Missoula Mayor John Engen was drunk when he got off a plane and checked into an addiction treatment center in Oregon late last year.
A lifetime of feeling sad and lonely had led him to turn to uncontrolled drinking, and hours before, a group of friends had confronted him in an intervention in the basement of the Broadway Building at St. Patrick Hospital. They had a bag packed for him and a plane ticket, and they wanted him to get help. Fortunately, he took their advice. But he still drank.
"I got stripped naked, got searched, stood on a scale and blew into a breathalyzer for the first time in my life," Engen told a crowd at the University of Montana on Thursday night. "I got put into a bed and monitored to make sure I wouldn't die from (withdrawal). I cried a lot. I was completely freaked out. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I would be in rehab, but I was."
He told the crowd that he made a choice at that time to admit that he was powerless over alcohol.
"It was a tremendous relief," he explained.
Engen was speaking as part of UM's "Shine a Light on Mental Health" week. He has quit drinking, and now is trying to spread the message that alcoholism and depression are diseases that people need to feel comfortable talking about, and seek treatment.
Over the course of an hour, Engen candidly told the personal story of his struggles with depression and alcoholism. It was at times inspirational, often deeply introspective and of course peppered with his characteristic humor. After taking questions, Engen received a standing ovation.
He began by telling the crowd about growing up in Missoula, attending journalism school at the University of Montana, going into business, running for City Council and eventually being elected as mayor.
"And I have been pretty sad the whole time," he said. "I have been that way my whole life, for no particular reason, except that's the way I was baked. I couldn't understand, for a long time, why someone with a good life and kindness and caring and opportunity and means and relationships was sad all the time. I didn't understand it."
Engen said he spent a lot of time pretending not to be sad, which manifested itself in telling "a lot of jokes and eating a lot of food."
He also said that because he didn't hunt or fish or play sports, he turned to alcohol as a way of proving himself.
"When you are 19 and trying to demonstrate that you are a man in western Montana, one of the ways you can do that is drink," he said.
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He quit for a year after a fender bender when he was 44, but decided he was cured. He was prescribed antidepressants the next year, and the doctor told him he couldn't drink, so he quit for another six years. However, after he had stomach surgery to lose weight, he made the decision that he could have a few beers every now and then.
"I'm the mayor," he recalled telling himself. "It's not like I have the nuclear football. It's just potholes, and we got 'em covered. Granted, it was summer. So I had a beer at dinner."
Pretty soon though, Engen said he was drinking as soon as he could every day, which for him meant lunchtime. He called it "embarrassing" but said he still felt in control, and the alcohol masked his sadness.
"In my line of work I should know better than to drink until I pass out and see all the evidence of why I shouldn't," he said.
After five months, folks started to suggest they were a little concerned, he said.
"I told them, 'You don't know how good I am at it.'"
He agreed to meet with an addiction counselor, and she led him to the intervention.
"In a conference room in the basement, I walked in and there were eight friends holding a dozen letters telling me they loved me and I was killing myself," Engen recalled. "They told me I needed to stop drinking because they relied on me and loved me and they wanted me to live. If I was causing my own pain it would have been different, but if I was hurting other people...I said, 'Sure, I'll go.'"
Engen said he still holds on to those 12 letters "for dear life." He attended his first therapy session with a psychologist.
"I learned that I actually get to have feelings and express them," he said. "I actually get to be honest, and it was incredibly enlightening. I will confess I did not want to talk about my feelings, but when I started to it was so good and so helpful."
Engen said that the alcoholism and depression need to be treated as diseases and medical conditions just like high blood pressure and aneurysms. Once the stigma is gone, people will feel comfortable talking about their struggles and seek help.
"In the end I learned that I need help and I actually get to ask for it and people are willing to give it," he said. "It's an incredible gift. We really are all in this together."