A Sunny Thing Happened on the Way to My Demise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s just not true,” Sunny said.

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

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

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

“What?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The File Cabinets and Chalkboards in my Head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOW CAN YOU FIND ANYTHING IN HERE???

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

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

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

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

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

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

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