Tales from the Dark Wood
In the middle of the journey of life, I was plunged into a dark wood, for I had lost the right path.
Dante, The Inferno
Part V: Interview #2 "Wendy"
by Douglas S Johnson
As part of an eight-installment series on living with clinical depression, three interviews were conducted in order to form portraits of people who have suffered from and coped with the disorder, in hopes that in understanding there is also something in the way of help and healing. This is the second of those stories.
"Wendy" is a 34-year-old female. She first began suffering from symptoms of depression at a very young age in conjunction with alcohol and drug abuse. She had battles with severe and even suicidal depression from the age of 21 to the age of 31. "Wendy" is now drug and alcohol free, though she still has mild to moderate bouts of depression.
To me, depression is like being trapped in the middle of a black cloud and not being able to get it to lift. In the old days, when I was caught in the dark cloud, I slept a lot, drank a lot, and I didn't want to go outside. I isolated as much as I could. There were times when it seemed like the black cloud wasn't ever going to lift.
Self-esteem was a big issue, because I had none, none whatsoever. I never felt like I was as good as the people around me. I felt like I was incompetent and like people were going to find out somehow. I felt really self-conscious and hated the person I had become.
Part of the self-loathing was because the only things I could feel about anything were hate and anger. At one point, I worked in a high-level managerial job. I was always angry when things didn't go just right, and I was always mad at myself because I could never live up to my own expectations. I was a perfectionist, so I focused on all the negative things in life. I could find whatever was wrong with anything I did and overlook the obvious good in it. No matter how things were going, I could always picture how it could be better and how I wasn't achieving what I should be achieving. If something I did were even a little bad, I would see it as a total failure. Even when things seemed to everybody else to be running along smoothly, I would see them as being disastrous.
Drugs and alcohol were always part of the problem. I started drinking and drugging when I was 11 years old. I started out stealing Valium from my grandmother, and my neighbors taught me that if I mixed Valium and beer together, I could get a really good high. Then I started smoking pot in the sixth grade. By the time I got to high school, I was burned out on pot and went to hard drugs.
I did pretty much everything, except for heroin. I drank constantly. I was always the person everyone contacted to find out where the parties were. Even when I was very young, I could take a drink and feel like I belonged, like I fit in. I felt like I was an outsider the rest of the time, even as a kid. When I drank, I didn't feel that way anymore, so I drank a lot. I quit the drugs later, when I got a good job, but there was still the alcohol. Drinking was always a way to deal with whatever bad feelings there were. Of course, good feelings were handled the same way. No matter what, I'd drink. I couldn't stop.
I attempted suicide twice. The first time, I was 21 years old. At that time, I had not gone to see a therapist or anything. The second time, I was 31 years old; I had already been diagnosed with clinical depression, and had been put on Prozac. While I was taking Prozac, I was still drinking a lot, somehow deluded enough to think that the alcohol would enhance the effect of the Prozac. Of course, the depression got worse and worse.
One day, I went to work, and a woman I worked with, somebody I cared a lot about, went to my boss and said that she could no longer work for me the way I was, and she even threatened to quit. I was called into my boss's office and given a letter of reprimand, and the only thought I had was that I was a horrible, evil person and that I couldn't stop hurting people. I thought that I was going to get fired. Even the thought of being reprimanded hurt me very deeply. I mean, everything had to be perfect.
That night, I sat in my house, drinking and reading this letter of reprimand over and over, and finally, I just went upstairs and into my bathroom. I was crying, and I looked in the mirror and said "God help me." Nothing happened, so after a little bit, I opened the medicine cabinet and took out two bottles of codeine. At that point, I just wanted to go to sleep. I didn't want to face myself anymore. I didn't want to go through life hurting the people that I loved and not even be aware of it. There had already been times when I had thought about driving off bridges and things like that, but I had never really seriously thought about it, but on this night, I just couldn't see any reason why not. I was really serious about dying. I didn't want to face it. I didn't want to go on. I had lost all hope. Death seemed better than life.
I emptied out two bottles of codeine, took a handful, drank some vodka, took another handful, drank some more, spacing them out so I didn't take them all at once and just get sick and throw them up. The whole thing took more than an hour. If not for a chance phone call from a friend, I'm sure I would have died.
Then, if all that wasn't enough, when I was in the hospital afterward, my boss called me and fired me. My boss knew that I had been diagnosed with clinical depression and that I had been having trouble thinking straight and focusing. She even knew that I had tried to kill myself, and I was still fired. I think back on this and thank God I was in the hospital, because if I hadn't been, I would have gone out a window.
I went into a drug and alcohol treatment facility at the hospital, and it was there that I first felt like some of the emptiness on the inside was beginning to be filled.
What I first had to realize was that I had hit emotional bottom, and I was spiritually bankrupt. I wanted to change. I didn't want to be the person that I was. I truly wanted help, and I would do anything to get it. I think it's necessary to hit bottom, because if you don't, you think that you can continue the things you've been doing. You just won't be willing to change. To recover from depression or alcoholism, or both, you have to be willing to do it; if you haven't hit your bottom, that willingness is sometimes just not there.
I remember there were three books that really helped me during my recovery. Two were Embraced By the Light by Betty J. Eadie, about a woman who has a near-death experience and meets God, and Mutant Message from Down Under by Marlo Morgan. The third was Alcoholics Anonymous, which tells all about the AA program; that one's a must-read for anyone who has any desire to recover from alcoholism or drug addiction.
AA was wonderful for me. I remember the very first meeting I went to and the feeling that I got when I went there. I remember that I walked into that room, and these people were sitting around laughing and smiling and talking, and they seemed to feel a way that I hadn't felt for a really long time. They seemed happy from the inside. They had a lot of hope. There was a little old lady who sat next to me who kept putting her arm around me and saying, "Don't worry, honey; you're going to be just fine." I felt like I was just where I needed to be. Everything else they said was true, so I believed that I was going to be okay.
I found God in AA, and that filled up that big hole inside me. I can't do anything on my own, and that had to be shown to me. It had to be shown to me that everything the depression, the alcoholism, everything in my life happened for a reason, and that everything I did, I did for a reason. I had been guided to exactly where I ended up. There were a lot of points in my life when I should have been dead. Someone called me at 1:30 in the morning and interrupted that second suicide attempt and got me into the hospital, and I think that was God reaching out to me. I know it happened for a reason. I never had any real belief in God before that; now I do.
I think opening up to people has been most therapeutic of all. Before, I kept everything a secret. One of the things we say in the program is "we're only as sick as our secrets." My sponsor got me to talk at a meeting, and I was only thirty days sober, so I didn't think I had much of a recovery story to tell. I also didn't think that my story was bad enough, so I didn't know if I really belonged there talking to other people. I actually started to worry that someone was going to say to me, "You're not really an alcoholic; you're going to have to go home"!
I know that's bad perfectionism, but a lot of people do what I was doing: I was second-guessing myself, even in regard to my illness. I thought, "Maybe I'm not bad enough." I shared my story, and afterward, a girl came up to me. She was about twenty or so. She started crying and told me that what I said had touched her deeply and that she had never heard anyone tell her story before. That really made me feel good. It made me feel like I had something to offer in life and that I wasn't all bad. That feeling has grown over the last three years.
I feel like I'm a good person now. I feel like there's something to me, even if I'm not exactly sure where I'm going in my life. Now I think it's my job to be the best I can while I'm here. I help other people if I can. In the end, I think that we just need to strive to do the best that we can. It's the journey that's important, not the destination. I think that you know when you're not going in the right direction, because it doesn't feel right. If you're doing the right thing, you're going to know it; you're just going to feel it.
This is the fifth in an eight-part series on depression written by Douglas S Johnson exclusively for The New Times. Please send SASE for any reprints desired.