I’ve carried the weight of depression around with me my whole life. When I was five years old, I would bring on anxiety attacks just thinking about existential topics my little mind couldn’t wrap itself around. Things like: What if my parents die tomorrow? What will happen to my soul when I die? Where does the universe end and what’s on the other side of that? Is there a God? These might seem like average questions for a philosophy major, but I was in Kindergarten.
I’d let these questions and ensuing dreadful thoughts race through my mind as I lay in bed trying to fall asleep on a school night. I’d get so worked up that I’d race to my parents’ room to kneel down by their bed and beg God (or whoever) not to take them from me or let anything bad happen. Sometimes my mother would find me curled up on their suede chaise lounge chair the next morning and innocently assumed that like most children; I was scared to sleep on my own. But really I was afraid of much more.
When I think back to my childhood, I see myself all alone. I grew up in a home with two parents and a sibling, but we were all pretty absent from each others’ lives. My mother and father were typical immigrant parents, in that they had degrees and careers in Cuba, but were relegated to minimum-wage jobs when they first arrived in this country. My mother, an architect, quickly picked up the English language and began managing an insurance agency. She would be the stable bread winner until her last breath. My father, an engineer, was obsessed with getting rich quick and took all kinds of odd jobs and illegal side gigs. He was always away on business.
Because of this, my mother was typically consumed with thoughts of her husband’s whereabouts. Add to that: managing the household, helping family abroad and keeping it together for the sake of the children, and you can’t blame her for not being fully there for us kids. Sure she’d ask about our report cards and drive us to Michael’s to buy supplies for our science projects, but she only covered the basics. When I was repeatedly bullied in school, I never turned to her for help. I simply tried my best to ignore my tormenters and eventually learned to stand up for myself. When I was sexually assaulted by friends at a party, and later ostracized by everyone at school, I took matters into my own hands and transferred to another school. My mother never probed as to why I would leave all my childhood friends behind, nor did I provide that information.
My mother was ignorant to the life that was unfolding inside of me and the experiences that were shaping my character. Some say it’s a cultural gap that forces second generations to raise themselves, because the traditions and practices of this new world elude our parents. However, there was a space that existed between our personal orbits that eclipsed our immigrant circumstance. At a very young age, I was forced to navigate life on my own and this created major resentments in me. To survive, I did the only thing I knew how. I pushed past the pain and disappointment and learned to function through the hopelessness.
Over the years, I became skilled at managing my anxiety and depression. I self-medicated with a limited set of tools available to me: food, stealing, drugs, alcohol and sex. When one device alone didn’t do the trick, I started combining them. At 30 years old, I finally lost the ability to keep things under control. I started spiraling and could not find a balance between the demands of a high-stress job and the need to cope with my ongoing despair.
One night, after drinking a bottle of Malbec and smoking a joint, I experienced my first full-blown panic attack. I was standing outside my Gramercy apartment in New York, smoking a cigarette with a friend. I remember talking about work and bouncing some ideas off him when suddenly I was struck with an unequivocal awareness that I was going to die. I was certain I would not survive the sudden impending doom that was fast approaching. My arms and legs started to shake uncontrollably. I started hyperventilating. I grew dizzy and then… black. When I came to, I couldn’t move at all. I stayed there on the ground for what seemed like hours, trying to steady my breath. Later that night when I was safe in my bed, I resolved to finally seek professional help.
The first time I ever saw a doctor for depression, was right after my mom passed away. I was 21 years old, in an abusive relationship and trying to finish up my bachelors. I woke up every day feeling defeated. It was suggested to me that a therapist might help and so I thought I’d give it a try. That experience was the coldest and most impersonal encounter I’ve ever had with a healthcare professional. I was prescribed drugs within 15 minutes, asked for the copay and told to come back next month. I walked out of that doctor’s office feeling even more lost than when I had walked in. So it was with a lot of hesitation that I approached the idea of giving therapy a second try.
Since my depression and addiction were top secret, I didn’t want to ask around for a recommendation so I decided to use an online counseling tool available through my medical insurance provider. After filling out a brief survey, I received a phone call from a specialist. For 30 minutes, I sat in the break room of a prestigious advertising agency near Union Square and discussed my medical history, my parents’ and my lifestyle choices with a total stranger. He was friendly, calm and his voice was soothing. During that first conversation, I found the courage to be honest with myself and another human being about my problem. What I had rationalized as normal behavior for so many years suddenly became clear to me as unusual behavior.
How often do you consume alcohol in a given week? Well, on average about 4-5 times a week. But you know, I’m young and single and I live in New York City so... How much alcohol do you consume during each occasion? Oh, it really depends on the circumstance. Sometimes I’ll have a bottle of wine with dinner and a few shots of whiskey. Other times, I’ll have 3-4 beers and a few shots of whiskey. Always whiskey. But, like, I have a bottle of whiskey on my dresser and I don’t wake up with the urge to drink. It’s been sitting there for a few weeks. Have you ever consumed any other drug? Umm… yes. I mean, who hasn’t am I right? Which drugs and how often? The sympathetic specialist concluded that I needed to seek treatment. I immediately hung up and met up with friends for happy hour at a hole-in-the-wall bar we used to frequent for bingo and trivia nights.
That tape played three more times, with three different therapists, and each time I lost the ability to argue my point. Little by little, each professional chipped away at a carefully crafted façade that I could no longer hide behind. It was a very slow process for me to come to understand and then accept that I was a drug addict. In fact, it took exactly five years. It wasn’t until I returned to Miami, that I finally faced my demons.
When I left Miami in 2003, I swore I would never return. I thought I was meant for bigger and better things, which Miami could not offer me then. But after 12 years, I was still that lonely anxious girl who ran away from a failed relationship, a broken family and many ghosts. The only thing that had changed during that time was my income tax bracket. Returning to a place I once called home, but no longer recognized was an unexpected culture shock. It stirred the internal 30-year war and thrust me into the deepest gloom I have ever wrestled with.
My bottom was not a palpable outward-facing collapse. Instead I had arrived at a spiritual wasteland. It was a typical week night and I had pulled in a long day at the office. There was still more work to be done once I got home, so I picked up a hundred of coke on my way. I’ll just do a few bumps to get me through this last round of emails, I thought. As soon as that first hit flooded my system, I was trapped. There cease to exist any control. Instead a savage animal intent on staying alive took over and I receded inside myself. She couldn’t stop. She blew through what I had bought and went out and got more. She spent the whole night doing one line after another, with absolutely no regard for what I truly wanted, which was to stop.
That night, my anxious mind was flooded with thoughts about being, just like when I was five years old. What am I doing with my life? Who am I? Why can’t I just die and be done with it? How can I stop? Why is this happening to me? What is wrong with me? Alone at 6am, watching the light break, I finally disintegrated. A few weeks later, when my new therapist suggested rehab, I was finally ready to surrender.
When I hit the “post” button a few days ago, I knew that I was turning my back on a lucrative and successful career in advertising and exposing the false but very well-fabricated story of who Karen was. I even assumed that I would lose some friends in the process, because for many the disease of addiction is still viewed as a moral failing that can be controlled by will alone. What I did not expect was to receive all the love, support and personal stories of struggle that have been pouring in since Friday. I know I am on the right path, based on your reactions to my first blog post. And while I cannot represent the addict community as a whole, I’m honored to be able to tell my story and carry the message of recovery to those in need.
The heartbreaking truth about addiction is that it does not discriminate. Who is an addict? The blue book tells us that an addict is a man or a woman whose life is controlled by drugs; the getting and using and finding ways and means to get more. A person who lives to use and uses to live looks like everyone else: your sister who abuses Xanax, your colleague who binge drinks every day, your son who smokes pot regularly. And while they might not look like the stereotypical junkie, they are in the grips of a continuing and progressive illness. They are in pain and believe they cannot survive without drugs.
My story begins at the age of eight. Feeling less than, I began to seek comfort in food. As I got older, food was replaced with stealing, then drugs, then shopping and finally sex. To be viewed as a functioning member of society, I created rules for myself. These rules would allow me to hide my addiction for 15+ years. On the outside, I had everything going for me: a good job with a decent disposable income, a nice place in a good neighborhood, a new car, family and friends who loved me. But inside I felt insignificant, depressed and always alone. Rules like: only drink in social settings, only do hard drugs on the weekend, only binge eat on special occasions, were both a blessing and a curse. To the world, I was functioning. To me, I was enduring until the next high.
It took three therapists, some rule-breaking and a few panic attacks for me to admit that I had a problem. I had all the telltale signs of an addict. I couldn’t handle life without numbing my feelings. I couldn’t feel pleasure in everyday things. I constantly replaced one addiction for the other. I even tried a number of geographic changes, hoping that a new city would give me the backdrop for a brand new start. However, when I really examined my life with a magnifying glass, I saw that I had lost a lot of things to my addiction: the house I grew up in went into foreclosure because I snorted the mortgage payments up my nose, a very dear friend pushed me away for years, because she couldn’t stand by as I destroyed myself with alcohol, I even lost the chance to say goodbye to my mother, as she lay on her deathbed losing the battle against cancer, because I was fighting the demons in my own head. I wasn’t there for my sisters when they needed me the most. I lost a $100k inheritance to frivolousness. And countless other scenarios that played out over the years, I see now as obvious products of my disease.
While this sickness has been there all along, my turning point was being sexually assaulted at 15 years old. One night, I was invited to a party at an acquaintance’s house whose parents were away. At the time, I was desperate for love and acceptance. After years of being bullied, I had finally found approval from a group of friends who were acting out like most teenagers do. We’d skip school; buy alcohol with fake ids and experiment with drugs together. That night, I snuck out of my house while my parents slept soundly. What I didn’t know, was that when I walked into that house full of boys, I was walking into my first traumatic experience. I was encouraged to drink massive amounts of alcohol and coerced to have sex with one of the boys at the party, while everyone stood by and watched. Feeling like I deserved it, like I had it coming to me, I never told anyone what really happened that night. I was a slut who should have never gone to that party to begin with. At school the next day, the boys spread rumors around. They told everyone that I had given blow jobs at the party and my girlfriends turned against me. I was devastated. Back in my bedroom, I drowned my tears in a bottle of vodka that my dad kept in the liquor cabinet. It killed the hurt and alleviated my sorrow. Vodka was there for me when I couldn’t reach out for help.
In my 20’s, when I lost both parents to cancer, I turned again to the only tool I had for dealing with pain. Feeling like life had robbed me, I moved to New York, where for the next ten years I lived each day like it was going to be my last. I rationalized my behavior behind the pretense that this lifestyle was part of the fast-paced culture of the big city. But, when you took the glamour of New York away, there I was; just me and my inability to feel negative feelings. When my current therapist suggested I go to rehab, she positioned it as a spiritual vacation for my soul. It finally clicked for me. I had been struggling with anxiety and depression for so long that I had forgotten what it was like to feel happy and hopeful. In February 2016, I finally surrendered to the fact that I was a drug addict. And what I went on to experience in rehab will stay with me forever.
Writing Class Radio
Writing Class Radio is a podcast of a writing class. It is for people who love stories and who get inspired by hearing other people tell their stories and who want to learn a little bit about how to write their own stories.
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