“Within us is a secret longing to remember the light, to step out of time in this dancing world. It’s where we began and where we return.” Jack Kornfield
Last night, I shared my story at AA for the first time. I don’t owe my sobriety to AA, however. I was one of those people who have a hard time with the God thing and the jargon and the ‘my way or the highway’ mentality which sorta defined ‘The Program’ when I took my last drink 30 years ago.
No, rather I dropped in and out over the years and began to reinvest in the program about three years ago. The fact that I am an Alcoholic had, in fact, become a side note in my battle with Major Depressive Disorder, the underlying condition I had medicated with alcohol. Finally, ten years into sobriety, after all else had failed, I hit bottom, diagnosed with psychotic depression and borderline personality disorder. Sixteen years of treatment consisted of various psychopharmaceutical cocktails and weekly therapy.
I spent those years researching alternative treatments (and writing about much of what I discovered here at Brainzaps) because , as the years went by, the side effects of the medication were so difficult to deal with: Cognitive problems with memory and complex thinking; inability to make decisions or follow through; uncharacteristic rages and an inability to control impulses. Weight gain. Dental problems. Stinging and watering eyes. Elevated white blood cell count, Elevated Cholesterol. Elevated blood sugar.
And the loss of job after job after job due to personality conflicts. Paranoia. Major anxiety attacks. Obsessive attachments to my view of how something should be written or edited. An inability to compromise my integrity to mesh with corruption of principles of journalism.
Three years ago, I fired my psychiatrist, and began working with a therapist who practices integrative medicine and psychotherapy. I participated in a life changing UCSF Clinical trial on Mindful Meditation for treatment resistant MDD.
I discovered in my research that the principles of the twelve steps actually ‘mimic’ the manner by which ancient spiritual teachings instruct an individual on how to lead a healthy, balanced life, how to find a new way of moving in the world through integrating deep inner work into external reality.
As Judith Lasater writes in Beginning the Journey: Living the Yamas of Patanjali:
“Significantly Patanjali gives the reader this set of ethical guidelines as he begins to list the steps of the practice of yoga, not at the end. While Westerners are often more familiar with another step in the “ladder” of yoga practice, the postures, or asana, the yamas are the first. It is surprising to some that the classical teaching of yoga actually begins with precepts about how to live in the world. (The next step in the practice of yoga is the “niyamas”, even more personal practices. The succeeding limbs become increasingly more personal.(1) But the practices of yoga are meant to be about the whole fabric of our lives, not just about physical health or a withdrawn spiritual life.”
I was hesitant to share my story last night because it is not about AA. Because there still are many in this program who believe depression is not a disease. That if you follow the 12 steps religiously and turn your life over to god, you will walk again. IMO? Snake oil if one is truly crippled by a disease like Major Depressive Disorder.
I talked about growing up in a large extended Irish Catholic family, mostly about my mother’s father, my grandfather, an Irish immigrant from Macroom listed on his ship’s manifesto as a teacher. He was a poet who owned for some time what would become a highly valuable piece of land in Jamaica, New York. He was a farmer who didn’t know much about building a house but built several. He retired as an employee of the Long Island Railroad. By the time I was around he had stopped drinking but I understood from family members how he battled depression. My mother recounted how as a child she would lie awake on the nights when he went out, hopping the ‘E’ Train from Jamaica to Far Rockaway to walk the beach until dawn.
He had come to New York with dreams of joining his brother in California and studying Law. But then he knocked on the door of a Long Island City boarding house and my grandmother answered the door, and he fell hopelessly in love.
I wanted to succeed in life as a writer because I emulated my grandfather. Because I wanted his approval and love. But then alcohol swallowed my 20s and that was only the beginning of my battle with disease. Mental health and its treatment and the side effects from the medications took away a huge part of life. My will to live.
I was brutally truthful last night. I discussed my battle with my diagnosis ten years in to my sobriety, how unfortunate it was that I had fought so hard, had been in denial for so long, about facing the extent of my mental illness. How my mental condition would not have become so intense had I addressed it head on when symptoms of depression emerged so intensely during my teens. The theory of ‘kindling’, the concept that while a major experience usually precipitates the initial incident, the ensuing sensitization enables the triggering of subsequent events which can increase in frequency and intensity. When Peter Kramer wrote in Against Depression about the holes in the brains of people who had experienced MDD, I knew exactly what he meant. My mind at times feels like a loosely woven well-worn basket.
I read voraciously — the ususals like Kay Jamison, Peter Kramer, William Styron, and finally discovered information about neuroplasaticity with Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself and neuroscientist Vilyanur S Ramachandran’s mirror therapy.
Two years ago, I picked up a copy of The Mindful Way Through Depression , the work of Zindel V. Segal, J. Mark G. Williams, and John D. Teasdale, which applies the principles of Jon Kabat-Zinn to the treatment of depression.
Practicing these principles in all my affairs, to the best of my ability, one day at a time is how I live my life.
It wasn’t until recently that I learned how to navigate mud puddles without drowning.
I admitted last night how still today I wake up every morning heavily blanketed in state of deep despair. That I have to create my life new every morning. That I have learned that it is only by not giving in to this powerful lure, only by being mindful that I do have tools to use, that I can create meaning from nothing. That sanity and peace in my mind are within reach if I do what I know I need to do each and every day. And that I STILL DO NOT ALWAYS WIN! But the relapses are not as long now.
For me, maintaining a delicate balance in my life means accepting as reality there will be times during each and every day when I feel totally lost and alone. On the verge of disaster. Praying for oblivion. Accepting this as part of the journey.
Life for me today means maintaining a schedule which includes daily meditation, five yoga classes a week, four AA and one AlAnon Meeting, two daily hikes or brisk walks with my dog and not allowing myself to isolate until after 8 o’clock in the evening. My support ‘team’ as I battle through the end stages to achieve a life with NO need for pharmaceuticals includes a pDoc, a therapist, a nutritionist/pharmacologist and an acupuncturist.
My diet is gluten free, extremely low in carbs of all types. Mega doses of protein, difficult because I am a vegetarian. My daily supplements include Dopatone, 3000 mg Complete Omegas, probiotics, 100 mg 5HTP, Gaba, Magnesium, Adrena Calm and Progesterone Cream. I take l’theanine as needed. I avoid sugar. Dairy products.
Every night when the lights go out I do yoga in bed – Yoga Nidra.
And then I wake up again. To create another day.