Archive for October, 2009

Depression as addiction: a story of hope

I didn’t choose to be depressed, or so I tell myself. But it’s a disease that got a stranglehold on me in my childhood years and led me down a rabbit-hole of despair and self-destruction that lasted well into my twenties. I survived, found my way back home and am grateful for it, but I’m also aware that the rabbit-hole still exists, just out of eye-sight, ready to swallow me up one more time if I’m not careful. Like any addiction, it’s something that I live with every day. And yes, I do see depression as a powerful addiction. It lures you into a stupor that becomes your safety net even as it eats away at your soul. Depression isn’t a death-sentence but it can be for those who take it to its logical conclusion: suicide. I certainly came all-too-close to that conclusion. But something, a deep buried love of life, or maybe simply cowardice, prevented me from following through. In any case, here I am.

I began by saying that I didn’t choose depression. That’s only partly true. Depression didn’t fall into my lap already formed; it needed to be nourished, cultivated. And I did so with extraordinary success. It was my companion and my armour: it never abandoned me, it kept me safe. It gave me a sense of control over my life; it was mine and no one could take it away from me. Depression gave me power over others. It protected me against entering the grown-up world. At the same time it made me believe that I was helpless. Healing seemed an ever-fading dream. Other people could believe in the impossible if they pleased. But not I. I was too cynical for naive faith. I told myself that depression prevented me from enjoying life. And depression nodded encouragingly and patted me on the back like a trusty friend. We were thick as thieves, the two of us.

But my friend depression was greedy; he stopped caring about listening to me. He simply grew and grew until I faded slowly into the background. People could no longer see the me who once had been a happy child. Ugliness contorted me like the painting of Dorian Gray. I became unrecognizable even to myself. As with alcohol, the path that leads one down that dark addictive path simply obscures the reality of the original wound. My wound was made up of a combination of ingredients: I was a sensitive child constantly in search of parental approval. I was a foreigner in my home. And I was a foreigner in my own body.

Born in South Africa, I moved to Prince George, Canada with my Afrikaner parents when I was 8 months old. While they continued to think of themselves as Afrikaner South Africans, I grew up a British Columbian. My consciousness was shaped by the Rockies, snow and pine trees where theirs was shaped by “biltong” and summer droughts. Linguistically, too, we inhabited different worlds. English flowed from my tongue like fresh water while they spat it out staccato-style, a thick Afrikaans accent coursing through their sentences.

But not every immigrant child is afflicted by depression. Some embrace their nomadic identities and become social butterflies. Not me. Maybe it was my sensitive nature that held me back. Maybe it was my father’s illness; I grew up with the fear of his death in the air. He had had a kidney transplant in his mid-twenties due to complications from a common streptococcus infection. I’m told that on the operating table he nearly died. He didn’t. But he was sickly throughout his life. Maybe it was my mother’s constant admonitions about the dangers of the world. These fears were perhaps justified in crime-riddled South Africa, but they verged on paranoia in another context. I grew up afraid of the world and aware of the fragility of life. I embraced that fragility as my own. Fragility turned into fear. Fear turned into solitude. Solitude turned into loneliness. And loneliness turned into depression.

In my eleventh year, my parents decided to exchange the snowcaps of Prince George for the red dust of Pretoria South Africa. I shed Canadian permissiveness for the militaristic realities of the South African school-system. My blue jeans were replaced with a pleated school uniform, my rambunctious energy quickly suppressed into girlish propriety. I was ill-equipped to compute my cultural confusion. And I had no language to express my budding gender confusion.

Fast forward to the end of high school. I felt numb. My parents wanted me to stay in South Africa; my sister invited me to live with her in Canada. I decided to move back to Canada, hoping that a mere change of scenery might be sufficient to lift my spirits. It was not to be. I hit my low point in 2001 when I landed in the Emergency Room after a prescription drug overdose. For years there continued to be suicidal thoughts, cutting of wrists, staring at the ceiling for weeks on end. And with this the slow realization that nobody could help me if I didn’t help myself. I was gripped by a fear that I had become so weakened that I was no longer capable of pulling myself out of this quagmire.

In 2006, when I was 27, I met a mentor who helped me see the nature of my disease, my addiction. Up to that point I had seen myself as a victim of other people’s harsh treatment. And while I have experienced my fair share of harsh treatment, I had to learn that there were other ways of coping with it, other solutions. It was up to me to choose. This man showed me my own sickness but it took three more years before I would begin to climb free.

Now 30, I have only begun to claim agency in my life. I feel grief and sorrow for the years I lost at this disease’s mercy, and gratitude that I’ve survived this far. My father died in 2005, disappointed in me and, I think, disappointed in himself. He too struggled with depression and felt he’d passed it onto me–his legacy. I take his view on that with a grain of salt. He was by no means a perfect man but I don’t doubt his love for me or my love for him. His legacy was so much more than mere depression. There is no blame.

I live now with the knowledge that I am vulnerable and weak and strong and resilient all at once. Slowly I begin to dare to trust that I, too, am capable of happiness. Addiction, for many, can turn into a life-sentence, killing the soul even if the body doesn’t die. But there is hope. It isn’t easy and isn’t guaranteed but relief is possible. Believing that doesn’t make me naive. It makes me human.

October 19, 2009 at 4:39 am Leave a comment

the heart so cool

You don’t have to break it
pulverize it squeeze it flatten it
turn it into dust
spit it into the ocean
throw it hard into the air

You don’t have to take a hammer and bang bang bang it
until it’s bloody
unrecognizable or
unrecognizably bloody

You create all this noise because of what?
Broken promises?
You must be kidding me, boy.
That’s what you are:
A boy.

You trounce around like a wolfman
wishing you had something to sink
your teeth into but you don’t
get used to it
you can
get used to it

it’s not the end of the world
it’s not the end of anything
except this stupid silly dream
this idea you have in your head
this stupid thought that was planted like a seed
when you really were a boy
the one your TV cultivated for you each night
like a fool

I’ll spell it out for you, OK?
Put down the gun, drop the knife, unclench your fist first
so you can see
you don’t have to break it to believe
you don’t have to believe to break it
it doesn’t need you to get all pumped up or
beaten down;
it’s there
just there
for you

October 7, 2009 at 6:02 am Leave a comment


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