Series One: Blog Thirty-Eight
“And then something invisible snapped insider her, and that which had come together commenced to fall apart.” ― John Green, Looking for Alaska
Addiction and depression are two peas in a pod that dominate millions of Americans. Some people are genetically wired to be prone to addiction and depression. Women seem to be more prone to depression than are men. Yet, the combination of addiction and depression is widespread in our culture.
The braid of depression has weaved its thread throughout my family. It has dogged me all of my life. I remember being depressed as a little kid— fanned and stoked by being the youngest boy in a family of nine. There was always chaos and tension in our family. I absorbed most of the family anxiety and dread without talking to anybody. There was the fear of the Red Scare, the fiery apocalyptic sermons about the end of the world at church and at home, civil rights riots in the late 60’s and the constant fear of having to move to the poor side of town because we couldn’t afford to live in our house. No one knew I was depressed. I just lived with constant fear and worry. With so many kids in our family, there was no one who crawled inside my head to learn what was going on.
I had friends at school but seldom interacted outside of the classroom. It was a lonely experience throughout my childhood and depression had a silent choke hold throughout my early years going back as far as I can remember.
As an adult I eventually learned to medicate the experience of depression with work and exceptional drive. At times depression was a low grade reality that hovered in the background and haunted me when I slowed down. Then there were times that it flared and dominated me with the depth and intensity that interrupted my capacity to function. It became an integral part of self sabotage, particularly in my academic work in college. Due dates for papers and tests would trigger a buildup of anxiety, overwhelm and worry and be met with waves of depression that were medicated with chronic masturbation to porn. The behavior became a cyclical pattern of self sabotage that undermined my academic career and was silently sealed with shame and disappointment. Eventually, depression became an intrinsic part of my everyday living. Most people never knew because I was able to hide it with a smile. I always related to John Prine’s lyrics in his song “the Other Side of Town”. He wrote “a clown puts his makeup on upside down, so he wears a smile even when he frowns”.
I learned to hide what hurts and avoided the attention that I would have drawn if others knew what was going on inside.
It was in early February, 1989. I had just learned that one of the girls in my college ministry had just committed suicide. I had become a veteran to crisis. Usually, in my ministry I dealt with crisis every week and sometimes daily. Within a span of 5 years’ time I had officiated funerals for ten different suicide victims. One had even shot himself over the phone while I was attempting to get him to calm down. I was with his widow when she went to the morgue to identify his body. I will never forget the echoing scream down the concrete corridor that day when they pulled the curtain back for her to identify her husband’s body. There was the look of horror on the face of his corpse and white ashen shock on hers.
With regard to the tragic suicide of the college student, I remember going to the hospital once I heard the tragic story of her suicide. It was the same trauma hospital that I had been to so many times before. I went with one of my colleagues. I walked into the family room and there were about ten to fifteen family and friends of the deceased. The father approached me and began with a threatening voice to say that I was the reason why his daughter killed herself. In some strange way he thought I had the power to prevent her from being released from a treatment center. She had signed out and went to her brother’s apartment. It was a brother who had previously molested her.
I had been there many times. It wasn’t the first time I had to deal with crisis. Nor was it the first time I had been falsely accused. But, this time something snapped inside of me. I recall that everything seemed to shift into slow motion. I did not remember responding to the accusation. I only remember walking away from the hospital and telling my colleague that something was not right inside. I began to unravel inside. I did not know what was going on. That night, I did not sleep. I couldn’t get the college kid’s face out of my head. I was in a funk.
In truth, I could not function. I simply stopped eating. Over the next six weeks I lost 48 lbs. I decompensated. I was suffering from a major clinical depression. It was a free fall from reality and stability. The suicide was a trigger. I had over 14 years of intense workaholism that was slowly eating away at the core of my inner constitution. Somewhere in all of that was the buildup of unresolved childhood trauma that had been frozen. During this time, the trauma reality began to thaw. Flashbacks of past hell streaked through my consciousness. It was a rolodex of tormented memory that was relentless. I can’t remember ever experiencing such intense pain, emotionally or physically in all my days.
I began driving alone throughout the day and night aimlessly. My head felt like an old washing machine, constantly churning back and forth. One day, a memory of me crossing sexual boundaries with one of my sisters surfaced. Different memories had been rolling on in my head about abuses perpetrated toward me. Now, I was confronted with my own acts of perpetration. At that point, it was too much. I felt like I had fallen into an abyss. It was a bottomless free fall. I didn’t want to live anymore.
I have always heard others remark that suicide was the most selfish thing anyone could ever do. But, from my experience, it seemed beyond choice. All I wanted was for the pain to stop. I was disconnected from everything except that one focus.
Back in the day, I could go to Stapleton International Airport and stroll through the concourses without check. It was before the days of 9/11 and security check. I had decided to walk down a concourse and out one of the exit doors to the runway and into the path of a jet on the runway. It never happened. Two dear friends of Eileen and I had come looking for me. They found me and foiled my plan. In retrospect, I am forever grateful. These folk were the best friends I have ever known in my life to this day.
I spiraled downward for a long time. Things did not get better. I had tremendous anger inside about what I had done and what had been done to me. I drove around with all this rage inside. Once I travelled to an area of Denver called 5-Points. In rage and self-destruct, I decided to try to run down what I believed to be a gang of Crips. I did not know for sure if they were but I thought if I antagonized them enough, they would surely shoot me. So I ran at them with my car and the gang dispersed pointing their finger at me. I waited for sounds of gunfire but none came my way. Clearly, I was out of control.
I know my wife was scared for me and so was I. At the time, I had my three boys and they were all very little. I was unable to consider their needs. The thoughts and urges toward self-destruct were overwhelming. The emotional pain was more than I could handle. It felt like I was falling into a bottomless pit and I was unable to stop any of it.
I remember feeling totally detached from everything and everyone. I got to a point where without doubt, death was better than the pain inside. Finally, my wife and two friends convinced me to reach out for help.
Help was created through hospitalization at Columbine Psychiatric hospital. I was there for 3 weeks. The first night I was a zombie. I was told by an attending nurse the next day that I stared at a piece of fuzz on the window for several hours. They just let me and did not say anything to me.
I don’t remember a lot about the interventions. I recall confronting and almost getting into a fight with one of the guys who also was a patient. We were watching television and he suddenly got up and threw his chair into the TV screen, destroying it. I got up to smack him but there were 5 nurses who intervened. Almost anything triggered my rage. I recall having this attitude that it didn’t matter because I was convinced I was going to die anyway. This attitude melted away so much fear. I truly just didn’t care anymore.
They allowed me to spend time in the exercise room. I would beat the punching bag until every stitch of clothing was drenched in sweat and I was totally exhausted. It felt good. So they would let me do it multiple times a day.
Once, during a particular rough patch, I found myself in the proverbial padded cell. The ceiling had padding. The walls and the floors were padded as well. I remember thinking that my life and career was over. I had my Bible with me and I opened it to Psalm 91: I read the verse out loud – “He who dwells in the shelter of the most high will rest in the shadow of the Almighty”. I thought about all the crap that my family and I had gone through in the church and a wave of rage came over me. There was all the sexual abuse. The shame that was propagated that manacled all of my siblings. There was the domination of all the pastors I ever knew as a kid. The complexity of everything I knew about the church and its abuse. I wanted to throw up but I did not. Rather, I began hitting my Bible with my bare fists. I struck my Bible again and again with my fists until my knuckles were bleeding. When I finished I was totally exhausted. It wasn’t the physicalness of activity. It was tapping into all the rage, hate and shame that had enveloped my life like a wet blanket for so many years.
At this time, my mind began to clear just a little. I recall being aware of the thought that if I could beat the hell out of my Bible and God would still love me then I could live. In retrospect, I don’t think I really cared if God loved me or not. Over time there were many days that I certainly have not loved God. “Why in the hell would I” was my thought as I sifted and sorted the mounting abuse from the church that I unpacked. However, on that day, I chose in that moment to believe that I did love God. It provided relief in the moment.
The next day I committed to my wife that whatever it takes, no matter how hard it may be that I was going to “hock my socks” if need be to get better. Slowly, I did.
Over the next 31 years I learned to manage depression. It has never left and I deal with it to this very day. I have learned to make depression a friend that helps me to be aware of my limitations. When I ignore my boundaries – physically or emotionally, depression reminds me and tells me something is out of balance. It is stubborn and powerful. If I do not pay attention it will kick my ass. In the beginning, Prozac and Xanex was helpful. I weened myself away from Xanex and eventually was taken off Prozac. I would never have signed up for depression but it has been a constant teacher and I have learned to transform it into a healing force by learning to live within the confines of limitation. It has helped me to cultivate a deeper spirituality and long term sobriety from sexual addiction. Sometimes when things fall apart and depression paralyzes action it is helpful to know that someone else has been or is there in the moment of paralysis.
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