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.

Old Friends, Survivor’s Guilt and Surviving

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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

On Pep Talks and Beating Goliath

Several years ago, as I was nearing the end of a substance abuse counseling internship, I was asked to deliver a graduation message at the correctional treatment facility where I had been working. The message would be a small part of the ceremony for a group of inmates I had had the privilege of working with who had successfully completed the treatment program there and were nearing release. I got to spend a lot of time with the men in the program and I learned a lot about not only their offenses, their sentences and their addictions, but about them as people- their hobbies, their families, and sometimes their hopes and dreams. They were all very different people in age, class, profession and ideology. Most of the time it seemed that the only thing they had in common, really, was that they all new their release dates and they were all dealing with the consequences brought by their addictions.

By the day of the graduation I felt confident that I had put together a half way decent message. As the ceremony began, the large commons room was filled with different staff members of the prison, invited guests and family members from the outside, and the graduating men. A few minutes before I was to speak, I snuck one last peak down at my cards to make sure I had them all, and had them all in order, when a staff member sat down beside me. This staff member had been at the prison for many years and, from everything I had seen up to that point, was everything one could imagine in someone who provides addiction treatment. "Don't waste your time on a pep talk, it won't do any good." Then, just as quickly and quietly as they had sat down, they were gone.

Webster's Dictionary says that a pep talk is, "a usually brief, intense, and emotional talk designed to influence or encourage an audience."

I remember that to this day, and I often think about how it pertains, in the way of pep talks or outside motivation, to me and my own recovery journey. And why some people give up, when others don't. No matter the reason for the statement -whether brought on by frustration, bias, fatigue, hostility, or any other reason- I realized it said much more about the professional in that instant than it did any of the offenders. Truth be told, it gave me a resolve that I have hung on to since then that I would counterbalance that attitude in the universe by never betting against the possibility of recovery, no matter what the odds seem to be. Because if you've been around addiction and recovery long enough, you know that David can beat Goliath.

Back to that day. I remember most of it vividly. It was quite an event, complete with a powerful Native American drum ceremony, words of congratulations and celebration, gratitude and excitement, held together with reminders about vigilance and caution. My little talk? I don't think it qualified as much of a pep talk, and to be honest, it is one of the things I remember least about the whole day. What I do remember is the people. I remember people who were thrown together in what wasn't a beach-side. five-star resort-type rehab, to work on their problems, to pay their debts and to try to change their lives and to help those who were in the same predicament. A common goal. I sometimes wonder about those graduates and how their lives have turned out in the years that have come and gone since then. I wonder if they are still in recovery despite the obstacles many of them faced, and I am always hopeful that they are able to accept and enjoy and share the gifts that come with recovery from addiction.

In the end, we don’t need to be Vince Lombardi or Bear Bryant or Pat Summitt or John Wooden to make an impact. I guess we just need to be whatever it is that we are. When we show others we believe in them and we are pulling for them, often just by showing up, especially after they’ve fallen or are in a tough spot, we can spark hope. And hope is the foundation of not only recovery, but in the conquering of all things once thought impossible.

5 Things I’ve Learned About Addiction

I have been in the addiction and recovery arena in one way or another for almost 30 years.  About half of that time was spent battling addiction personally, in and out of treatment centers and detoxes, with fleeting stints of sobriety. The other roughly half of that time has been in continuous, sustained recovery.  During my time in recovery, I’ve been able to see things from the eyes of someone who struggles with addiction, someone who has his own recovery path and someone who has spent time as a substance abuse counselor.  My attitudes and biases have naturally changed as I have grown and gained knowledge, which seems to be a requirement if one is to defeat an enemy who is constantly at the gate.  Here are five things I have learned about addiction.

ADDICTION IS ONE OF THE MOST MISUNDERSTOOD ILLNESSES ON THE PLANET. There is an old saying that has to do with alcoholics being around since man first learned to crush grapes.  If you believe that as I do, that covers many centuries. In more recent times, Alcoholics Anonymous was founded somewhere around 1935, and the American Medical Association declared alcohol addiction an illness 1956.  If my math is right, that is 85 years and 64 years ago, respectively.  One would think that with all of the technological, scientific and sociological advances made during that time, we would have a better handle on the symptoms, causes, treatments and recovery paths for something so destructive.  And we would have a better view of the illness as an illness, and not a punch line, a head shake or an opportunity for horrible advice.
Yet, addiction is still widely misunderstood, even in 2020.  Doctors prescribe treatment they believe will help, yet medical professionals have over prescribed opiates to the point of being one of the catalysts to an epidemic.  The War on Drugs has gone on for over 45 years and has cost well over a trillion dollars, with really no meaningful, positive change.  In fact, the War On Drugs has been called an abject failure, but that is another post for another day. I promise.
Family members, friends and coworkers close to someone with a substance use disorder are often heard saying, “I wish they’d just quit this nonsense,” or “If they would just stick to beer.”  Movies portray addicts in ways that seem to exaggerate the symptoms to make a point.  Even the news media is involved.  It is not uncommon (in my area is it very common) for the local news to report on a burglary, high speed chase, standoff, or some other crime where charges result in, among other things, possession of heroin, methamphetamine and/or THC. These are just a few examples, and I’m not picking on anyone.

In modern society, we fix things with pills, when often pills are what get us into trouble in the first place.  (Don’t believe me?  Two words: television commercials.)  Family members, friends and coworkers also mean well, and often travel to the ends of the earth, and to the edge of sanity and well passed exhaustion, to help.  But, despite the best efforts of everyone involved, sometimes we contribute to the muddying of the waters and don’t do well to separate the myth from the truth concerning addiction, treatment and recovery.
All too often, if something is said enough times, if we see it in the news or on social media enough, even if it is completely wrong, it somehow becomes truth (see: politics). Stigma is a huge issue that perpetuates the myths concerning addiction.  Underfunding by our national, state and local governments is another barrier in the understanding of addiction, the reduction of stigma and the availability of treatment for those who struggle.  We can do better.

ADDICTION COSTS A LOT.  According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), substance abuse in the U.S. to alcohol and drugs costs over $520 billion annually. Let me say that again. FIVE HUNDRED-TWENTY BILLION DOLLARS per year.  The Institute includes crime, lost work productivity and healthcare costs in its numbers, while the healthcare numbers alone are $27 billion for alcohol and roughly $11 billion for illicit (illegal) drugs and $26 billion for prescription opiates.  (The cost concerning opiates will surely go up as new data is processed and becomes available.)  To put that into perspective, the cost of the effects of tobacco use and addiction in the U.S. costs roughly $300 billion a year, with over half of that ($168 billion) being healthcare costs.  Not only is addiction and its consequences costly for the person who struggles and for those close to that person, it is also a huge drain on our economy. Imagine if we spent anywhere near that on education, intervention and treatment accessibility and availability. And what if we spent money to develop prevention programs that work?

ADDICTION IS NOT A CHOICE.  I grew up in a small town in a neat neighborhood. My sister and I had lots of friends within a few blocks and the neighborhood was always alive with activity. Some of us wanted to be doctors when we grew up. Others wanted to be cowboys. Princesses. Astronauts. Dirt bike riders. Mechanics. Nurses.  Sometimes our future career choices depended on the popular TV shows or movies of the day. At the risk of dating myself, I’ll stay clear of listing those here.  But, of all the kids in my the neighborhood where I grew up, not once did anyone ever say they wanted to grow up to be an addict.
Addiction is a primary, progressive illness. It can travel alone or, as it often does, it can occur with other conditions like depression, anxiety disorder and so on.  It’s also impossible to predict with certainty who will become addicted to alcohol or other drugs or when it might occur. But there are some risk factors including genetics, age of onset (use), a preceding mental illness and trauma.
People make the choice to abuse, that is, to use a substance to gain a desired affect. People choose to binge drink. People choose to take pills or take a various array of other chemicals in many ways to gain or lose something in their lives, even temporarily, and I’m sure you’ve heard some of these reasons. To lose boredom. To gain excitement. To gain energy. To lose sadness. To lose stress. To gain camaraderie. To gain concentration. To lose weight. We could go on and on. But people choose, whether it is drinking to access, or to double a prescription dose, or to smoke, sniff or inject a substance. Obviously, we all make choices, and sometimes those choices have far reaching consequences. However, to make the connection that since one chooses to abuse, one then also chooses addiction, is irresponsible and really lazy. We choose to abuse. But we don’t choose to become addicts.

ADDICTION IS TERMINAL IF LEFT UNTREATED.  The American Medical Association classifies addiction as a disease and follows a disease model, much the way it classifies diabetes, heart disease and cancer.  The AMA also says that causes are sometimes determined by biological, environmental and behavioral factors. There is much debate about addiction as a disease or an illness, and a quick Google search can open up all sorts of thoughts and ideas on what addiction is to different people and organizations.  Here is where I usually ask people to do all the research they can. Ask questions, reach out. Find credible sources. Think critically.
This July will mark 18 years of continuous long term recovery from alcohol and drugs for me, but I believe truly and completely that I am only in remission.  One drink or drug will surely activate my illness.  You may ask how I know that. I gained valuable yet costly, first-hand experience on relapse personally before I gained long term recovery, and I’ve watched countless others do the same.
NIDA defines addiction as, “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.”
There are other definitions that echo this idea, some are quite long and more in depth.  For simplicity’s sake, I like to use this definition, and it describes my own addiction, and the addictions of the countless others I have met over the years, perfectly: “Addiction is chronic, and as such will get worse and never better over time if left untreated.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 88,000 people in the U.S. die each year from alcohol-related causes.  The CDC estimated that in 2017, there were over 72,000 opiate overdose deaths, which included both prescription and illicit drugs. To put that number in some sort of perspective, that was 197 people per day, every day, in 2017, from opiates alone.

ADDICTION IS BEATABLE.  Now that we have all that other stuff out of the way, we can get to the good stuff. Addiction is treatable, it is beatable, and you or someone you love can get their lives back. There are millions of people around the world who celebrate long term recovery. For all the data involving the negative aspects of addiction, there is also data on recovery. There are many pathways to recovery, and each path is as unique as the individual who makes the journey, and there have never been more pathways to recovery than in years past.  Recovery from addiction is possible, and there are millions of us who are proof of that, and there is plenty of room for millions more.
One of the most basic keys to recovery is that it is self-directed, meaning that the person recovering is in charge of determining the path he or she will follow.  Of course, there is much help out there to help guide along the path, or even to help one make the decision of which path to follow. The intervention someone who struggles with a substance use disorder receives, meaning the interruption of behavior, whether family, law enforcement contact, medical, or self-directed, can come in many forms.  Whatever form that intervention comes in, considering consequences, can be the foundation for an effective plan for recovery.
This is certainly not an unabridged, comprehensive reference guide on addiction. These are merely a few things I have learned along the way. There are many resources available online to learn more about addiction treatment, recovery groups, detoxification when needed, and often a medical professional can assist in finding the best option and level of care

5 Things I’ve Learned About Relapse

You or someone you know had a few weeks or months, or even years of recovery. Things appeared to be going well. Lives were getting back in order. The past was becoming just that. Things were good, or better than good. Then it came seemingly out of nowhere. Relapse. The hope, the ability to breathe easy -the overall feeling that things were getting better- were torn away. It seems that all the effort put into getting help and working hard to gain recovery was all for nothing.

But does relapse erase any previous growth or success? Here are five things I’ve learned about relapse from being around addiction in one way or another for 30 years.

Relapse Sucks. For the person struggling with addiction, relapse sucks. For the people around him or her, relapse also sucks. Rebuilt trust crumbles, restful nights once again turn sleepless. Every time the phone rings, it brings with it a dose of panic. These things are common for a spouse or significant other, friends and family members, clergy, counseling professionals, coworkers, neighbors or anyone else involved with the wellbeing of someone who struggles with substance use disorder. But, as someone who survived more than one relapse before I found long term recovery, there are some things to consider.

Relapse Doesn’t Mean You Suck. My experience with relapse came with a boat load of shame. Because I relapsed, I was not only defective, I was broken. Bad. I believed somehow that I deserved addiction and therefore didn’t deserve recovery. Shame is toxic, devoid of any constructive use whatsoever, and in my case, shame prolonged my active addiction and complicated recovery efforts. Shame, quite simply, kills.
Early on, I hadn’t come to grips with the idea that I was battling an illness or disease. What I believed was that because I couldn’t control my drinking or drug use and kept using even in the face of worsening negative consequences, there was something unfixable within me. Today I know that to be false. I didn’t choose to be an addict. No one does. Not you, not your parent, not your husband, daughter, cousin or the guy down the street. I’ve been around this stuff for a long time and I’ve never heard anyone once say that their life’s dream was to become an addict.

Relapse Isn’t a Spur of the Moment Thing. Regarding drinking and drug use, we’ve all heard about people who “slipped,” or “fell off the wagon,” after some time without using chemicals. Along my winding path to sustained abstinence and long term recovery, I used the same language to describe my relapses, usually to my own benefit, to explain to others that I got drunk out of no where after some clean time. In reality what I was doing was trying somehow to magically reduce my responsibility in the whole matter. I was doing great. Then, all of a sudden, I drank! I know, weird, right?

Looking back, I never “slipped.” It never came out of no where. I was never blind sided by a return to using. Instead, there were always doors I had left open or things I hadn’t done, whether intentionally or not, to make it easier to return to using. I kept old friends and relationships. I kept going to parties and bars under the guise of being a “designated driver.” I thought I could handle it. I wasn’t always honest with myself about how serious my addiction was. I daydreamed about using again and thought usually of only positive consequences. When I did think about the negative possibilities, I often minimized, rationalized or denied them. What I was doing was setting myself up for relapse.

Hearing relapse stories, studying relapse, surviving my own relapses and working with others through theirs, experience says that what seems to be a “slip” can usually (if not always) be traced back to something done, or left undone, during early recovery.

Relapse… Happens. Data shows that people with substance use disorders relapse at a rate comparable to people with other chronic illnesses like diabetes, asthma or hypertension, according to the National Institute of Health.

Relapse Can Be A Good Recovery Tool. I would never, ever, never, ever advocate for someone to relapse back to using or anything close to that. Some people don’t make it back from relapse and we face an illness with often heavy negative consequences.
But a point to make about relapse is the idea that it doesn’t always mean using, if you believe relapse is a process, just as recovery is. More often than not, however, the act of using or drinking is what is talked about, because that is when relapse is most easily identifiable. For example, if someone in recovery would stop doing the things they did to get sober, say, if they were to quit going to therapy or meetings, that would be something to look at and find answers for. If he or she were to go back to doing some of the same things they did while in active addiction -hang out in bars, hang out with old using friends, spend a lot of time thinking about the “old days”- they may be areas to highlight as well. A new or reestablished negative outlook (they used to call it “stinkin’ thinkin’), money being spent, whereabouts being unaccounted for… These are just a few quick examples, and when identified and corrected, can help establish a new, improved plan of attack in recovery.

*********

This, of course, is in no way a comprehensive list of ideas regarding relapse. It is merely a quick sketch of things I have picked up along the way. There are many things to learn from relapse that can help forge a path to long term recovery. Recovery is a journey and relapse can be part of that journey, but it doesn’t have to be the end of it.