Nine years ago, I took my last drink. It was cheap, warm vodka straight out of the bottle. I was alone and scared. I still remember the bitter, greasy burn it left behind.
The next morning, I started the journey of recovery I’m still on today. You can read about how I got sober in a column called “Catharsis” I wrote for our August 2010 issue. The short version is I got help and I quite literally ignored the urge to drink every hour of every day until sobriety became my new normal.
In the years that have passed since I wrote that piece, I’ve learned a lot about myself and about the disease of addiction. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve reached out to me with concerns about their use of alcohol or drugs. Some got sober and stayed sober to this day. Some did not.
The most common problem I see is people – people of all ages and all socioeconomic backgrounds – who self-medicate for depression and/or anxiety. I think that’s what pushed me over the line from being a drinker to being a drunk. I started to use booze to suppress the “death spiral” feeling I’d get if things weren’t going right.
Psychologists call this “catastrophizing” and it’s common among people with clinical anxiety. You fixate on a problem and play it out in your mind constantly. Those dark scenarios swirl in your head and pull you farther down. They often end with losing your job or your family or something equally awful.
Oftentimes it’s the classic “everyone will discover I’m a fake and a fraud” nightmare that cuts to the very core of your self-image. So, you drink or use pills to help you dull the terror. And that makes it worse because now you’re feeling incredible guilt and lying to people around you to cover up your use.
Superintendents have historically lived a workstyle that embraces stress, overwork, and frustration with both Mother Nature and the whims of employers who “don’t get it.” This creates a perfect breeding ground for catastrophizing. Too many folks in our community live with that gnawing fear that maybe their best isn’t good enough and their boss doesn’t understand, and it’s only a matter of time before they get fired and everyone will see them as a failure. I know at least one superintendent who killed himself because of that fixation. I know many more who’ve turned to self-medication to try to deal with it.
Let’s talk about that.
First, stress is stress. It’s actually healthy in many cases because it forces us to do hard things and overcome challenges. Anxiety is a different thing. It has physical symptoms (panic attacks, sleeplessness, etc.). If anxiety is interfering with the quality of your life, go talk to someone. At the very least, try some coping strategies like mindfulness (which is basically tricking you brain into slowing down and not instantly freaking out when bad things happen), deep breathing or exercise. I do “power walks” four or five times a week as exercise. Here’s a secret … those walks help me manage my anxiety far more than the small dose of Lexipro I take every night.
Second, if you find yourself rationalizing your growing use of alcohol or drugs (Zanax, Prozac, Percocet, etc.) as a coping mechanism for that anxiety or depression, you should talk to someone. Make an appointment with an addiction counselor or do an online assessment. Also, there is zero shame in going to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and just listening. You have to be self-aware! Explore why you’re worried about your use of booze or pills. Be honest with yourself.
Oh, and don’t kid yourself that you can manage your drinking or drugging. Many people I speak with about this say they’re going to “dial it back” and use less. This rarely works. Abstinence is still the only real cure for the disease of addiction.
(By the way, I’m addressing this to you, but it could just as easily be a problem you see with a family member, a co-worker or a member of your crew. You’d be shocked to learn how many functional opiate addicts are out there right now working laborer jobs.)
I hope you’ll read every word of this issue and absorb what your peers are saying about mental health and the need to live a balanced life. But I also hope you’ll be more aware of how addiction can creep into your life and deny you the happiness and wellness you deserve. You only get to take this journey once. It’s way more fun when you’re sober.