I’ve been putting off writing this blog for a while because as much as it’s something that needs to be talked about, it’s just uncomfortable. But you know what? It doesn’t need to be. And the only way that we can help people is by being honest about what’s really going on in parts of the recovery community and help each other find a solution for it. I’m not a doctor nor a licensed health professional of any kind. I am not giving mental health counsel for anyone struggling with mental illness. I am only sharing my experience with it as it relates to my sobriety.
I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for most of my life. I can remember having heart palpitations in social situations at the age of five and feeling deep sadness at the age of 10. Did I grow up with the Brady Bunch? No. But, there definitely wasn’t any trauma in my household that would explain my feelings and behavior to the extent that I had it.
When I hit puberty, my depression was taken to an even higher level, fueled by hormones and all of the uncomfortable physical and emotional changes that come with adolescence. I would come home from school after being bullied, crawl under the blankets, and go back and forth between listening to melancholy music like REM and the Cranberries, to angry grunge bands, like Hole. I cried a lot. I didn’t feel like I fit in with the other kids. It felt like everyone understood something that I didn’t. I always felt alone.
When I was 13, I found alcohol. The first time that I got intoxicated was the first time in my entire life that all the noise, chaos, and sadness in my brain seemed to stop. For those few hours where everything went hazy, things seemed okay. And while the following day was spent with the worst Old Crow bourbon hangover of my life, I vowed I would do it better next time.
And I did do “better.” I learned to how to handle my liquor and party with the “cool” kids. I didn’t weigh more than 90 pounds back then and took pride in the fact that I could outdrink so many of my larger male counterparts. That would continue for years. Then, I would find other substances to make me feel better. Then, around my sophomore year of high school, my depression really sunk low. I didn’t want to do anything but sleep, and I couldn’t do anything but cry. I gained 20 pounds and felt like life wasn’t worth living. I begged my parents to take me to someone to talk to, so they did. Several therapy sessions and a doctor visit later, I was placed on an antidepressant.
Going on that medication was life-changing. I began to feel joy again. My grades improved, and I joined extracurricular activities. I lost all the weight I had put on and began to enjoy life. I didn’t really drink during that time, because I didn’t have the urge to. For about two years, life was pretty good and I felt pretty healthy, for the most part. It wasn’t until I went to college that things began to take a turn.
In college, everyone was drinking. It was just what you did. At the time, I was a full-blown extrovert and loved being around people, so if there was a party, I was there. The thing about antidepressants, however, is that you are not supposed to drink on them. Doing so will not only inhibit your medication from working like it’s supposed to but can bring on some pretty nasty side effects. Do you think I listened to that side-effect clearly listed on the side of the prescription bottle? No. And when I began to drink heavily on my medications, I didn’t like how it made me feel. It made me tired, sluggish, and depressed. So, surely I stopped drinking so much, right? Wrong. I stopped taking my medication.
I’m not going to write out my entire life story or substance abuse history. Instead, I’ll just summarize that the next nine years were spent with me battling with my alcoholism, an opioid addiction, and going on and off of several antidepressants from doctors that I wasn’t honest with and had no idea about my substance abuse problems. When I finally got sober in 2010, my poor brain had just had enough.
Being that opioids had finally brought me to my knees and to my second treatment center, I had a bad vibe about taking medications at that point altogether. I decided that being sober meant that I didn’t put anything into my body. I wanted a clean mind, a clear head, and a healthy body to help me grow spiritually and evolve during my recovery. And evolve I did. The next several years were spent giving my recovery program 110%. I wanted to get well, stay well and did whatever I was told to do. The amount of desperation that I walked into the twelve-step rooms with helped save my life. But, there was a lot going on on the inside that many didn’t see.
When I walked into a crowd of people, I seem calm, cool, and collected – but I my hands were sweating and I was having heart palpitations. There were so many times that I would be with a group of people during sobriety and just simply pray to not have a full blown panic attack. I think what got me through all of those situations was knowing that a lot of it had to do with the years upon years of terrible things I had done to my brain. I knew it would take a while for all my chemicals to even out again. So, I walked through a lot of the anxiety. There would be times that I would sit in my car and not want to go inside to a meeting because my anxiety would be so crippling. But, I asked God to get my butt through the doors, and somehow, He always came through. Through practice and working through it, my social anxiety slowly went away. It’s still gone, and I’m so grateful for that. However, I was still just a generally anxious person. And, while I had begun to build a life for myself that was beyond what I could have ever imagined, I wasn’t happy. Inside, I was always sad.
I judged people in the recovery programs that took antidepressants. “It’s not sobriety,” I would say to myself. “They’re still relying on a chemical to make them feel better.” I had other people in the program tell me that depression was simply a symptom of not growing spiritually, being stuck in your self-centeredness, and having unresolved problems. You know, to a degree, they were right. But just as it’s hard to feel contentment or joy when you’re not growing spiritually, it’s REALLY hard to grow spiritually when your brain will not allow you to feel any form of joy or contentment. It still amazes me how much I judged others while I was slowly dying on the inside.
Fast forward to the end of 2016. I was six years sober. Prior to this point, I had spent years trying to “feel better.” I dove into my program more and did as much service work as I could. I sponsored anyone who asked me. I started going to church. I began running and doing yoga. I started seeing a therapist in hopes of figuring out if there was something buried that I hadn’t addressed causing my depression. I would go through all of these options for years until I hit a bottom in sobriety. And on Christmas Day of 2016, I found myself wishing I was dead. Just typing that even makes me feel so many things, that I don’t even know how to put them into words. But I literally remember thinking, “I just don’t want to live anymore.” As I always say, it’s not until the pain outweighs the pleasure that you will become willing to do something different. I went to my doctor.
I was placed back on my medication that I had been on years ago. I felt like a failure. Was I still sober? Am I just weak? When I began to take my medication, it literally felt like my brain, that had felt like it had constantly been on fire for years, finally had the flames put out. I could think clearly. I could sleep soundly. Taking the medication didn’t simply “make me happy.” It gave me the ability to be sad when I should be, and happy when I should be. It allowed me to navigate through my emotions. I began to get along better with others at work, my marriage improved, and I became more grateful for my sobriety than ever.
While I am so grateful that being in such a bad place didn’t lead me to a relapse, it was the first time that I understood why people take their own life in sobriety. I’m not saying it’s always for mental health reasons, but the only thing worse than NOT doing what you’re supposed to be doing in recovery and feeling miserable, is realizing that you’re doing EVERYTHING you can in your recovery and feeling miserable. It’s the loneliest place to be. At least it was for me. And I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about it.
As a recovery community, we have GOT to stop making people feel bad for taking care of their mental health. I think we have the best intentions, but it gets to a point where it doesn’t even make sense anymore. We have got to stop acting like it’s a black and white situation. It’s just not. At the end of the day, I feel a-okay with God, and I’m honest with myself and my recovery friends who have always supported me. Beyond that, I just don’t care what anyone else thinks. My life and my recovery can’t afford that.
My goal of this post is not to suggest that if you’re feeling sad or anxious, the solution is to take a pill. However, if you genuinely feel like you’re doing everything you can to take care of yourself and your recovery and you’re having depressive or suicidal thoughts, get to a doctor that you trust asap. Tell them that you’re in recovery, and tell them what you’re feeling. You’re not alone.
Sobriety is the most kick-ass thing that you will ever do for yourself. Is it always going to be kittens and rainbows? No. That’s just life sometimes. But it shouldn’t be completely miserable either. Today, my sobriety is in the best place that it has ever been. Not because I have everything I want or because everything has gone my way…but because I am finally at peace with who I am.