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'Simple Things Like Breathing' 

In Their Own Words

click to enlarge "After a while, I figured out that in order to survive, I would just make fun of myself before they did." - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • "After a while, I figured out that in order to survive, I would just make fun of myself before they did."

Gloria M. Lopez grew up with an alcoholic and abusive father and constant depression. She still remembers her first drink, a shot of whiskey neat, at 5 years old. Today, Lopez is sober, in recovery and a peer counselor at Frontier Behavioral Health, where she helps those facing similar mental and substance abuse issues.

For me growing up, dysfunction was normal. There was a lot of love in the home, too. It's that weird dynamic. With my father, when he was sober, he was this amazing person. When he was drunk, he was very frightening, so there's that never-quite-knowing-what's-next feeling. We were also poor, so there's that whole issue of economics. Where's the food coming from? How's the rent going to get paid? [Alcohol] became a tool to cope. It blunted the edge of the pain and the fear and buffered it just a little, so it didn't hurt quite so much and it wasn't quite so apparent to me.

For a lot of us, when you come from brokenness, it's like the other kids recognize that and you become, at least for me, the outcast. So I did most of my school being the different one. After a while, I figured out that in order to survive I would just make fun of myself before they did. That starts that whole pattern of hurting yourself and negative self-talk. I was always kind of contemplating death, contemplating not being there. The depression was always an underlying thread. I didn't know that's what it was. I always just felt tired. I always felt sad. I always felt a little paranoid. When you're dually diagnosed, it's hard to know: Are you depressed and you drink to self-medicate, or do you drink and that helps trigger the depression?

College turned the corner for me. About that time, I was really close with my grandfather and my grandfather died. That was my first memory of having a really, truly, verified mental health episode. It was my freshman year. I was drinking somewhat. I was sleeping a lot. I missed some classes. I lived in a 12-story building, and it kind of accumulated. When my grandfather died, I remember I was crying in my room so hard at college, they did get the floor monitor to come and make sure I was OK. I also climbed out on the fire escape and crawled on the outside of the fire escape and stood there. To this day, I really don't know why I didn't entirely let go. I truly, truly don't, because I was there and I was ready. For whatever reason, I crawled back over and went on.

At one point [later in life] I remember feeling like everything hurt too much and I just felt really, really tired, and I really thought "I want to die." I got tape and was taping up my windows. I was going to take pills, turn the gas on and call it good. It was a Saturday night and I remember sitting with my Bible. I was weeping, and I said I was going to ask for help one more time. I said I'm going to go to church in the morning, and if nobody comes and says anything, I'm done.

So I understand when people get to that place where it hurts more to be alive than to think about dying, where you feel like you're in the dark, slimy pit and there's no light and there's no way out, and you're trying to climb up the walls and they're all slimy, and you keep sliding back no matter how hard you try. That feeling of being in the pit and no way out, and just how tired you get.

I went to church [the next day] and luckily, for whatever reason, this lady recognized that I was — at least had been — a drinker and child of drinkers. She ended up taking me to one of the 12-step meetings, which changed my life. The first thing I realized was that I was the child of an alcoholic. It took me about a year and a half to realize that I was the problem. It was Christmas, and a family took me home for Christmas dinner, and they had wine with dinner. We're sitting at a table eating chicken breasts with mushroom gravy and drinking the wine, and they all sipped. I'll never forget watching them sip. I spent the whole meal trying to figure out how I could get some more wine. For the first time, I really watched that my response to the alcohol was different than theirs. They would laugh, and it would be to the joke. I would laugh, and it would be half a beat off. That was the last drink I took.

At some point I was at a doctor's office talking about suicide and a nurse called [Frontier Behavioral Health's helpline] First Call For Help. I talked to this person who was just very supportive and gave me a safety plan.

Eventually I got a diagnosis of several things, one of which is clinical depression. [Until then] I had no idea there were tools I could use to help me cope. Simple things like breathing. I never understood you could stop yourself and breathe before stuff spewed out. I never knew that if I went to people and was regretful for what I did, and apologized and started to live my life differently, that sometimes I could be forgiven by the person — that's lovely — but I could forgive myself. In forgiving myself I could learn to respect myself and love myself.

My life has come full circle. When I look in a mirror, I feel respect for myself because I know that I work hard, and that the work I do makes a difference. Sometimes it's a really small difference, but it is a difference. It redeems my whole life. All the stuff that I experienced is worth it, because when I'm with somebody and they've been abused, and they listen to me and look me in the eyes and I tell them I understand, they know I understand from the guts out, that I've been there. When I'm talking to somebody that's been drinking and I talk about recovery from alcoholism, they know that I've been there. Somehow all that pain and despair is redeemed by using it to help other people survive and recover.♦

Editor's note: This has been lightly edited for space and clarity.

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