Depression and Recovery

Originally published in the Mind, Body and Spirit Newsletter, 08-15-04

I spent some time with an old friend over the weekend. I’ve known him for going on fifteen years — in fact, September 16th will be our “anniversary.”

We met on a Wednesday. I had been admitted to the treatment center for drug and alcohol addiction on the previous Monday, and was still in a sort of daze from the chloral hydrate for sleeping, Tranxene for benzodiazepine withdrawal, and sundry other chemicals both old and new. I was not a pretty sight. My hair was bleached pale blonde, I was tanned extremely dark, rather gaunt at 6′ 3″ and about 170 lbs., (I put on thirteen pounds in 21 days of treatment). I wasn’t at my best, which at that point in my life wasn’t all that great anyway, And I look sort of mean without even trying; pretty much always have. It’s been both a gift and a curse over the years.

My friend has been a barber by trade since demobbing from the British army in the early 60’s, when he served in the occupation of West Berlin. He’s had shops on the original Queen Elizabeth and on 5th Avenue, among others. He was volunteering in the little recovery bookshop on the 6th floor of the hospital where the center was located, and spreading his experience, strength and hope among the patient population, of which he was at the time a 7-month alumnus. He says I scared the bejeezus out of him.

We came from diverse backgrounds — the ex-martial artist, shooter and what-have-you (at that time a cop), and the little English barber. Despite that, we discovered over the next few months a great deal in common. To begin with, there was our mutual dependence on the alumni and our 12-step program to help keep at bay the Creature that haunted us both. We discovered that we both enjoyed books, classical music, and reasonably polite discourse. One thing led to another, and soon we were carpooling to aftercare at the center, attending meetings together, eating many a Denny’s omlette and drinking a lot of coffee, and slowly becoming entwined in each other’s recovery and esteem. When he chaired his home group, I spoke at the speaker meetings. When I chaired mine, he spoke. When my wife and I had some problems and were considering a split, I slept on his couch for a month. We continued as active alumni at the center. I backstopped him through a stormy emotional and business partnership of some years. He told me some things he’d never told anyone else, and I reciprocated. We both loved cats.

He had for some years belonged to a religious group with headquarters in a small Texas town, and from time to time visited there. As luck — great luck — would have it, he found his soulmate there in the person of the church secretary, a lovely lady who, coincidentally, is also English. The attraction couldn’t be denied, and after some stormy scenes with the live-in business partner he up and moved to Texas on me. I couldn’t have been happier for him. I missed him, but he was home at last.

Despite his recovery from his addictions and gradual spiritual growth — despite having found the second love of his life and remained on good terms with his first wife — he never seemed truly happy. Michele and I commented on it many a time. There was a sorrowful undertone to his personality, and an edge that sometimes revealed itself in a demeanor that was decidedly grumpy, even with us who loved him. His new wife and I discussed it in phone calls to and from Texas. During the decade and a half of our friendship he was always slow to smile, and when he did you got the idea that his heart really wasn’t in it. This continued during his several years in Texas, as well.

Last year he and his wife were in an auto crash. He was critically injured and she, although less critical, was really banged up. They are still convalescing, although back at work. He tells us that he had a near-death experience, and that he came from it knowing what his path is to be and having no fear of death or the hereafter. Despite that, his wife continued to voice her concern about his sadness.

It had always been his position that spirituality and the 12 Steps were all anyone needed in recovery to live a well-balanced life. Nonetheless, as a result of prodding from his wife and others who love him — me included — he agreed to have his physician put him on an antidepressant. This was several months ago, and I had not seen him since.

He is a new man. He smiles when others smile. He is able to absorb the friendly ribbing that often annoyed him, and appreciate where it comes from. His spirituality is emanant. One is able now to truly believe that he practices what he preaches — that his quest for spirituality is successful and that he can and will know peace. His God has blessed him greatly — with a little pill that sets right his own personal little chemical quirk.

What’s my point? Someone put it this way: if you have a broken arm, all the prayer and spirituality in the world won’t heal it. You go to a doctor. Likewise, if you’re trying your best to live your life well and it just doesn’t seem to be working for you — the exercise and nutrition, putting down the alcohol or other chemicals — don’t settle for the dregs. Today’s psych medications are more than just lifesavers; they can resurrect or unearth a quality of life that you never imagined, or had forgotten. But you have to take that first step: finding a competent physician who will work with you to discover what help you need, whether therapy, medication or both.

There’s no reason to be half alive. My friend hit the right combination on the first try. It took me three. Don’t give up.

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