I find people generally have three reactions when I tell them I am a recovered alcoholic with Bipolar II. They either tell me that they or a loved one has struggled with a mental illness, begin talking about the weather or look at me like I just told them I have a stripper pole in my bedroom – which I don’t.
I can pretty much tell how they feel about mental illness by their reaction. When someone responds with their own experience, I listen. It’s such a comfort to have someone else willing to share their own experience. As for the weather response, I chime in with my own thoughts about the weather.
The last thing I want to do is make someone uncomfortable discussing mental illness. I figure I’ve planted a little seed in their mind that it’s okay to talk about mental illness. It’s their responsibility to let it grow – or die.
The stripper-pole response? Well, that’s a little trickier. I take into consideration the context in which the topic arose during our conversation and the person’s attitude before I made my revelation.
If they were being a smart-ass about someone else’s mental illness or treatment, I throw it right back at them. I’ve always been what my father called a weisenheimer, (think Curly in the Three Stooges.)
Last week I celebrated 16 years of sobriety. Let me say that again because I can’t believe it: Last week I celebrated 16 years of sobriety.
The first 8 years of my sobriety were filled with mayhem: divorce, single-working motherhood, death of my parents, death of my dog and a deep-dark depression that led to a diagnosis that – along with my higher power – has kept me sober.
For me, the obsession to drink was gone by the time I put down the bottle. I was blessed. I have watched many, many alcoholics and addicts struggle with that agonizing obsession in early sobriety. Their desperation and self-loathing is visceral. My heart breaks for them.
I gave little thought to picking up a drink until I fell down into my black hole. My depression – and my seeming inability to fix myself – was so exasperating that I thought about picking up a drink. Nothing else seemed to work. Why not turn to the go-to remedy I used for decades: a bottle of chardonnay, a Corona with lime or a half-dozen glasses of Long Island iced tea?
Why not self-medicate my depression with alcohol? I asked myself that question and then got my ass to a meeting.
The answer to that question is simple: Alcohol is a depressant. The very thing I had been using for years to make me feel better had made me feel worse. I was blind to that fact until the brain chemistry was explained to me.
I can’t recall the details but simply put, alcohol would briefly alter the chemistry in my brain and make me feel better. But when the euphoria wore off, the hormones and receptors in my brain would not function as they should and I would plunge even deeper into my depression.
I had one of those cloud-parting epiphanies and my life made sense to me. I had been self-medicating with drugs alcohol since I was a teenager and I progressively got sicker and sicker. I accepted my diagnosis for depression and decided to get on with treating …
I don’t wear a watch. I have watches, very nice watches, in fact. I don’t even know where they are – probably in a drawer somewhere.
I don’t wear a watch because I have a thing with time. I learned early on in my recovery from alcoholism and depression that “time” was a problem for me. A very big problem.
I didn’t realize my “time” problem until a friend in recovery asked me one day, “What time is it?” I looked at my watch and told him the time. Then he asked again, “what time is it?” And I looked at my watch again and told him the time.
“No,” he said. “What TIME is it?”
I looked at him like he was crazy and said, “I don’t know. You tell me, what time is it?”
“Now,” he said. I had a D’oh Homer Simpson moment and then understood what he was trying to tell me. I was not in the present. “That’s why I don’t wear a watch,” he said.
Every now and then I get a glimpse of what my mental illnesses look like.
It’s been a long time. I have taken my medications without fail for years. I exercise, eat healthy foods, get as much sleep as I can, visit my psych-nurse practitioner every three months and I get on my knees every night and thank God for my sobriety. In other word, I do what I am told – an unnatural act for me.
As a reporter for a daily newspaper, I am accustomed to stress. For nearly 30 years I have lived with a deadline hanging over my head. I took six weeks off to have a baby, 8 weeks for my last major depression but other than the one- or two-week vacations, I have had a deadline over my head.
Recently, I accepted an assignment which today I realize I should not have done. I agreed to leave my home and my dog, suspend my exercise routine and healthy eating habits and forego nights of 8-hours of sleep to cover the Florida legislature’s last two-weeks in session.
I did this once before, nearly 30 years ago when reporters were only expected to write a story for the newspaper. Now, we must also Tweet, blog and make videos. Despite my degree in political science, after 30+ years in journalism, I’m kinda disallusioned with politics.
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: