It begins with three little blue bottles.

What happened to those orangey-brown bottles prescription drugs used to come in? Is this color shift the result of some changing bottle design philosophy? Wikipedia tells me the orange bottles prevent light getting in and damaging the pills. Do these blue bottles have the same protective properties?

I am probably obsessing over the color of the bottles to avoid thinking about what’s actually inside them: powerful psychotropic medications. Three different chemical compounds that will literally get inside my brain and start making changes in there.

The plan, of course, is that those changes will make my brain work better. Because right now, my brain is malfunctioning, broken. Has been for a long time.

These three blue bottles represent a different future for me, one that I’ve had a lot of trouble believing might actually exist. The future without these blue bottles is/was a shapeless gray void of mostly meaningless, empty days and nights. I understand very well that this future wouldn’t be a particularly lengthy one. I understand that, and, at times, welcome it. I sometimes want everything to just wash away to gray, to be gone and I want to be out of this existence entirely.

The three bottle future is uncertain and a little terrifying. I’m not entirely convinced my life will actually be any better after I crack open the white caps on the blue bottles and begin taking the yellow, pink and beige pills inside.

Taking the pills is a first step, building (it is hoped) a chemical bridge over the chasm of anxiety and fear that separates me from my actual journey.

Later that day, another bottle. It towers over the tiny blue bottles. It represents the past, or it will, after tonight. The golden colored rum inside is a member of a family of old friends of mine, spirits in more ways than one. I just realized I can remember almost precisely when I started self-medicating with booze. I don’t mean I can pin it down to an actual date; with my terrible memory, I can’t even identify the exact year. But I do know almost exactly how it happened.

I had just started working for an upstart little weekly newspaper in Neodesha, Kan. called The Southeast Valley Spirit. It was owned by a married couple, would-be entrepreneurs who had operated a small video store in town that had gone out of business, as well as some kind of telephone based information hotline that I never understood. Whatever it was, this information hotline had apparently generated at least some revenue, and it had given the couple the bright idea that they should start up their own weekly newspaper.

There was already a paper in Neodesha, a typical small town weekly that covered bake sales and school functions and local government meetings. The Southeast Valley Spirit, as the grandiose name implied, had higher aspirations. The Spirit would cover a vast swath of southeast Kansas, a mostly rural area dotted every 15 to 20 miles or so by small towns with populations ranging from about 2,000 to about 12,000, with a scattering of even tinier burgs sprinkled throughout.

So, this seemed on the face of it to be an interesting prospect, a chance to do something different and challenging. Well, it was challenging all right, but not in any way that I had anticipated.

I won’t go into excruciating detail. I’ll just sum it up by saying that my days were mostly taken up designing what few ads the bosses had scrounged up, formatting and laying out a bunch of scammy-sounding classifieds from some national service, and trying to fill the rest of the paper with cheap, crappy syndicated content from some other national service.

My previous job, at a different small-town weekly The Parsons News, had its unbearable moments as well. All jobs do, of course. I’m sure my jobs were a lot easier and less stressful than most. But for some reason, it didn’t dawn on me that there might be something wrong with my brain. Even after I tried to kill myself, which is a story for another time.

This story is about self-medication. At some point while working at The News, I’d gotten my hands on a small supply of really good weed. Toward the end of my tenure there, I started smoking up once or twice a week when things got really stressful or overwhelming. I found that it made everything a lot easier.

By the time I’d settled in at The Spirit and started feeling overwhelmed again, I was all out of weed, and I didn’t have a clue where to get more. I don’t remember where I got my little stash in the first place.

So I turned to alcohol. Vodka, specifically. I was supposed to be at work at 9 a.m. every morning. Lucky for me, the local liquor store opened at just that time. I was very punctual there, and was always at work by 9:05 with a big cup of Dr. Pepper and vodka in hand.

The big cup got me through the day, with the help of a little top-up after lunch. What started as an every now and then thing became an everyday thing, and soon became an every night thing as well. I had been overweight my entire life, and copious amounts of alcohol soon contributed to even more weight gain.

Within a year after the Spirit went out of business, I was out of work, bloated to nearly 400 pounds, and about to go on Social Security disability. I was also drinking more than any human being should, dousing myself in alcohol to anesthetize me from reality. I’d been doing a good job of pretending nothing was wrong with me for my entire adult life, but it was becoming harder and harder to put that wall between me and the world. Booze did a nice job of reinforcing that effort.

Next time: Taking my meds. Plus, a look back at three decades of denial.