Out Of the Abyss

(A story of healing and hope)

The opposite of depression is not happiness; it is vitality

Andrew Solomon

One of the main themes of Light at Sea is that healing and hope grow when we talk openly about mental health and addiction, so I thought I’d start by telling my own story.

The genes that create vulnerability to alcoholism, anxiety, and major depression run through parts of my family tree. My father, a beloved English professor at UC Berkeley, fought alcohol and depression for decades.  In 2008, he took his own life.

I am an alcoholic, and I have experienced two major depressions during my adult life. I have recovered from both, I’m sober, and I feel better in many ways than I ever have. But it has been a long, sometimes dark road. My first depressive episode started in 1992. The DSM-5 criteria of clinical depression fit how I was feeling like a glove.  As long periods of sadness began to overwhelm me, I sometimes sat in my car in our driveway, haunted by thoughts of suicide, afraid to go to my law office.

People told me that I had a great life. “Cam, why aren’t you happy?!” Their understandable frustration only increased my shame. I tried to explain that I ached to feel joy and be energetic again, but that I couldn’t hold back the dark tide of despair and lethargy. Stigma whispered, “Get tough! There’s nothing wrong with you.”

But there was something wrong with me: I was spinning in the vortex of major clinical depression, a health condition which now affects close to eighteen million U.S. adults each year. My denial and the pressure to put on a brave, professional face, initially kept me from seeking treatment. In 1993, family members and some close friends urged me to get professional help.

Their gentle persistence worked. For the first time in my life, I started seeing a psychiatrist. Over the next several months, talk therapy and an anti-depressant began to lift my mood. As I got better, I felt the “real” me return.

For the next two decades, I often took my mental wellness for granted. I helped raise two wonderful children in Marin County, California, and had a successful securities law practice. I still got depressed sometimes, but my medication was a psychological safety net of sorts. It gave me energy to maintain self-care habits, particularly exercise. I often commuted by bike across the Golden Gate Bridge to train for long cycling events.

Yet, the shadows of depression returned at the beginning of 2012. As sometimes happens with anti-depressants, the beneficial effects of mine began to fade. As the medication slowly stopped working, and external stressors mounted, I slid into a second major depression. By early 2013, I had to take a leave from my law partnership, and was voluntarily admitted to the psychiatric ward in a Berkeley hospital.

Although I hadn’t tried to kill myself, a hospital staffer sat outside my room on suicide watch. My depression had progressed so far that I was started on electro-convulsive therapy right away. ECT is still generally considered a treatment of last resort, in part because it involves applying electricity to the patient’s brain. Medical science cannot yet fully explain ECT’s precise mechanism, but it is a treatment method that has proven results for a significant number of patients who manifest certain mental health conditions, particularly severe depression like mine. 

Three times a week, the nurses in the ECT facility, tucked out of sight in the hospital’s basement, prepped me as if I were going into surgery. After the anesthesiologist put me under, a brief electrical current was passed between electrodes on my temples. At first, the ECT was slow to gain traction. I felt very little improvement after the first sessions, and my suicidal ideation remained. I stared listlessly out of the ward’s windows at the Berkeley Hills where I had grown up. It was like watching a black-and-white film about a childhood that I could barely recall.

In early April, after additional ECT treatments, my psychiatrist felt that I was stable enough to be discharged. But I was still experiencing significant symptoms of depression. The question my mother and two sisters faced was, where could I go to continue treatment? Millions of people with mental health and addiction issues face this question.

The best answer my family could find was an inpatient treatment facility in a house in Palo Alto, in the middle of Silicon Valley. At first, I lay around on the couch, still confined behind bars of misery. I watched jets fly over, and imagined lawyers aboard, flying off to do the kinds of important things that I once did.

At first, I didn’t want to take part in the cognitive and group therapy sessions the facility offered. I was scared by the emotions and old fears that I could feel bubbling to the surface. But as the summer progressed, I had periods of vitality, and experienced glimpses of hope for the future, like shafts of sunlight shining on the sea through rents in a dispersing storm.

I had been sober for over a year by then. As my self-absorbed “pride” grew less, I got closer to the other folks in the intensive outpatient program that I attended. I started to participate in talk therapies and group counseling there, became an informal mentor to some of my younger comrades-in-healing, and did my part to build a community of sharing and empathy.

I also had new care-givers who guided me along the widening path of healing and recovery. A psychiatrist prescribed new medications that, together with ongoing ECT treatments, were elevating my mood. I also worked with a warm, very direct psychotherapist. Gently but relentlessly, she helped me excavate and then build on my old foundations of resilience.

I have a vivid memory of what I now realize was a milestone in my ongoing recovery. I was in the hospital prep room for one of my later ECT sessions. While my favorite ECT nurse slid an IV for the general anesthetic into my left arm, she said, “Cam, you aren’t talking about killing yourself any more. I see a sparkle in your eye. You are going to make it, Honey.”

She was right. By the end of 2013, I had climbed a long way out of the abyss of depression. The ECT was over, and I was living on my own. At the urging of my therapist, I had starting biking again. My former college room-mate and I began hitting tennis balls at Stanford.

I remember a check-in meeting around a large conference table at the outpatient facility. It was December 31, and we were sharing our 2014 New Year’s resolutions.  I told the group that my goal was to bike to the top of Mt. Diablo, east of San Francisco, where I had ridden before my second depression engulfed me. That resolution turned out to be another milestone along my road to hope.

On a spring training ride on the mountain, I climbed through fields resplendent with wildflowers. The warm May breeze made waves in the high green grass. As I watched a pair of red-tailed hawks floating upwards, I was flooded with joy. I got off my bike in tears, kneeled on the gravel shoulder, and said a prayer of gratitude and hope. I now say a version of that prayer every morning.

I still get mildly depressed sometimes, and I will always be at risk to drinking again. Yet, as I will describe in upcoming posts, I have developed sustainable self-care regimens that help me stay vital and sober. I have also been blessed with a story of recovery and hope to share. So many folks have, or know someone who has, a story about addiction, recovery, sadness, fear, and hope. Find the courage to tell your story. People will admire you. When you share, you will be a light for others who are feeling alone and lost at sea.


BOOK: An Unquiet Mind, Kay Redfield Jamison

MOVIE: Roxanne (stars Darryl Hannah and Steve Martin)


You’re only dancing on this Earth for a short while.                             

Cat Stevens


Exercise shouldn’t be the “E” word. (The mental and physical benefits of 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise.)

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