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Black. For years, that was the only language I had to even begin to describe what I was feeling.  Black. I’m 55 years old, eighteen-years and change sober, and ten-years plus on anti-depressants. The last time I had to go see the doctor to get my meds adjusted, just about three months ago, guess what I said. Black!

When I was a teenager, I recall telling the wonderful woman that has now been my wife for close to 33 years that I was going to be a millionaire by the time I was thirty. I’m afraid that hasn’t happened yet, nor is it ever likely to happen now. It took me five years to get a three-year university degree, and five more after that to get my professional accounting designation. I certainly had the intellect, but never the drive. I have spent far too many days in my life where I really haven’t been able to motivate myself to do much of anything.

Nobody talked about mental illness in the early 80’s.

I remember working with someone when I was in my early 20’s who was incredibly moody. Happy and bright one day, sullen and miserable the next. Those of us who worked with her had no idea what that was all about, and we basically just ignored her on the bad days – other than occasionally telling her to snap out of it! We truly didn’t know what was happening to her.  Nobody talked about mental illness in the early 80’s.

I discovered alcohol when I was nine years old. I had a beer with my uncle after spending the day “helping” him with the haying.  Barn cold. I spent the next 28 years trying to recapture that flavour, and never did. I can still taste it today.  I didn’t know what I was feeling, but I sure knew what made me feel better!

And then, it didn’t.

But I couldn’t stop. I was 37 when I finally got to the point that I knew I had to quit, or die. Is depression the reason I drank the way I did? No – but there is no doubt that it was a contributing factor.

I had absolutely no idea how to live sober.

I got lucky. Since the day I walked into my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, I have not found it necessary to pick up a drink. Sometime in the first year or so, the desire to drink left me, and, thank God, it has never returned. That first year, I was high on just staying sober. Then I got my one-year medallion. And shortly after that I began to question – is this it?  Is this all there is?  How come I still feel like crap? I had absolutely no idea how to live sober. I had masked my emotions with alcohol for far too many years. The only emotion I knew was anger. That’s when I really started working on me.  

Men’s groups and retreats. One on one counselling. I learned how to recognize and accept other emotions.  I learned about fear, I learned about joy, I learned about envy, gratitude, sorrow, remorse, sympathy, and on and on. I walked through the swamp that had been my life, and I came out the other side with a far better understanding of where I’d been. And I still felt terrible.

I wanted to be left alone, but I was lonely. I wanted to be more successful, but I had no motivation. I wanted to just sit and relax, but I couldn’t stay still. I tried to kill the pain with material things, but that didn’t work very well. I tried to drown it out with loud music, but that only worked while it was playing.

“What’s wrong?” they would ask. “Nothing,” I’d say. And I’d say that because I really didn’t know. I have a very vivid memory of sitting, alone, at a picnic table at my in-laws’ cottage in Muskoka, on a gorgeous sunny summer day, while the rest of my family and friends were having a wonderful time. I didn’t know why, but I knew I was miserable. That was a decade ago. I honestly don’t recall how I ended up going to see a doctor about the way I was feeling. (Addendum – my wife read this and told me it was her that took me to the doctor. Who knew?) And, surprise, surprise, I was diagnosed with depression. That’s when the meds started. I’ve been on that lovely roller coaster ever since.  

Sometimes I go years without needing to have anything adjusted. Sometimes it’s just weeks. I’ve gone through the terrible withdrawals that come with having to change medications. But, at least it’s better. Better, but by no means perfect. I really understand what Michael is talking about when he says he lives today between a 4 and a 7. Never too high, never too low. Not perfect, but better.

Here are a few of the things I learned from AA, and absolutely believe. Only another alcoholic can truly understand another alcoholic. Alcoholism is a disease, not a choice. Sharing with others helps – a lot! If you want to keep it, you have to give it away.

Here are a few of the things I’ve learned from Michael.  And from Clara. And from Leanne. And from my good friend. And from a few others. Only someone who suffers from depression and/or its ugly cousin, anxiety, can truly understand someone who suffers from depression and/or anxiety. Mental illness is just that – an illness. It’s a disease, not a choice. Sharing with others helps – a lot. Although I haven’t heard Michael put it into these words exactly, I absolutely believe that if you want to keep it, you have to give it away.

Hmmm. Sounds somewhat familiar, doesn’t it? Since I’ve been sober, I have helped a lot of other people by talking openly about my alcoholism, and they have helped me. I’ve always been upfront about it. I never tried to hide it. I figure, what the hell, people knew I was a drunk, so why should I try to hide it now that I’m sober.

Over the years I’ve had many of these same type of conversations with people who share my disease of depression. Of late, there’s been more and more of them that I talk with. A month or so ago, a good friend told me that a bridge abutment looked pretty damn good to him as he was driving home from work that night. That brought back a very clear, thirty-year-old memory of deliberately driving way too fast into an on ramp to the 401, not really caring if I made it or not. I’ve been talking to my friend every single day since he told me that story. And it’s helping him. And it’s helping me. I pointed him to #SickNotWeak. And it’s helping him. And it’s helping me.

I’ve never really tried to hide this rotten disease, but I’ve never been very public about it, either.  But you know, I really don’t like black. It’s time.

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