Eighteen

This morning, I was leaning into the refrigerator to get the milk, and I was startled by a realization. Today is my eighteenth anniversary of getting sober.

Eighteen years is a long time. A lot of the memories are simply words now. The emotions attached to the words have faded. I remember searching for release from my demons. I thought liquor was the release. It wasn’t. It made matters worse. Sobriety and the steps and friends and therapy and medication for my mental illness and meditation gave me release.

Release certainly didn’t come in an instant. It took time. I slogged through years of depression trying one medication after another. None helped. When I was five years sober, I had a realization that I was attached to my suffering. I was able to slowly let go of my need to be sick.

It’s not an easy feat, but I’m not sick any more. I like being whole. I honestly love myself now, which is something I couldn’t imagine. I think I began to be completely comfortable with myself somewhere around thirteen or fourteen years of sobriety. I found unconditional love two years ago. It’s quite strong.

I don’t want to change anything about my past. I’m quite happy with my life now, and I have hopes that it will even get better. There’s still a few things I want to do.

My Bipolar and My Alcoholism

I have bipolar disorder with psychotic tendencies, and I also happen to be an alcoholic with twelve years of recovery. Which came first, the disease or the drinking? I’ll never know. I certainly started drinking many years before my diagnosis, and the doctors all say that I probably started drinking as a way of medicating the growing disease. The alternative flits around in the back of my mind: my drinking caused my disease. Perhaps that’s just another of my many forms of self-loathing showing itself.

I drank for many reasons, but one in particular can’t be ignored. Drinking numbed me. For short periods, it blocked from my mind the hatred I had for my homosexuality, the guilt I felt for my sham of a marriage, the shame I harbored for my shell of a life, the anger that seethed within me for my weaknesses, etc. After many years of recovery, I can say that I choose to believe the doctors. I drank also for the comfort it gave me in dealing with the mental illness that lay just below the surface of my mind. It smoothed the highs and the lows into a seamless, numb existence.

It didn’t work, however. I crashed as all of us do. The alcohol stopped working, and then the mental illness had nowhere to hide. I had a psychotic break that led to my diagnosis. I found help for my alcoholism in the rooms of A.A., and I found help for my mental illness through family, doctors, nurses, caseworkers, therapists, and friends. The treatments for both conditions have been quite different. On the one hand, A.A. provided me with the twelve steps that I had to rigorously apply to myself to learn to live daily without drinking. On the other hand, my bipolar disorder has been treated largely with medication.

There are similarities in the treatments. That’s in the way I have to take responsibility for my own actions and well-being. I am responsible for working the steps of A.A. to remain sober. I have to be honest with myself, my sponsor, and other members of the program in much the same way I have to be honest with my doctor, my caseworker, and my therapist. Both recoveries have a spiritual element for me personally. I meditate. I sit quietly for periods and let myself just breathe. I expect nothing from these sessions other than an awareness of where I am and what I’m trying to accomplish.

My bipolar disorder and my alcoholism are intertwined. I don’t understand it, nor do I worry about it. For today, I’m simply relieved that both are being treated.

Agoraphobia

A simple definition of agoraphobia is “a pathological fear of being in public places, often resulting in the sufferer becoming housebound.”

Yesterday was supposed to be a happy day of sorts for me. Instead, it was what I would describe as one long panic attack. I had to take my full daily prescribed dose of my anti-anxiety medication to make it through. Yesterday was the twelfth anniversary of my sobriety. Instead of feeling happy, joyous, and free, I experienced an elevated heart rate, racing thoughts, and thoughts of impending doom. The panic-attack-like symptoms lasted nearly all day.

I was extremely uncomfortable at the noon meeting I went to and had to sit on my hands to keep from standing and rushing out of the room. I was again uncomfortable during the evening meeting and could not keep my feet still. In both meetings, I had a hard time concentrating.

I have for many years had an unreasonable fear of parking lots. I hate them. I overcome this by having certain rows I go down at certain places, and I never vary. If I can’t park in my regular row, I don’t shop that day.

I have quit my volunteer position at the library’s learning center. I have quit another club I was a member of.

On a continuing note, I can’t watch TV. I simply can’t sit still for it, and I get feelings of high anxiety trying to watch it. I can’t even watch videos on the internet. They make me antsy in the extreme.

I don’t feel like I’m winning against my brain today. I feel broken.

Radical alterations to my world

I have a question in mind: What events in my life have radically altered me? A few come to mind very quickly, and then a few more get added, followed by more. So let’s just list them. They are not in any particular order of importance. They simply came to me this way.

Getting sober: really, without that, I have nothing. I was a daily drunk by the time I was twenty years old. My doctors have all said I was probably just self-medicating. Whatever the reason, as I thought it took the misery away, alcohol filled me with despair beyond description. Only in sobriety did I learn that it caused the misery.

Coming out of the closet: any GLBT person will tell you this changes everything. It freed me. And in the end, it led to my divorce. It gave me power, and it filled me with pain. Any GLBT person will also tell you that coming out is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight. I took me five or six years to get comfortable with being gay, and another five years to become really happy about it.

The birth of my children: what parent isn’t radically altered by a birth? While there have been fits along the way, my children are central to the joy I have in my life today.

Being an exchange student: I spent my junior year of college abroad, and I have never looked at the world in the same way since. I see the diversity and truly love it. It wasn’t until I was submerged in a foreign land that I really understood what it meant to be from my home country.

Being diagnosed with bipolar disorder: a year and half after I got sober, I had a breakdown. It was painful and baffling. I at once knew that something was wrong, but couldn’t for the life of me bring myself to believe that it had something to do with my brain. I was furious with God and could not pray. Over the past years, much of what I had has been stripped away from me because of the disease. I hate mental illness. I hate what it does to people. I hate what it does to caregivers and loved ones. I hate how poorly it is understood by society. I hate it. At the same time, I have people in my life who truly care about me and whom I love. I have access to case workers, therapists, doctors, and medications that work. I am very lucky to be living with this disease in the present and not the past.

There are a few things that I think qualify as radically altering my world.

A bumper sticker

I can remember seeing “Easy Does It” on bumper stickers and thinking that it was cool. If I were to put I sticker on my car, I thought, it would be that. The problem was I could never find one.

Fast forward to the year 1999, and I discovered A.A. I also found out where to get that particular bumper sticker. “Easy does it” is one of the most important clichés heard at A.A. meetings and in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. It still means a lot to me.

In early sobriety, it meant that when I was worked up over something, I needed to stop and breathe and relax. When my brain was spinning out of control, I needed to stop and pray for relief. When I was overly worried about some problem, I needed to stop and think about how much I could really control and what was simply out of my hands. Then I needed to let go of that latter part.

With ten years of sobriety under my belt, “Easy does it” still resonates but at a deeper level. I need to not put myself into situations where I am likely to become worked up. I need to stay out of the way of hurt and fear.

How do I accomplish that? The most important way is by having the right attitude. I give thanks for my very life in all its imperfections every day. I give thanks for the good things and the bad.

I also keep an open mind to the experiences that life throws at me. I try not to judge situations too quickly. I have learned to let things develop on their own time and not push to much to get things to turn out the way that I want them. By keeping an open mind, I learn a lot from the good things and from the difficulties.

“Easy does it” is short enough for a bumper sticker and long enough to cause me to stop and think…and relax.

Burning

I vividly remember the dream. I walked slowly into a forest at night. Dark shadows filled every nook and cranny. No moonlight pierced the canopy of trees.

Trees stood around me. They were old and lonesome, and they beckoned to me to approach. When I did, I realized that each tree was open, baring it’s interior for me to spy.

I approached one to pry into its secret life inside only to discover that it glowed with a raging fire. Smokeless. Hidden. Its soft life was being consumed by a fire burning from the inside out.

The next tree held the same secret fire eating away its life. The fire glowed, and bits of ash formed and fell, and the shell of life thinned.

And the next tree revealed the same.

And the next.

Until I was left looking at my own hands that glowed with the same internal fire. My skin blackened and turned to ash and flaked away. My flesh being consumed from the inside by a mad fire daring to escape.

Life in Hell

I lived in hell for too many years to count. All right, it was somewhere between 16 to 18 years. The hell centered around alcohol, preferably gin. I might start the evening with beer or wine, but it was gin–Bombay Gin–that I poured for myself over and over. I kept it in the refrigerator so that I never needed to add ice, which just took up room in the glass that could be better occupied by gin.

I drank for one simple reason: to numb the pain. It never worked. Not once. The alcohol would warm my blood and muddle my brain, but I was still miserable even drunk. I still loathed my self, my homosexuality, my mediocrity, my looks, my job, my lying, my relationships. Everything.

And I woke up every morning for years wanting to die. The first thought that would enter my head before I opened my eyes would be that I wished to be dead. I don’t know how many years it lasted, but it was easily decades. I hated myself. I hated you. I hated the world. Everything.

And I wanted to be dead. I have a vivid memory of lying on my bed one day with the usual thoughts of death rolling around in my head. Suddenly, I had an incredible flash of inspiration of just what it’s like to be dead. I was in a coffin. I pictured my body mouldering and decaying and wasting away. The skin was stretched tight across my bones. I was rigid and putrefying. Mostly, I was aware that there was no air. The image is still real for me many years later though it took only a second to see it all.

Some time in that last 10 years of my drinking, I grew aware that there was a sound underneath all my thoughts. It was a crying, a low heaving as happens when you gasp for air as you cry continuously. The sound was present always. I could be in the middle of a conversation or reading or at the movies, and it would creep into my forethought. Crying.

Gin never stopped it. In fact, gin exacerbated it. When I was drunk, the crying was at the forefront of my brain. It was scratching at the inside of my skull trying to get out.

There came a time when the crying grew to sobbing, and I tried pouring more gin on top of it to shut it up. It sobbed, because I was gay and doomed to die and go to hell. It sobbed, because, knowing that, I got married, hoping to cure my sexuality and save myself from hell. There was sobbing in my brain for the children I fathered who would never have the right kind of dad. The sobbing was with me at all times and in all places.

There was no escape, and the beer and wine and gin and whiskey never gave me freedom from it nor the death I dreamed of. The alcohol just gave me more misery.

I can still remember the day the sobbing changed. I was driving, and I realized that there was a screaming inside my head. There were no more tears. There was gut wrenching anguish, and the only way my body knew to deal with it was to scream. There were no words to describe my fear at the change. There were only more bottles to try to alleviate it.

My self-loathing grew exponentially, and my alcohol consumption grew, too. Until, the scream became a howling, and when that was not enough, the howling became the wail of the banshee.

Nothing worked. I drunkenly threw myself at my wife for sexual satisfaction while fantasizing about men. I tried harder at work to succeed only to fail at an attempted promotion. I played at being dad when it didn’t interfere with my drinking.

The drinking was daily. I drank the cooking wine once when we ran out of other stuff. I did run out one night and got to the store too late. I still remember the look of pity on the cashier’s face as she told me they were closed.

On May 1, 1999, I drank everything in the house. That was an entire bottle of tequila. I hated the stuff, but it’s all there was in the house. There was 3/4 of an opened 2 liter bottle of wine, and there was a 12 pack of beer. I drank it all.

I remember like it was yesterday going to the refrigerator to get more beer and finding it all gone. There was none left. I’d drunk everything alcoholic in the house, so I went to bed.

The next morning was the usual hell of a hangover. I opened the refrigerator while I was waiting for the coffee to brew, and there staring at me from the top shelf were two beers.

Two beers.

The picture of the empty fridge flashed across my mind, and then it hit me. I’d been so drunk the night before that I hadn’t even been able to see booze. I knew in that same instant that I was going to die, if something didn’t change. In the next instant, I knew that I was going to make sure I died, if something didn’t change.

That was the morning of May 2, 1999, and I haven’t had a drink since. Instead, I found A.A.

More of that journey later.