Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pirouette On A Tightrope: On Addiction and Depression

I am emerging from my self-imposed break from writing because I feel an ache, a bubbling emotion that needs to come out in words.

Robin Williams' death hit us all hard. Just like in the wake of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's death, I feel
perplexed, gut-punched, incredulous.

Their deaths touch us because their talents were so massive, their performances so vulnerable, that we felt a kinship, a connection, with them.  The thing about that connection?  It only went one way.  The unrequited first row seat to their creative genius was the gift they gave us.  And, we know now, the pain driving those staggering performances - both comic and tragic - that hid behind all those characters.

At first glance Robin Williams appeared to be the opposite of vulnerable - full of crackling energy that surrounded him like a force field.  To be honest, his brand of humor always made me slightly nervous.  When I watched him interviewed, or hosting an award show, I felt as though I were watching through squinted eyes, waiting for the wheels to come off and the whole thing to fall apart.

This may sound like Monday morning quarterbacking - all "I saw it coming".   I didn't.  But I know now why his energy made me uncomfortable.  I recognized that pirouette on a tightrope, the thin veil between comedy and melancholy.  

How many of us thought, when we heard of his suicide, "WHY?  He had so much to live for?"

As someone who battles both depression and addiction, I understand that how much a person has to live for doesn't matter in the face of these potentially fatal illnesses.   Most of the people I know who have struggled with addiction also struggle with depression and/or anxiety.   Drinking or using drugs becomes the Band-Aid over the bullet hole.

I ended up relapsing after years of sobriety because of untreated depression and anxiety.  I learned a valuable lesson while in treatment:  I can build a strong castle of recovery - massive and impenetrable from the outside - but if it is built on a foundation of sand, it will eventually fall.  The issues behind my drinking - depression and anxiety - were the shifting sands underneath my recovery.  Unaddressed, they would eventually take me down. And they did.

I had no idea I was depressed. I thought depression meant you couldn't get out of bed, that your world went grey and meaningless, that you were filled with lethargy and despair.

Mine didn't manifest that way.  My depression came out as manic energy - impulsive, compulsive, obsessive.  I didn't stop from the moment I opened my eyes in the morning until the moment I fell into a fitful sleep.  My mind never, ever stopped.  To the outside world I looked on top of my game - productive, full of life, passion and drive.  Recovery is an inside job, and I stopped working on my insides. I took my validation from the outside in, and for someone like me that is dangerous ground.

If I started to feel those shifting sands under my feet I ran harder, faster. I started another venture or project. Without consciously knowing it, I was afraid to stop, like a beast was nipping at my heels and if I paused it would get me.

It got me. My addiction is my beast - it was waiting for me to run out of energy, skulking in the shadows and ready to pounce. 

When I see the recaps of Robin Williams' performances - especially the improvisational ones, or the interviews - I recognize that mad dance. He was larger than life - he was so, well, Robin Williams. How hard it must have been for him to let down that veneer, to ask for help.  His humor was his armor, and we loved him for it.  We craved that version of him, we validated it.  And he delivered, at his own peril.

Recently he checked himself into rehab, and according to his publicist it was a precautionary move, to help prevent relapse. As details emerge, it appears his depression had such a grip on him that this came too late.

Depression is such an elusive concept. Most of us, when we hear this word, think:  sad.

For those of us who struggle with depression we know sad is a woefully inadequate word.   Just like I can't really describe what addiction feels like, I don't know if I can find words to describe depression.

To me, it felt like a mad scramble. A desperation to keep moving while appearing focused and outwardly fine.  Like that analogy of the duck - calm on the surface and paddling madly beneath the water.

Like addiction, for me denial played a huge role.  It wasn't an active denial - nobody was saying, "Ellie, I think you're depressed" while I protested.   I didn't know what I didn't know.  And because I am an alcoholic, that disease got me before the depression did.  But, in time, I realize that untreated depression is just as deadly and insidious.

Today I view my recovery as a three-legged stool: a program of recovery, therapy and medication.   I have historically had two of the three legs:  program and medication, therapy and program, recovery and medication.  I teetered on two legs as long as I could, but of course I fell.  Medication is tricky in recovery, and it took a while to find a safe and effective dosage. 

Now, with all three in place, I feel grounded.  My outside life is somewhat chaotic, complicated, as I work on the wreckage of my active addiction.  But I will take outside chaos with inner peace over inside chaos and outer peace any day.

I am staggeringly lucky.  I was able to get treatment for 90 days, with a lot of help from my family and friends.  I know without that treatment my chances of making it were slim.  I also know that I wasn't able to ask for help because I was so deep into my depression and addiction that I was incapable of saving myself.  It was people around me who got me the help I needed.

Many people aren't that fortunate.  Many people struggle and don't even know that they are depressed. Many people turn to alcohol or drugs to ease the pain, and many of them become addicted as a result.

We are a society of quick fixes. We applaud drive, determination and outward appearances.  Vulnerability and fear sit in the back seat, shushed and scorned.

I don't know how to end this post, what kind of statement I'm making here, exactly.  I can only share my own experience and hope it touches others.  If you are struggling on the inside, ask for help. Find just ONE person to open up to.  Even if all you can say is "I don't feel okay", start there. 

And if someone asks you for help, please listen.  Resist the urge to tell them how great their life is, how much they have going for them.  Offer up pieces of your own struggles to help them feel not so alone.