Trigger warning: descriptions of suicidal ideation, substance abuse, depression, and anxiety.
I just finished reading The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, the Surgeon General of California (she’s a bad bitch), and it got me thinking about my own experiences. I’ll talk more about Dr. Burke Harris’ book later on, but first I want to talk about reaching day 593 of my sobriety.
This site isn’t intended as my diary, obviously, but I want to help destigmatize talking about substance abuse and depression. I am a smart and capable engineer, I’m learning how to be a better CTO every day, but I also had to struggle through my own severe mental health issues to get to where I am now.
I promise not to make it too melodramatic.
I used to drink a lot of whiskey. It was my drink of choice, not only because I found it tasty but because it made me feel like I was drinking something only “tough” people drank. I was one of those douches. Even worse, I was a beer snob, too. I’m not sure if I was insufferable to be around when my drinking was really bad or if I hid it well (I don’t remember), but no matter what I drank, I always drank too much.
Of course, I didn’t think I had a problem at the time because it was the “normal” thing to do in college. You study, you party, you maybe blackout, then you do it all over again.
I didn’t realize I had a problem even when I drank vodka sodas to do my homework or when I immediately cracked open a beer when I got home because “I deserved it”. I didn’t realize I had a problem even when I couldn’t stand the thought of people abandoning glasses half full of alcohol that they paid for next to their signed checks at restaurants. I didn’t realize I had a problem even when I terrified the girl I was seeing the first time I blacked out and had a seizure. I didn’t realize I had a problem even when I fractured my hand punching a wall or when I had a seizure for the third time. (Both of those happened on the same night.)
And it kept going on like this for years.
So what finally got through my thick ass skull?
The morning of January 1st, 2019, after a night of heavy New Years drinking, I woke up unable to feel my hands. I thought I had just slept wrong and maybe wedged them underneath me when I was rolling over in my sleep, but the numbness didn’t fade immediately. It felt wrong, and after what felt like 20 minutes, I felt tingling.
At that time, I was already toying with the idea of quitting drinking. I had been to an AA meeting (hard pass) and talked about it in therapy and with friends, but I just couldn’t let go of all the fun I’d be quitting with the drink. Like I’d be severing a part of my identity that made me a more interesting person. It’s dumb, but those are the lies you tell yourself so you don’t have to be alone, without your friend, your bastion against life.
That morning, I knew something was different. I just knew I had to stop or I wouldn’t be alive. Not that I’d be dead inside, but that I would actually go through with killing myself. You see, the greatest comfort in drinking lies in the pleasure of giving yourself away, of becoming unmoored inside yourself, of chasing some infinite something. It’s ultimately a way to renounce responsibility for yourself by just existing without truly feeling anything.
It led me into this consistent spiral of depression that came at intervals. If you could graph my happiness or contentment with life, it would have looked like a high frequency sine wave, rising and falling from one week to the next. In the trough of the sine wave, I’d feel the need to stop living. I didn’t have enough determination to actually go through with slashing my wrists or hanging myself, thankfully, but the ideation was there, gnawing at me.
If I hadn’t decided to stop drinking then, I don’t know where I’d be now. I’d like to say I’d be alright, but that would be bullshit.
I heard of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris on Dax Shepard’s podcast Armchair Expert. She is California’s first ever surgeon general, co-founded the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) project in San Francisco, created the Center for Youth Wellness which pioneered a clinical model that recognizes the impact of adverse experiences on health and effectively treats toxic stress in children, and then some. She’s dedicated her life to helping children navigate the short- and long-term impacts of trauma.
The ACE study identified 10 categories of trauma:
- Physical abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Parental mental illness
- Incarcerated relative
- Mother treated violently
- Household substance abuse
- Not being raised by both biological parents
If you identify with a category then your ACE score goes up by 1 for a maximum of 10. The higher your score, the higher your health risks:
Research shows that the adversity we experience as a child can affect how our stress response functions, leading to long-term changes in our brains and bodies and leading to health problems as an adult. Experiencing 4 or more ACEs is associated with significantly increased risk for 7 out of 10 leading adult causes of death, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, COPD, diabetes, Alzheimers and suicide. (Source: Center for Youth Wellness)
My score is a 6 so that scared the fuck out of me. However, I learned that proper treatment like behavioral therapy can mitigate these risks. At that time, I had been going to therapy regularly for a year and a half, was sober for nine months, and was actively going to the gym, so I was already undoing some damage.
I was starting to feel better than I ever had, but the stress of the new CTO position took its toll and I found myself overwhelmed and spiraling into more frequent depressions. Without alcohol’s deleterious effects, I struggled through that time period silently, without any blackouts or seizures, determined to “tough it out”.
It wasn’t quite enough though, because I’d find myself on the precipice of suicide again and again. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, laying next to my partner, wondering how I could get out of bed without waking her up so I could do it. But I’d just lay there and cry. And when I told her what I was thinking in the morning, she’d cry too.
I couldn’t continue like that.
Getting on meds
There’s still a shit load of stigma when it comes to taking medicine for mental health issues, on top of the stigma for mental health in the first place. Even though, I was struggling with depression and anxiety, I thought only weak-minded people needed medicine. Turns out, a lot of people take anti-depressants, including people very close to me, which I was completely unaware of. It made the idea of taking medicine more palatable, and since I was still struggling with constant suicidal ideation, I decided to press on.
I found a psychiatrist and she prescribed me Prozac. After several weeks of dosage adjustments, I am currently taking 60mg of Prozac daily. I know meds don’t work for everyone, but this was the best decision I ever made for myself. The sine wave from before has a lower frequency and it doesn’t dip quite as low. I laugh more. I am more present. I feel like a whole person.
It started with getting sober.