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.

Taking a Trip

I’m flying tomorrow, and I’m terrified. I saw my therapist today luckily, so we were able to talk it through. I was able to picture it one step at a time.

A friend will pick me up to take me to the airport. I’ll check in at the counter. I only have one carry-on bag since it’s a short stay. I’ll make my way through security.

Argh. Security. That raises fears in itself. I am only taking enough medication for the two days, and I’ve put them in one pill bottle. The little bottle is a mixture of medicine. If they open it, there will be some surprise, or maybe there won’t be any surprise. Perhaps, they’ve seen it all.

Perhaps, my fears of x-rays and beeping machines and being told to “stand over here, please” and hearing the question “Is this your bag?” are all nonsense. My magnificent magnifying mind fears being singled out, searched, and found wanting. I am simply afraid.

Interestingly, before my diagnosis, I flew a lot internationally. I had a high status on an airline’s frequent flier program, and I often sat in a class other than economy. I took everything in stride.

Then came 9/11 followed a year later by my breakdown and diagnosis. The world shattered, and my world shattered with it.

But I’ve done in this writing just what my therapist warned me against. I’ve lost my concentration on the next step. Breathe.

Ah, the next step, or as I hear often in the rooms of A.A., “the next right step.” So, I will make it through the security checks, I’m sure. My fears will prove unfounded, however real they feel now.

Next I’ll find a seat in the waiting area, board the plane, fly, arrive, go to my hotel, and find some dinner.

All will be well.

Life Changes

I recently celebrated a milestone and have had some time to think about my life before and after.

Before sobriety, diagnosis, and treatment:

• I dreamt of suicide and thought of it daily.

• I had self-loathing down to a tee. I’m gay, and I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household, which taught me deep hatred.

• My relationships were not longstanding. I had fiery, quick friendships that lasted as long as the interest was fresh whether it was physical or about some mutual subject.

• I quit two high-paying jobs that had real potential to take me to greater heights of accomplishment and high status.

• I used money foolishly to attract people.

• I abused alcohol passionately.

After sobriety, diagnosis, and treatment:

• I just celebrated 13 years of sobriety. I have learned in that time to find peace and serenity by living day-to-day and concentrating on the present.

• I live frugally on disability and am quite happy with it. The money I have is little, and I don’t begrudge my desires for small luxuries like ice cream or a new shirt off eBay.

• While I don’t presently work because of my disability, I serve on the board of directors of a small theater group and am intimately active in it. I act, direct, and manage productions. I am a stalwart member of the group.

• I have great relationships with my children from my marriage that I thought would make me straight. I even have a really good relationship with my ex-wife. I have true friends I can turn to in times of need.

• I no longer hate my homosexuality. I embrace it. I’m fabulous. I am a proud, out gay man, and I take part in activities that support equality in my community and my country.

• I don’t have suicidal ideation today. I was hospitalized for it recently, and that was during a mixed episode of severe mania. I went to the hospital voluntarily to stabilize my medications.

I am lucky. I have never doubted my mental illness. When I was diagnosed in 2001, it was something of a relief to me. I finally had a name for the pain that I was feeling, and I knew there was treatment for it. I began to take the medication right away and have never faltered.

I also believe wholeheartedly in talk therapy. I’ve been seeing the same therapist since 1997. She knows me inside and out and can quickly point out where I need work. She makes me do the work, too. She sugarcoats nothing.

My life continues to improve day by day. I’m happy to be here today, and regular readers of this blog know that’s another milestone.

Short and Sweet

Another good thing I learned early in sobriety, when my house was a mess just like my life, was the following:

Sitting in an A.A. meeting, a newly sober person asked – quite seriously – how to clean his house.

A person with many years of sobriety suggested that when he went home, he pause just before entering, take two deep breaths, and then open the door. The suggestion continued that whatever his eyes lighted on first, he should clean. If it was a table piled with junk, clear it. If it was a sink of dishes, wash them. If it was a dirty floor, sweep it.

The idea was to concentrate on doing one thing at a time. I use this technique, too, and it works. I’m not capable of concentrating on cleaning my whole house, but I can clean one spot at a time.

One thing at a time.

Spiritual belief

I was raised in a rabidly devout fundamentalist Christian home. From a young age, I was taken to church three times each week. It was a big church but not what are known as mega-churches these days. There I was taught the seemingly simple truth that I was destined for hell, unless I accepted Jesus Christ into my heart as my lord and savior. I had to be saved from my vile, wicked self.

As a young child, I couldn’t imagine what I’d done that was so bad, but the preacher corrected that thought. In fact, it was with thought that I had sinned the most. If I had thought the sin, I’d done it, or so I was told.

As I began to grow up, I became aware that I was somehow different. I didn’t have a word for it, but I felt I was different from my friends. When I reached the age when boys start to mature sexually, I realized what the difference was. I looked at other boys the way my friends looked at girls. I don’t remember when I first heard the words homosexual, gay, or fag, but they were thrown at me at a young age in hateful ways. What’s more, the preachers told me that as a homosexual, I was irredeemable. Unlovable. Sub-human.

In adulthood, I searched for a Christian religion that would provide me with love, solace, and salvation. I didn’t find it. I read a lot about Buddhist teachings, and I don’t believe there’s a match for me there either. However, I do enjoy meditation, but that is not exclusively Buddhist.

It was actually in A.A. that I found a faith that worked. I have a spiritual belief today in a loving universe that wants the best for me. I can close my eyes and feel loved. I used to close my eyes and find hell. Now, there is peace and quiet.

I don’t know what to call my faith. I follow no religion. I simply choose to believe that there is something more to life than what meets the eye.

I don’t know what god is. I don’t know if it’s an old, white-bearded man on a throne in the sky or Aristotle’s unmoving mover, or the scent of marigolds on a hot day. I know that I choose to believe.

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.

Great News

No, I’m not cured of bipolar disorder. That’s not the great news. I’m happy to report that I got my annual HIV test results today, and I remain negative. That’s no small accomplishment for a gay man. You never know when something might have gone wrong. I am grateful that my higher power continues to grace me with such good health. I’m very lucky.

I know many who aren’t lucky. I have a very dear friend who needs a hip replacement due to arthritic deterioration, and I have another very, very close friend with breast cancer that spread from his breast to his spine and has now metastasized in his brain. The former friend is only 46, and the latter is only 66. One is battling a debilitating disease, and the other death.

While I was visiting with my doctor today, he paid me an unexpected compliment. He said, “You’re honest, and that’s very rare for me to see.” He described how most of the time he has to deal with murky disclosures or outright lies, and he’s constantly having to read between the lines of what his patients are saying. With me, he said he feels relaxed. He doesn’t have to second guess what I’m saying.

Being honest did not come naturally to me. I’ve been in therapy for 24 years, and I’ve worked the 12 steps of A.A. on a daily basis for 11 years, 11 months, and 4 days as of today. I would say that it’s a combination of those two things that has taught me honesty.

I hold nothing back from my doctor. When I went in to request the HIV test, I was honest with my worries. I hold nothing back from my psychiatric prescribing nurse either, nor the psychiatrist before her. They can only deal with the information that I give them, and if I lie, then I’m only hurting myself. I don’t lie to my therapist, caseworker, or my A.A. sponsor. Even in depression, I stay honest and report my suicidal thoughts.

Perhaps that’s the most important time for me to be honest, during depression. That is the time when I am least equipped to deal with my own issues, and I need the professionals in my life to guide me. I talk to so many people suffering from depression or bipolar disorder who innately distrust their physicians. I’m glad I have doctors and professionals that I feel are looking out for my best interests.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a pushover. I have declined changes in the doses of my medications in the past when I felt it was wrong. I have pushed to get other medications when I thought it was needed. Sometimes I’m right, and sometimes I’m not.

The important point is that I have built up a rapport based on honest interaction with my healthcare providers, and we complement each other.

Today, I’m breathing sweet air. I’m eating good food. I have a roof over my head, and so much more. All of that is great news.