My depression didn’t entirely cause my alcoholism, but it certainly played a key role.
I have two diseases that want me dead.
One is addiction, a progressive, incurable and potentially fatal disease that presents as a physical compulsion and mental obsession. I am addicted to alcohol and, as an alcoholic, can never successfully drink again.
There is no cure, only ways of arresting the vicious cycle of binge, remorse and repeat that leads to ever-deeper bottoms. My alcoholism took me not only to unemployment but unemployability; not only selfishness but self-destruction; not only deteriorating health and heartache but abject desperation and insanity.
My other deadly illness is depression. By this, I mean clinical depression – a necessary distinction considering the widespread, ill-informed use of the phrase “I’m depressed” to describe mere sadness. The difference is that sadness is rational while depression decidedly is not. Depression is not an emotion; it is a chemical imbalance that leads to hopelessness and self-loathing and, for that reason, is the leading cause of suicide.
Mourning a loved one is understandable and altogether appropriate; that is sadness. Climbing to the roof of a six-story building and nearly jumping because I considered myself toxic and worthless, as I did in my mid-20s, is not normal and certainly not healthy; that is depression.
I will be an alcoholic and depressive for as long as I am alive. But while neither is curable, both are certainly treatable. And increasingly, I’m finding that my progress in recovering from one disease is paying substantial dividends in combatting the other.
Weller Than Well
I took my final drink on October 10, 2011, the last in a long line of cheap beer cans littering my car. Wherever I was going, I never got there; instead, I crashed into a taxi and kept driving. Police frown upon that. I spent the night in jail and the next six months sans license. I was in trouble physically, spiritually, and now legally, and I had finally experienced enough pain to seek salvation.
I got sober through Alcoholics Anonymous. There are several programs effective in arresting addiction; AA just happens to be the most prolific, and embodied the sort of group-centric empathy I needed during the precarious early stages of recovery. There are few things more alienating than being unable to stop doing something that you damn well know is destroying your life. Meeting consistently with others who’ve experienced this tragic uniqueness made me realize I wasn’t alone, and provided a glimmer of something that had long been extinguished: hope.
Unlike traditional ailments, addiction is largely a “takes one to help one” disease. I needed to know that others had drank like me and gone on to recover by following certain suggestions. AA provided both the road to recovery and, through those that had walked the path before me, the trail guides.
It isn’t rocket science. AA and other forms of group-centric recovery thrive on a few basic tenets. I admitted I had a problem, and saw that others had solved that problem by adhering to certain instructions. I accepted that my addiction had been driven by certain personality flaws, and that active addiction had only exacerbated these shortcomings. I made concerted efforts to begin not only amending my actions through face-to-face apologies, but also diminishing the underlying character defects that had fueled my alcoholism.
In the process, I did not recover so much as reinvent myself. Nine years into my recovery, I am not the same person I was before becoming an alcoholic. I am better than that catastrophically damaged person.
Like no other illnesses, recovery from addiction can make sufferers weller than well. I am not 2005 Chris – pre-problem drinker Chris. I am Chris 2.0. Stronger, smarter, wiser.
And that brings me to my other incurable illness.
So Low I Might Get High
My battle with depression predates my alcoholism. In fact, the aforementioned rooftop suicidal gesture came before I was a heavy drinker. Like many people with concurrent diseases that impact mental health, one malady helped lead to another. My depression didn’t entirely cause my alcoholism, but it certainly played a key role.
For me, bouts of depression descend like a dense, befuddling fog. At its worst, I have been struck suddenly dumb, unable to complete coherent sentences or comprehend dialogue. My wife once likened my slow, confused aura to talking with an astronaut on the moon; there was a five-second delay in transmission, and my response was garbled even when it finally arrived.
My depression is clinical, meaning it is officially diagnosed. I am medicated for it and see a psychiatrist regularly. Upon getting sober, the first cross-disease benefit was that the anti-depressants I took daily were no longer being drowned in a sea of booze. The result of this newfound “as directed” prescription regimen was the depression tamping down from chronic to episodic. For the first time in nearly a decade, there were significant stretches where I was depression-free.
Still, come the depression did, in random waves that enveloped me out of nowhere, zapping the hopeful vibes and purposeful momentum of early recovery. The sudden shift in mood and motivation was stark, striking and scary. Above all else, I was frightened that an episode of depression would trigger a relapse of alcoholism.
In recovery from addiction we are taught, for good reason, that sobriety is the most important thing in our lives, because we are patently unable to do anything truly worthwhile without it. If we drink or drug, the blessings of recovery will disappear, and fast.
Ironically, and perhaps tragicomically, by far the most formidable threat to my sobriety was my depression. One of the diseases trying to kill me was persistently attempting to get its partner in crime back. Inject some hopelessness and self-loathing into a recently sober addict’s tenuous optimism and self-esteem, and there’s a good chance he’ll piss away the best shot he’s ever had at a happy, content existence.
For months and even years into recovery, my only defense against depression episodes was intentional inactivity. Upon recognizing the syrupy sludge of depression draining my energy – a quicksand that made everything more strenuous and, mentally, seem not worth the extra effort – I would do my best to detach from as much as possible. My routine would dwindle to a questionably effective workday and, if any energy was left, what little exercise I could muster, an attempt to dislodge some depression with some natural dopamine – a stopgap measure that rarely bought more than half an hour of relief.
Most alarmingly, during bouts of depression I would disconnect from my recovery from alcoholism, often going weeks without attending meetings or reaching out to sober companions. In depressive episodes, the hopeful messages of group-centric recovery rang hollow, and at times even felt offensive. How dare these people be joyous, grateful and free while I was miserable, bitter and stuck.
Over an extended timeline, though, life had improved dramatically. As a direct result of sobriety and its teachings, my status as a husband and an executive improved drastically. In rapid succession I bought a house, rescued a dog and became a father. My depressive episodes grew fewer and further between.
But when they came, I was playing a dangerous game. I now had a lot more to lose than my physical sobriety and, despite being rarer, my depressive episodes were almost more intimidating for what they represented: irrational hopelessness amid a life that, when compared to many others, was fortunate and blessed. So when depression descended, I did the only thing that seemed logical: I whittled life down to its barest minimum, and waited the disease out. I put life on pause while the blackness slowly receded to varying shades of gray and, finally, clearheaded lucidity returned.
Essentially, I became depression’s willing hostage. I didn’t want it to derail me, and didn’t have a healthier means of dealing with it.
And then suddenly, I did.
Beating Back a Bully
For the second time in my life, I have hope against an incurable disease where before there was hopelessness. And though I can’t place into precise words exactly how it happened, I’m hoping my experience can benefit others. For the countless battling mental illness while recovering from addiction, my hope is to give you hope.
Last fall, just as I was celebrating eight years sober, I hit a wall of depression the likes of which I hadn’t encountered in a while. Like most depressive episodes, its origin was indistinct. It had indeed been a tough year – I had lost a close relative and had an unrelated health scare, among other challenges – but trying to pinpoint depression triggers is generally guesswork.
Anyway, there it was. A big, fat funk, deeper and darker than I’d experienced in years. But for whatever reason, this time my reaction was different. Always, my routine was to place mental roadblocks in front of my depression. I justified this by telling myself, understandably, that depression’s feelings were irrational and, therefore, not worth confronting.
This time, for whatever reason, I took a different tack. For the first time, I leaned in rather than leaning out. I stood there and felt the harsh feelings brought on by depression rather than running from them. Whether it was sober muscle memory or simple fed-upedness, I had had enough of cowering in a corner while depression pressed pause on my life.
The result? It hurt. A lot. But if battling depression is a prize fight, I won by majority decision. And having stood up to my most menacing bully, I fear the inevitable rematch far less.
This would not have been possible – and is not recommended – earlier in recovery. In hindsight, I’m realizing that at least part of the reason I finally confronted my depression was that, after eight years of recovery work and a vastly improved life, I had placed enough positives around me that depression’s irrational pessimism couldn’t fully penetrate them. I had built up just enough self-esteem through just enough estimable acts that the self-loathing pull of depression couldn’t drag me down as far. I stumbled and wobbled, but I did not fall.
Depression also prompted a highly unexpected reaction: gratitude. Its wistful sadness made me pause, sigh, even tear up. It made me look around longingly and grasp the blessings that, during my typically time-impoverished existence, I often take for granted. It made me feel guilty for not fully appreciating the positives in my life… but this guilt was laced with vows to cherish life more once depression invariably lifted, as it always did. There’s a difference between hopeless shame and hopeful guilt; the former yields self-hatred, the latter self-improvement.
In this way, the tools acquired in recovery from addiction were wielded effectively against depression. There is a retail recovery element at play here: Though not as simple as a “buy one get one free” scenario, I’ve learned that fully buying into continued recovery from alcoholism can lead to significant savings on the pain depression can cause me. I have a craziness-combating coupon, and it’s not expiring anytime soon.
To be clear: This is by no means a “totally solved” happy ending. Confronting my depression meant facing some demons that have been stalking me for decades. You don’t slay dragons that large in one sitting. I have, however, made a promising start. I have discovered that progress against complicated chronic afflictions is indeed possible, and can sometimes flow unexpectedly from sources one wouldn’t expect.