Digital Dharma

The Middle Path, One Day At A Time

Depression and Recovery

Originally published in the Mind, Body and Spirit Newsletter, 08-15-04

I spent some time with an old friend over the weekend. I’ve known him for going on fifteen years — in fact, September 16th will be our “anniversary.”

We met on a Wednesday. I had been admitted to the treatment center for drug and alcohol addiction on the previous Monday, and was still in a sort of daze from the chloral hydrate for sleeping, Tranxene for benzodiazepine withdrawal, and sundry other chemicals both old and new. I was not a pretty sight. My hair was bleached pale blonde, I was tanned extremely dark, rather gaunt at 6′ 3″ and about 170 lbs., (I put on thirteen pounds in 21 days of treatment). I wasn’t at my best, which at that point in my life wasn’t all that great anyway, And I look sort of mean without even trying; pretty much always have. It’s been both a gift and a curse over the years.

My friend has been a barber by trade since demobbing from the British army in the early 60’s, when he served in the occupation of West Berlin. He’s had shops on the original Queen Elizabeth and on 5th Avenue, among others. He was volunteering in the little recovery bookshop on the 6th floor of the hospital where the center was located, and spreading his experience, strength and hope among the patient population, of which he was at the time a 7-month alumnus. He says I scared the bejeezus out of him.

We came from diverse backgrounds — the ex-martial artist, shooter and what-have-you (at that time a cop), and the little English barber. Despite that, we discovered over the next few months a great deal in common. To begin with, there was our mutual dependence on the alumni and our 12-step program to help keep at bay the Creature that haunted us both. We discovered that we both enjoyed books, classical music, and reasonably polite discourse. One thing led to another, and soon we were carpooling to aftercare at the center, attending meetings together, eating many a Denny’s omlette and drinking a lot of coffee, and slowly becoming entwined in each other’s recovery and esteem. When he chaired his home group, I spoke at the speaker meetings. When I chaired mine, he spoke. When my wife and I had some problems and were considering a split, I slept on his couch for a month. We continued as active alumni at the center. I backstopped him through a stormy emotional and business partnership of some years. He told me some things he’d never told anyone else, and I reciprocated. We both loved cats.

He had for some years belonged to a religious group with headquarters in a small Texas town, and from time to time visited there. As luck — great luck — would have it, he found his soulmate there in the person of the church secretary, a lovely lady who, coincidentally, is also English. The attraction couldn’t be denied, and after some stormy scenes with the live-in business partner he up and moved to Texas on me. I couldn’t have been happier for him. I missed him, but he was home at last.

Despite his recovery from his addictions and gradual spiritual growth — despite having found the second love of his life and remained on good terms with his first wife — he never seemed truly happy. Michele and I commented on it many a time. There was a sorrowful undertone to his personality, and an edge that sometimes revealed itself in a demeanor that was decidedly grumpy, even with us who loved him. His new wife and I discussed it in phone calls to and from Texas. During the decade and a half of our friendship he was always slow to smile, and when he did you got the idea that his heart really wasn’t in it. This continued during his several years in Texas, as well.

Last year he and his wife were in an auto crash. He was critically injured and she, although less critical, was really banged up. They are still convalescing, although back at work. He tells us that he had a near-death experience, and that he came from it knowing what his path is to be and having no fear of death or the hereafter. Despite that, his wife continued to voice her concern about his sadness.

It had always been his position that spirituality and the 12 Steps were all anyone needed in recovery to live a well-balanced life. Nonetheless, as a result of prodding from his wife and others who love him — me included — he agreed to have his physician put him on an antidepressant. This was several months ago, and I had not seen him since.

He is a new man. He smiles when others smile. He is able to absorb the friendly ribbing that often annoyed him, and appreciate where it comes from. His spirituality is emanant. One is able now to truly believe that he practices what he preaches — that his quest for spirituality is successful and that he can and will know peace. His God has blessed him greatly — with a little pill that sets right his own personal little chemical quirk.

What’s my point? Someone put it this way: if you have a broken arm, all the prayer and spirituality in the world won’t heal it. You go to a doctor. Likewise, if you’re trying your best to live your life well and it just doesn’t seem to be working for you — the exercise and nutrition, putting down the alcohol or other chemicals — don’t settle for the dregs. Today’s psych medications are more than just lifesavers; they can resurrect or unearth a quality of life that you never imagined, or had forgotten. But you have to take that first step: finding a competent physician who will work with you to discover what help you need, whether therapy, medication or both.

There’s no reason to be half alive. My friend hit the right combination on the first try. It took me three. Don’t give up.

3 thoughts on “Depression and Recovery

  1. Nice post. There’s a world of ignorance out there regarding psychotropic meds. On the other hand, a little knowledge is, well, you know.

    Personally I think antidepressants are over-prescribed to folks that don’t need them and under-prescribed (in terms of quantity and combinations) to those that do.

    Based on my experience, gps and internist have little or no business prescribing said meds unless it’s a stop gap measure to tide someone over until they can see a psychiatrist.

    Even then there’s plenty of room for error. I’m one of those lucky Americans who had fallen through the healthcare cracks, and as a result, found myself involved with indigent mental health care providers. They are good folks and they do life saving work, but my experience with them was less than I’d hoped for. I posted about that experience recently here.

    Thanks for the post. I’m one of those people who was getting worse at 4 years sober, even though I’d done the things that help “the winners” feel much better. Recovery isn’t easy for anyone. It’s just a little more challenging for some of us.

    Thanks for your comments. Nutrition, exercise, plenty of rest and meetings aren’t the entire answer for some of us — at least until we get our brain chemistry stabilized again. And for those who self-medicated to adjust previously skewed brain chemistry, it can be a hazardous road indeed unless dealt with by experts (and there are damn few of those) in psychopharmacology.

    I agree wholeheartedly with all your remarks, especially the part about unskilled physicians. Unfortunately, given the unwillingness of the government to address the issue of universal health care, too many poor people will continue to fall through the cracks and need to rely on those physicians who, for whatever reasons, choose not to be a part of the mainstream.

  2. I am glad your friend seems to have been helped by medication, but neither that anecdote nor scientific research justify your unreserved praise for psych meds. The picture is too complicated to get into in detail here. However, your analogy (of the broken arm being like a broken brain), is as distant from reality as Mercury is from Uranus.



    and I won’t try to present the .

    You might re-read the article before you refer to my “unreserved” praise of psych meds, and my anecdotal reference. Both the praise and the anecdote were case-specific, and neither constituted “unreserved” praise nor attempted to apply the information to anything other than the case instant. As to your reference to scientific research, if you will post the specific research to which you are referring, I’ll be glad to research the issue and comment. Until then, I guess your unreserved comment is…well…anecdotal, isn’t it?

    You must also understand that I have dealt non-professionally with addicts and alcoholics for more than seventeen years (all of whom suffer, to one degree or another, from neurochemical imbalances, and many of whom require medication), and professionally for five of those. I don’t have all the answers, my friend, but they are likely to be as accurate as those of anyone from off the street. You neglected to mention your experience.

    Incidentally: virtually all studies of mental problems, from neurosis to psychosis and including depression, are based on anecdotal information, since they all require self-reporting by untrained observers — the patients themselves.

    Thanks for reading, and taking the time to comment.

  3. Thank you for this reminder that sometimes that’s all it is – a chemical imbalance. We are fortunate and blessed to live in a time and place that can help to reduce our suffering in a relatively easy way – through a pill. The abuse of same is just as easy, true ‘nough. But I am grateful to have been reminded that the pill I take each day helps me to do what matters – my practice. Please keep writing. The Internet can be a wonderful tool for reaching out to others.

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