I’ve just woken up and can see the sunlight dipping below my window shade. My pillow is soaked with sweat, my sheets are halfway off the bed and I’m practically laying on top of my dog, Ringo, who insists on sleeping right next to me every single night. The stillness of my room is peaceful, but all I can think about is how horrible I feel and how much I wish I could just go back to sleep. I roll over onto my back and a twinge of pain runs through my spine. I can’t tell if it’s because of my chronic back issues or simply a byproduct of lying on an old mattress for too long. Whatever it is, I realize I have no choice but to finally get up or risk even worse pain later.
Ringo, a small pug, gets the hint that it’s time to get out of bed and he begins his normal routine of spinning around in circles — he’s excited at the prospect of finally emptying his bowels in just a few short moments. As he jumps off the bed, I sit up and take a look at the digital alarm clock that watches over me from the other side of my room.
It’s 3:45pm. I think it’s Tuesday, but for all I know, it could be Thursday.
3:45. I woke up at 3:45 in the afternoon. Jesus Christ, Greg. What happened to you?
Suddenly, the peaceful stillness of my room seems more like a stale prison cell. I haven’t even left my bed, but I already feel like today is a resounding failure. Overwhelmed, I let my head fall back onto the pillow. I feel ashamed, angry and desperate.
I eventually will myself up again and limp across the room to open the blinds. I look outside and notice a sunny, blue sky, but my attention is quickly shifted when I hear Ringo barking at me. I don’t know what I time I fell asleep, nor do I remember when I let him out last night, but I realize it’s been a very long time since he’s gone to the bathroom. The poor guy is now scratching at my door. He wants out of our prison cell.
So do I.
Ringo bolts to the stairs the moment I open my door, but he waits for me to join him before moving on — it breaks my heart knowing that he’s still fiercely loyal to me in spite of my recent failures as his “dad.” I have neither his energy, nor his excitement, but I hurry up so he can go outside as soon as possible. Finally, we make it through the house to the back door and he sprints to his favorite bathroom spot as I cautiously step outside.
Even though I haven’t done any serious physical activity in a long time, I still feel like I’ve been run over by a freight train. Every joint in my body is stuck, my mind feels hazy and my vision is blurry. All around me, I can hear the world going about its business. Cars are whipping by on the nearby highway, a gardener’s leaf blower hums in a neighbor’s yard and a group of bees are collecting pollen for their queen in one of our flowerpots. It’s another beautiful day in Northern California, but I feel numb to it all. I can barely process it.
As Ringo runs around the backyard and barks at his archnemesis, a black squirrel, I take out my pack of Marlboro 100’s and light my first cigarette of the day (fortunately, I’ll kick this habit in a couple of months). I’ve only got a few cancer sticks left and the realization that I’ll have to leave the house later on to buy some more sends me into a brief panic. Now dizzy, I lay down on one of the old metal pool loungers my father bought before the turn of the century — yes, I am currently living at home.
While lying there, I see a commercial jet cruising 35,000 feet above me. I wonder if what I’m looking at is real. Sure, my eyes and ears are telling me there’s a plane high up in the sky, but I legitimately wonder if I’m just in a vivid dream. To be honest, nothing has felt real to me as of late.
After 15 minutes, or so, I hear Ringo whimpering — it’s his way of telling me he wants to go back inside (probably because he wants his treat). As I leave the pool area and make my way back to the house, I look over and see the window that peers into a dark corner of my house. A year earlier, just beyond that window, I watched my mother die in a hospice bed. I remind myself that her death released her from over five years of excruciating pain, but it doesn’t give me any solace — it never does and I doubt it ever will. Even though it’s been a year, it still feels like it was just yesterday. I begin to wonder if the afterlife really exists and if my mother can see me right now. I wonder what she’d say if she could talk to me.
Back in my room, Ringo munches on his treat while I sit at my desk and open my laptop. As I click on one of the many websites I visit to distract myself from the real world, my phone vibrates. It’s a text from my friend, Joe — he wants to know if I’d like to play golf with him and the guys this weekend. Once again, I begin to feel a panic mustering itself inside me. I’ve been successfully dodging my friends for a few months now and I worry that I’ve run out of excuses with them. It’s not that I don’t want to see my friends (as a matter of fact, I desperately miss them). No, I just don’t want them to see me and what I’ve become. I don’t want them to see my long, unkempt beard; I don’t want them to notice how tight my clothes are fitting these days; I don’t want them to look into my empty, dim eyes; I don’t want them to see the shell of a man that was once their jovial, happy-go-lucky friend.
So, I make up another excuse not to go, turn my phone on airplane mode before he can respond and toss it on my bed — for a few fleeting hours, I can once again go back to ignoring a reality I desperately wish wasn’t true. I focus my gaze back on my laptop and click on a mindless YouTube video — an opiate for the next 11 minutes of my life. As the video starts, I prop my feet up on my bed, right next to Ringo. He rests his chin on my left leg and lets out an audible sigh. I begin to wonder if depression is contagious and capable of being spread from humans to dogs. I tell myself it’s impossible, but the way he’s looking at me makes me think otherwise.
He, like everyone else around me, knows what’s going on.
Hours go by and I’m still at my computer, but I’m hungry and want another cigarette. So, I work up the courage to leave my house — my safe place — and go out into the world. On my way to 7-Eleven, I drive in silence while I smoke. My whole life, I’ve been obsessed with music (I used to love blasting it on my car’s sound system), but over the past year or so, I’ve been too afraid to listen to anything — I don’t want to associate The Beatles, Tame Impala, Eminem or anybody else I love with the way I’ve been feeling.
At 7-Eleven, I end up buying two Butterfingers, a Kit-Kat and some Reese’s cups, along with a 2-liter bottle of Coke and another pack of Marlboro’s. The cashier — who has now seen me purchase almost the exact same thing countless times since last year — gives me the usual sympathetic smile he always gives me. I look back at him, my eyes telling him something along the lines of, “yeah, I’m still here, man.”
15 minutes later, I’m at the local taqueria and order enough Mexican food to feed a small family. While I wait for my to-go order, I feel the first hint of excitement I’ve felt all day — I can’t wait to get back home and binge on both food and Netflix. For a brief moment, I remember what happiness feels like, but that feeling quickly goes away when I see somebody I know walking through the door — it’s a guy I grew up with and he’s holding hands with a beautiful, smiling woman. I hide my face and hope to God he doesn’t see me. Luckily, my number gets called and I’m able to slip behind him and grab my food before he realizes I’m there.
When I get back in my car, I sit in silent relief for a few seconds, then start the engine and light up a cigarette. I have successfully gone another day without any sort of meaningful interaction with another person — I have successfully hid myself from the world. In just a few short minutes, I’ll be back at home, safe from it all.
It’s the summer of 2016 and I am drowning in the abyss.
Things weren’t always this way. Growing up, I was a popular, intelligent student who was involved in as many school activities as possible — in fact, I served as class president a few times and was even voted “Man of the Year” at my high school graduation. I left California to attend a prestigious university on the East Coast where I made more great friends and eventually earned a master’s degree. By the time I was 25, I had helped my father, a physician, found a successful chain of urgent care clinics, was living in a dream apartment in one of San Francisco’s “best” neighborhoods, drove a fancy car, wore nice clothes and had more friends than I could keep up with. On paper, I was living the life I always wanted.
Sadly, nothing is ever truly how it seems.
In early August 2010, less than two months after I finished college, my mother was diagnosed with an exceptionally rare neurological disorder, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP). The easiest way to describe PSP is to imagine the mental debilitation of Alzheimer’s (minus full-scale memory loss) combined with the physical debilitation of Parkinson’s (minus the “shakes”). For the previous 23 years of my life, Mom had been a rock for me — I constantly leaned on her for love and emotional support. But, in the blink of an eye, our roles were reversed. I didn’t realize at the time that I was about to watch her die slowly, painfully and with little dignity. I wasn’t ready for it.
For the first couple of years, however, I was able to handle things—but each day got progressively harder. Mom’s sickness was only going to get worse; the business would never fail to come up with new and innovative ways to stress me out; and being a man in your twenties, trying to find your place in the world, is often an overwhelming task. I engaged in as many activities as I could to dull the pain I was living in, but it only made things worse. No amount of partying, shopping, trips around the world, etc. could mask the very real and terrifying feeling I had of being trapped.
As time wore on, that feeling would take its toll on me. In 2012, I started feeling a little off. By 2013, things had gotten worse and I sought help — I was finally diagnosed with the depression I knew I had been living with for quite some time. Near the end of 2014, every day felt like a struggle. By the time 2015 came around, I was a completely different person.
The easiest way to describe it is like this: Imagine being told that every single day of your life, someone is going to come up to you and punch you. It’s not the kind of punch that will knock you on your ass right away, but it’s still going to hurt. Furthermore, you have no idea when or where you’re going to get punched, all you know is that it is going to happen and there is nothing you can do to stop it.
In the beginning, you can take the punch. In fact, you take pride in knowing you can stand up to it. But, over time, you become preoccupied with the punch. You’ve taken it hundreds of times by this point and, frankly, you’re starting to get sick of it. The mere thought of getting punched consumes you and, eventually, you do just about everything you can — sleeping, partying, skipping town, missing work, drinking, smoking, gaming, Internet browsing, etc. — just to dull the pain of that punch.
Before you know it, the punch has turned you into a lifeless husk. You spend your days hiding, hoping the punch will take pity on you and give you one measly break, but it never does. Finally, the time comes when the punch knocks you out. Bruised and bloodied, you have been summarily and comprehensively destroyed. What little life you had left in you is now gone.
That’s what depression is like.
On the day I saw my mom take her last breath, June 12, 2015, I felt like I had been delivered that knockout punch. I didn’t realize just how long it would take me to get back on my feet.
I admit, I felt relief at first. I thought the nightmare was over and I took comfort in knowing Mom was no longer in pain. I figured it would take a little while for the wounds to heal, but I would be back to my old self in a few weeks — months, at worst. So, I took some time to myself. I spent my days enjoying the new peace and quiet that had taken over my home (I had moved back to my parents’ house just four days before Mom died). But, days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months and months turned into many, many months.
A year later, I was now spending 97% of my life at home — the 3% accounted for the times I left to buy food. I was gaining weight, I wasn’t taking care of myself, I was staying up until 4–5am and sleeping well past noon. Where I thought time alone would help me recover and find myself, it did the exact opposite. All I could think about was the sight of my mom dying and I began to fear the world more than ever before. So great was my fear, I was routinely having panic attacks whenever I left the house. It was a vicious cycle: the more I hid from the world, the worse the panic attacks got; the worse the panic attacks got, the more I hid from the world.
The world had become a frightening place where I couldn’t predict what would happen to me. Contrarily, my home — more specifically, my room — was the one place on Earth where I felt in control and able to let my guard down. So, I took advantage of it. My friends and family (especially my dad and sister) were scared of what they were witnessing in me and tried their best to help me. At times, their fear turned to desperation and we would end up in shouting matches with each other. They wanted me to get better — as did I — and they were worried that they were losing their friend, their brother, their son. More often than not, being confronted about my depression only made me angrier, even though I knew it came from a place of love. But, I had no clue how to climb out this place I’d fallen into.
So, I continued hiding because it made me feel safe. I continued eating because it comforted me. I continued sleeping because it was a temporary panacea for all of my problems. My way of dealing with depression was slowly killing me.
In many ways, I was mirroring what had happened to my mom.
There is a song titled “Insane” by a popular electronic musician named Flume. Its musicality is nowhere near the likes of Beethoven or Miles Davis, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. Of the few lyrics in the song, one part in particular spoke to me throughout my time in the abyss:
You don’t have to be afraid,
You don’t even have to be brave,
Living in a gilded cage,
The only risk is that you go insane.
At the beginning of 2017, I was growing tired of my predicament, tired of my insanity. My 30th birthday was just around the corner and I was finding less and less comfort in my self-imposed exile — which had now ballooned to 18 months. I had been to some very dark places, but my mind and body were telling me it was time to change. Somewhere along the way, the gilded cage had become a dank prison.
One afternoon, right after Valentine’s Day, my sister, Melissa, came home from work (we were now living together) and noticed that I seemed particularly down. A busy doctor, she dropped everything she was doing and sat with me in my room. She asked me what was going on and I immediately burst into tears. Nothing I was telling her was new information, but the two of us could hear the increased desperation in my voice.
I’m lost. I’m trapped. I’m scared. I don’t know what to do. This will never end.
I’ve fallen and I can’t turn back.
Over the course of the next hour, she helped me come up with a game plan, a way for me to slowly rise. I’d try to leave the house 3–4 times per week for something besides buying food, I’d begin to reconnect with the rest of the world and I’d find something to do that would inject a little bit of joy back into my life. It was a painful conversation, but it was one that needed to happen.
The very next day, I was expected to go up to San Francisco for my friend’s birthday dinner (the very same friend whose golf invitation I’d spurned the summer before). To be honest, I had been planning on coming up with an excuse not to go. A few of my best friends from high school were going to be there — the fear of them seeing me was too great — and I was not looking forward to going back to my old stomping grounds in “The City” — being there would remind me of a life I no longer had. But, when I woke up that morning, a little voice in my head told me to suck it up and go.
I’m so glad I listened to it.
Dinner with my friends that night was wonderful — I remembered how much I loved being around them — but something happened afterwards that changed me. One of my high school friends, Chris, asked if I could give him a ride back to his apartment. The restaurant in North Beach was far from his apartment in the Inner Sunset, so an Uber ride back was going to cost him a lot. I told him it was no problem and we got in my car.
The drive should’ve taken no more than 15 minutes, but we ended up driving around for over an hour. At one point, as we passed the house in Cow Hollow we’d once lived in together, he asked me how things were going. I told him the truth. I told him how lost and afraid I was, how I wasn’t the guy he’d grown up with and how I had no clue what to do with my life.
“What’s the one thing you love to do and think you’re good at?” he asked.
I didn’t even have to think about it.
“Writing,” I responded.
“Then why don’t you do it?”
As I drove down Highway-280 back home to Los Gatos, I kept thinking about what he said to me. All my life, I wanted to write, but I always came up with excuses not to.
I’m too busy. You can’t make any money writing. It’s a dying art. What if nobody likes my work?
But then, it hit me: I’d write the book I always wanted to write. By that point, I had nothing to lose, so why not try? The more I drove, the more I thought about it. I knew the story, I knew how it’d begin and I knew how it’d end. I could barely sleep that night. Not because of my depression. No, not this time.
I was excited.
The next morning, I left my house before noon and went to my local coffee shop, Blvd. Coffee. For years, I had gone there just about every day and, over time, I had become friends with many of its baristas and patrons — it was basically a non-alcoholic version of Cheers for me. After Mom died, I rarely went there anymore—as with everything else, I was too afraid. So, when I walked through that front door after 18 months of not being there, I was met with a lot of surprised, but happy looks. After catching up with some old faces for a few minutes, I sat down and opened up my laptop. I had work to do.
For the next 7 hours, I wrote and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. By the time I left, I had already typed out 5,000 words. The next day, I went back and wrote even more. The day after that? The same thing. Over the course of a few weeks, I had found a new routine — I was consumed by it and it was making me happy. When I wasn’t writing my book, I was writing stories I’d accumulated over the years (one of which I’ve already published on Medium!). It didn’t matter what I was writing — I was writing.
For the first time in what felt like forever, I had found meaning, a new direction in life, a reason to get out of bed every morning.
It finally seemed like things were changing.
My dad and I have just parked the car behind San Jose’s Municipal Stadium. It’s almost 110 degrees outside, but he and my sister have been insisting all week that we go to the San Jose Giants Minor League Baseball game. Tomorrow is Father’s Day, so my sister suggested the three of us spend an afternoon at the ballpark — something I’ve loved doing since I was just a little boy.
As we walk to the front gate, Dad and I catch up on each other’s lives. I ask him how his new life is going up in Crescent City (we no longer run the urgent care clinics together and he’s taken a position at a hospital up there) and he asks me how my writing is coming. I tell him writing a book is a lot harder than I thought it would be and I don’t think I’m going to finish it nearly as quickly as I’d planned. I also tell him that I’m thinking about starting my own business — I want to use my marketing experience and love of writing to help businesses find their voice. I tell him how much things have changed since February. Yes, I’m dealing with the depression each and every day, but now I feel like I have something to fight it with. It could take me months or even years to feel like my old self — I don’t care, I’m up for the challenge.
Before I can go into more detail, we reach the gate and I’m surprised to learn that our seats are in a special VIP area. I ask him what’s going on, but he just smiles at me.
I’ve been outside for only 5 minutes, but I’m already drenched in sweat. Despite wearing a t-shirt, basketball shorts and flip-flops, the heat is killing me. I tell my dad I want to stop and get some water, but he says we should meet my sister at the seats first. I’m starting to wonder if things aren’t what they appear.
We loop behind the seats lining the third-base line and, as we get closer to where our seats apparently are, I see a face that looks familiar. Before I can register who it belongs to, I see another one… then another one… then another one.
“Oh, there he is!” I suddenly hear. I think it was Melissa who said that.
A group of what appears to be 30–40 people is now looking at me, smiling and yelling my name. I see friends from high school and college, I see their parents, I see family members, I see colleagues — I see faces I haven’t seen in a very long time.
It’s a surprise party for my 30th birthday, which is less than two weeks away. Now I know what my sister had been planning all that time.
One by one, every single person there comes up to me and wishes me a happy birthday. Some give hugs, others give kisses, but all of them seem happy I’m there. Before I can catch my breath, Melissa grabs my hand and tells me to follow her.
After a short walk around the stadium, I am now behind one of the dugouts and an official-looking person comes up to me and hands me a baseball.
“Your sister says you had a pretty good arm back in the day,” he says.
I soon learn that I’m throwing out the first pitch.
I begin to get nervous, but only because I haven’t thrown a baseball in years and don’t want to make a fool of myself in front of a few thousand people. Moments later, I hear my name getting called over the PA system — it’s now time.
As I walk to the mound, I look over at all the people who decided to spend an afternoon with me in the blistering heat to celebrate my birthday. Each one of them is looking at me and a few of them, led by my cousin/de facto big brother, even begin to heckle me (all in good fun). I look back towards the dugout and see my sister, her smile now extending past her ears, who gives me a thumbs up. The catcher takes to his squat and he gives me the signal to throw it — I wonder how annoying it must be for him to have to do this before every single game.
Since this will probably the first, last and only time I ever get to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game, I decide I need to make the moment last. So, I lean over and begin to swing my throwing arm below me, just like how one of my childhood heroes, Rod Beck—a portly, but loveable closer for the San Francisco Giants during the 1990s—used to do. To my delight, the PA announcer is wise to my act and proudly tells the crowd what I’m doing. I come set — I’ve decided to throw from the stretch position — and deliver my pitch.
I immediately realize I’ve screwed up and watch in abject horror as my pitch skips on the ground, hits the first base line and smacks against the backstop — the catcher had no chance at it. I throw my hands up in disgust, turn around and notice a live shot of me on the “jumbo”-tron.
“Bring in the lefty!” I hear my cousin scream amidst my unearned cheers from the rest of the partygoers.
I meander back to the dugout and Melissa gives me a high-five. I tell her all of the things I think I did wrong with my pitch — I gripped it too hard, I was off-balance and I think all the moisture on my fingers screwed me over — but she tells me it’s ok.
We get back to the party and I’m once again surrounded by everybody. They don’t care about my terrible pitch, they’re not angry at me for hiding for so long, they don’t mind that my clothes are too small and they’re not concerned by the length of my beard. They’re just happy to see me.
I’m just happy to see them.
After an hour or so, I excuse myself and go to the bathroom. As I wash my hands, I splash some cold water on my face — the heat really is killing me. I look up for a moment and stare at myself in the mirror. I realize I’m smiling.
It’s the summer of 2017 and I am rising from the abyss.
Greg Adrouny is a writer, creative consultant and mental health advocate living in Silicon Valley. If you or someone you love wants to talk, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You are not alone.
Check out some of Greg’s other articles—he promises they’re much more lighthearted: