I can’t maintain a blog about (my) depression without discussing my off-again, on-again relationship with alcohol and the torture we put each other through for years. In fact, the interaction between myself, alcohol, and depression is the only love triangle that I have ever been involved with, besides, of course, all of the people who I made up to be in love with me when I was drinking, and boy, was that thrilling and excruciating. But we’ll get to that. Eventually.
A few summers ago, I was a mess. Physically, I looked fine thankyouverymuch, but on the inside, I was essentially decrepit, as though my entire body was one huge cavity that I was ignoring and hoping would go away by putting whitening product on it. My soul had leaky gut syndrome, and the moral, compassionate person I hoped to be was slowly starting to disintegrate. And the most troubling part is, I thought I was fine. I’m fine, I told everyone, as I imagined death and destruction in the life I had built. Things are getting better, I told friends. I am looking forward to the summer, I told anyone who would listen, when in the pit of my stomach, I was terrified and terrorizing myself.
I was worried about my marriage, because I wasn’t ready for kids, and my wife wanted kids immediately. I was worried that we were headed for an imminent divorce, and I knew that I wouldn’t survive a divorce, that I wouldn’t remain intact if I lost the person whom I knew to be my soul mate in this life. I couldn’t see a way out of the fray, and the anxiety was mounting. So, I did what any logical person would do in that situation. I tried to blow up my life.
It’s hard to think about that period of time now. It’s hard to counter all that I have now with the recklessness in which I lived in those days, because I would have lost everything that I didn’t even know I could have.
The point is, I drank a lot. I drank and I blacked out, and I stayed out until 4 in the morning and I didn’t text my wife to let her know I was OK. I drank and I forced other people to take care of me, driving me home in my car, getting me into an Uber. I drank and I was impulsive, I drank and I was selfish, I drank and I was drunk. I drank and I didn’t care about anyone but myself.
This will come as a surprise to approximately no one whom I drank with, but I have never had a friendly and mutually beneficial relationship with alcohol. Don’t get me wrong, I loved alcohol, but I don’t know that alcohol ever loved me. There were so many nights when drinking alcohol was my worst and only decision of the night – all four years of college come to mind – and there were days, weeks, months when I was an absolute maniac on booze. Drinking, making a complete fool of myself, throwing up, blacking out – I thought that’s how everyone drank. Growing up in an alcoholic- and addiction-saturated micro/macro environment, I thought people who drank normally – or Jesus Christ, didn’t drink at all?!?! – were losers.
And then there were days, weeks, months, even a year or so when alcohol had a quieter presence in my life, when it was just happy to be there and didn’t demand to be center stage; it was content, a sleepy dog curled up in the corner. I could take a glass of wine, or I could leave it. I could pour myself a glass of wine, take a sip, and go to bed without touching the rest. This is how I knew I wasn’t an alcoholic.
I’ll let you chose your own adventure as to what lead me to realize I was an alcoholic but suffice to say, after a few disastrous attempts to control my drinking, I admitted defeat. In July 2015, after crashing and burning for a few months, I knew I was done. I woke up after another night of drinking, late for work, hungover, miserable and I had this sense that I was done drinking forever. It was a huge relief.
Getting sober was terrifying and humbling and unbelievably satisfying in a way that I could never have imagined. I cried as I wrote a break-up letter to alcohol (not joking). I obsessively read recovery memoirs, scientific books on addiction, and sobriety blogs. I started going to 12-step meetings. I relied heavily on the one friend I knew who was already sober, and he showed up for me in a way that made me want to get sober – I wanted to be more like him. When I think back on this time in my life, my whole body tingles with emotion, and I am reminded of how raw and vulnerable I was at that time. Every step I took during those first few months of sobriety was an act of courage, and I continue to be shocked and humbled at the kindness of strangers (who would eventually become close friends) who supported me.
Eventually, the gentle haze of early recovery faded and I was left to contend with the aspects of my life that I had spent a decade plus running from. The single most annoying thing that I have discovered so far about recovery is that all of those cliches are true – all of the notions that we are self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, Facebook, food, whatever it is, that we are numbing out with our favorite poison, that we are avoiding our feelings by immersing ourselves in something less horrifying – all of this wisdom has turned out to be true for me, and it. is. infuriating. How maddening that this epic odyssey of pain can be reduced to a few simple truths. I still get annoyed about it when someone references one of these cliches during a meeting.
But as sobriety took hold, so did the depression that I had muted and mutated throughout the years. Suddenly, my ups and downs couldn’t be attributed to an external factor, and just as suddenly, the highs and lows of emotions that I had flooded with alcohol for years were there in all of their hungry glory. I felt like I had turned the corner on alcoholism to run smack into an impatient depression.
I can’t describe to you what it feels like to be free of the addiction to alcohol. I mean, I could, but then what would I write a book about? There are only so many vices I can have. But briefly, I will try.
Being sober has allowed me to befriend myself, and get to know every aspect of myself, including the parts that I was ashamed to look at, let alone learn to love. Being sober has allowed me to be human for the first time in my life, to make mistakes and to have flaws that don’t need to be fatal, to not be overwhelmed with grief or shame at not being perfect. Of course, I never thought that I was perfect – far from it. Instead, I felt intense despair that I wasn’t.
And so, I learn to get comfortable with being human while I also learn how to access the eternal and spiritual part of myself, which has just been a trip, no pun intended. I rely more on myself – my intuition and compassion and clarity – and I trust myself. There is a lot more genuine joy, and my laughs are much deeper now. I feel them in my gut; they no longer originate in my throat to be enjoyed for a few brief moments.
I feel a lot of gratitude for being an alcoholic because I feel tremendously grateful to be in recovery.
But with sobriety comes the truth, and my truth includes depression, as well as a boatload of other things that I didn’t expect to uncover. I can’t stress this point enough – I am forever grateful to be sober because now I have a fighting chance to be the person I want to be, depression or not. And being sober is the only way I can ever confront, destroy, or subdue my demons. But being sober means feeling again – despair, joy, frustration, gratitude, annoyance, glee – and that can be an extreme experience when much of my life has been strategically avoiding feeling anything with any depth.
And much of this blog is learning how to cope with the bigness of life, and the smallness too. Because now I don’t drink. And I know things.
Edit: I updated this addendum after the original post because I re-read it and it sounded crazy.
Note – Although I imagine I will address this topic again in a future blog, I think it’s important to state that I didn’t understand addiction until I discovered that I was an alcoholic (one) and started spending a lot more time with drunks and addicts learning about the disease of addiction (two). It’s important for me to recognize this because there is so much theory, speculation and stigma around addiction and alcoholism, and I bought into the idea that addiction was related to personal morality for a long time. It’s not, and I don’t think that anyone can understand on a visceral level what addiction is like unless they have experienced it themselves. And so, I don’t want my ability to not drink (today) to add fuel to the ill-informed fire that stopping the addictive cycle is a choice. It isn’t. When a person is actively addicted, the addiction is in charge, and the only way a person can get some autonomy and begin to make choices is to stop the cycle, which people are able to do in a number of different ways. But addiction is a disease, and a powerful one at that. It is a physical. mental, emotional, (and I believe) spiritual disease and it requires work every day to combat. Similarly, the idea that addicts stop their compulsive behaviors if they live in a utopia with deep connection to their fellow man and a sense of purpose sounds perfectly lovely, and in fact, connection and purpose have been integral to my recovery. But we don’t live in a utopia, and so the article suggesting that we should all move to a specific town in Portugal isn’t super helpful for addiction and how we help addicts in a relentless cycle of pain and suffering for themselves and their loved ones.
I was desperate when I stopped drinking, and I experienced a moment of grace that allowed me to take the first step into a meeting. This isn’t everyone’s experience, but it is mine. But when I was actively drinking, I didn’t have a choice. The drinking life chose me.