This article was originally published on March 27, 2014.
I’ve been sober for six years and have been suffering from depression since I was roughly seven years old. And yet when I’m depressed, some sober alcoholics will tell me that I just have to work the steps (I have—twice), get a commitment or sponsor more people to make the sadness magically go away.
It’s amazing to me that there are people in the rooms who still don’t treat depression like it’s another fatal progressive illness but as if it’s some sort of moral failure, as well as an indication that you’re simply choosing not to follow the yellow brick road paved by the 12 steps into a glorious Oz.
Some time ago, I went to a noon meeting I hadn’t attended in a while and shared about feeling like I didn’t want to live. After the meeting, a grizzly old timer (is there any other kind?) approached me and told me I was “just self-involved.” Nice. I know for a fact that this guy is not an MD or even a social worker intern and yet he felt perfectly fine coming up to me after I’d poured my heart out to add to the self-flagellation already permeating my sick brain. Luckily, because I have children and this gives me plenty to fight for, I was able to tell him to fuck off and not take his words too seriously. Others may not be so lucky.
It makes my blood boil when sponsors declare that they will not work with people on psych meds. As if we are all getting high on them. I wish! I am so conservatively medicated that if I took every single one of the pills in my possession right now, I would probably get nothing more than a long nap and a headache when I woke up. You could get more of a high from Excedrin than anti-depressants and yet these pseudo-doctors don’t insist that if you have a migraine, you should simply “talk to a newcomer” and your headache will mystically vanish.
Suggesting that mentally ill people not take medication is not only dangerously irresponsible but also ridiculous. When someone breaks a leg, no one says, “Hey forget that plaster cast and crutches—you just need to write a gratitude list.” Scans of healthy versus depressed brains clearly show that our brains are broken—a fact that is also widely documented on a little gizmo we have called the Internet. And yet some entire groups in AA insist on behaving like an offshoot of Christian Scientists. Imagine if you needed glasses for your vision but instead of getting that prescription filled, your sponsor recommended that you pray or take a walk. Um, maybe you could pray not to walk into a wall because you couldn’t see it? Surely if an addict had cancer or MS and their white blood cell count got too low (or too high), others in the program wouldn’t say, “There she goes again, with that attention-seeking immune system.” The scenarios that illustrate the ridiculousness of this logic go on.
The Big Book states clearly that some people may have to get help for “outside issues.” I’m not quite sure how AA purists who can quote page numbers and whole passages of the book manage to overlook that little nugget. Over time, it seems as if they get brainwashed into believing that since the 12 steps worked to turn their lying, cheating, selfish assholish selves into productive members of society, the steps must be all things to all people. Well, guess what? I’m not a lying, cheating asshole when I’m sober. First of all, I’m a terrible liar and have been known to run back to stores to return change that was a quarter too much. Secondly, if I fuck around on you, it will be because that is part of our arrangement (unlike a certain Bill with a certain last name beginning with W. who was rumored to be quite a hit with the ladies while proselytizing about his sobriety).
I’m not knocking 12-step programs, as they’ve been incredibly helpful both to me and to hundreds of other people I have personally seen. I don’t see AA as anything other than a benevolent organization keen to help people stay sober who can then help others maintain sobriety. I’m simply perturbed that while the rest of the world has finally started to see mental illness as a legitimate reason why some can’t make it out of bed, certain members of 12-step programs still see it as some kind of failure in resolve. Trust me, it isn’t my inability to get honest with myself that causes my misery; it’s an inability to fix my neural pathways armed with nothing but a Big Book. And it seems to me that the very people who should understand best what it’s like when the general population is judgmental of your issue would be those who also suffer from a debilitating illness that is trying to kill them. But no.
Two weeks ago, a friend I knew from the rooms checked into a hotel in Mexico and hung himself. I don’t know if he was sober when he died but I know he was actively helping people in the program. I also know that in the last few years, whenever I shared about depression in a meeting, he would often come up to me afterwards and thank me for talking about it. It’s possible he felt a stigma in meetings for sharing about it himself (I only ever heard him share once). But it breaks my heart that someone who was surrounded by so many he could have reached out to chose to take his life instead. While I can only speculate as to what he was feeling, I wonder if that same old-timer ever told him after a share that he was being self-involved.
My friend was a lovely, lovely guy, the kind of person who always made you feel glad you’d dragged yourself out, shower or not, when you least felt like it. I can vividly recall seeing him laugh when I shared sarcastically how thrilled I was to be “happy, joyous and free.” I can only hope that he finally is.