By Joe Nistler
It was the summer after my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—a year of small successes and setbacks, ongoing struggles with anxiety and depression, and a budding addiction that I wouldn’t admit, much less address, for another two years.
Substance use hadn’t consumed my life yet, but things were moving in that direction. I was able to hide outward signs of addiction behind academic success and the norms of a campus culture that thrived on alcohol. My GPA said “functioning student;” the bottles and cans that filled my trash screamed “alcoholic.” But I didn’t look much worse than the crowd I ran with.
The goals I remember revolved around my drinking—like telling myself I’d only get drunk on Friday and Saturday during finals week, rather than Wednesday through Sunday. Keep in mind that getting drunk, for me, was equivalent to blacking out. Drinking, on the other hand, was a casual, near-daily exercise in self-medication—one that I practiced while studying, between classes and before going out to parties to get drunk(er).
It was the only way I knew to get by. For as long as I can remember, I felt like something was missing in me—some secret to life that it seemed other people understood but I couldn’t comprehend. Drugs and alcohol brought on the illusion of understanding, so I used them to cope with emptiness and connect with people. I used them to hide from myself and as a cure for boredom.
As the school year wrapped and I returned to my parents’ home in Minnesota for the summer, I didn’t have the same access to alcohol and drugs that I had at school. Suddenly I came face to face with myself and a sense of isolated despair, fueled by intrusive thoughts of shame, self-loathing and emptiness. There had to be a better way of living, and a psychology course the previous semester turned me onto the idea of therapy as a tool. So, I made an appointment.
After a couple of introductory sessions, my therapist recommended that I try an antidepressant and abstain from mood-altering chemicals. I didn’t like the last part, but I agreed to it without intending to actually follow through. Most importantly, he started leading me in guided mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises.
Mindfulness meditation helped me from the first time I practiced it. In the therapist’s office, I felt relaxed, and the physical tension in my stomach was less constricting. My thoughts weren’t racing quite so fast anymore. After a couple weeks of mixed effort and equally mixed results, I began to follow his recommendation of listening to a 20-minute recording daily—twice a day, actually. And I started noticing changes in my daily behaviors.
The constant, agonizing feeling that I should be doing something, or that I was missing out on something, or that there was some “right” answer to every situation that escaped me, began to dissipate. I started feeling okay with myself in the moment. In social situations, I still felt awkward at times, but it didn’t get to me as much. I didn’t dwell on the negatives or beat myself up for days on end, which freed up time to create more positive experiences. I let myself move forward.
Finally, I felt like I had some semblance of control over my emotions. I kept up with my daily medication and meditation, as well as weekly therapy sessions. The feeling of freedom drove me to incorporate other improvements in my life, like eating healthier, exercising more and getting more involved in the things I enjoyed. My self-esteem was improving, so I was able to make plans with friends without assuming that I’d be bothering them or interrupting something. And perhaps most perplexingly, as a side effect of my newfound wellness, I stopped craving drugs and alcohol.
My thoughts no longer revolved around getting intoxicated to enjoy life (or escape it). Instead I enjoyed life for what it was. I never intended to get sober that time, and I still drank and got high at the occasional gathering, but using was no longer my main priority, and such occasions were infrequent by any standard.
After a great summer, I returned to Madison and, unfortunately, dove right back into the party scene. Still, with my meditation practice intact, I felt different than before. I was able to socialize—was somewhat outgoing, excited about life and less afraid to take chances. I started pursuing the things I enjoyed for the fun of it, without fear of failure. I started covering the arts and music scene for a campus newspaper. I made plans to travel and study abroad (and followed through with them). I chose a major: journalism (and a second major: Italian). I made new friends and had some great times, but I also became familiar with the local detox facilities.
Without recognizing my need for sobriety, eventually the partying caught up with me. The mental hygiene regimen had allowed me to maintain using for a while without any serious consequences. But then I turned to harder drugs—prescription drugs, and later heroin and methamphetamine—that were great shortcuts for school, work, relaxing and socializing. Those drugs eventually replaced meditation as my primary tool for living, and I neglected my mental health entirely. The descent was slow, and the pit was deep.
I constantly looked back longingly at that summer of ‘09 when things felt right, but completely failed to recognize the role that sobriety had played in my happiness.
You see, I made a mess of my life when I was on drugs, and for a while, I thought they were the problem. But in the bigger picture, they were a solution—a fast-acting, unsustainable answer to the deeper issues I needed to face within myself. They were the easiest way to ignore the severe anxiety and depression I had experienced for most of my life.
It never dawned on me until recently, but back in 2009, I had my first experience with a form of recovery—before my first treatment and conscious attempt at sobriety in 2012, and long before my most recent in October of 2015. Today, I base my recovery in large part on the mental wellness principles I learned and implemented during that first summer.
I meditate daily, attend at least one Twelve Step meditation meeting each week, and keep in close contact with my sober support network. I still see a therapist, take my medication as prescribed and try to live healthy. Mental wellness, Twelve Step principles, and a sober community are the foundations of my recovery. From there, everything else has kind of fallen into place. I have an appreciation for art, music and creativity that is stronger than ever, and I have a gig that lets me write full time—that, in itself, was a lifelong dream. I’m able to connect with people in my life—to provide help, and ask for it when I need it.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that recovery is complicated—especially from co-occurring mental illness and substance use. It takes a lot of moving parts falling into place just right. Sometimes those parts show up out of order and provide a glimpse of recovery before we’re ready to put it all together. But with each supposed failure comes a lesson, and with each lesson comes wisdom to connect the next piece of the puzzle, whenever it presents itself.
I was lucky to have a good relationship with my first therapist, and to respond to the first antidepressant I tried. I was lucky to learn about meditation early on, which made it easier to return to later. I was lucky to get into treatment one last time, and desperate enough to listen.
I’m a year into my recovery, and for the first time since 2009, life feels pretty good. I’m still learning and living one day at a time, and grateful for the lessons that come every day.
Joe Nistler is a Twin Cities-based writer for recovery-focused magazines across the country. He also covers local music and culture for 608 Magazine in Madison, WI, and is a graduate of the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.