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.