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For Some Skiers, Drugs and Alcohol Are Fun, But For Me it Was Darker

In a ski town, using drugs and alcohol felt normal—but I was abusing them to cope with something much deeper

Content warning: As part of our ongoing coverage of mental health in the mountains, be aware this story deals with traumatic experiences such as sexual assault, suicide and self-harm, and substance abuse.

I’m not sure how old I was the first time I thought about killing myself, maybe between 10 and 12-years-old, maybe younger. When I contemplated going through with it in the unfinished basement of my childhood home, I knew needed to keep these dark thoughts to myself. I was well-practiced at shepherding secrets by then.

It’d been a handful of years since my neighbor sexually abused me. I was too young to know what was going on, too young to stop it, but old enough to want to. I was a child, but I hated myself. I hated the sadness and the anger and the hurt. I hated feeling constantly and hopelessly alone. I hated the emptiness. I wanted to die. I felt that way until I was nearly 30 years old.

Paddy O'Connell
Photo: Paddy O’Connell

In junior high, I learned to cope with my private terror by being the center of attention at school. Making people laugh, playing sports, and chasing after girls helped quiet the voice that told me I was alone. I went to therapy for the first time when I was in fifth grade, was put on antidepressants, then taken off antidepressants. I spent the remainder of my adolescence and teenage years searching for an external force to satisfy my internal conflict. Nothing worked like booze and drugs.

Throughout the month of May, we featured personal stories from skiers like us experiencing mental health conditions and recovery. Read more stories here.

In the coming years, using them helped me solidify my “Party Paddy” identity. After college, I moved to Telluride, Colorado, to extend the party as long as possible. Puckering mountain pursuits and “any excuse to crack a beer” ski celebrations were just what I needed to feel OK. In ski towns, it’s normal to do something daring on the mountain and drink yourself into a stupor while recanting your exploits.

It’s not abnormal to show up to a Sunday morning co-ed softball game with a case of beer and a bottle of whiskey, either. Or smoke weed on the job. Or drink on the job. Not everyone in Telluride, or any other ski town, is an undiagnosed drug addict and alcoholic like I was. Plenty of people can enjoy these indulgences within healthy boundaries. But in the circles I ran with, you were revered if you could push it on the mountain and at the bar. So I tried my damndest to do that. I skied fast and hard and out of control on terrain that was over my head. When dark memories rose to the surface and suicidal ideation swirled in my mind, I skied harder and used more.

At 28, I was outwardly living the ski bum dream, skiing well over 100 days every winter. Inwardly, however, I was slowly dying from undiagnosed alcoholism and drug addiction fueled by depression and unacknowledged trauma. I summited the peak of mountain town party culture every night for relief. I’d swear off cocaine and whiskey nearly every morning and I’d mean it. But by lunch, at the latest, I’d be salivating from an unquenchable thirst, and plans were always made to score another baggie. I spent my days drunk, high, and somewhere in-between a hangover and withdrawal and a blackout.

The tiny room I rented on the east end of town was always cluttered with piles of dirty clothes and unwashed base layers, empty or half-empty beer cans and whiskey bottles, and stashes of cocaine and Molly. It was where I tended to my suicidal thoughts, wondering if today would finally be the day when I dug myself into a hole so deep that I couldn’t climb back out. I was scared but too proud to tell anyone.

From the author: Don’t Tell My Bucket List, But I’m Too Scared to Ski Alaska

Underneath my smile and a constant fun-loving performance was the belief that no one could understand what happened to me. I was convinced no one else woke up every day to hear a voice in their head say, “Good morning. You’re an unlovable piece of shit and you should die.” So I carried it alone, drowned it with drugs and booze, and created a façade I thought was impenetrable.

The day before my 29th birthday, I exploded in drunken chaos at my best friend Adam’s wedding. He called my folks and when they confronted me over the phone, the truth of my depression and addiction made its way through the patchwork of barriers I’d constructed around my life. I could no longer lie to myself or anyone else about my drug addiction and alcoholism or the anguish that made suicide seem viable. Without help, I knew I’d be dead soon, by booze or drugs or my own hand. I was terrified and I said yes to coming home to Chicago.

On the green couch in my childhood home, I crumbled into my brother Sean’s arms and wept. My family held me together long enough to get me safely to a treatment facility in Minnesota. A lifetime of running from pain never led me to a pain-free life, only to the temporary and false relief booze and drugs offered, which left me exhausted and desperate.

Fear and shame and anger make us captives in the stories we tell ourselves. Before I even started to work at it, I feared sobriety, which is to say that I feared life. I was ashamed of myself, of my past, and terrified of the future. I thought I’d never been able to have fun without a beer in my hand, nor would I feel safe living outside of the party ski bum identity I’d created. When I first got to treatment, I told an employee that after my 30-days I had to get back to Telluride, to my job, to the mountains, to life as I knew it.

With a half-cracked smile and a solemn voice, he said, “Well, ya can’t ski when you’re fuckin’ dead, so maybe ya try things differently.”

It didn’t take long for me to see that my former ski dream life was actually a nightmare. In treatment, surrounded by others who lived similar lives, I learned the only way to stop secrets from keeping me sick is to talk about them, openly, honestly, and vulnerably. The past can still toy with me today. But through treatment, therapy, and my daily work in recovery, I know that the past does not define me. The only way to deal with the painful events of my life is to walk with them and eventually walk through them. On the other side of it all, I’ve learned to even love the parts of me I thought would always be too shattered to ever be whole again.

Last month, I celebrated eight years of sobriety. These days, I live in a small town in Colorado where I crack post-adventure jokes with post-adventure LaCroix’s which make my stories decidedly more cohesive. I am surrounded by ski pals who accept and love me and support my recovery.

Paddy O'Connell in Aspen, Colo.
Paddy O’Connell lounging in Aspen, Colorado, sans hangover.

I enjoy the same mountain exploits I did in my twenties with renewed appreciation and depth of experience, like skiing mustached-deep snow. There is no drug and no drink that can compare to the unadulterated and unobstructed joy of a clean and sober ski bum let loose on a powder day. And just like skiing the trees, today in recovery, I aim toward where I want to be rather than what I want to avoid.

Related reading: Skiing is Essential to Your Mental Health (Doctors Agree)

There’s a beautiful, brilliant moment in every turn that hooks all skiers. It’s the reason we slog up steep boot packs and endless, icy skin tracks. It’s why we deal with bumper-to-bumper traffic, slow-moving lift lines, and overpriced chalet food. It’s why we can crack a smile when the wind rips sideways over the ridge and graupel chips at our faces.

It’s a feeling that we know, deep in our souls, is worth all the difficult work and all the challenging effort. It’s the same feeling I get today, unshackled from the numb-to-the-world prison of booze and drugs. I got into recovery desperately seeking relief. Along the way, I was given freedom.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.

Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7, and confidential.