Imagine a bulletin board on the internet that allowed anyone to comment – anonymously – on your job performance.
Anyone can say whatever they want about the work you do. Some praise and thank you. Others mock you and trash a project that you painstakingly researched and produced. You must always always put your name on your work and claim it as your own. Still, anonymous critics swipe away at your work, leaving you unable to confront your accuser.
That’s what it’s like to be a newspaper reporter these days. It used to be that when readers wanted to criticize or comment on your story they would write a letter to the editor. Newspapers didn’t publish anonymous letters. They called the author and confirmed the person actually wrote the letter.
Then came the internet. Anyone can anonymously say anything about your work – and you – without any consequence. It ‘s unfair but as my mother used to say – “Life isn’t fair.”
You were right, mom. Life isn’t fair.
I am also an alcoholic. An alcoholic journalist. It’s been 15 years since I had my last drink but I am still an alcoholic and still a journalist. Always will be. I’m not ashamed of being an alcoholic or a journalist. I understand there is still a lot of stigma associated with being an alcoholic. But I am at a point in my career, life and recovery where I am comfortable with who I am. I don’t hide either but I don’t mix the two in reporting the news.
Two down. One to go.
Yes, we made it through Thanksgiving, rounded second base, aka Christmas, and are headed to third: New Years Eve.
At this point in the holiday season many of us with mental illnesses are merely “coping.” We are coping with the in-laws. We are coping with children in the throes of sugar detox. We are coping with long lines, stolen parking spots and endless renditions of the same Christmas carols. Seriously, how many different ways can you sing Santa Baby?
1. Thou shalt not drink.
2. Thou shalt not drink.
3. Thou shalt not drink.
4 .Thou shalt not drink.
5. Thou shalt not drink.
6. Thou shalt not drink.
7. Thou shalt not drink.
8. Thou shalt not drink.
9. Thou shalt not drink.
10. Thou shalt not drink.
Sounds a little harsh, but it’s not bad once you get the hang of it and understand why abstinence is so important for the mentally ill during the holidays. Alcohol is a depressant.
Have you ever read one of those Habits-of-Highly-Successful-Entrepreneurs/Athletes/Lawyers/Soccer Moms articles? I read them all. Depending on what kind of mood I’m in and who wrote it, these articles either instruct and inspire me or piss me off.
However, a friend posted one on her Facebook page a couple of days ago that is brilliant: The 14 Habits of Highly Miserable People. This is a must-read for anyone with depression but who is not currently in a depression.
Among the priceless lessons I learned in my recovery from alcoholism and depression is that I can control my thoughts. You would think I would have figured that out at an early age, since I’ve always been a control freak.
But I never viewed my thinking as an activity that needed regulation, like credit default swaps. In fact, I didn’t really view my thought process as a process at all. Thinking was something that just happened all the time, like your toenails growing. You just let it happen.
And boy howdy, does it happen when you are in a depression. All my thoughts were gloomy. Everything was hopeless. The same tapes of failure, victimization and powerlessness played over and over in my head.
Then someone suggested I bone up on Buddhism and try meditation. That’s when the skies parted and my life began to change. I learned that I get to choose what I think. I must be mindful of my thoughts. When I am mired in stinking thinking, I can simply stop thinking those thoughts and think of something else.
Who would have thought?!
Every Saturday morning I refill my pink pill box: S-M-T-W-T-F-S. I have been doing this for years. Three different medications. One of this pill. One of that pill. One-and-a-half of those pills. Every morning and every night, I take my meds. It’s like brushing my teeth – just something I do when I wake up and before I go to bed.
My meds. I go weeks without giving a thought to my meds. I just take them. My life is good. No more hopeless black holes or vibrating with energy like a wide-eyed racehorse pawing at the dirt in the starting gate. Nice and steady. I have grown used to it and I really, really like it.
So, when something comes along that has the potential to seriously disrupt my balance, I tend to freak out. Anxiety is the enemy. Drama is the enemy. I have made enough enemies in my life. I don’t need to make anymore.
There are three things that scare the hell out of me: Sharks. Being trapped in a car after an accident and cut out with the jaws of life; unemployment. As long as I stay out of the ocean and drive safely, I’m in good shape. Right now, unemployment is beyond my control.
And I like to be in control.
Fifteen years ago tonight I got very, very drunk. I don’t remember much of that night and what I do remember sickens me. I really hope that if my life flashes before me as I’m dying, this night is left out. I don’t really want to know what else happened that night.
Nothing has been the same since that night, August 27, 1998. It was simultaneously the worst and best night of my life. I hit bottom. I surrendered and started a new life- without drugs or alcohol. That night the first domino fell and since then I have learned that alcoholism is not my only mental illness. I also have hypomania – a kind of bipolar disorder with less dramatic and violent mood swings that bipolar I but my tendency is towards depression.
Getting sober was the beginning of my life making sense to me. If you do not have a mental illness, you may not understand how important it is for your life to make sense. Your life has probably always made sense to you.
My life was a disaster. I wasn’t even 40-years-old and I had already been through two marriages. I was a bitch. I had a lot of anger and spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself. Removing the alcohol made life even more raw – like someone had taken a potato peeler to my soul. I not only had to learn how to live without alcohol, I had to learn to live. Period.
Having grown up in an alcoholic household and starting my own drinking/drugging career at 14, my social skills were a little lacking. I had to learn how to play well with others instead of conquering others. I had to learn to do things like apologize and mean it, tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and learn how to dance without a dozen Coronas in me.
The first step of any 12-step program is to admit you are powerless over something and that your life has become unmanageable.
For many addicts and alcoholics, this is an extraordinarily difficult task even though their addiction has cost them their job, their marriage, a few teeth or most of their body fat. If you are not an addict, you look at these poor souls and wonder, “How can you possibly not see what you addiction has done to you?” “Why haven’t you you made that connection?”
A lot of it has to do with denial. They blame their predicament on anything and everything BUT their addiction: It’s the ultimate dog-ate-my-homework excuse on a massive scale. Taking that first step means admitting two things: 1. That you have no control over something. 2. That your life has become unmanageable.
There are some addicts and alcoholics who readily admit that their lives have become unmanageable, but they refuse to see that the cause of the un-manageability is drugs and/or alcohol.
For others, they readily admit that they cannot stop drugging or drinking but they cannot see that their lives have become unmanageable. I am one of these folks.
I was what is known as a high-functioning alcoholic. I knew I could not stop drinking. I even admitted I was an alcoholic. But I refused to admit that my life had become unmanageable. We are the ones who often drink at home, so no one can see our unmanageability. Those around us high-functioning addicts/alcoholics don’t see it either. In fact, they praise us for how well we manage our busy, successful lives.
Although we’re very often the biggest pricks you will ever meet, deep down we are very, very concerned about what other people think of us when it comes to our drinking and drug use. We can be ruthless in our drive to prove that we have control and that our lives are manageable.
You live like this long enough and you can become exceedingly good at what you do. Which is why a lot of high-functioning addicts and alcoholics are so successful. We work our asses off – will sacrifice our families, marriages and children – to prove to ourselves that our lives are manageable. The more unmanageable our drug use or drinking becomes, the harder we work at proving to ourselves and others that we have our shit together.
God help the person who threatens our relentless drive to prove that our lives are manageable. We will eat you alive. We can become ruthless, sarcastic, self-righteous bastards in our effort to prove the manageability of our lives. We will intimidate you so you will shut up. If you happen to have depression or bipolar along with your addiction, you are a living hell.
Here’s what it looked like for me:
Fourteen years ago today I took my last drink. I’m not sure exactly what it was because much of that night remains a blur – in and out of a blackout. I remember going to a party where there were massive martini glasses on each table filled with goldfish. I was determined to SAVE THE GOLDFISH! when the clean-up crew started flushing them down the toilet. Ah, the joys of being the last one at the party.
I have a few other snippets of drunken debauchery from that night but I clearly remember waking up and my neighbor coming over and asking if I was okay because my front door was wide open when he went out to get his paper that morning and some of my clothes — the kind of clothing that neighbors usually aren’t privy to seeing — were strewn about my front yard.
I stumbled into a 12-Step meeting later that day, sat in the back and realized I was in the right place — even though I thought it was insane that these people could be laughing at stories like mine from the night before! How dare they take this so lightly! Can’t they see how much pain I am in? What is wrong with these people?
A guy from Flagstaff, Arizona called me the other day out of the blue. He wanted to talk about some of my writings and we covered a lot of ground. A co-worker and I had a smorgasbord of a conversation yesterday – discussing parenting, quirky, brilliant friends and investigative journalism.
What struck me about both conversations is that the topic of mindfulness came up. Seems kind of weird because mindfulness isn’t a topic that gets dropped into conversations with strangers and co-workers. I’m taking it as a sign that I need to bone-up on my mindfulness practice.
I first learned about mindfulness when I got sober 14 years ago. As part of my 12-Step journey I decided to research some of the world’s great religions. I was brought up by a devout Irish-Catholic mother and attended a Catholic elementary school. I figured between mom and mother superior, I had the Catholic thing down. But I had never read the Bible. Parts of the Bible had been read TO me. But I had never read the whole thing.
Being a recovered alcoholic and boozeless for nearly 14 years, you can imagine how wide my eyes opened when I read recent headlines about research on lomazenil.
The commotion began when some zealous journalists got loosey-goosey with the facts – claiming that researchers at Yale University had released results of a preliminary study showing that the drug lomazenil, when taken before drinking, weakens the effect of alcohol.
Well, turns out that is not exactly true. According to folks at Yale, there has been no study at Yale about lomazenil’s ability to thwart the effects of alcohol. Yale is NOT developing a “sober pill.”
That’s a lot of demons for a woman who had none. Whitney Houston was mentally ill. She had the disease of addiction. She was not possessed. She was very, very sick. I afford her the same compassion and sympathy as I would someone who is slowly dying from cancer or some other progressive, fatal illness.
Addicts and alcoholics – like me – do not have demons. We have illnesses.
To the folks in Salem in the 1600′s we probably seemed possessed because, let’s be honest, some of us do some pretty wicked things when we are under the influence – especially those of us, like me, who are dual-diagnosed and who – like me – have other mental illnesses, such as bipolar.
We stigmatize addiction and alcoholism every time we use the word “demons” to describe our illnesses. We take a step backwards in the relentless effort to convince others that these are “real” medical conditions. The American Medical Association has recognized alcoholism as a legitimate illness for decades. Why can’t we?