My Battles With Addiction, Anxiety and Depression

Today, October 10th, marks two years that I’ve been sober. A milestone, to be sure, but I don’t always view my sobriety as a source of pride. Although it grows smaller by the day, there is still a part of me that’s ashamed by the fact that I decided to quit drinking; a voice that tells me it’s a character flaw or an indication that I cannot successfully manage a life in which I drink. As time has passed and I’ve become more accepting of my own struggles, I’ve grown to recognize that my own relationship with alcohol is not isolated to a story of addiction but part of a larger battle with anxiety and depression. And while I’ve fought these battles for most of my life, I’ve felt alone in those attempts until only recently. The associated shame and guilt that I carried on a daily basis could feel impossible to overcome at times, and it’s not hard for me to understand the thoughts of those who become hopeless in a state of desperation.  I have lost friends and family to suicide, some very recently. There is frequently a stigma associated with mental illness, addiction and suicide and we can too often project a moral judgment on those who are suffering. The hardest thing for me has always been the desire to be truly seen by others; to find people who can relate to what I have been through and continue to go through on a daily basis; to understand that I am not alone. It has been difficult for me to overcome both the stigma that surrounds these struggles and my own fear of what those that I care about most will think of me as a result of them. However, I have found comfort and gained a deeper understanding of my own journey through the experiences of others, and want to share my story of why I quit drinking in the hopes that it may provide similar comfort and understanding to others.

I started to suffer from a heavy depression that began in the early days of 2013. It lasted roughly 15 months. I’ve been through similar times in my life before, but they never lasted that long and were never as difficult. It came during a time of rapid change for me, having moved to New York for business school after spending my entire life in Oklahoma where I had developed a large, supportive group of friends. After the initial few months in New York had passed, I found myself seesawing between isolating myself due to my anxiety and depression and making a concerted effort to maintain a social life in a new environment with new friends. There is an inherent conflict there; a tendency to drink heavily when socializing in order to ease the symptoms of my anxiety and depression which led to those same symptoms worsening due to the heavy bouts of drinking. In the past, I had always been able to successfully uphold the façade of a normal, happy life by masking my mental pain with social gregariousness, but this time was different; my attempts to deceive myself and others were failing and I faced escalating consequences for my tendency to self-medicate. I reached a particularly low moment in January of 2014 when I was dealing with the loss of a close cousin to suicide, a particularly important friendship was at the tail end of unraveling, and the fear of my increasingly problematic drinking were all added to an already anxiety-ridden mind. What had seemed like a manageable downturn quickly became an uncontrollable freefall. While the contributing factors to all of these events had been building slowly over time, they all came to a head suddenly and with great consequence. I was forced to embrace significant change as my only hope to get better.

I quit drinking indefinitely and started to see a therapist. I chose isolation over a destructive attempt at normal. My depression and social retreat got worse before they got better. Isolation certainly doesn’t help depression, but it also doesn’t pretend that it isn’t there. Ignoring my mental illness had been my previous coping mechanism and I needed to face the reality of my situation before it could improve. Being brutally honest with myself brought to the surface a confusing onslaught of emotions that made me difficult, at best, to be around. My actions up to and during this period caused the deterioration of some of my closest relationships at the time and I am still hurt by their loss. I believe that those that knew of my struggles and did nothing either couldn’t bear the burden that I had laid upon them or felt at least partially responsible for my undoing, deciding it was best for both of us to go our separate ways. As someone who wants desperately for others to see my true self, I expected those that I held closest to understand me at my weakest. It was devastating to discover that some of those who I let in either saw me for who I was and left or never understood who I was to begin with. I recognize that it’s easy to get lost in one’s own self, bogged down with internal struggles and individual circumstances, and forget that we are all fighting our own battles. To this day, I still find myself conflicted between empathy for those who found themselves in a difficult situation and resentment for a perceived betrayal when I needed them the most.

As much as I felt abandoned by a small few, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for those that showed unwavering kindness when I was at my lowest , some of whom had held only peripheral roles in my life to that point. I chose to rebuild my life around them. They slowly lifted me out of my depression, and gave me hope that I could return to a life that I enjoyed. Working with my therapist, I reintroduced alcohol into my life focusing on skills learned during cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. CBT helped me to understand the negative thoughts behind my anxieties and depression and gave me back a sense of control that I felt I had lost. By recognizing certain negative thought patterns as they were beginning, I was able to create a more self-accepting, anxiety-reducing mindset.  With a focus on avoiding an all-or-nothing viewpoint that led to extreme feelings of shame and a heightened self-awareness of times when it was not safe for me to drink heavily, I felt that I had a good grip on both my mental state and my alcohol consumption.

The next few months passed with me focused on very little else other than taking back control of my life. I graduated from business school and prepared to start my job at an investment banking firm. At the time, I saw it as a welcome change. My business school had a heavy drinking culture and I wanted to move on from that kind of environment and from a period in my life that I associated more with pain and suffering than anything else. However, with the new job came new stresses. I was inexperienced which turned an already demanding schedule into an almost unmanageable grind because of inefficiencies on my end. The obsessive focus on perfection in every deliverable compounded my own issues with self-criticism. My hopes to move past a drinking culture were not realized. In fact, the amount of drinking didn’t seem to change at all; there was just more work to do in between. It was a familiar seesaw, this time finding myself torn between the anxieties of a demanding new job and a desire to fit in with the drinking-centric work hard, play hard culture. Looking back, it’s easy to recognize that the situation was a minefield for someone in my position, but in the moment I pushed aside the increasing anxiety and tried to make it all work.

Three months into my job, I found myself at dinner with coworkers after two nights with four hours of sleep. It was a Thursday and the following Friday looked to be a relatively open day after getting two projects off of my desk. I could relax and celebrate successfully getting through what I saw as one of my first real horror stories that veteran investment bankers like to talk about. Nights like this are critical for people who work around the clock, because it is a rare chance to separate from the work personas that are consumed with the day-to-day annoyances of the office. It is a refreshing opportunity to see people let loose and get to know a different side of them. We hopped from bar to bar that evening, losing one or two people at each location. Without anything to worry about the next day, and a difficult week behind me, I wasn’t interested in an early exit. Unfortunately, it wasn’t too much longer into the night before my memories of the evening became spotty and then completely nonexistent. The next thing I remember is being forcefully woken up in an ambulance and asked a few questions. I remember thinking that the EMT looked surprised at how coherently I had answered him. The last thing I remember is him telling me I was bleeding from my head.

I came to the next morning dressed in my work clothes from the day before lying on top of a rolling hospital bed in the hallway of a New York City ER waiting room. I kept my eyes closed even though I was awake because I didn’t want to deal with the torment of facing the consequences of what had happened. The place was buzzing with energy early in the morning, spiking at rush hour, with people yelling out orders and rushing by me with other more critical patients. As I lay there, my anxiety and shame built with every passing minute. My heart was racing and my thoughts were keeping pace. I had put in months of hard work to regain a sense of control over my life and I lay there with the realization that I had very little control over anything at all. I immediately reverted to the darkest corners of my mind with my depression returning as if it had never left at all. I was absolutely devastated.

The details of that night were not extraordinary. I had left the group and was presumably walking to find a taxi when I fell and hit my head on the sidewalk, knocking myself unconscious. It probably ranks low in shock factor when compared to some events that caused people to stop drinking. However, to me it was a clear sign that my struggles with mental illness made me far too vulnerable to self-sabotaging behavior when I was drinking. I made the decision to quit altogether for at least a year. My roommate at the time and another close friend were two of the people I had leaned on heavily coming out of my earlier depression. I feared that when they found out the circumstances behind my most recent downfall, that they too would find my burden too much to carry, but they were constant sources of strength and resilience. They proved that they were willing to accept parts of me that I could not accept of myself and remained steadfast in their kindness and understanding. I owe them more than I could ever repay.

It has been incredibly difficult to remove the masks that I wear, making the choice to expose my true self to others. I’ve spent most of my life wanting people to know me deeply, while hiding behind half-truths and deception believing that only the right people would be able to find their way through. In doing so, I carried an incredible burden to hide those parts of myself that I was most ashamed of, which often served only to worsen the burden and increase my shame. At the same time, it added a strain on my closest relationships as I set unrealistic expectations for those I chose to let in. I continue to battle with anxiety and depression, but in sobriety I wear one less mask. I have always demanded authenticity from others, and have too often found myself guilty of not meeting the same standard. As I have opened up to others, more people have made their true selves visible to me.  With everyone who does, my burden becomes lighter and my dependence on a small few has been spread over many. My connections feel honest and sustainable in a way that I have long desired but seldom found. It is a relief to finally find myself surrounded by people who have a genuine understanding of who I am, but at the same time, it is terrifying to acknowledge my vulnerability in embracing these relationships without the crutches that I have relied on in the past.

When I look at my friends and family that I have lost, I see myself and only wish that I could have helped to ease their burden as others have done for me.  There is no difference in strength or moral fabric between me and those who have succumbed to overwhelming thoughts of hopelessness and despair, but rather a fortuitous series of events that freed me from a suffocating isolation rooted in shame. I have been incredibly fortunate to find people willing to listen and accept me as I am, but it first required a willingness to share parts of myself that I had kept hidden for too long; a willingness that only came after I could move past my own fears of external judgment driven by the stigmas attached to mental illness. I hope that my story is helpful in breaking down those stigmas, providing context and understanding to what mental illness looks like for me. Further, I hope that it eases the burden of those that struggle with the knowledge that they are not alone and perhaps the inspiration to share more of their own story with others. And if my story resonated with you, you can feel free to start with me.


5 thoughts on “My Battles With Addiction, Anxiety and Depression

  1. Pingback: An Overdue Thank You to My Friend, Craig McAuliff | The Complete Short Stories of Ryan Thompson

  2. Adrienne says:

    Amazingly written and explained. Thank you for sharing this part of your story Ryan. I immediately thought of you when I heard about Craig, hope you are ok. X

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Three Years of Sobriety: Finding the Good That My Struggle Can Bring to Others | The Complete Short Stories of Ryan Thompson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s