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 …
Ernest Hemingway. Kurt Cobain. Marilyn Monroe. Vincent VanGogh. Sigmund Freud. Spalding Grey. Frida Kahlo. Shakir Stewart (Def Jam). Cleopatra. Junior Seau. Roy Raymond (founder, Victoria’s Secret). Socrates. Sylvia Plath. Hunter S. Thompson. L’Wren Scott. Virginia Woolf. Abbie Hoffman. David Carradine. Wendy O. Williams. Mary Kay Bergman (SouthPark voices) Robert Enke (soccer).
These are the suicides you hear about in the media. Because of their accomplishments and talent, their suicides supercede the hushed rule in newsrooms throughout the land: We don’t cover suicides unless it’s someone famous or caused a public spectacle.
Why, you ask, when journalists are so damn ruthless about ferreting out and publicizing the most private and embarrassing moments of other people’s lives do they not cover suicides? Publicly, editors will tell you that they do it out of respect for the families and loved ones of those who commit suicide. You can decide whether you want to believe that.
Here is the problem with that logic: It covers up the prevalence of suicide and mental illness. For every celebrity who commits suicide, there are countless others who have suffered just as much and took their lives, too.
For example, in 2012 there were 205 suicides in Palm Beach County, where I live. At the local newspaper, where I work, we covered two: a murder/suicide and a teenager who shot himself on a bench near his exclusive, private school.
As a reporter I have had to interview the parents, husbands, wives, children and friends of murder and accident victims. It’s not easy and most of the time they don’t want their loved one or themselves in the news. I get that. I respect that.
The last thing I want to do is call the parents of a teenager who hung herself or stepped in front of a train. But are we doing ourselves a disservice by not covering suicides? Are we stigmatizing suicide and mental illness even more by keeping it off the evening news unless the person is a celebrity?
We often write about people who die of breast cancer. Occasionally we report that someone died of AIDS. But people who are …
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.
I went back to work last week. I had been off several weeks after a tough, two-week, out-of-town assignment that brought me to my knees on the edge of my black hole.
In all, I was gone five weeks – some pre-planned vacation and some comp time. Still, when you’re out of the office for that long, for any reason, people are going to wonder why you have been gone so long.
If you don’t have a mental illness – whether it’s depression or alcoholism or an anxiety disorder – you’ve probably never been confronted with these questions: How do you call in sick when your mental illness prevents you from work? What do you say when you go back to work after an extended absence because of your mental illness?
When you have to answer these questions, you realize how much stigma there is about mental illness.
If you had to take off a couple of weeks because you had pneumonia, you would simply tell your boss that you could not work because you had pneumonia. But what do you say when your depression prevents you from working? How do you call in sick with depression?
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.
I was stunned.
My mother had rarely spoken about her childhood. She grew up on a farm in northern Wisconsin. They did not have hot water and she and her three sisters and two brothers took baths one-by-one in a tub in water that had been warmed on a stove. You wanted to be the first in line to get the cleanest, warmest water, she used to tell me. They didn’t have much money. They worked hard. They churned their own butter.
I could not recall her ever speaking about her father – my grandfather, who died when I was very young. About all I knew was that he drank a lot. So I asked. She rattled off stories – none of them happy or funny. He took all six kids to school in the morning and then started drinking. She had seen him drunk, sitting on a curb. She was so embarrassed that if she needed to go past his watering hole she would take a different route to avoid seeing him.
He took the money she had saved to buy herself a car. When she announced she was going to college – the only one of the four girls in the family who did – he kicked her out. Women didn’t need a college education, she recalled him saying. She went on to get a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree.
I have a few questions about Urban Outfitters controversial “Depression” shirt – like who the heck would wear that?
You’ve got a cropped t-shirt (who even wears those anymore?) covered the word “depression” in a busy pattern of different size letters. In the t-shirt’s defense, “Depression” is the name of the clothing line. Really? Who names their clothing line after a mental illness? What’s next?
Well, I don’t know what’s next but I can tell what the last shirt that got Urban Outfitters in trouble. It’s the one that said “Eat Less” on an emaciated teenager. REALLY? I mean, REALLY? You tell me that there was a photo shoot at some studio and the stylists put an “Eat Less” t-shirt on an emaciated teenage model and SOMEONE in the studio didn’t say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is not cool. We can’t do this!”
And there is some buyer at Urban Outfitters (who apparently didn’t get the memo about the Eat Less shirt) who saw the Depression t-shirt and thought, “Ooooo! We just have to carry that shirt!”
Don’t get me wrong. I like a lot of the stuff that Urban Outfitters sells. In fact, I just got a pair of tangerine Chuck Taylors for $10. Obviously, I don’t have much fashion sense but I love a good deal. But what little fashion sense – and common sense – I have were thoroughly insulted by the “Depression” t-shirt.
I don’t do resolutions but apparently a lot of people do because the gym was packed this morning.
If something needs to change, I change it. Relying on a number on a calender has never worked for me. Trust me. I’ve tried it. You can ask any alcoholic and they will tell you they have set deadlines and then either missed them or got sober for a few weeks and then they’re back at it.
It’s the same with dieting. If you can go ON a diet, you can go OFF a diet. You want to lose weight or quit smoking or drinking, you just do it – not because it’s a certain day of the year. Because it needs to be done and every cell in your body is convinced of that truth. In the words of the philosophers at Nike: Just do it.
Of course if you are as hard headed as I am, it may take some time to convince yourself that you really need to make a change. In fact, I brain has concocted truly ridiculous arguments to prove to myself that I didn’t need to quit drinking, take antidepressants or see a therapist.
And I shall go forth into another holiday season with this mantra: Expectations are premeditated disappointments.
I shall also turn the frickin’ channel when a jewelry commercial comes on the television or that chipper song Feliz Navidad plays on the radio. I will do my damndest to avoid sugar, especially M&Ms. I will avoid the mall and its DMV-ish lines and battles for parking spots.
I’m not doing this because I am a bah-humbug kind of girl. I’m doing this because I know that my depression is smack in the middle of the bullseye this time of year. After umpteen years of therapy and medications, I know that my expectations about Christmas – fueled by the American advertising industry – can push me over the edge.
So, I’m working on having a Charlie Brown kind of Christmas this year. I’m going to focus on putting a single bulb on a pathetic little tree – metaphorically speaking – and remember the nativity. I was raised Catholic, which likely explains a lot of other issues that we’re not going to go into right now, and taught that Christmas is about Christ’s birth.
Santa is supposed to be a side-dish, not the main course. I am going to focus instead on the lessons of the nativity, namely humility and giving.
And in that spirit, I give you this: a simple reminder of the simplicity of Christmas.
Pathetic Christmas tree image available from Shutterstock.
It is November 14 and I am on vacation. It is the first vacation I have taken this year and I will never – ever – go so long without a vacation again.
Normally I take a week in the spring, two or three weeks in the summer and a week in the fall or during the holidays. This year, I took a week off in the spring but it was no vacation. I felt myself slipping into a depression and took the time to deal with that. Throughout the year I have taken a day here or a day there when I wasn’t feeling well or needed a long weekend.
I realized in September that working so much with so little time off was affecting my mental health. Some mornings I woke up and wondered what day it was. Sometimes I tried to figure it out but I got to the point where I was like, f- it – it really didn’t matter what day it was.
I had to work – either at the newspaper or in the yard or on my 85-year-old house, which seems to be falling down around me. I felt that the only thing saving me from falling into my black hole was the floor beneath me – my medications. And I was flat on my ass on that floor.
The last two months have been hellish. As journalist for 30 years I’ve seen a lot of nasty stuff. However, September and November brought two new cases that raised the depravity and brutality bar. I won’t go into details but both involved mothers who ended up dead – one without a head – and orphaned or dead kids.