I am sober person who struggles with depression. When Robin Williams killed himself yesterday, I felt compelled to write about just how similar the two are for us. I have spoken openly about the fact that almost every single sober person I know has battled depression if they stayed sober long enough. It usually occurs later in their recovery, ten years plus. It happened to me, to my sponsor, to Julio, Nick, JulieAnn, that girl who got electroshock therapy, just about all of us. Bear in mind, I am nothing like Robin Williams. I have not found my purpose in life. I have not been of service through comedy and the Special Olympics or the USO. Koko never saw my movie and then spent an afternoon signing for me to tickle her. I never got married, had a child, lived in a swanky area like Marin. I flounder to this day trying to discover what to do with my life. I have given up on ever finding a decent boyfriend in Los Angeles, much less a good husband. I’m usually broke, have crappy family relationships and am woman. Mr. Williams and I were connected through something much more basic: our brains.
When I drank, I thought I was having a good time and a lot of the time I was. A rip roaring good time that made me forget my life, the good parts and the bad. Drinking was a trip to another galaxy for me. It had meaning and depth. Like rolled oats into hot water, booze changed my texture, shape and size. It was how I was meant to be. It was an intimate relationship that I really could never explain to anyone, except another alcoholic. And they didn’t need me to explain. They got it. They were having their own trip with their own life partner. Sometimes I drank to relieve stress. It didn’t occur to me that my drinking actually created stress. The careers I wrecked, the people I alienated, the opportunities I didn’t just miss, but blew like a stick of dynamite were a direct result of my drinking. But if you had tried to tell me that, I would have thought you were nuts. Alcohol was the cause of my hangover, my boyfriend being stupid, my parents totally not getting me, it eased my worries, not caused them. I didn’t put two and two together and come up with drinking for me meant putting my life in the hands of a substance that my body craved in a unique and priceless way. The part alcohol focuses on is your brain. And it’s a depressant. While in the throes of alcoholism, your brain is scrambling to survive with all the liquor it’s swimming in. Once you stop drinking, it starts the long road to recovery, but its a road you don’t know your brain is on.
I went down a rabbit hole so dark and so convoluted, that by the time I got sober, I didn’t know why I kept drinking. I couldn’t remember why I started because that girl was so far gone from the woman I’d become, it was like she wasn’t ever there. I was baffled not only that I couldn’t stop, but that I wanted to stop. It was like someone else was living inside my brain, not just instead of me, but alongside of me. We wanted totally different things, but we wanted the same things. We wanted love and success and laughter and friends and meaningful work and sex, travel, art, music, dinners out and sunsets at the beach and… all of it. We both wanted all of it. But I wanted it without drinking and she wanted it soaked in rum. By the time I got sober, I didn’t know how I was going to get her out of my head and I wasn’t sure I could live with her just shoved to the side. I was in trouble. I couldn’t imagine a life without drinking and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to live much longer with it.
So I got sober. People say that like it was a hair cut. You know, I just wanted it short with bangs so one day I took the plunge! It wasn’t like that. It never is. It’s a long climb to your biggest fear: the edge of a cliff, the bottom of the ocean, thousands of spiders crawling over your face, a man in the dark with a knife. Whatever your deepest fear is, that is getting sober. And the worst part is, you are making this decision. On your own. With no help. Sure, there are meetings and now it’s super popular to go to rehab and there’s therapy and dry out drugs, but the decision to give. up. drinking. is yours and yours alone. And it happens in your head. With that other girl. And she’s pissed. I mean really, really, really pissed because first you made her a cripple and now you want her to function like none of this ever happened. And no one knows she’s there but you and any other alcoholic who has ever truly gotten sober.
So I did it. And it was great. I got over the initial hump and I didn’t get kicked off the island. Whoo-hoo! Yay, life! I regained some sanity. My work performance was better. My skin, my sleep, my shits. All better. My parents were happy. I got a normal boyfriend. I went to Burning Man and Arco Santi. I went to Europe, the East Coast, Seattle, San Francisco, the desert and the beach. I was living, brother, living large.
And then I got depressed. To say I was surprised is an understatement. I was shocked. Why had this happened to me? I was sober. I shouldn’t be having these problems. I went to meetings, I worked the Steps. I was of service. I’d given up coffee ~and~ cigarettes. I did Bikram yoga for god’s sake. My life should be getting continuously better, not worse. And it went on. I didn’t just have a “few down days” here and there. I went down like a lead ballon. And I stayed down.
It occurred to me that this was just like drinking. That the girl was back. But now we were having these discussions about how it was normal to sleep in the same grubby sheets for three or, you know, four weeks. Because depression is like that. It tells you it’s what everyone goes through now and then, but you find yourself fumbling to know not just the name of the day it is, but the number, too. Sometimes, you don’t know the month. You start to think it’s fine not to leave the house, to the point where you can’t remember the last time you did. You wear pajamas until they are sticky sweaty gross and you throw them on the floor with all the other stuff you don’t want to wear anymore. You wash the pieces you need out of the pile of dirty dishes no one came to deal with like you’d hoped. You stink at times. You drag yourself to the grocery store and sit on the sofa eating out of boxes and bags. You cancel appointments and lie about why. You are just as much a hostage to your brain sober as you were drunk. And you just don’t get it. That girl is still there telling you it happens to everybody.
The same way she told you that the problem was you didn’t eat first and that’s why you threw up or to never drink Tequila Slammers again or just stay away from that Chrissie girl and her a-hole boyfriend, now she tells you your not depressed, you’re just tired. You’ll feel better after a little sleep, which turns into fifteen hours in a dark room. She tells you you’re not depressed, you’re just not hungry right now. It’s hot out and you’ve never liked to eat in high heat. Or the cold. Or the rain. Or the morning. It’s good for you to skip a meal or two, you’re cleansing. You tell yourself you’ll talk to your friends soon, when you have something great to report, then you cry because you’ve never had anything really great to report ever, it’s all been a lie. And you’re going to get it together really soon, but for Christ’s fucking sake, everybody shut the fuck up and leave me the fuck alone. I’m sorry, I’m just not feeling well, maybe you could come back another day. I’ll text you some good times. And then you turn off your phone and lose it on the cluttered bedroom floor.
Because depression, just like drinking, is an illusion. It’s a lie. It’s your brain so altered by chemicals that you don’t know it’s an illusion and a lie. You think in the beginning that it’s just a little, temporary condition, then you think it’s bad but kind of universal, then you think it’s hopeless and it is you, you and only you. Just like your drinking.
There are two reasons I have never owned a gun:
1. In a fit of justified rage, I would kill someone.
2. If I got depressed enough, I would kill myself.
In sobriety, we do a lot of laughing, much of it highly inappropriate. We try to take it easy and not sweat the small stuff. We try not to trigger a craving. We stay positive, remembering how incredibly bad our lives were drinking. We try to not take ourselves too seriously. We keep hope alive, just like a Hallmark card. Depression rips that hope from us the same way drinking did. We watch as depression takes the laughter away, we angst over anti-depressants. Should we take a pill to make it all better? Does a pill lead to a drink? Haven’t our poor brains had enough for one lifetime? Maybe we just aren’t trying hard enough. Maybe our friends are right, we just need to get out more, increase our endorphin levels, take a vacation, eat raw foods. But Robin Williams could have done any or all of that. He had a fantastic life. He had love and variety. He had millions. It’s not like too much Top Ramen got him down or he was going through a horrible divorce. It’s not like he was a failure at his job and hated his boss. And he was sober. Okay, he’d had a relapse, but that was almost a decade ago. He was doing everything he was supposed to do and he still killed himself as a direct result of deep, hideous depression. He got on top of the alcohol and was left with the resulting depression.
At eight years sober, I lived in a great house in a hip neighborhood. I had a running partner I adored and gave the best dinner parties in town. I was sexy, thin and happy. I made good money, had savings, insurance, a nice car, friends. By the time turned ten I was barely able to get off the sofa.
Because during depression your brain is going without end, like a terrorist abductor. It screams humiliation, shame, blame and failure like an air horn right into your face. It whispers in your ear, stroking your filthy hair while it mocks you, speaks frank logic you can clearly see, carefully explaining that this is your fault and your fate. You did this. You got depressed, you drank, you gave up. You are weak, the naysayers were right all along, the motherfuckers. Your brain wears you down like pencil lead, grinding away at you with a relentlessness you didn’t know you had in you. You begin to retreat further into a world inhabited by you and your brain, endless hours of thoughts of nothing. It is exhausting. Your only relief is sleep. In stunned moments of blankness, it occurs to you that in fact, you are thinking what some might call suicidal thoughts. You know enough not to tell anyone because they come get you and lock you up for saying that shit. But you start to doubt you will ever get over this. You start to see how you are dragging everyone around you down. You think about meds, but then you think about those you’ve seen take them, how you watched them become dullards with eyes like acorns. Or blow up like dough balls. Or lament the end of their sex drive, which frustrated a partner already pushed to their limit. How much more can we put people who love us through? Can’t they see they should just leave? Just leave before it gets any worse. And so your leaving seems like the humane thing to do. Instead, you do nothing and soon, people give up. You find yourself telling strangers how depressed you are, as if they are your bosom buddy. You find your real friends are at a loss for what to do. Everybody loves a party girl, nobody loves a wet blanket. There are only so many stories about how sad you are, so many crying jags and mid-afternoon door openings wearing a robe your friends can take. They just don’t know what to do. So they do what normal people do, they go live their lives.
Getting out of depression was just as baffling as getting into it. For some reason, as completely out of the blue as I started telling myself what a hopeless disaster I was, I stopped. I sat up. I got up. I said out loud, “If I don’t sell this sofa, I am never going to get off it.” So, I sold it. I sold my arm chair, my dining room set, my rug. I gave my tv to some elementary school teacher on Craigslist. I threw out clothes and old shoes. I quit my job, much to everyone’s relief, including my own. I threw myself over the side of the boat, into unknown waters and I swam. I did any part-time job that would get me out of the house and into a paycheck. I said yes to all the slobs who asked me out, gritting my teeth through dinner after dinner with the finest boring men LA had to offer. I started to pray. I prayed my ass off. To what, I have no idea. Why? Because I didn’t know what else to do and I was still too self-destructive to exercise.
And life changed. Not overnight and not in miraculous ways. I didn’t dig the second spring of Lourdes, but I did start to get up when it was light and go to sleep when it was dark. I got a boyfriend, albeit a broken one. And we had sex. I told jokes. I laughed. I stopped telling everyone and myself what a loser I was. And, surprisingly, my brain had nothing much to say about all this. The criticism was still there, but the volume was so much lower. The tone was no longer vicious. It was, in fact, kind of whiny. I felt shaky and frail, words no one has ever attached to me in my life, but I was clearly getting around a corner. I didn’t know how and I didn’t know why. All I knew was for almost three years, I was a hostage, kidnapped by my brain. Demands were made of me I could not meet. Expectations were too, too high, the code my brain was speaking to me in was excruciatingly complicated. I was lost, as a child gets lost in their own neighborhood. Everything felt so familiar and I kept waiting for someone to come find me, to put me back where I was sure I belonged. The longer I was depressed, the less hope I had. No one was coming and I was clinging to a ledge that grew ever thinner as time passed. I don’t know how I got off it.
They say addiction is like sex with a gorilla: you’re not done with it until it’s done with you. Depression is the same. It has broken my heart, my bank account, my reputation, my sanity. I am grateful to be alive today. I still struggle with depression, but there is light at the end of this once seemingly endless tunnel. I don’t know why I am still sober when so many, who tried harder than me and for longer, are drunk or dead. I have no idea why my depression was shorter and less potent than Mr. Williams’. I suspect it has to do with his cocaine abuse, but I couldn’t say for sure. I can say I understand why Robin Williams’ brain talked him into killing himself. I just wish it hadn’t.