”Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them…” – Hamlet; Wm Shakespeare
The least I could do, I thought, was reach rock bottom. But it turns out rock bottom is very, very deep. You have to descend and descend and lose sight of the surface and all light, and feel the constricting power of the growing pressure. And still no bottom. The descent is bad enough. I shudder at the thought of rock bottom. Rock bottom is a secular humanist’s Hell. And the descent to Hell is paved with darkness and pressure.
For a couple of years (maybe many, many years if I’m honest… but let’s just take little steps for now) I knew something was wrong. I felt a persistent, compounding gloom and pressure building in my daily life. Important things faded in importance. Trivial things took on an exaggerated value. Happiness and even the feelings of contentment and peace became more and more elusive. Even anger, drive and competitive ambition took a vacation from my life and thought processes, it seemed. Basically, my life and world view dulled out. Nothing I tried helped. And I tried a lot of things. Positive thinking and reinforcement, goals and action plans, meditation and contemplation, binges and other wicked indulgences. I considered running away, beginning again somewhere tabula rasa. I considered driving my car through a construction barricade and off an overpass. Not to be dramatic and grandly suicidal, just to put a stop to this existence and restart at zero with a new life. Fortunately, my ambition and follow through were also sapped away. So those plans never really became much more than leaden daydreams.
I knew this wasn’t a normal way to feel. It wasn’t as if there really was anything in my life that was so wrong. I had worked towards and garnered a great job that I enjoy and was almost everything I wanted. I remain married to a wonderful and soul-matched woman who tolerates and loves me no matter what hand grenades I threw into our relationship. My health is fine, no cancer or diabetes or gout, and my physician’s MA says I have “rock star blood pressure”. Bills are paid, money is saved, cash is coming in and we are off the “month-to-month precipice. No family dramas, no run-ins with John Q Law. I’m a white man in White America; what on God’s green earth could be the reason for not being happy? Yet, I knew there was something wrong with saying or writing words like “happy”, “glad”, “pleased”, “enjoyed”, and having them ring empty and hollow. I knew I wanted to feel differently and it came to making a choice, to suffer the slings and arrows, or to take up arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing them, end them. End this melancholy, end this grayness, end this bleak. Surviving them wasn’t even the choice goal anymore. Just ending them; succumbing and feeling at peace.
The fact was I was looking for some solution. But all my efforts were self-generated, and I came to figure that it was like a car trying to adjust its own carburetor or change its own spark plugs; some things require the talents and knowledge of a skilled mechanic.
“Can you colorize my life, I’m so sick of black and white… Can you make it all a little less old? I can do that… now I can do that.” – I Won’t Do That; Meatloaf
So, at some point someone says “depression”, and I immediately dismiss it. I’ve seen the commercials for Celexia, Antpresta, Symbalta, Effexor, Confucius… all those symptoms described by the lightly lilting female narrator didn’t fit me, I thought. I don’t have a black cloud following me around; I don’t have a black dog gnawing at my heels. I get up, go to work, communicate, converse, order at restaurants, take showers, shave, and have sex… I have no crippling inability to do these things, I just have no ambition to do them like I used to. I’m getting old, my vigor is waning, I don’t like my job, I’m finally matured and reflective and realize I’ve wasted 1/3rd of my life on bullshit. But I’m not depressed. Sorry, spin again.
Then someone else says “depression”, and you know they had a cousin who blah-blah-blah. I’ve considered that, and it’s just not me. Thanks and choose another door, please.
Finally someone says “low grade depression, not full-blown”. Okay, okay. We’ve been down this road already. When are people going to learn that I never expected to live to be 40, and here I am knocking at the door of 50 so is it any wonder I’m lost and uncertain? I was supposed to married to one woman who would be my life and with whom I’d have children and neighbors and a deaconship at the church and a career I’d settled into and feel secure and safe with a mortgage and a 401K and Sunday picnics with the relatives where we’d talk about football and the price of bacon and how the Democrats or the Republicans or the Canadians were ruining the country.
Instead I was a thrice-married, childless, displaced, career-changing, hedonistic, aging rocker-hipster dude winding up when other men were winding down. Of course it would seem like I was depressed. But my problems were not chemical or biological… they were failings of character and morality. I am just about the smartest person I know, and it was fairly obvious to me the issues were all of my own making.
But the person who mentioned “low grade” depression is pretty smart, too. And she is someone whose opinions I respect. So I decided to do a little more research to build my bulwarks of self-blame and accusations. In my research I discovered a trove of information on what everyone agrees is a little understood and often misdiagnosed malady. In pages and pages of information I found an almost personalized litany of my complaints and ailments. In one moment I was both comforted that I was not so isolated, and also stripped of my uniqueness. I didn’t want to be mechanically broken. I wanted all this to be an Everest I had to be strong enough, tough enough, and resilient enough to conquer.
When my wife came home that evening I morosely told her I had “Low Grade Depression”. She asked me why I thought that and I pulled up the bookmarked Google pages and read paragraphs that could have been written by me rather than other people with similar feelings. After a too long pause, she said she thought those “symptoms” were just elements of my personality; I was just wired that way. I was able to explain how that is exactly how this illness goes unrecognized for years, so incremental is the descent. After about half and hour’s more conversation, she waggled her finger at me and said: “Okay, well, I’m gonna need you to take care of that. Take a pill, see a therapist… whatever you have to do.” And she walked out of the room.
Having taken up arms against my sea of troubles, I went out to find someone who’d disprove my personal diagnosis and reaffirm my still-deep-seeded conviction that it was really all just me. I found a therapist-lady (no way was I discussing such intimate vulnerabilities with a dude) and on our first appointment she asked me what brought me there. I spoke almost uninterrupted for 30 minutes. For that time she would only ask a couple of questions, but scribbled furiously on her pad. At the end of my mini rant, she looked up and said: “Well, I’ve got good news – based upon your descriptions, you are most certainly suffering from moderate depression, heading into more severe depression.” Then she smiled.
“I don’t get how that’s good news,” I responded cautiously.
“Well, it means, for one thing, that you’re not crazy. There really is something wrong with everything. It also means that what is wrong is treatable, and fairly reliably treatable, too. So much of what you are experiencing is a result of the skewed information your brain chemistry is sending you that once we get that straightened out, the rest of the work is going to seem so much easier.”
Okay, that does sound like good news. She continued. “What you need is what we call a SSRI (look it up). This is going to greatly benefit your overall feeling of confidence, happiness and positivity. I’m going to suggest you get with your primary doctor and get a prescription. One pill a day is going to make a huge difference.”
”I’m using the word ‘hate’ about a pill…” – Melvin Goodall; As Good As It Gets
I’m not into taking drugs. Aspirin, Thera-Flu, Tylenol, methamphetamine… I’m not so much against the nature of drugs, but I like to keep my immune systems in fighting trim by putting their asses to work and not letting them get complacent. So drugs and pills don’t excite me. I’m kinda anti-pill, in fact. But I was taking up the task of getting better for myself, my wife, and anyone else that cared about me. So I went to the doctor and had him prescribe a month’s supply of a SSRI drug at a measly 10mg. He also took the opportunity to violate my person under the guise of doing a prostate exam. Maybe after 1,000 he gets a bonus. Anyway, 10mg was not enough to have any effect upon my mood or attitude. I dejectedly told my therapist that “pills” weren’t helping. Maybe we should try matcha green tea. I read on a web thread it was used to treat depression. Her soulless clinical suggestion was to ask my doctor to increase the dosage of the SSRI I was taking to 20mg, which was the average dosage. I thought it was a waste of time to double the dosage of a medicine that was having zero effect. We talked about other things and I walked out with more homework than I’ve had since college. My doctor cautiously increased my dosage and my insurance ducked and weaved until compelled to comply. I began taking the new dosage and there were no immediate improvements, and now I was getting angry as well as depressed. Then, about four or five days later, I was Uncle Remus and it was a Zip-a-dee-doo-dah-day (look it up). Almost at once my mood improved, my positivity increased, my patience extended, and my dull, omnipresent sense of anxiety lightened. I smiled more, I laughed again, and I was solicitous of others. When people complimented my work and my food I believed them, which was a big, big change for me. I didn’t think of ending this existence so much anymore, I began to think of ways to enjoy and improve my life. Not consciously or purposely, just sort of naturally, organically. I thought of 5 ways to improve our menus and increase our client base. I was excited and energized about making menus and taking photos. I planned a vacation, I planned home renovations, I began cooking great meals at home, and I contemplated going back to school to get another degree. I want to study and get a degree in Philosophy. People look at me and ask why I want a degree in Philosophy. Will it help me in my job or career? No. It will help me enjoy my life. That’s why I want to do it. I’ve renewed my interest in art and design and crafting. I’m having fun with digital painting and photo manipulation. I created the photo image at the top of this post. It took me about 2 days of research and an hour’s worth of actual labor to produce it.
The pill comes with only a couple of down sides. One is I wake up in the morning with a fuzzy headache reminiscent of having a hangover. No one can explain that, but no one seems too worried. The other is a decline in libido. Now, the downward progression of my depression was impacting my libido as well, to the point where I got a friend of mine to procure some “street Viagra” for me so I could reliably perform my manly duties on a regular schedule. Ms. Therapist recommended I go back to my prostate probing physician for a prescription for “real” Viagra to help during this time of recovery. Hell no, I said. Viagra is for flaccid-penis’ed men with that dull and defeated look in their eyes like you’ve taken away from them everything that mattered (which, in a way, you have). I’m a Hillary, I’m a Neil Armstrong, I’m a Julius Caesar; I rise to the challenge all on my own by force of mind and will. I ain’t taking no stupid blue pill to boost my vim and vigor while lining the offshore accounts of pharmacy companies who prey on the distress of men suffering limp libidos. I’ll just call my friend and tell him to stock me up at 20 cents on the dollar. I finally gave in and got my doctor to call in a prescription for me at CVS, where the pharmacists are getting to know me rather well. I have the pills, but I haven’t used them yet. And I now have a legitimate cop-out if I want to say: “Not tonight, I have a headache”.
”Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men” – Go Rin No Sho; Miyamoto Musashi, Japanese swordsman and rōnin
In a situation like this, what does victory look like? Do a daily pill and a chemical shake-up of my brain constitute recovery and healing? Unfortunately, no. My mental condition feels much better than it did a year ago, or even for the last few years. I’m feeling optimistic and practical, passionate and long-viewed, impulsive and measured. My mental state is beginning to match my real-world state where I really never had that much to complain about, other that the messes I created for myself. But there is more to this life than feeling good and wanting to do adventurous things. At some point I do want to swim through the warm waters of giddy restlessness and being stroking towards some accomplishments. Now that I once again believe I can do awesome things, I have to relearn the art of actually getting things done. Not just what has to be done, and not just at the last minute. A planned, progressive, ambitious task list that matches my desire to my discipline. I’ve been running uphill with cement blocks on my feet. Some therapy and medication and I shucked off the cement blocks, but I’m not yet a skilled runner, or any closer to the top of Everest.
But tonight I do feel wonderfully unburdened and close to surface of my sea of troubles.