Thanks for Saving my Life

I don’t miss flashing red and blue lights. I don’t miss spending so much time chasing my next escape that I lost who I was. I don’t miss wondering what the hell I did the night before, or why a strange car might be parked in the driveway. I don’t miss trying desperately to remember the complicated, intricate lies I felt I had to tell in order to extend the charade that my life had become.  I don’t miss detox. I don’t miss psych wards. I don’t miss the isolating, soul-crushing feeling of hopelessness, and I don’t miss who I used to be.

I’ve been fortunate to have been given the gift of some time in recovery, and lately I’ve done some reflecting on it all.  One of the things that keeps pushing its way to the forefront is the reality that that I wouldn’t be here without the help of an army of people.  

In a world where common philosophy is to be self-made and self-sufficient, I have come to realize that I can’t even pretend to claim that status, and I’m okay with it. I am a collection of influences, interventions and conversations taken from the people who have crossed my path. It’s past time to thank just a few of the people for crossing when they did. 

Law enforcement

In all my experiences with law enforcement, belligerent as I often was, they were always more than patient with me. With very, very few exceptions, my encounters with law enforcement were positive, even under the often crappy circumstances I pulled them into.  As with life in a small town, we all knew each other, and as with life in addiction, we saw more of each other as time wore on.  But, they always arrived ready to de-escalate and to show empathy and understanding with me, no matter how their days had gone before coming into contact with me.  One of my old hometown officers even drove me to my last detox after he had completed his shift. Others still check in from time to time, and I appreciate that.

Law enforcement officers have tough jobs to do, and I know I didn’t do much to make it easier on them back then. I have a lot of respect for them, especially the guys who served my hometown.

My hometown clinic

When I began this process of recovery after many failed attempts, I planned with the understanding that it would be my last chance. I had to look at things that had gone wrong in previous attempts in order to give myself a better chance at survival.  I had to become willing to try things I wasn’t willing to do before, whatever they might be.

At the time of my recovery, I didn’t receive treatment for opiate addiction and withdrawal. There were no methadone clinics, I didn’t have suboxone, nor any other medication-assisted treatment that today is known to offer the best long-term recovery outcomes.

To add to that, and to make matters more complicated, I wasn’t honest at the time about my relationship with opiates, due at least in part to the stigma associated with it decades ago. As far as that part of my addiction went, I left myself no choice but to go through the withdrawals without the stabilizing benefit of medications.  Being upfront about it could have made things a lot easier, but I wasn’t. Lesson learned.

One of the things that was available for my addiction to alcohol was Disulfiram, or Antabuse. Disulfiram works by blocking the enzyme that breaks down consumed alcohol to acetaldehyde, resulting in a very unpleasant experience.  Without that enzyme, alcohol basically becomes a poison to the body, and the effects of consuming alcohol while taking Disulfiram are nightmarish. In case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve tried it. I don’t recommend it.

When part of my recovery plan called for Antabuse, the people at my hometown clinic welcomed me in after work three days a week for a long, long time.  I was always met with a smile and led to a room, usually without waiting.  They would dispense the medication and allow me to sit for 20 minutes, or however long our conversations would last on a given day.

After they had spent long days tending to people who were sick or injured, they would invest their time to improve my chance at recovery.  Each person I encountered at the clinic treated me like I was the most important person there. Three days a week, every week.  I’ve never forgotten the kindness of the life savers at the clinic in my hometown, and I think of the impact they have had on my recovery often.

Pastor Lewis Thompson

Nothing about me or my environment would lead you to believe I am religious about anything.  While I grew up in a church, I have never had the enthusiasm many have for organized worship.  I’ve always been more private about my relationship with God, the Universe, or whatever it is that carved out all the wonder that is life and existence.

None of my reservations about church membership, singing in the choir, or participating in activities mattered to Pastor Thompson.  When he learned of my struggles, he offered to share his time with me. This is the same man who would, a few months later, end his sabbatical early to return to tend to my Dad’s passing.

I decided to take him up on it, even while playing scenarios in my head about some sort of fire and brimstone message regarding the evils of drink. As it turned out, we had some of the best talks I’ve ever had with anyone about recovery, specifically, and about life in general.

What made those talks memorable was that Pastor Thompson didn’t share so much as an agent of a particular faith bound by a certain message, but rather as a student of the miracle of existence and as an advocate for the power of hope, joy and connection. Pastor Thompson, in my experience, was hope personified. 

There was no quoting of scripture. We would simply talk. He had an entire flock to take care of, so to speak, and he took time with me. There were no lectures on right or wrong, good or bad. Instead, we talked of the tangible and intangible, and that within that mix, the power of change stood. The human spirit as a universal property and a powerful mechanism in the harnessing of reclamation and power, and whether he knew it at the time or not, he was sharing with me one of the most powerful principles of recovery, the principle of hope.

There aren’t too many days that go by that I’m not reminded of Pastor Thompson and his impact on my life, and some day I’ll see him again.

Detox staff 

Going into a medically-supervised detoxification (“detox”) is quite an event. People don’t casually stroll into a detox unit to check it out. Depending on the substance or substances a person uses, withdrawal is at the very least uncomfortable, and can even be deadly, depending on blood levels, duration of use, tolerance and other factors. If one is lucky, they get some form of treatment, usually inpatient or residential, that immediately follows detox from alcohol or other drugs.

There is a kind of reckoning when one goes to detox, that there has been a level unlocked in the progression of the ingestion of chemicals in which the engaging of medical professionals is required to safely intervene in that ingestion.

In my experience with detox stays (there have been a few), I was always shocked by how they did what they did (and do) for the people they do it for, in the way they do it. Detox just plain sucks, and the people who had to put up with me saw me at my worst. Yet, they were always patient, kind and understanding, all within an often unforgiving process. They didn’t put up with a whole lot of nonsense, but they didn’t give any either, and I am grateful for them.

Inpatient behavioral health staff

Today, psych wards are called by cleaner, more sterile, more user-friendly, non-stigmatizing names like “Behavioral Health Unit” or, “Secured Behavioral Health Center.” For lack of a better description, these are fascinating places in the way that there are people from all walks of life, often making up every demographic in the area, who face a wide range of mental health issues, all captured within one small unit in an otherwise huge hospital. Mental health issues are health issues, and they are more common and more devastating than we’d like to believe.

For many, substance use disorder and mental health issues go together. That was certainly the case for me, and that mix of self-medicating untreated, or undertreated, mental health and substance use issues led me to a few fairly short stays in such a unit, if there is such a thing as a “short” stay there.

Much like the rest of my examples, the people who worked at the units I visited went above and beyond in what was often a chaotic environment, and through their care, expertise and resources, they did a lot to make sure I could be here today.

Naysayers

Naysayers are everywhere.  You’ll find them in your neighborhood, at work, school or social events, and you may even find a few among family and friends. 

I’ve had to deal with the Naysayer within me, and still do, whether the messages have been planted by someone else or are a product of my own experience with setback, past failures and insecurities. 

External Naysayers are different from the people in your circle who are healthy, supportive mentors, friends or peers who challenge you or share a perspective out of care and concern. Naysayers are in the business of dream and purpose limiting, and they enjoy the status quo. There is homeostasis, a balance, that people tend toward, even when that balance is toxic or unhealthy. At different points in my life, I seemed to surround myself with Naysayers, or at the very least, welcomed their presence as some sort of elaborate form of self-sabotage.

Naysayers can certainly hold power over a person, depending on relationship dynamics. They can plant messages that become part of one’s thought cycle, especially if they have some influence in your life. Settle. You can’t. You’ll never. You’ll always. Why can’t you just. You should. In my experience, these are some of the preferred tools of the Naysayer.

But beneath my outwardly calm, fairly quiet, introverted outer shell lurks an equally present non-conforming, pissed-off ten year old. Right or wrong, that kid comes to the surface when I am in contact with a Naysayer. He always has, and I’ve learned that it’s a built in safety feature for me as my journey continues.

I’ve come to terms with the idea of a sort of gratitude and empathy for Naysayers, because they have helped me to maintain a defiance that fuels my recovery from the things that once all but destroyed me.

Those who model recovery

People model recovery, not by telling you , but by showing you. Hell, people who aren’t even “in recovery” from substance use disorder or mental health issues are role models for me, and we’re all in recovery from something. Football and basketball coaches I have been blessed to have worked with and played for over the years, a custodian where I once worked, and an old health teacher of mine have modeled recovery, to name just a few. There are many definitions of “recovery,” and just about every organization has one.  If you’re lacking a role model in an area of your life, I invited you to find one. One would be hard-pressed to swing a stick and not hit a prospective role model. They are out there, they are everywhere, and I am lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to meet some good ones.

Old friends

I used to be hell on wheels. One never knew quite what they were going to get with me. I could be the life of the party. I could also be an out of control shit storm. I was sick, and I didn’t tell anyone. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to. How do you tell someone you consistently think about escaping your own life while trying to hide from it all by numbing yourself with chemicals, while also not being able to explain the need to do both?

I was no good for a reasonable relationship of any kind when I was in active addiction, and a lot of good people paid a price for my inability, or unwillingness, to tell those closest to me what I was going through. Instead, they were left to come to probably the only reasonable conclusion they could arrive at: I was trouble.

I pulled people close and pushed them away, often at the same time. What was going on inside me often made its way to the outside, no matter how hard I tried to keep it in, and I worked hard at it. I was often wrapped tightly in the spiraling cycles of addiction and mental health issues that were out of control. As a result, I treated a lot of people like hell while they tried in vain to figure out what was going on and how they could help. It is a testament to the strength and character of those who did the best they could with me, even when I gave them every reason not to.

People gone too soon

I am aware that I have been given more chances than I care to admit sometimes to figure this stuff out. We all know someone who has lost their battle to addiction, mental health issues, or both. Like everyone else, I mourn the loss of those gone way too soon, and with grief travels the wonder of what might have been.

It used to tear me to the brink of rage. I used to get angry about it, and sometimes I still do. The death of one friend led in time to a relapse, which in itself, was completely counterproductive and disrespectful to what our goal was in the first place. Our goal was to recover. Another lesson learned.

I still grieve, but not like I used to. I can’t stop time or be consumed with guilt over what magical, super-human thing I could have done to save someone, and no one else should ever be in that position, either.

I’ve come to terms with loss in the only way I have been able to. I believe I’ll see them again. Until I do, I take their memory with me. That seems to make it easier to keep moving. Do their spirits live on? They do here. Every single day.

Self-help groups

Overly-enthusiastic 12 Step Guy, Sober-for-years-and-still-pissed-at-the-world Guy, God Saves Guy, Treatment Relationship Guy, Newly Sober Expert Guy, Working A Solid Program Guy. At one time or another, I’ve been most of them, and probably still am in one way or another. We are all works in progress, and that’s the often overlooked beauty if it all. To my peers in recovery, thank you for putting up with me. I am here, and I am always going to be.

Mental health and addiction counselors

At one time or another, I despised each and every one of them.

During one of my first rehabs, a little old counselor told me I needed to say, “I am a beautiful, intelligent, worthwhile human being,” in the mirror every morning. I thought he was joking. Turns out he wasn’t. It took me years to say that without sarcasm, but I remember it decades later.

I was fortunate enough to be a part of consistent, safe, supportive, evidence-based programs where I was held accountable and was part of the decision-making process from start to finish over how I was going to go about the business of not dying from the things I was dealing with. Change isn’t about comfort. For me, it was about calling me on my crap, sharing some practical tools, and identifying the strengths I had and how to use them. As time goes on, I realize more and more how lucky I was to have access to those resources.

Over the years, I was blessed with competent, ethical, person-centered counselors who challenged and supported me, even when I didn’t want them to. Most of them used their platform, not as a hierarchical, pathology-based, empowered-helping-the-powerless relationship, but as a partnership where we got to work and straightened up my wreckage together. That is counseling at its best, and I thank them for it. All of it.

Family

I wasn’t raised in a home that was neglectful or abusive in any way. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I was raised in a loving, caring home with an equally loving extended family, neighbors and family friends. Many of the people I have known who deal with addiction and mental health issues weren’t so lucky. There is a connection between abusive or neglectful childhoods and alcohol and drug use in the family, and future mental health and addiction issues, but I didn’t have any of that.

I think the hardest thing for my family was what must have been the overwhelming feeling of helplessness during my dance with addiction and undiagnosed (at that time) mental health issues. They couldn’t love me enough, or cry enough, or worry enough, to help me not destroy myself and everything around me. They didn’t know if they were enabling me or setting boundaries, and I didn’t do much to help them out with it all. They didn’t know if they should yell at me, or hug me, or both. They didn’t know if they should stand back or step forward. They didn’t know if they should tell someone or say nothing. When the phone rang at 2:30 in the morning, they didn’t know if it was one of my drunk friends or if they were going to be notified that I was found in a ditch somewhere. They didn’t know how to deal with their own life issues and health emergencies when their lives were often consumed with waiting for the sky to come crashing down again, as it always seemed to. They didn’t know how to answer questions from neighbors and friends about my name being in the paper for one substance-fueled escapade or another. They didn’t know if they should get help themselves or continue to do what they could to get help for me. This is often what a family experiences when someone struggles with addiction.

Lost trust and shattered dreams aside, every time I asked for help, they were there. A trip to detox in the middle of the night. Driving me to outpatient treatment after I’d lost my license more than once. Visits to one of my several inpatient treatment stays. Financial support, even when they had to cut out other things to make it work. I could go on for days about the ways my family showed up for me, even after all I put them through.

Each time I told them I was going to try again, failed attempt after failed attempt, they supported me. I imagine their enthusiasm and hope may have been a bit beaten up each time something went wrong, but they never lost it, and I don’t know how I would have made it through all of the garbage without them right down there in the mess, sleeves rolled up, ready to go. I would have been gone long ago if it wasn’t for my family.

My circle

I have been given the gift of some longevity in the realm of addiction, mental health issues and recovery. The people in my life today help feed the fire of recovery. They see possibilities instead of roadblocks. They offer their insight and experience, rather than judgment. The people in my life contribute to what others helped start, and I try, sometimes failing miserably, to share that with others. We often make the mistake of believing we are somehow finished works, or that we have to do it on our own. That doesn’t fly with the people in my life today. We are all works in progress, and I am grateful I have people who are supportive of, and hold me accountable to, that work.

So, in the end, I am no where near self-made, despite the fleeting delusions I sometimes have. I am certainly in charge of my recovery today, but a lot of people helped make that possible, as unlikely as it may have seemed back then.

For all the things people have done and continue to do for me and others in recovery, and for those who help people get to recovery, you have my undying appreciation and respect. I’ll finish what we started together, I’ll take care of it, and I’ll keep working at it. Thank you for giving me that chance.

If you or someone you know needs help with substance use disorder or mental health issues, reach out. Google resources in your area. Call your county department of human services. Use the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) Treatment Locator online. Contact someone you know who is in recovery. Resources are there, and you don’t have to go through it alone.

In memory of those who lost their battles while waiting for help to come.

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.

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 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.