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:
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?
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.”
When I was first diagnosed I was so relieved because I thought I had bipolar disorder and you know how THOSE people act. Then I learned that hypomania IS s a type of bipolar – Bipolar II – and I had to confront my own prejudice against Bipolar Disorder.
I’m cool with it now. I have done a lot of research on both Bipolar I and Bipolar II. I am in good company: Kurt Cobain. Vincent VanGogh. Marilyn Monroe. Virginia Woolf. And did I mention Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher)? Many of us are creative and very, very successful.
Problem is, we tend to step on a lot of toes along the way and tick off a whole lot of people. We’re also intimidating. When I’m in a manic phase, all I have to do is walk into a room and folks kind of lean back in their chairs – like I have invaded their personal space. I throw out this energy – which some people admire and others question.
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?
Sometimes the power of a bad example is as powerful as a good example. I’m thinking of Kim Richards, one of the housewives on The Housewives of Beverly Hills.
My daughter got me hooked on that show when she came home from college on winter break. There was a time – not too long ago – when that little intellectual dilettante in me would have dismissed such a show as a complete waste of time only to be watched by the mindless, vapid masses. Thankfully, I shut that little dilettante up and now I’m watching all the re-runs – thank you very much.
Watching Kim’s slow, self-destruction over this last season is good for me. I am, like Kim, am a single, somewhat middle-aged, mother whose child has grown up. We are both trying to keep our hair blonde and minimize our wrinkles. I am not going to pronounce Kim an alcoholic, but let’s just say there was a day – before I got sober 13 years ago – that I would have partied with Kim in a heartbeat.