The power of hope


I’ve been thinking about hope a lot lately.  I mean, how can one not?  With the election and inauguration of Obama, hope is in the air.  You saw it in the faces of all those millions of people who trekked to DC to stand for hours cheek to jowl in freezing temperatures.  I saw it in my friends, my colleagues and complete strangers, this hope that things will get better for us, our country and the world.  Hope is truly transformative.

But this post isn’t about Obama or politics or others.  As usual, it’s about me, and my own experience with transformative power of hope.

As anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis knows,  during my 20’s, I spiraled out of control with drinking born of depression.  I mean, I can’t really blame me.  I was raped when I was 21, my mother died suddenly when I was 22, my father was diagnosed with cancer when I was 23 and died of it when I was 24. And this was while I was also dealing with the minor crises of life of school, housing and personal relationships.  I also had some pretty strong genetic markers for depression as my father had been hospitalized for it when I was a teen, and my mother was agoraphobic due to an untreated anxiety/panic  disorder.  Oh, yeah, and they both drank.  Basically, I was drowning in my own toxic gene pool.

I started my own personal battles with depression as soon as I left for school at Berkeley.   Living away from home gave me the freedom to fall apart since I no longer had to hold it together for my parents. By the time I was 20 I started drinking alone in addition to the already heavy partying I was doing.  With the events of my early 20’s, both the depression and the drinking just got worse and continued to do so for the next decade or so.  But, even though I was complete mess, I was a fairly functional one.  I managed to make it through school and be a fairly good employee. I never drank at work, nor would I allow myself to call in sick with a hangover. My drinking was a secret known only to a select few. And yes, I was even in therapy, though later I discovered I wasted way too much time with a really bad therapist.

Finally, it all came to a crisis point when I was 32.   Maybe it was a breakdown. Maybe it was a blessing.  But, whatever the hell it was, it scared me.  I saw very clearly that if I didn’t get help, I could be dead soon.  So, the first thing the next day, I called my doctor and asked for a referral for a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist, Dr. McDonald was a kindly old man and as comforting as a bowl of hot oatmeal on a cold winter’s morning.  He listened to my history and then quickly gave me a diagnosis and treatment plan.  “You suffer from a disease called atypical depression.  But, the good news is that it can be effectively treated with a combination of medication and cognitive behaviorial therapy (CBT).”   A disease?  I have a disease?  You mean I’m not a loser, I’m not crazy, I’m not destined to be miserable all my life, I’m not permanently damaged? I have a treatable disease? Glory fucking hallelujah!

He proceed to describe his recommended treatment plan, which included taking an MAO inhibitor drug called Nardil.  I was ready for him to write the prescription then and there.  However, due to the rather major list of side effects and contraindications, he wanted me to take some time to read some information about the drug and be certain that I understood the restrictions.  He then pointed out I couldn’t drink if I opted to take this drug.  So I had a choice to make, I could either continue drinking or I could treat the root problem.

I left that office such a happy girl.  Perhaps a naive one, but a very happy one.  I was sick, and I could be treated.  For the first time in years I had . . . wait for it, people . . . hope.  Dr. McDonald had painted a very rosy outcome for me in a ridiculously short period of time – 12 weeks.  Later, I realized, he was full of shit. But, I had hope, something I didn’t have before. Given the choice between drinking and the hope that I could better, I chose hope.  The night I came home from the doctor was the last time I drank.  The next day I called Dr. McDonald and told him I understood the side effects and was willing to move forward.

Was I cured of my depression in 12 short weeks of CBT & meds?  Ah, hell no. In fact, Dr. McDonald announced at our fourth session that he was retiring the very next week. 

My next psychiatrist was nowhere near as comforting or optimistic. He gave me a different diagnosis, recurring major depression, and prescribed me Prozac, at the time a relatively recent drug with a more forgiving list of contraindications and side effects.  He was surprised that I had been prescribed Nardil, especially considering the rather odd side effects I had been experiencing – a very altered sleep pattern, and a weird eating disorder where the only thing I had an appetite for was Triscuits and Diet Dr. Pepper. He also advised me that I should be prepared to be on meds for the rest of my life.

What happened to my 12 week depression cure?  You know, the one where after treatment I would be “right as rain”?  My new shrink had no answer and simply said I would like my new drug better, and referred me to a psychologist in his practice.

As it turns out, coming out on the other side of depression took closer to 12 years than 12 weeks.  Yet, I am forever grateful for Dr. McDonald’s optimism/lies for he was able uncover the hope that I thought was completely lost.  And despite the ups and downs of treatment, and all the heavy lifting of therapy that sense of hope never left me.  I was never tempted to pick up the bottle again.  While I never really identified myself as an alcoholic, I simply viewed and continue to view myself as a non-drinker.

So, that my friends, is my story of hope. 


16 responses »

  1. Did you find that any of the medications helped? Can you describe any of the major insights that helped you along the way?

  2. That is quite an interesting story, LB … and how odd that a lie from a quack probably saved you from alcoholism. It’s the kind of thing that just kind of blows a couple of synapses in my brain … a hugely benevolent outcome from something that is, at a glance, just plain wrong.

  3. Yeah, what David said – fascinating! But I see what you mean about that hope making it possible for you to stop drinking. You drank out of despair and that despair was wiped away. Hope is very powerful 🙂

  4. Sounds like Dr MacDonald was responding to you very much as a product of the medical training he would have had many years before (given that he was of retirement age), when people thought depression could be cured completely by shock therapy and meds. So his optimism was probably quite genuine, although entirely misplaced.

    Also, after a long career in psychiatry, he may have known on some level how vital hope is to people and prescribed some of it in order to get you off the booze…?

    I’m not condoning his misdiagnosis, of course.

    I think of depression as a disease like diabetes or malaria, which can be managed but never entirely cured. We have to live with it.

  5. Yeah, it is an interesting story. In fact, when you look at it objectively, you simply made a decision to change direction. It was self power in operation. But that self-power came into being only because you believed in other power (the abilities of the drug, your faith in your doctor etc.).

    I remain firmly unconvinced about psychiatry. More than that, I see it as an intrinsically evil institution. But I’m a great believer in self-power, which also informs my understanding of dharma. More and more, I believe buddhism is about self-power rather than other power. The buddhas, their blessings etc. are only empowered by our own faith, wisdom, etc.

    This is a theory I am developing in depth and won’t outline it fully now.

    Anyway, I think this is also why psychiatry works for some people too. Personally, I believe psychiatrists are expedient. I personally believe they are harmful parasites. Personally, I’d like to see science come up with a pesticide intended to eliminate only psychiatrists. However, as your story illustrates, they can be an instrument through which people can learn to help themselves.

  6. LB – I hestitate to call that a story; it deserves history or herstory. Whatever term… it is remarkable. Seems the hope offered by Dr Mac was the currency that paid forward through those years of ongoing therapy. Like you said, hallelujah!!!

    Everyone needs at times to be attuned to a turning point, a moment of clarity whereby they see the eventual outcome of their path. The person’s future is dependent on choices made at those points. Those who read here regularly are glad for your choices as we get to enjoy the outcome 18 years on.

    Thanks for sharing here; you’ve provided hope for others in doing so.

  7. Strange how others lives tend to mirrir your own in ways. I don’ think at all that my story would be so dramatic, I haven’t had any of the major life altering events that brought you to that point. But at the age of 32, I stepped into the office of a head shrink yesterday, knowing that I have some issues that need dealing with. Loss of appatite, horrible sleep and waking dreams, anxiety. All centered around my job. I certainly don’t see a 12 week program in my future. But Its nice to see that someone else has done similar. Its nic to see that some else has made better of a bad deal.

    Thanks for a little helping of hope.

  8. eye vote for herstory ~ that iz two bee found in the dream mind the fine mind the mind that nose know dis stink shun between real alley tea imagination and truth that resides in the mind of the bee holder ~ btw itz pal n 8 in time. beauty n e won ?

  9. Andrew – The medications served their purpose – to be a floor under my feet. As you may know, depression feels like a bottomless well of despair. The medications gave me some grounding again, which allowed me to work through all the crap that got me to that place. The medications were not the cure, they were a tool that allowed me to find my way back. As for insights? Well, that’s a whole ‘nother post of its own. 🙂

    David – I don’t know if I would call him a quack. It’s not like he was a chiropractor or somethin’. I’ll never really know if there was a method to his madness, or if he was truly just a bad shrink. Granted, the sudden “retirement” did give me pause as to his credibility.

    TPgoddess – You nailed it. I drank out of despair and hopelessness. Take that away, and there was no reason left to drink.

    Truce – The whole depression and diabetes comparison is an interesting one. On one hand the comparison is a way of “normalizing” taking prescription drugs. It was an easy way to explain to others that it is a medical issue, not an issue of will or character. On the other hand, it is also used, at least it was by my doctor, to make it seem like a fait accompli that I would be on meds all my life – that I had an inherent “lack” and it would only be filled with meds.

    I think you’re right, depression may never really be cured. The chance of remission is always there.

    Ron – Uh, not liking the psychiatrists very much, are we? Is this your own personal experience, or something perhaps passed down to you? Like everything, there is no inherent anything about psychiatrists – good or bad, wise or foolish. My first one may have been a liar or a fool, but he did me a world of good. My second psychiatrist may have only seen me as a cluster of symptoms to be treated by a chemical, but those chemicals helped saved my life. I have no doubt had it not been for the medical intervention that I asked for, I would have killed myself long ago. But, it was my choice to seek help, it was my choice to stop drinking, work hard at therapy and then to get off the meds. But, I had help along the way, and no matter what their intent, the impact on me was beneficially. And for that, I am grateful.

    BBG – menstruate?

    Norm – Thank you. 🙂 And I think you’re absolutely right. There comes a point of clarity, and you need to make a decision. I am very grateful when I have moments of clarity, they are pretty big and obvious. I remember a couple of times I tried to go off meds before I was ready. I would spiral down pretty damn quickly, and would find myself in such horrible psychic pain all I could do is hold my head and scream. And in each of those times there was a decision point that was so crystal clear: kill yourself now or pick up the phone and get help. Needless to say, I picked up the phone.

    Adam – Why am I not surprised? From what I know of you (all online), you are a kind, compassionate, gentle man, and the fact that you work in the industry that you do as never fail to amaze me. I hope you get the help you need and that you can once again begin to rest easy. But, remember your depression and/or anxiety is not just an illness, but it is also a teacher who is trying to show us that things may need to change.

    Take care, my friend.

    BBG – dude, you’re a freaking genuis.

  10. Hi LB

    I’m glad it helped you. However, psychiatry help destroy others I’ve known, including a very close personal friend, who is now dead. Of course, I grew up in a Scientology household as well, and that has certainly informed my view of psychiatry. As a journalist working in Cape Town I also came across some extremely disturbing information that changed the way I viewed mental institutions permenantly. I’ll leave it at that. I’m not a fan of psychiatry.

  11. Hi,

    I’m glad I stumbled upon your blog. More so given that the first post is one I relate well to. While I believe that there are some in the psychological sciences who have a genuine interest in the patient’s outcome, many seem to look at it as not much more that a business.

    Hope is essential to our well being and regardless of how and who planted the seed, if it worked, it was a good thing.

    Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.


  12. I like your take on this all, LB. It’s great that someone was there for you, to stop you on your tortuous path and set you in a new direction.

    Sometimes it seems to me that people want psychiatry to be like auto mechanics. You bring your vehicle or brain in, confused as to why it’s not working properly, a diagnosis is made, and it gets fixed.

    But our brains are all so different — and sometimes mental health professionals have as many issue as anyone else. Still, they can do a lot of good, sometimes.

    I had a coworker once check out for a year. We weren’t supposed to know why, but the quiet word got around. After she returned, the closest she and I ever came to discussing it was when she told me something “a friend” had said to her: “if you don’t like the hole you’re in, stop digging.”

    I’ve no doubt the friend was a mental health pro. And it was absolutely what she needed. She had all this psychic energy spinning faster and faster, and her need for control was greater and greater, until she couldn’t bear it any more.

    A calm voice helped her put on the brakes. It wasn’t an eternal cure-all, but it got her going on a better path. Sometimes, it’s the best you can hope for.

  13. Great story! I came over from Lea Kelley’s blog. The phrase “drowning in my own toxic gene pool” struck a chord so I kept reading.

    I too traveled down a long road of depression and came out on the other side a smarter, happier and more joyful person.

    The mantra of my site is all about Hope…

    Don’t Give Up! Giggle On!

  14. dont giggle up ~ give on – or as Karl Young used to sey: we’re learning how to live 4 the first 32 years and after that we ear learnin how 2 dye. indigo is my favorite

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