About 15 years ago the newspaper where I work sent me to a number-crunching boot camp, where I learned how to analyze data. I became a geek.
As journalism morphed from the old fashioned pen, notebook and musty records at the courthouse to the internet’s ability to gather mountains of data in the blink of an eye, my geekiness blossomed. I attended more bootcamps on advanced statistics and mapping.
I added SQL, shapefiles and string functions to my arsenal of reporting skills. My brain changed, too. I could feel it. A portion of my brain that had been slacking was now firing. I thought differently. It’s hard to explain.
The analytical side of my brain teamed up with the creative side and my thinking became three-dimensional. The skies parted and I realized that 3+2 and 4+1 both equaled 5. There were suddenly many solutions to the same problem. This revelation came fast and hard and not without severe consequences.
I once heard a guy say that he tries to wear his life like a comfortable old t-shirt. I like that and I’ve been trying to do it lately but I think I must have shrunk that t-shirt in the dryer because it’s tight as hell right now.
From the outside you might not notice that my comfy t-shirt has morphed into a corset. But from the inside, it feels like it has. I’m carrying around this intensity right now – for work, for working-out and even for finishing the entire seven-season series Sons of Anarchy.
I am driven. I can’t seem to slow down my thoughts. One thought leads to another and another and another. It makes me good at what I do – newspaper reporting – but it’s not good for my mental health. It’s a constant tugging – intellectually I want to slow down – instinctually I want to speed up.
Mania is a luscious, exhilarating state of mind. All the fatigue and weariness in your bones and soul vaporizes. Your muscles feel bigger and stronger and ready to strike. Your thoughts are clear and brilliant. You are like a racehorse in the gate, wide-eyed and pawing at the ground with your hoof. There is no off-switch.
Medications give you a dimmer but you still have to have the desire and willingness to use it beyond the involuntary waning it induces. You have to make the decision to turn the dimmer nob further to the left.
That is where I find myself today – turning the nob to the left. I am – of my own volition – taking my life down a notch. I don’t want to but I need to. It’s hard for me to believe I’m doing this. But years of therapy and the wisdom that comes with 56-years of f#*king up my life have taught me it’s time.
I have bipolar II – called hypomania. It’s bipolar lite. My ups and downs are not nearly as intense as those poor souls with bipolar I. Of course, fueling my mania with drugs and alcohol for decades enhanced those ups and downs. But I know I am blessed to have this lesser form of bipolar.
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 …
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.
In July I blogged about Dr. John Christensen, a West Palm Beach doctor who was charged with two counts of first-degree murder for the overdose deaths of two patients he treated at his clinics, which investigators described as “pill mills.”
I am not a fan of the death penalty but not for the usual reasons. As someone who has sat through murder trials, walked down death row, interviewed condemned killers, actually sat in the electric chair and witnessed an execution – I have decided that capital punishment is futile, immoral and a monumental waste of tax-dollars.
If you really want to punish someone, lock them in a 6 x 9 foot cell for 30 or 40 years. The average length of stay on Florida’s death row is 13 years and many killers will tell you they would prefer to die than live out their lives in a box.
Although research has shown that the death penalty is not a deterrent, I suspect that executing a physician who knowingly prescribed massive doses of drugs to an addict who then overdosed, would be a deterrent to other physicians. A really, really big deterrent.
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: