Reflections on 6 Years of Sobriety. ~ Sam Dillon

Posted on Posted in Be Brave, Be Inspired., Be You.

downtown train

Today, May 18th, I officially have not had a drop of alcohol in my system for six years.

It has been a long road, and without the support of my family, my friends and my therapist, I would likely be dead or in prison.

More than likely, dead.

Also, I would like to thank a doctor I knew personally (she shall remain nameless) who risked her professional career by prescribing me medicine to keep me from going into seizures when I quit drinking the first time at twenty (for a year and a half), because of my refusal to go to rehab or do it any other way than in my house, alone. I woke myself up with an alarm every four hours for over ten days to manually check my own blood pressure and administer the medicine that would keep me alive and not convulsing, seizing or having delirium tremors.

It wasn’t pretty.

My alcoholism had taken me to a depth of insanity that ended in me finally drinking nearly a 1.5 liter bottle of hard liquor a day, plus beer to wash it down. That’s when your tolerance has beaten you so far into the ground that you pretty much just wake up and begin drinking again. There’s just not enough time in the day to drink that much otherwise.

That is no exaggeration.

From about 10am until 5am the next morning, I would drink whiskey in a nearly constant way. There would often only be a half-inch of the largest bottles of liquor they sell left in my freezer by morning. A hair of the dog that bit me, which would get me to the liquor store for a fresh new dog. I think I spent about 25 dollars a day on booze for those 5 last (and worst) years after my initial relapse. That’s about 45,000 dollars, more than triple what I have ever made in a year of my working life.

On this sixth anniversary of sobriety though, I’m not really reflecting on my accomplishments in the past, but I’m using it as an opportunity to talk about something far more deadly and much more hard for me to deal with, or speak about.

I have to begin at the beginning, but every word of this is difficult to write, I will try my best to speak openly and honestly.

After many years of denial, after being psychologically tested at 14 years old and severely misdiagnosed and mismedicated, put on lithium, and poisoned to a point of amnesia. After a week in a psychiatric hospital at 20 due to suicidal ideation, and after eleven more years of waiting (including these six sober years), at the behest of my family, I finally went to a psychiatrist to get a full mental health assessment. A multitude of tests, by the most progressive and up to date standards were administered by an expert clinician. I waited to hear the conclusion I pretty much have known my whole life was coming: I have Bipolar II, without a shadow of a doubt, and on the nose.

The good news: I have rote number memorization in the 99th percentile, as well as a smattering of other high-functioning brain abilities that I cannot take any real credit for. I just know how to memorize and remember things in a way that seems insane to most people. I can recite texts I read when I was ten forwards and backwards. I once made a rap out of the alphabet being recited backwards.

I remember memorizing decks of randomized playing cards as a kid, just for fun, to see if I could name the last card in the deck. I found out many years later after requesting my transcripts that my IQ had been tested at 14 as well during those psych exams and largely said the same thing, I was in the 99.975 percentile, something like 151. Unfortunately then, their only concern was me being able to “sit down and listen in school,” which I found to be impossible, boring and frustrating to the point that acting out was my only recourse. I remember refusing to say the pledge of allegiance in the 4th grade after reading a book on my own about the genocide of American Indians, and the horrors of slavery instituted by the very same people who wrote these documents. I was a little shit, too smart for my own good, and I needed to be controlled.

I was expelled from school in the 6th grade for printing out “The Devil’s Cookbook” (essentially a bomb making guide, and anarchist literature), from the schools library, hundreds of pages. I went to a “democratic school” run by hippies for the rest of the year where I mostly skateboarded and flirted with girls. I spent 7th grade living in South Africa with my father, and was quickly shuffled out of middle school after arriving back halfway through 8th grade.

They couldn’t wait to get rid of me.

My one saving grace was my music teacher named Ken Johnson, who always let me stay late after school and practice guitar, piano, singing. I don’t think I could have finished that year without his support. He turned me on to great music I never would have heard. Mostly, he just got that I was talented and interesting, and not just a little shit.

That pretty much ended my formal education.

I read manuals and textbooks in my spare time and proceeded to get my GED at 15 and tested again to receive a stamped and signed high school diploma (with honors!) from the Rockville Board of Education (the same document all my fellow graduating seniors would get at 18, after wandering the halls for four years of the hellhole I abandoned). I still think skipping high school was the smartest decision I ever made in my life. I have never met anyone who says they learned almost anything in high school except “I still have friends that I know on Facebook,” which really says a lot.

I was accepted into The Evergreen State College two days before my sixteenth birthday. I had not filled out the small line that asked for age on the application, and apparently nobody noticed. I flew across the country to Olympia, Washington that spring and began my studies in creative writing, ecology and a self-created major with my friend Sky Cosby: “Liberating the Voices of Incarcerated Youth,” which we had a brilliant and very optimistic professor graciously sign off on. We called it “Celldom Heard.”

We threw a great hip-hop showcase in Red Square that year, as well as producing a DIY chapbook of prisoner literature. My drinking career also really took off at this time, as I was a seventeen year old on a college campus thousands of miles away from home. My gambling took off too, playing poker anywhere I could, often at seedy clubs and online with a pre-paid debit card, as well as hosting poker tournaments with everyone I knew and could convince to lose their money to me.

I could do anything I wanted. I never lied about my age, but simply refused to tell anyone for quite a long time. Age is just a number, right? Says any self-righteous seventeen year old.

My grandiosity surely impressed people. I have been a performer since as long as I can remember (my mother always jokes that I was ready to go entertain people since I left the womb). A magician at five, playing piano and performing music by ten, writing, slamming poetry at the national championships at fifteen, it never stopped. I was in the center of the room, and I thought that meant something, not just that I was an egomaniac, sure to be on the cover of Rolling Stone by the time I was twenty-one.

My parents couldn’t understand why I could never get up for school, they didn’t know until years later that I would put a towel under my door to block the light and stay up all night reading and writing, until about 5:30, where I would sleep for thirty minutes before my father came down the hall to wake me up for the bus. I don’t know how I survived. Years passed as I tried to drink my hypomania away by jamming alcohol followed by NyQuil, Ambien, Benedryl down my throat, all to just try to get to sleep, that one unattainable goal I could never quite reach. At some point my dreams just disappeared into darkness.

As the years progressed further, some of the darker sides of hypomania began to present themselves: impulsive spending, reckless gambling, strings of unhealthy sexual relationships, (all of which were doomed to failure from the start). Anger, rage, darkness, depression, and finally, the scariest points of this last year of my life: Mixed-Episodes.

In the past year and a half, I have had to experiment with a regimen of drugs until finally finding the right dosage and medicine to help me live a functional life. And as much as people can be proud of you for conquering alcohol, it’s a much harder beast to speak out about your mental illness.

I remember once going on a date, and the first thing my date started talking about was her “crazy bipolar ex-boyfriend,” he was an “alcoholic too, so I’m so glad you don’t drink.”

What to even say? I’m a fucking mess, girl, you don’t want to get anywhere near me, trust me. And what to do? Deny, deflect, and continue to function (sobriety will buy you a lot of time in doing this, as you can use it as an excuse that you’ve gotten help and are doing fine).

Hypomania, actually also keeps you functioning at such a high level. I have been able to operate on about 4-5 hours of sleep for as long as I can remember. I produced music all night in my solitary zen wonderland, read about 3-4 non-fiction books a week about topics from psychophysiology to economics to super-string theory. Memoirs about drug abuse to politics to mountain climbing. Anything I could get my hands on.

People often wondered out loud at work to me “Where do you find the time?!”

My response was always the same, “I am awake and doing things when you are asleep.”

My hours of extra work were from 10pm-5am. That’s seven hours of intense, single-minded focus that hypomania can provide you with, and it is a very, very hard thing to want to give up, especially if your depressive spells are severe, but not all that frequent.

This went on for years.

I traveled the world, studied all manners of healing and spirituality, motorcycling through the dirty terrain of Cambodia at night, swerving around cattle barely visible until hitting the glint of my low-beams, yards ahead. Being chased by wild dogs on a night I was sure I was going to die and be ripped to pieces.

Nothing could stop me. Ever.

I was a star exploding at light speed through the galaxy, burning as bright as anything you had ever seen, but sure to eventually collapse upon its own weight and gravity. I paid this no mind, as I had decided at about 12 that I was sure I would never make it to my 30th birthday alive. I didn’t really want to. I wanted to live, hard, fast, intense, non-stop, now. I came pretty close to making that pact a reality. I’m only 31 now, but this year I finally made strides to comprehend and look deeply at who I am and what is happening to me, and what factors are chemical imbalances in my brain, rather that just my insane hyperactivity.

I had never even thought to blame anyone but myself. Or thank anyone but myself. My choices were my fault. Everyone else’s judgements about me were right, but fuck them, I didn’t care, I’ll move on to someone else who sees the good parts with the darkness hidden.

The mixed episodes began, and got worse quickly. This is where you have the intensity of the hypomania mixed with the self-hatred of the deepest and darkest depression you have ever felt. Suddenly all that energy I had to conquer the world was turned inwards into a pattern of suicidal ideation, agoraphobia, blowups with close friends, despising my family, hanging up on my father after screaming matches, all of it, and more. So much more I can’t even write it all down.

It was the hardest time of my life, a thousand times harder than my worst days of drinking, without a doubt. At least then I had something to numb out the pain, something to try and quell the manic thoughts and get some sleep. I always used to say,

“Drinking *is* a coping skill, it’s just not a healthy one.”

It’s true. Now, instead, I had hypersomnia, sleeping 14 hours a day, unable to get out of bed, whole weeks where I never left my house, fear of everything outside. I was so scared, I bought a gun. Then I was scared that I had a gun in my house. Worried I might shoot myself, or worse, mistake some passerby as a burglar and shoot some innocent stranger. Afraid and anxious about the outside world, uncontrollable sobbing for hours at a time, the inability to pull myself out of it for more than 20 minutes before collapsing back into the despair and pain I can’t describe as anything short of brutal psychological torture.

The first doctor I saw in New Orleans (who I later found out accepted thousands of dollars from big pharma, of course) told me outright that he didn’t care about the tests, he was sure I had Bipolar I, which is much scarier and involves hallucinations, delusional thinking (I am Barack Obama, people are out to get me, etc.), psychosis, and far worse symptoms. He prescribed me tranquilizers that nearly killed me in the following three months. My depression worsened. He suggested I up my dosage. I declined. I am very fortunate and lucky that he was wrong about me having Bipolar I, and that I have the lesser of these two evils, and I never forget that.

That didn’t matter though: my agoraphobia worsened to the point that I couldn’t get into my car, could barely make it to my porch to check my mail. I didn’t go grocery shopping for three months and ate chinese food ever night. Agoraphobia, means literally “fear of the public square,” and comes from our (very smart) reptile brains that were afraid of the open savannah. This is because birds of prey could see us from above and pick us off while exposed without a tree to hide beneath. It is a very primal instinct, and hard to counteract. My anxiety attacks got worse and worse, the medication wasn’t helping, it was making things worse, but I continued to swallow them down, convinced I was just adjusting. I was not.

My parents finally begged me to come home to Connecticut and see a doctor who was a specialist with Bipolar males of my age, and after months of fighting them off, I reluctantly agreed. And he likely saved my life. He took my off the tranquilizer immediately, and I began to experience emotions again. Not great ones, but at least something. And then I was put on Lamictal, the only Bipolar medication that has been approved for Bipolar II and to come on the market since Lithium did in 1948. Lithium is the aforementioned drug that I refused to ever try again, after I was put on it at fourteen, and which cost me a year of my life I can barely recall but for hazy half-memories, lost in a sea of white noise. And to the gracious angels, goddesses, or simply to the smart psychiatrists diagnosing me correctly and providing me with a plan of action including proper medication and therapy, have saved my life.

I cook dinner every night. I went to the grocery store the other day, then the bank, then the post office. I didn’t even mind. It felt kind of great. I always ask how people are doing, a habit I’ve always done. It’s amazing how the little things can go such a long way.

When I call Cox to complain that my internet has gone out again, I always start with “Hey, my name is Sam Dillon, how are you doing today?” The other night I was met with “No one has asked me that in a week.”

Try it, it’s pretty fun.

Sometimes a grocery store clerk will literally break down in tears and tell you about her bad day. That happened not to long ago too. I still stay up late reading books, but when I’m ready to fall asleep, I drift off into the odd and vivid dreams I remember having since I was a child, the same ones that disappeared for more than a decade.

I am on the path to recovery, not there yet, and as with my alcoholism, I take small steps and don’t get ahead of myself.

I was born with a strange chemical imbalance, not much different that someone with diabetes or anemia or Crohn’s disease or autism. The large difference is the stigma. When you are an impulsive, grandiose, gambling, alcoholic maniac, nobody gives you much slack that you can’t just “get your life together,” “fix your problems,” or simply “stop acting this way.” There is no discussion of treatment (other than AA, a religious doctrine started by holocaust-deniers, sorry AA folks), not much in the way of offering help, a lot of blame and a small amount of empathy.

You can only burn so many bridges before people don’t want to come near you. And I’ve burned a lot. Lost of a lot of good friends. Sometimes I’m amazed that most of my family still talks to me. Some of them barely do. I understand. I empathize. I get it. I know why, even though I know they also just don’t understand what I have been struggling with my whole life and simply blame me and say I “always play the victim.”

I have not been easy to deal with for many, many years. Even in sobriety I have been a raging asshole to deal with at times. At the height of my hypomanic episodes I have been explosive, unpredictable and stubborn beyond belief.

Impossible to deal with. I have always been this way, in a sense, and for many years, it served me. I skipped high school completely, choosing to get my education through books, following politics and world affairs, listening to everything around me, absorbing knowledge and skills like a sponge, learning from the world and by trial and (a lot of) error. When I made a decision, there was no challenging me or changing my mind. I followed my gut to the ends of the earth and back. Nobody could have stopped me, though many tried.

So on this day I celebrate six years since I’ve touched a drop of alcohol, I guess I would like to begin by not celebrating at all, but by admitting what I was actually trying to drink away—the hypomania, the depression. By admitting that getting to the root of a problem is often just the beginning of seeing a deeper one. That hitting rock bottom only happens when you stop digging and begin trying to find a way out. That stigmatizing people who are mentally ill is killing millions of people every year. That suicide recently surpassed homicide as the second-leading cause of death in teenagers each year, after car accidents. That our military veterans come home wounded in body and mind and have a suicide rate that is drastically high, with little to no mental health treatment available. Just “be a man and deal with it” leads to guns being put to heads, nooses being wrapped around throats. That we as a society must change the way we treat the mentally ill, simply as people who have an illness no more controllable or treatable alone than Parkinson’s.

What’s the difference? There is no difference but our mind-state, that’s the difference.

I worked in a Psychiatric hospital for almost seven years, and I am still amazed at the daily comments from doctors, nurses, staff in general:

“Oh, she’s just Borderline.” “He’s just an attention-seeking teenage brat.” “He’s just classic Bipolar, throw him on Seroquel.” “She’s just a Benzo-head.” “He’s just a fucking drunk.” “If he even starts acting up, throw him into isolation and we’ll put him down with a shot of B52,” (this is what we called the injected cocktail of Benedryl 50 with 2mg of Ativan, the B50-2). “He’s crazy as a loon.” “Don’t even try to talk to her.” “He’s just an old asshole.” “Homeless grunt trying to get a free meal.” “He’s not nice enough, I don’t think we should let his kids visit.” “She’s a classic cutter, let her find a paper clip and do her worst, just ignore her.”

Daily. During “Report,” as they called it. On the floor of the hospital within earshot of other patients. Sometimes directly to a patient’s face. Adults, Adolescents, Children as young as four years old. I worked directly with all of them. And every time I heard “YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND!” I remember distinctly thinking: “You’re right, I don’t understand your exact nature, your exact chemical imbalance or behavioral disorder, but I refuse to not try and help you in whatever way I can. I will show you as best I can that I am WILLING to try to understand, not just that I do,” because most of the time, you just don’t. But you can try. Empathize. Don’t be scared of us. We’re your mailmen, postal workers, neighbors, bartenders, waitresses, telemarketers, local business owners, bosses, employees, co-workers, friends, family, loved ones, heroes and heroines.

Which leads me to my last thought. Last night we lost another amazing musician and gentle soul to suicide, Chris Cornell. Add him to the list of amazing artists we have lost to suicide, drugs and alcohol over the last few years, decades, and the list is too great to comprehend. And the biggest killer of us all is the inability to speak out without being judged, I can speak to that from experience. Saying (or writing) all of this is very hard when I could be taking myself out to a steak dinner and saying, “I used to spend 25 bucks a day on booze, time to treat myself to something nice.” I could be getting a relaxing massage.

I used to do that. I don’t anymore. Now I reflect on what comes next, what the future looks like, what I can do about it personally and globally, and what is beyond my control. I urge other members of my community, and communities around the world to speak up and speak out for themselves and those they love when confronted with the silence that permeates mental illness and awareness of all kinds.

We can’t afford another Robin Williams, Chris Cornell, Aaron Swartz, Kurt Cobain, Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace, et al. The thousands of unnamed teenagers and unknown mothers and fathers who have to live every day knowing their child is gone. We, as the mentally ill, need to speak out, and we as a culture need to speak out against the stigma, which increases mortality rates more than any chemical in our brains, of that I am sure.

So, help us. Stand up for us. Yes, ask us to get help for ourselves too, and be patient when we need time, or aren’t sure, or don’t want to talk about it, but keep on pressing. We need the reminder, even when we don’t want to hear it. We need the reminder that someone needs us on this earth, and they refuse to let us go without fighting for our lives, and without us fighting for our own.

Most of us are acutely aware of our own struggles and we are preoccupied with our own problems. We sympathize with ourselves because we see our own difficulties so clearly. But as Ian MacLaren noted wisely,

“Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.”

Good luck and godspeed.


Image: Alex Iby/Unsplash

Portrait by Jen Mann
Portrait by Jen Mann

Sam Dillon is a writer, musician, and photographer based in New Orleans. His band, Cup of Sun, has released four albums and two EP’s since forming twelve years ago, which are so obscure only people with an internet connection can find them. Sam is a Reiki practitioner and a tarot reader who runs the Practical Healing New Orleans studio. He enjoys snuggling with his cats, playing bridge, and writing about himself in the third person.


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