said, stepping out of the corner.  “You said hope.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me, this is a joke, right?  Are you serious?”  Rainy was beside himself.

“Do you mean to tell me that this is your solution?  That somehow all of this can be solved with something so intangible?” he continued.  “What in the hell is hope against the fact that much of your life has been a miserable, lonely, messed up experience? A miserable, lonely, messed up experience, may I remind you, that will continue until you’re a miserable, lonely, messed up old man?  This craziness needs to stop. Don’t screw this up.”

“The least we can do is hear him out,” I said. “It’s not like we have any place to be.”

“This should be good. Sunny the motivational village idiot.  Perhaps we should print up posters and sell tickets for this,” Rainy said, dripping with disdain.  “Two minutes.  Do you hear me, Sunny? You’ve got two minutes, then we get on with what we should have done years ago.”

“What if,” Sunny repeated, “What if you could learn to ride a bike, or to swim?”

“This is just embarrassing,” Rainy cried dramatically.  “He rode a bike when he was five! He swam across the lake in middle school!  Big deal.  Since then it’s been pretty much downhill.  What’s next?  First tooth?  First pee on the big  potty?  Hell of a pep talk, genius.  Can we just finish this now?”

Sunny ignored Rainy and continued, “What if you could memorize multiplication tables or learn how to high jump?”

“Have you lost your mind?” Rainy yelled at Sunny.

“What if you had to get your driver’s license,” Sunny said, “or climb the tallest tree in the neighborhood with the older kids?  What if there is a reason you have lived long enough to become a father?  What if you’re supposed to stay around to help people who need you?”

“This dreadfully random trip down memory lane has been brought to you by the letter S, as in SSSSSTUPID,” Rainy snapped.  “This is so dumb, it’s painful.  Are you done?”

“Please let him talk,” I said, feeling more now like a referee than someone in the middle of trying to make life’s biggest decision.

“What if there is a reason you survived long enough to make it to detox?  What if you needed each and every treatment, each and every talk, from each and every person, to get you to this point,” Sunny asked.  “What if these are not failures, but lessons or cornerstones?  What if every other time we’ve been at this point, you’ve chosen to go on?”

The items Sunny mentioned were all things that at one point in my life I never believed I’d be able to do, or get through.  I never thought I’d be able to ride a bike.  At one point, I stood on the shore of the lake or the side of the swimming pool believing that I’d never be able to do the things others were doing.  Living through addiction as long as I had was against the odds by almost any measure.  The tallest tree may as well have been a never ending tower to the heavens, at least before I climbed it.  And there was a time in my life where I believed I would never live long enough to become a father.  Hope surely must have played at least some part in it all.

I began to believe that when I listened to Sunny, there was hope.  Hope, at least in part, made some of the good things in my life possible.  Hope also made some of the not so good things bearable.

“What if,” I sighed, shrugging my shoulders. 

“Maybe it’s just that simple,” Sunny replied.

“So that’s it?  Hope is the magic plan and the cure to all our trials and tribulations for the infinite future,” Rainy exclaimed in disbelief.  “We just hang our hats on hope and all will be okay?  Where is the resolve?  Where is the defiance and the declaration that life, and all of its baggage and wreckage, is just not worth it anymore?”

“It’s not infinite, Rainy,” Sunny replied.  “In fact, maybe it’s just this moment.  Maybe it’s this hour or this day, one little piece of time connected to the next.  What if we miss something great?  What if this can turn around?  What if?”

“I give up on you guys.  Next thing you know,” Rainy said, “you two will be singing praise songs, selling all our stuff and leaving to join some cult.  It is my hope that when you do, they shave your heads and make you sell beads at a mall.”

Rainy then stormed off, back to the corner of my mind from where he came. I listened to Sunny talk about the plan of continuing the journey that is life.  We discussed the role hope could play in another attempt at recovery from addiction and in surviving depression.  I came to realize that Sunny was always there, and that he wasn’t weak.  Sunny just wasn’t as loud as anger, despair or frustration.  Sunny was more subtle, but not any less present.  I just had to be willing to listen and patient enough to hear what was being said.  Sometimes it really is that simple.

That July day was almost 19 years ago.  I talk to Sunny a lot more now than I did before that day.  We meet first thing in the morning, and agree that we will see this day through to the end, come what may.  We make that commitment daily, even if we don’t talk about much else.

That’s not to say that Rainy doesn’t still show up now and then.  He has to, he is a part of me.  But if he’s around too long, there’s always some kind of trouble.  Admittedly, some days I seem to spend as much time with Rainy as I do with Sunny.  It’s not a perfect system, and I don’t fool myself into believing it ever will be, but I work at it.

Hope is a powerful thing, if sometimes more quiet or less visible than anger, frustration or despair.  For me, hope has been an invaluable tool in my recovery from addiction, an irreplaceable weapon in my war against depression, and a consistent companion in the now almost two decades of life I wouldn’t have had without it.

In memory of warriors at rest, In honor of those who still fight.

The File Cabinets and Chalkboards in my Head

Imagine walking into a room of file cabinets. Upon crossing the threshold, you notice an order and cleanliness about the place. There is no door, only a doorway to this room. The file cabinets are all the same color, size and shape. Even the little labels on each drawer match, with bold printing in a simple font. There are just as many cabinets on one wall as there are on another. The lighting appears to be more than sufficient to remove, replace or read files without causing eye strain or headache. The paint is a neutral color, not boring and not brash. The carpet looks and feels new, and it compliments the paint, cabinets and furniture. There is a soundtrack playing from an unseen speaker that you find neither too loud nor too soft, and it seems to be noticeable only when you want it to be. There is a solid table and padded chairs for reviewing the files that wait to be placed into or pulled out of the cabinets. On the table sits a small stack of writing paper and an old coffee mug full of sharpened pencils, quality pens and yellow highlighters. On one wall hangs a large whiteboard or chalkboard for big ideas or collaborations for times when a mere pen and paper just won’t do. There is some communication equipment neatly arranged and accessible in one corner. While the room is neither perfect nor imperfect, it appears to be fully functional and organized enough to complete whatever tasks the room is set up for. It seems like a pleasant place to spend some time.

Let’s say purely for point of reference, that the file room I just described is a typical human mind and what I’d like to do, completely against better judgment, is to invite you to my file room.

Since you’re a guest, let’s take the direct route today, a route that not many people get to travel. The public route to my room is like an obstacle course without a finish line. Picture the people at the mall who use the “You Are Here” maps. But in this case the maps don’t make any sense and are designed to take whoever on a complicated trip that ultimately leads them back to the same map. Truth to tell, some people never make it farther than the lobby.

It hasn’t always been like this; over the years I have worked on it quite a bit, little by little. There is usually so much confusion and distraction that by the time anyone gets anywhere close to my file room, they are so exhausted and frustrated or confused that sooner or later they stop trying to find it. That is the point, after all……

There is a lot at play here, and I’ve always been on guard about letting people see my files, for lots of reasons. I realize, too, that what I do isn’t what you would call “typical.” There are a lot of people I know who consider hindering anyone’s access to their rooms a huge mistake. They want people to see their room, to sit at their table, to take notes, and to even go through some of the cabinets. Some people actually welcome people in. Nonsense.

As we walk, I’ll share some of the how’s and why’s of keeping people out of, and away from, my file room. You’re going to know once we get there, anyway.

First, and probably easiest to explain, I am an introvert. No, no, no, not just an “introvert.” I am an IN-TRO-VERT. I’m just built that way. The fact that we are talking about it now, or to write or share any of this stuff usually carves chasms in the very room I try to protect. I religiously dislike attention, and a quick “aww shucks” deflection is usually the first sign of that. If it continues, I’ll usually change the subject. I’m not trying to be rude, I’ve just never been comfortable telling people I’m uncomfortable. On the flip side, I am completely comfortable telling others what a great job they did at something, and to be sincere about it… It’s a one-way street. The guy must be weird in the head, right? And that’s just one of the symptoms of introvertitis. Introvertism? Anyway…

I’ve tried, over and over (by all kinds of unhealthy means) to make myself an extrovert, or at least a little less of an introvert. For years I left a wake of confused and hurting people in my past because my inner conflicts seeped out past the walls of my file room, and I never really knew how to deal with it. However, after years of disastrous trial and error, I have made one discovery and that is: I really hate crowds. I would rather spend a month in our storage shed in the backyard than go to a social event. Ten times out of ten. I just can’t have tons of people in my room because there isn’t enough space for everyone at one time. I think you’ll understand better when we get there.

A second barrier to my room is a bit more complicated and has sometimes been messy. This barrier is almost impenetrable. It’s barbed wire and land mines and lazers and all the gadgets one would expect to see in an action movie, it just isn’t anywhere near as glamorous. Really, it’s this meat grinder-mix of shyness, introversion, depression, anxiety, ADD and the remnants of addiction, all glued together by shame. My addiction story is for a visit on another day. And shame is a destructive, toxic, evil force that kills. For the record, shame is not guilt. Guilt can be useful and constructive. Shame has no redeeming qualities.

I’ll give you a quick thumbnail since we don’t have all day… the opposite of depression is vitality. The opposite of anxiety is serenity. The opposite of order is Attention Deficit Disorder. And, holy crap, the ADD….. Let’s just say that a typical grocery list looks like this: bread, milk, butter, eggs. My grocery list tends to look something like this: Bread, car keys, you are my sunshine, ants are so cool, where the f*** did I put the grocery list?

I know what you’re thinking. Medications, right? Therapy. You’re paying attention and I know where you’re going with this. But, I can’t do medications. I’d very likely abuse the benzodiazapines and stimulants because, well….. because they are benzodiazapines and stimulants. I am an addict after all, whether I’m using or have been clean for a week or a hundred years. Just can’t do it. But, therapy is good. Support groups are good. I have no problem with either and I’ve been that route more than once in years passed.

Careful, we’re getting close now………Watch your step.

The final roadblock to my file room is actually fairly subtle. It is the societal norms, taboos and subjects that simply just aren’t fun to talk about. Not only are they not fun, often they are quite painful and come to the forefront only out of necessity or emergency. Stigma…… Misinformation…….. Ignorance……… We don’t talk about depression at the dinner table. We don’t talk about suicide on a night out. We don’t talk about anxiety while at a game. We don’t talk about addiction when family visits………….Unless we have to.

Extroverts are often seen as confident, successful and even preferred, while introverts appear to be less than or different from the “norm.” Men don’t cry, and they shouldn’t show feelings. That’s been a long-held standard. We still live in a world where depression and anxiety are widely viewed as weaknesses and addiction is seen as a lack of will power. An ADD diagnosis is brushed off as a lack of discipline and laziness, “If you would just concentrate!” These types of issues are usually other people’s problems…… until they hit home. When and IF people do concede that these conditions exist, often they are given tags to lessen or separate them from other, more “Valid” conditions. One of my favorite labels is “invisible illness.” Because there isn’t a bone sticking through the skin or surgical scars, that means that somehow it must be qualified another way. Marginalized. Set aside. Stigma and bias are still alive and well regarding mental health issues and addiction, regardless of the progress that has been made. Both sadly and conveniently, it serves as steadfast justification for keeping people out of my files….. But don’t kid yourself. There isn’t much about any of these conditions that is “invisible.”

That’s it…….just ahead. After all I’ve told you, you can’t possibly be surprised by the door. And you can’t possibly be surprised by what you see, now that we are here.

First of all, I apologize for any distraction caused by the speaker. It goes on and off, sometimes just random clips of things, sometimes it’ll play the same damn thing over and over and over. Sometimes it’s just static. It’s weird, but I’ve gotten used to it.

I tried to tell you about the grocery list. Papers all over the place. Drawers open, chalkboard filled with scribbles and gibberish, folders on the floor, the table piled with stacks upon stacks of files. Posters and maps on the walls. Pictures of people no longer with us. Framed photos of teams I was lucky enough to be a part of. Articles cut out and strewn everywhere. Paper clips sparkle here and there. Post It notes throughout the room in a pattern that may suggest that one of my grand daughters may have walked through and stuck them on whatever she wanted to, and that’s quite possible.

HOW CAN YOU FIND ANYTHING IN HERE???

You should maybe sit down, once I find a chair for you. Look, I tried to keep everything in here organized. I tried all the way through school, into adulthood and for a long time after that. I would clean my locker, only for it to be a disaster again in a few days. I would attempt to organize my thoughts to try to explain why my thought process was so jumbled and fragmented. But when I tried to speak, it often fell apart on the way out of my mouth.

To many, my room looks like a disaster. It may look like someone ransacked the place, and sometimes that is what I do to find stuff. In my own little office at home, for instance, I actually have an old chalkboard that I scribble on. I have files and piles of dead trees that make sense to only me. I have an old wooden bowl that holds notes I have scribbled on whatever paper I could find. Grocery items on the same piece as ideas and goals. It’s a controlled chaos, more than anything, I just don’t fight it anymore.

After years of trying to be “typical,” I’ve come to accept that I am whatever it is that I am. I don’t think it’s a matter of better or worse. Maybe it’s more of a style, a unique style, like handwriting. And we adapt. We just do.

Please bear with me while I continue to rummage through my file room and attempt to sort through the mess in my head so I can try to get my thoughts out in print……..my original intent was to tell my story the best I could, in hopes to help someone else……….but I am starting to notice that just maybe the person I might be helping the most is…me. I’m no writer, for sure. But writing has become a neat way to take scattered thoughts and fragments of ideas from the wood chipper my mind can sometimes be and cut and paste them into something fairly coherent.

This has been a different kind of post, and I appreciate the fact that you stayed through to the end. Thank you for reading, liking and/or sharing my posts. It means a lot to me, and I hope something in them can be of help to you or someone you know. Thank you.

What do you do? Is your file room similar to the one in the beginning, neat and orderly? Is it more like mine, some sort of paper bomb epicenter? Have you had to do things to adapt the way your mind works due to circumstances in your life? Do you let people in? Do you keep people out? Introvert or extrovert?

Whatever you are, be you. The longer you’re not, the harder it will be for you, or anyone else, to find their way to your room.

Old Friends, Survivor’s Guilt and Surviving

wp-15889907789873656864950688724277.jpg

I grabbed the jersey display case from its perch on the bookcase in the den. I tucked it under my arm as I walked through the house and out the door. When I got to the middle of the driveway, I took it in both hands, raised it above my head and threw it down at my feet as hard as I could throw it. Glass exploded and flew in every direction as the crash echoed through the neighborhood. Perfectly fabricated wood joints shattered and seemed to chase the glass. As the echoing subsided, the pieces came to rest in different parts of the driveway, while the jersey laid crumpled at my feet. I stood in the driveway in the middle of it all with my hands on my hips, cursing the wreckage, fuming over the death of a friend a year and a half earlier. And I felt enraged by what I saw as the absolute futility of life. I called out God, Higher Powers and every other spirit I’d ever heard of for their collective inaction. I cursed the Universe. I begged them all for a sign or a signal, and I dared them all to give me their best shot. Oddly enough, the fact that there was no response from anywhere in the living world nor the world beyond only served to fuel the rage that had finally come out. “F*** YOU,” I said, pointing down at the mess at my feet, “AND F*** YOU, TOO,” I said, raising my arms to notify the rest of the world. It was at that moment that I had in fact, had it.

This was the culmination of over a year and a half of seething, festering guilt and frustration, over acting “as-if” and of playing the part. It was pretending to make temporary sense of a permanent loss. I tried to act as if, I tried to go along and get along. I tried to pretend all was well and that what I was really feeling was sadness, and it was a natural part of the process of grief, especially when someone young dies unexpectedly. But the truth was that I wasn’t sad. I was sick of getting along, and I was tired of acting as if. I was angry because Dave’s passing devasted his family. I saw the faces of his old friends and neighbors at the funeral. I was angry because I remember calling Jimmy to give him the news, and I remember his reaction. I was angry because the three of us finally had stuff figured out, together, and now it was gone. I was angry because he had his whole life ahead of him. I was angry because he didn’t reach out and I was angry because I didn’t do enough to stop it. I was angry because the three of us had come so far. And that day, in one feeble, violent, misguided moment, I took it out on a carefully crafted display case which held an old jersey in memory of my friend. Now that was ruined, too.

To know Jimmy and Dave was to know life itself. They both had tons of friends growing up, they were charismatic, they were popular and they were each blessed with a great sense of humor. They were both talented athletes. Jimmy was built like a linebacker, a position he played with an enviable efficiency. He had a square jaw and a smile that could make you feel both at ease and yet still wonder what he had just gotten away with. Dave was a quick, smaller bundle of energy, an energy that you could actually feel. He and I had our lockers next door throughout school because of our last names. He had an infectious laugh and was a walking, talking social event. His family owned the bakery in town and I will never forget the beautiful sights, smells and tastes we were blessed with on a regular basis from that magical little place. The two of them were a memorable part of the cast of characters in our small hometown.

We were always teammates and classmates, although it seems that the three of us were never really all that close back then. After graduation, and the school years which contained both highlights and scrapes with authority, along with the prerequisite growing pains, we each went our own directions out into the world. One of us would enter and exit the military, one of us would scale water towers, and one of us would fail miserably at two colleges, before reuniting in our small town, to begin rebuilding our lives.

********

I literally ran into Jimmy not quite ten years later at the bank in town. I was begrudgingly going to the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the basement that night at the urging of my family, when I swung open the door and ran into my old friend, who was on his way to his car. Jimmy had been in recovery for a year and had a good job with a big construction outfit in the area. We spent some time after the meeting catching up and after some convincing, I agreed to go to meetings regularly. He became my mentor and my babysitter. The drinking hobbies we began in high school as “boys will be boys” -type behavior had become full blown addictions in almost no time, only to somehow lead us back home to try to sort it all out. After the reunion that night, we were pretty much inseparable, and it seemed we had almost come full circle.

A few months after our meeting in the doorway of the bank in town, Jimmy and I received word that Dave was back in the area, too. He had run into some trouble, and we went to visit him to see how we could help. Then there were three.

We began working on clearing the wreckage of the past and getting busy with the work of getting our lives back a little at a time. We were sober, clean, recovering and kicking all kinds of ass at it. Meetings, conferences, more meetings, making amends, helping others, sharing our stories at schools in the area. We even returned to the church we had spent so much time in growing up, which we thought to be kind of poetic. We talked about the glory days of football and basketball. We talked about college and owning businesses and houses and whatever else came to mind. We had dreams again and we weren’t shackled to our addictions, waiting to die. We were alive. We held each other up, we held each other accountable and we walked through it all together. You didn’t miss a meeting or someone would be there, banging on your door. You answered your phone even if you were busy or didn’t feel like it, because it was what you were supposed to do when someone reached out. If one of us had a court date, we all had a court date. We high-fived and trashed talked each other. We were at once humbled by what we had survived and confident and proud of our new lease on life. We were, in so many ways, back.

********

But as time wore on in our new lives, maybe we started to become complacent. Maybe we took some things for granted. Maybe there were some underlying things we didn’t or couldn’t fix within us or between us. I’ve never been completely sure, and that’s always been part of my problem with the whole thing. Maybe the high fives weren’t shared as often. Maybe the conferences, meetings and speaking opportunities became easier to brush off in favor of new things. Or old things. Maybe we stopped being grateful. Maybe we stopped telling each other the truth. But in the middle of it all, we had lost our way, and I didn’t know exactly how much until we couldn’t get ahold of Dave.

Jimmy didn’t seem too bothered by not being able to get in touch with Dave, at first. There were all kinds of possible reasons, and they didn’t have to be bad ones, he thought. I was frustrated, but in the end, we both figured he’d come around. There had been a few things that had happened recently that may have accounted for it. Maybe he got a job. Maybe he was pissed at us. Maybe he was burnt out on recovery and the pace at which we were going. We decided, fatefully, to give him space. For two weeks we went on with life – work, meetings, family- waiting for him to come back to the fold.

********

The alarm went off that Friday just like it did every other morning, the beep-beep-beep pulling me out of slumber to be replaced by a clicking sound and the local radio news morning update. I sat up in the dark, eyes still shut, when I heard, “A one car crash over night leaves…. County Road A….David…..”

I rubbed my eyes and yawned and I had to rewind and play again in my head what I thought I had just heard. Confused and still half awake, I grabbed the radio and tried to tune in other stations on the chance that I might hear it again, but I got nothing. Turning the radio off, I called work and told them that I wouldn’t be in, that a friend had been in an accident. I dressed on the way to the door and put my shoes on as I hopped down the sidewalk toward the car. It can’t be, I thought.

I drove and thought. Thought and drove. My mind raced and feared the worst, and then a wave of reassurance due to being half asleep and the belief that I simply had not heard it correctly. But I still felt I had to drive down there and check. It couldn’t be. The farther I drove and the closer I was to the approaching town, the better I felt. Stupid dream.

Then, rounding the last curve in the road on County A, the last corner before town, I saw the tire tracks. I saw the car. I saw the police cars. I saw the tape. I saw the tow truck parked off to the side. I pulled over and got out. I leaned up against the car with my arms folded. I didn’t know what else to do. After some time, an older deputy approached me. We talked for a few minutes about what details he could give, he shared his condolences and went back to work. It was surreal. It was bullshit. It was over. On the way back to town, I wondered what his family must have been going through at that moment. I wondered how they were ever going to make it through the loss of a son and brother. I wondered how Jimmy would take it, and I wondered how I was going to tell him. And I wondered why. Then there were two.

********

We were never the same after Dave’s passing. Jimmy couldn’t even bring himself to go to the funeral and I went mostly because I couldn’t bring myself to not go. We talked a lot, Jimmy and I, but it was never the real, teammate, crunch-time, got-your-back, kind of stuff that we had grown accustomed to. There was no banging on the door if one of us missed a meeting. There was no car in the driveway if we didn’t answer the phone. Little by little, Dave’s passing, and our assumed responsibility for not preventing it, slowly pulled us into the swamp of relapse. Eventually we just stopped calling and contacting each other because we each believed we were a little more at fault than the other for what had happened somehow. We carried the burden as quietly as we could for as long as we could.

While I don’t believe Jimmy ever touched another drink, I know that he fought demons that rarely let him rest. For my part, I stayed clean for another eight or nine months before I went back to using, and only a few months after that came the day I spiked the case on the driveway and challenged the world to a fist fight.

********

It was twelve years after Dave passed, that I learned Jimmy had died suddenly. That was in 2006. Over that twelve-year span, I had to work to recover from addiction and fight mental health issues, and to deal with the memory hoarder’s paradise that is survivor’s guilt. Counselors, therapists, other addicts, family, friends, enemies -you name it- I had help. It wasn’t an exercise in valor or the yearning for a higher level of existence, it was an exercise in survival. And then there was one.

It was during the time of my Dad’s passing, in between Dave’s and Jimmy’s, that a pastor put a hand on my shoulder and suggested that maybe the best we can do is take them with us on our journey until we meet again. I’ve never forgotten that, and that little act of kindness and empathy forged a gigantic shift in my view and perspective on the finite of life, and the infinite universe, but that’s a story for another time.

That shift, that little spark, was part of a lengthy process moving from fixating on something I could never change and riding it to hell and back, to coming to the belief that there is a different way. Who wins a war with the Universe? Who calls out spirits and challenges a God or gods he isn’t even sure he believes are real? Who seeks closure through rage? I did, and it didn’t work. When you get your ass kicked that badly, sometimes it’s best to accept it and regroup. There is no science to it, and it may not even make sense. All I know is that it seems to work day to day, and I am not imprisoned by guilt anymore about something I could never control in the first place.

********

Today, I am where I am in no small part because of Dave and Jimmy. And although I don’t carry the baggage I used to, I love them like brothers. I am grateful for the time we got to spend together, even in the eye of the storm. There is no doubt that they helped people achieve lasting recovery while they were here, and I owe it to them to keep walking, come what may. Without our paths crossing back then, I’m sure there would have been an early end to my own story.

Today, I use the suggestion I received and I take them with me, and we get to do the things said we would. After I’d been in recovery for quite a few years, I went back and finished school and earned a counseling degree. Behind the curtain that graduation night, I met with Dave and Jimmy. We made it, gentlemen. Each time I reach another year in recovery from addiction, I call on them. We made It, Fellas. Before playing football for the first time in twenty-one years, I walked over to the corner of the end zone during pregame and met with Dave, Jimmy and Dad. We made it, gentlemen. When our granddaughters were born, I made it, Guys… When it’s quiet and there is that fleeting moment of clarity and peace, however brief, that we once worked together for…. We made it, gentlemen.

And it isn’t just them. Others who have passed, I’ve learned to take along the best I can. That is something I carry without fatigue. I am still part of this world, don’t get me wrong. But I am grateful today to be able to do it until we meet again, however and wherever that is. That is of course, if God or the spirits don’t hold grudges and if the Universe isn’t sore for my tantrum in the driveway all those years ago.

We made it, gentlemen.

In memory of

Dave Mickelson

and

Jim Torpen

Old Coaches, Depression and Warrior Mentality

wp-15883816094604539546167274765466.jpg

It was during the fifth day of my third inpatient treatment, fresh off a four day detox, when my newly appointed counselor looked up from her assessment notes, and asked,  “Have you ever been diagnosed with depression?”

We had been sitting in her office for what seemed like days. She asked me questions about everything from my friends and family to my drug of choice to thoughts and feelings.  I didn’t really give much thought to the answers until she asked the one about depression.  Up until then I had never been screened or diagnosed with anything.  I was in a treatment facility for alcohol and drug addiction after all, and not for depression.  I had no idea at that time that depression was real and that addiction and depression could be related.

The only time I’d ever seen a psychologist or psychiatrist up until that time was after I wound up in my first detox stay and weekend hold, and that was only to assess whether or not I was a danger to myself.  The night I ended up in that detox, I had been out with some friends one evening and, as was the norm, I drank too much.  What wasn’t the norm -at least at that time- was that during a blackout I threatened people’s lives (including my own), and I was apparently unhinged enough that my Dad had to hold me face down in the yard, after one of the times I fell, until the policeman in town and the ambulance arrived.  I still remember, many years later, Mom crying and Dad apologizing to me as he held me down to protect me from myself.  It turns out that a blood alcohol level four times the legal limit agreed neither with my mind nor my body, and it didn’t do much for the people around me, either.

Back to my counselor and the assessment.  In hindsight, that question, and her insight and willingness to ask after it had been missed in previous interventions, probably did a lot to save my life.  She connected me with a doctor in the area who had a lot of experience with patients with co-occurring disorders, patients with two different issues going on at the same time.  In my case they were addiction (substance use disorder) and a suspected depression.  The result of our meeting was that I was diagnosed with clinical depression, and I learned as we continued to meet that it is something that I had lived with as far back into my childhood as I could remember.

 

When I was diagnosed with depression, I felt two completely different emotions at once, or within  seconds.  When the doctor described the diagnosis and some of the symptoms and how they may explain some of the deep, dark things I was going through at that time, I felt an enormous amount of relief.  There was a name for it.  It was something I didn’t have to (if I so chose) hide anymore.  There was help.  There was treatment.  There was hope.  Then, an instant later, a feeling of dread washed in like a wave on a beach, ruining the neat little sand castle of hope that my mind had built on the shore during that few seconds of relief.  Dread, of course, due to the realization that now not only would I have to fight a drug and alcohol addiction that was raising hell in every facet of my life, while I seemed almost eager to aid in the destruction any way I could, there was another enemy to fight in depression.  However, what I learned over time was that the dread was unnecessary.  It wasn’t really a new opponent.  It was a new label.  I used to describe it with words like “empty” or “dark.”  From that point on, it just had a new name.

All this happened many years ago now, around the time of the big antidepressant boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and over the years I was prescribed everything under the sun which was thought to ease depression, rewire the brain or to help balance brain chemicals, with varying success.  Back then, antidepressant medications were everywhere and were thought to be real life savers for people with mental health issues, issues that up until that time were often not spoken about, even between family members, close friends or spouses.  Depression, anxiety and the like were often seen as weaknesses, and they could be fixed much like addiction, with new routines, added diligence and more will power.  There was a long-standing stigma to mental health issues, and sadly, some of that still exists.

That day in treatment was many years ago now, and although it marked a turning point for me in my battle with addiction and depression, I wasn’t able to achieve long-term recovery from alcohol and drugs for some time after this.  At that time, I counted it a failure, my not staying clean after that treatment experience.  But I’ve learned in the almost 18 years of recovery since that it wasn’t a failure, and I didn’t lose the war.  I lost a battle.  There is a huge difference.

There is a question often posed in treatment and recovery circles, and for people with co-occurring disorders, about which disorder came first, a chicken or egg thing, I guess.  Some people claim their depressive disorder or anxiety disorders are brought on by addiction.  Some say trauma makes one or both likely, in either order.  In my case it is clear cut.  I’ve never wondered about it.  Depression, the “empty,” was a tenant in my head long before addiction was, but they seemed to feed off each other once I found alcohol and then drugs.  I look back at some of the people who were unfortunate enough to be in my life at that time, and I wonder, among other things, how some of them didn’t lose their sense of reality in what must have been a heavy storm for them, or lash out at me in fear or frustration, which they did not. In the end people in my life at that time had two choices: they could stay and eventually become pulled into the ongoing chaos, or they could save themselves and leave.  Sometimes I left because even early on, the alcohol and drug use had become a full time job, which didn’t leave much room for anything else.  I was continually trying to kill the depression and fill the empty with chemicals, and I did it until I couldn’t do it anymore, but that’s another story for another time.

“The opposite of depression isn’t happiness, but  vitality.”   -Andrew Solomon

Today, I still battle depression and it is all a part of daily recovery.  It hasn’t gone away, and I don’t kid myself thinking that it ever will.  There are days when I am pretty sure I can take on the world and come out of it okay, while there are still days that are quite the opposite.  There are days when I cope well and there are days when I act like a pissed off four year old in the midst of a sugar crash.  I’ve seen people tougher than me die from addiction and depression, and I’ve seen people overcome odds that seem impossible.

I have been fortunate enough to have been able to adopt and adapt my mindset as my journey continues, and I learn from a lot of inspiring, motivating people who battle their opponents daily.  Even words, terms and my perspectives on things have changed along the way.  Words have meaning, and I don’t share the following to upset anyone else on their journey with addiction recovery or mental health recovery.  I share it because it is important to me, and it has been important in my recovery from both.  Earlier I said I battle depression, and that is what I mean. I used to struggle with addiction.  I used to suffer from depression.  Today, I battle it, and that simple change in terms and perspective has been invaluable in the way I approach recovery.  I don’t suffer from it.  I don’t struggle with it.  I don’t bow down to it.  I don’t use it as a crutch.  I battle it, and I prepare, not as a victim or prisoner, but as a warrior.

 

When I was growing up, my classmates and I had the privilege of playing different sports at a small school for three coaches who would later end up in their respective coaching halls of fame.  Each of the three had vastly different coaching styles, huge knowledge bases and experience, and unique ways of communicating their knowledge and developing skill.   There was also the belief that we were never out of a game, no matter the score, if there was still time left on the clock.  I recall arriving at film studies and chalk talks and being met at the door with scouting reports that were so thorough and film that was so dissected that we knew more about the teams we were going to play than they knew about themselves.  Although I have borrowed a lot from their teachings and applied them to my life over the years, the one thing that stands out above all else was their preparation and attention to detail, and they were masters at both.

Perspective and preparation have gone hand in hand in my battle with depression and journey through recovery. As someone who suffered or struggled, I spent a lot of time reacting, playing defense, and waiting for my opponent’s next attack.  I was always tired, and it seemed I could never really plan or enjoy anything because I could never really be sure when the next wave would hit, and I didn’t do a good job preparing for it either way.  That isn’t to say that thinking about an obstacle differently somehow changes the obstacle.  In my experience, it doesn’t.  It changes me.

Today I have a scouting report on my opponent and I use it.  Today I better understand my skills and abilities as they pertain to battling depression and continuing the journey of recovery.  I have family and friends, I have hope and the gift of today.  I can share my experience in hopes of helping others, when for years I kept it all hidden.  Adopting a kind of warrior mentality and having the mindset that my opponent is beatable has truly made all the difference.