From the day I was born — in the ’60s, a time of great social upheaval — I prided myself on being eternally optimistic. The guy who could make everyone laugh by just being himself. I was often that guy at the party who walked into a room and people smiled and wanted to know who I was. In the 1970s, I learned that alcohol enhanced my personality, and I sought it out at every opportunity. I would eventually come to realize that I felt I had to attract attention to myself in order to be liked, to be attractive. If people were laughing at my wacky sense of humor, they couldn’t also be laughing at me.
In the 1980s, I discovered recreational drugs. From that fateful day until the early ’90s, I rode a downward spiral of self-medicating and mental/emotional escape through the combined use of drugs and alcohol. I acted out in the most horrifying ways, alienated all but those with whom I partied. My motto was: in order to have a party, you have to be a party. I was. Oh, I was.
On September 3, 1992, I walked away from all of it: my party buddies, my job (which encouraged such drug and alcohol abuse in order to entertain the patrons), and became a recluse. I was paranoid, delusional, and at the proverbial “rock bottom.” At one point in my career, I was making more than $10K a month, yet at the end, I had absolutely nothing to show for it. I felt that drastic measures were called for in order to turn things around. I didn’t want my abusive childhood to win, to defeat me in such a pitiful way. So I tried. I tried very very hard to stay clean. And I was mostly successful. I did fall back into using several times, but those seemed to be the exception rather than the rule.
It was hard. Harder than anything I’d ever had to do in my life. I didn’t want to live, which was ironic, because for nearly 15 years, I was actively killing myself through my destructive self-abuse. I didn’t know it then, but I was experiencing classic depression in the aftermath of all I’d inflicted upon myself. But I was working menial jobs then, barely making minimum wage, with no benefits, no way to seek help. But I stayed sober, and to me that was much more important. I did it cold turkey, without anyone’s assistance. I suffered in silence in trying to stay sober, because I certainly didn’t want to be that guy, the one who endlessly expounded on his journey of sobriety to anyone and everyone. As I didn’t fully realize that I was going through a deep depression — I thought it was my body and brain fighting off the years of abuse — I didn’t understand that I needed help. I ate and ate and ate, trying to fill some strange void that had opened inside me, and gained more than 100 pounds.
In April of 2006, my appendix burst. The toxins released into my body absolutely devastated my immune system. Four months to the day later, I contracted West Nile Virus, at which time I also contracted spinal meningitis and encephalitis. I flatlined twice at the hospital. When I began to come out of it weeks later, I had lost 100% percent of my short-term memory, and had gaping holes in my long-term memory. I had lost the use of the entire right side of my body. I faced months, if not years, of therapy and recovery. The entire thing had me at a new low mentally, emotionally, and physically. I wanted to end it so many times. Added to this weight on my shoulders was the daunting knowledge that I had accrued more than $192,000 in medical bills, all of which I was responsible for, as I had no insurance, no job, and no money.
I began to recover. It took a full three years, during which I had to relearn how to walk, eat, bathe, and care for myself. I had to re-learn my dogs’ names, and my friends’ names. During these years, I didn’t think about drugs or alcohol even once. I was too busy trying to stay alive. However, depression really sank its teeth into me. Each morning, in order to get out of bed, I would have to list reasons that I felt were good enough to go on. For more than a year, this was a daily exercise. Colors around me were no longer vibrant. I found no joy in anything. It was like being imprisoned in a sealed black bottle. I knew there was a world out there, but I was separate from it. I tried to find that optimistic young man I had once been, but he was gone, lost to me forever.
The hospitals came after me, and that’s when I began fighting against the devastating and nearly overwhelming feeling of being lost at sea in my own life. I argued daily, and for hours, with this medical facility or that doctor, explaining to them what had happened, and why I could not pay it back in full all at once. Eventually, I began to learn their secrets, and learned to play their game. I started work again, but negotiated my bills down to a more humane level. Oddly, my ability to learn this simple method of bill collections gave me a twisted sort of hope. If I could learn that after everything that happened, then there was something to work toward. I was not lost.
But depression would continue to plague me for years. In 2010, I finally asked for help. I had made progress, but still experienced days that it felt impossible to get up out of bed and face another day. I was put on medication, which improved my mental outlook considerably. But it was enough to give me a fighting chance, and that was all I was asking. The glass on that black bottle had become more opaque, and while it wasn’t perfectly clear yet, I understood that I had to stick with my processes in order to overcome it.
During this time, I began to get irritated when I read things online like, There is no such thing as depression. You simply have to start thinking better, happier thoughts.
Really? That’s all it takes? Because that little bit of advice would’ve been SO much help from the beginning. Unfortunately, depression, true depression in which your brain chemicals are horribly off kilter, you not only can’t imagine being able to think such thoughts, you pretty much have forgotten they’ve existed. When stuck inside a horrid, desolate isolation like depression, there are no happy thoughts. We lose complete touch with anything that once brought us pleasure or joy. We doubt the existence of love — self or otherwise. We stop caring, because there seems to be no reason to do so. It’s not a “bad mood.” It’s not that I need to “get out more and socialize.” Socializing was torturous, and had to be relearned, like so many other things in my life.
But it happened. And today, for the very first time, I realized that I was coming through the other side of this depression. It was sudden and quite startling. I realized it while enjoying breakfast with a couple friends, and I used the black bottle analogy to describe what my depression felt like. People experience bouts of depressed states, but clinical depression is a beast of a much more dangerous species. It’s insidious and tricks its victims into believing that its all they’ll ever, ever feel again. It’s being shut away in a black bottle with no hope of ever emerging. This is why it’s so important to pay attention to the hue of your thoughts and your emotions. It can come on over months and years, but it takes an equal amount of time and hard, hard work to fight it off.
I am so incredibly, tearfully grateful for this day; that I can truthfully say that I have hope for my future, that I am a talented, creative man whom my ancestors would be proud to know. I have found the path that allows me to respect myself, and to relearn that I’m a person worth loving, and worth knowing. I have come back stronger, more fiercely, and with much more empowerment than ever before. And I do not take any of it for granted. Never again. Our love for ourselves is a precious yet delicate thing that can be easily stolen and destroyed. But only if we allow it to happen. And if it does, never stop fighting your way back. No one and no-thing gets to beat us unless we let them.