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Depression, Addiction & Me

When the Black Dog’s Got You Down


I dare say very few people have “worked their program” to the extent I have. I’ve been to thousands of meetings and taken the 12 steps to the best of my ability many times over. Even so, a dozen years after I got sober, I found myself chronically depressed, unable to get out of bed, overwhelmed by thoughts of killing myself, and subject to crying tangents for reasons I couldn’t specify. Every morning when I opened my eyes, my first thought was: Not again! I didn’t want to wake up. I had no earthly reason to wake up. This went on for weeks and I thought it would never end.

One day, I stumbled upon a Dick Cavett column wherein he characterized his bouts with depression as akin to having access to a magic wand that would cure his affliction but finding it too much trouble to pick up. That, for me, said it all.

Obviously, I needed help but, at that point, getting out of bed, making an appointment, taking a shower, putting on clothes, and going to a doctor would require days of planning and would be overwhelming in any case. Besides, I was already on an antidepressant so what good was a doctor going to do?

Then I remembered something my sponsor told me on the first day of my sobriety. He said I could pray for willingness. He said that being willing to get sober, to go to meetings, to work the steps, and so on wasn’t a matter of mustering up the will power — or worse, the discipline. He suggested that by praying for willingness, I would find myself doing these things automatically and with very little effort on my part at all.

Still I was reluctant. Prayer implied participation in some form of religion and I wasn’t open to that. My sponsor saw the smirk on my face and started to laugh.

“Look,” he said, “I don’t know what God is, and frankly I don’t give a shit. All I know is it works. I don’t have to know how power steering works to know it makes it easier to steer my truck. What have you got to lose? Why not give it a try?”

I consider this to be the greatest piece of advice I’ve ever received. Twelve years later, I too can say I don’t know what God is and that all I know is that it works.

A year ago, confined to my bed and at the mercy of the black dog of depression, I again “prayed for the willingness” to take action, whatever that was revealed to be.

First, I went online and realized my depression had nothing to do with my circumstances or the quality of my sobriety but was a chemical imbalance in the brain, something that modern medicine has made great strides in addressing in recent years. Next, I called my doctor’s office, told them I was suicidally depressed and needed to be seen immediately. A few hours later, the doctor was telling me about a powerful new medication for people with my condition. Did I want to give it a try? Yes, I said, of course.

That night and for the first time in months, I slept soundly. I woke up refreshed and feeling alive again. Over a period of days, a sense of positivity returned along with my sense of humor. I found myself yearning to get moving again so I started walking, just a couple of blocks at first but within a few weeks I was up to five miles a day. Then I bought a used bicycle, which took me close enough to a gym that I joined. Today, I’m actually working out on a regular basis — something I’d have considered impossible just a year ago.

Thankfully, I stayed sober through it all and am 12 years sober today. Am I over depression? I can’t make that claim, not yet. When I forget to take my medication, I hear that black dog barking again somewhere off in the distance. But I’m infinitely better than I was, and I’m feeling good about life once again.

I’m grateful to live in an age where there are programs and medication for people like me. They’re available to anyone who needs them. But you’re not going to hear me suggest that you “get help.” That implies an act of will — something that’s almost impossible when in the throes of depression. Instead, I suggest you “pray for willingness,” to whatever you consider your higher power to be, because sometimes the only thing standing between you and sanity are your own preconceived notions.

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