I hate to admit it, but it has always been there in the background, like the dull drone of a refrigerator’s compressor, recognizable only in its sudden absence. And I felt so defeated this past week when the silence in my head burst, and into the emptiness of that void thundered depression, no longer mute, but rattling and unsettling.
And even though 20 years have passed, how could I ever forget sitting in the shaded room of my psychiatrist’s office on a sunny summer’s afternoon. Below, the rhythmic rumble of the passing streetcars created the perfect dissonance to the melodic Scottish accent that delivered my diagnosis. “You have bi-polar manic depression, and cognitive impairment from chronic alcoholism.”
And as those piercing words lay hanging in the suffocating air, a harsher pronouncement was yet to come. “You may think you’re terminally unique, but you are of no mystery to me. In fact, the only thing I’m not sure of is whether you will drink yourself to death, or if your next suicide attempt will kill you first. But what I am absolutely certain of is that your alcoholism and your incessant lying leave me with no viable way of helping you hold onto whatever life you have left. And, until you get honest enough to face these two facts, there is absolutely no way I can work with you.”
I walked to the elevator in stunned disbelief. I was just fired by my psychiatrist, and I could taste the rage bubbling in the back of my throat. I fucking hated everything about her cold, sterile diagnosis. I hated her ability to look me directly in the eye as she tore apart every justification and fabrication I erected. But what caused me even greater angst was knowing that as I sat across from her and I stared down at my feet feeling the shame and rage washing over me, her piercing eyes were locked like lasers, stealthily waiting for me to regain eye contact.
I’ve never met an addict who doesn’t score off the charts when it comes to taking full advantage of the coy, charm offensive; but the longer you tumble into your addiction, the more that charm starts to wane, until eventually, like a grifter, there is more con than cunning in you. I’d spent a great deal of my life drinking and drugging to numb out the violence, violation, and abuse of my childhood; and to be honest, for a time it worked; but then, it didn’t. Looking back, I had no idea that the price of getting high would be so high. I never drank or drugged for euphoria, or even for a sweet escape. I was chasing and elusive absence, an all-consuming nothingness, the fastest way to take me out my life, without taking my life away. Walking around with an active addiction is like carrying a swollen pustule of grief. It’s a grief that haunts you, and one that eventually robs you of faith and connection. I was never sure if my addiction caused my mental illness or if my using was simply a perverted attempt to plug the gaping holes of worthlessness and pain inside my mind.
I was one of the lucky ones. I eventually found my way into a treatment program, and got clean. But in clutching on to that early lifeline sobriety gave me, I was forced to let go of the illicit substances that masked the shitstorm of my bi-polar brain, and so began my reluctant dance to pharmacological sanity… Lithium was prescribed to stabilize my mood, antidepressants to address the suicidality, and Lorazepam to manage the waves of anxiety. It was an unsettled time as everyone close to me spent the next three years trying to save my life, while I did everything in my power to sabotage, subvert, and push back. I was sick and tired of being seen as a “patient”. The drugs that were keeping me alive made it feel like I was encased in a rubber body. Living a sober and medicated life felt like drifting through murky water. There were no lows; there were no highs, just day after day of soul-destroying sameness. After a while, I started lying about the fact I had stopped taking my meds, only to be found out as my erratic mania began to roar back to the surface. I continued to lie to my new psychiatrist about the trauma from my childhood. And I lied in my 12-step addiction meetings, as I pretended that sobriety was one beautiful group hug.
But then… I found running. I found a way to score that ‘hit’ I was missing, but really all I had found was a socially acceptable way to physically and psychologically beat myself up. And over the next 15 years, through pure willpower, I wrestled back control of my own mental health, as I literally ran myself off of all my bi-polar medications. Running upwards of 200 km per week allowed me to huff on the biggest serotonin pipe on the planet. And that bi-polar depression, well… that fell away too. Or so I thought…
Until… these past two weeks taught me that depression cannot be exorcised or vanquished like a menacing ghost; instead, its vestiges linger in you. It marks your soul, and it waits. If you’ve ever been caught in the debilitating undertow of depression, you know that depression has little to do with feeling sad, and everything to do with feeling nothing. You face wave after incapacitating wave of inertia, and you are surrounded by an overwhelming weight of emptiness.
As I sit here writing this, I feel as though I have arrived at the other side of this most recent wave of depression, yet still, every part of me aches as though I’ve been holding my breath day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute. It’s the most terrifying feeling when your mind betrays you, and it takes every ounce of the energy you don’t have to try to ignore the shouting echoes of depression.
There’s simply no reprieve. It’s a constant battle not to surrender to that nothingness. Thankfully, it’s been years since I’ve been to such a haunting place inside myself. But today, I feel more awake to the depths and lessons of that darkness. Like a traveler who has arrived safely after wandering a little too close to the edge of the cliff, I feel more alive in knowing just how near the truth that abyss lies.