Tell Your Story: My name is Dan
My name is Dan, and I'm an alcoholic/addict. I’ve said those words in AA meetings for over 25 years, and I never really had any regrets about identifying as an alcoholic/addict. Ironically, I have a much harder time labeling myself as having a mental illness even though I have been dealing with the reality of several diagnoses and treatment far longer than 25 years.
I'm 61 years old and have lived a charmed—if complicated and messy—life. I'm grateful to be alive to write this because so many who have walked this path with me are no longer around to lend their voice to the conversation. When I was asked if I would write about my story, I immediately and enthusiastically said yes. However, I found that this was a biography that was hard to get started. I found myself very reticent to label myself as being ‘mentally ill.' As it turns out, even though I am working in the field of mental health, I have some strong biases. Shame and the fear that others might judge me as harshly as I have judged myself kept me from placing cursor on screen and simply get started. So here we go….
My mom was diagnosed with depression in the 1970s. Both she and my dad were high-functioning, but very severe alcoholics. Think ‘Mad Men'-level drinking but without any of the glamour. My dad made very good money, but the utilities would get cut off. There was no one at the controls at my house even though we managed to keep up appearances.
My maternal grandfather showed signs of depression. My maternal uncle showed signs of bipolar II (without much of the depression cycle—lucky man!). His older daughter, my cousin, was diagnosed as bipolar I. She was a brilliant neuroscientist and physician who died by suicide in her mid-thirties. (Are we seeing a pattern here?). Her brother, my cousin, has recently run into addiction-related problems. My dad and his family seemed very ‘normal.' Well, except for the fact that my dad's drinking led him to AA. He passed away in 2017 with 32 years sober, and as far as I could tell, his only mental malady was an excessively sunny disposition, and constant, gentle hypomania that fueled his Jedi-level social skills (he was one hell of a trial lawyer, before and after sobriety).
As for me, I started group therapy at age 16 as a treatment for depression. I continued talk therapy until I was 20, then self-medicated with drugs and alcohol until I was 36 when I, too, joined the fellowship of AA, got sober, and then had to deal with my depression in other ways. After I got sober, I was diagnosed by various physicians and a psychiatrist at various times with major depressive disorder, bipolar II, PTSD from early sexual trauma, and (no surprise) substance use disorder in remission. Without compensatory substance abuse, I had to develop new strategies to deal with my mental health, which included anti-depressant medications and occasional talk therapy. Later, I added rigorous yoga, meditation, various spiritual practices, long-distance motorcycling, and healthy plant-based eating into my mental health care tool kit.
Equally important were my creative endeavors. I leveraged a life-long talent for playing guitar and a passionate love for music into a career. I basically taught myself how to become a recording engineer, started recording the bands I played in, and never looked back. To say that I enjoyed some success would be an understatement. Without the numbing distraction of substance abuse, I thrived and was able to run a successful business in a really competitive field. There were challenges on the horizon, however, and they all had to do with my mental health diagnoses.
As I grew into middle age, my mental health challenges manifested in new, more insidious and overt ways. The periods of depression became more frequent, and the hypomania became more intense. Pharmaceutical solutions would only work for so long, then doses would have to be changed, or new or different medications tried out. At one time, I was on four psychotropic medications at once. I think that may have been overkill, but at the time, I cannot deny that it helped.
From time to time while in my 50's, I would arbitrarily decide that a) I didn't need medication any longer, or b) that it was time to get off all medication. I thought of it as just as a level-set to see what would happen. These experiments did not end well. In every case, I would ‘be ok' for four to six months, and crash into what I refer to as ‘black depression,' and I would become marginally or barely functional. I am fortunate to have two men in my life who also suffer from the disease of depression, and we check in with one another over our mental health frequently. One of these friends actually is more of a mental-health accountability partner, and we check in every day at least once. After my last experiment of going off my meds, I promised them both that I would tell them if I ever decide to go off my meds again. I also asked them to remind me just how harmful the consequences were every single time I tried the experiment.
Doing life while using the tools, going to therapy, and continuing medication works quite well. There are accommodations, necessary, though. I still have to take care of myself. Not getting enough sleep is my most recent trigger for depression or hypomania. Being creative in my music is always deeply satisfying and very therapeutic. I don't own a motorcycle at the moment, but I'm sure that will change soon. Being a full-time student has added stressors that I have to manage, but has also given me incredible joy. I should note that occasional hypomania has really helped over the years when I have a lot of work to do. My accountability partner and I call it our 'superpower.' If I could just find a way to ditch depression permanently and summon the hypomania upon command!!!!!!!!
Perhaps I've finally arrived at a point in life where I have enough altitude to see a broader landscape. Every person I know well seems to have their own stuff. The volume on my particular challenge is just turned up much higher than most. I don't see myself as wounded, rather, as someone lucky and motivated enough to find a solution. There is still that hypocritical voice in my head that tells me that I am damaged. Less than. But for the most part, it's easy to ignore, because I stay in conversation with those that share my challenges. If there has been any secret to my success, it has been a willingness to be accountable to my peers with the disease—both as a recovered substance abuser and as a person with mental health challenges. I have no doubt that sharing this story on this platform will be one more insurance payment on my future mental and emotional well-being.