Well, Sometimes It’s Hard
I’d like to begin my blogging life with a personal story that I feel I’ve never adequately told. Hopefully it will be of some interest to an audience and help me to reflect on my own life.
I’m not alone in having experienced the adolescent duldrums. That time where it seems nothing is happening and you are held in place by a toxic combination of estranging institutions (school, after-school activities, family vacation) and lack of self-determination. I have met people who felt engaged with their lives in that period, but I can only truly sympathize with those who felt disconnected, turned-off, and perpetually upset.
What exactly we mean by the word “depression” in common usage is ambiguous. It can refer to a passing mood caused by a bad day at work or a problem in a relationship. It can signify an object-less feeling of hopelessness and lostness: a forlorn rather than sublime response to life’s oceanic feeling. It can also be used in a technical sense. Major depressive disorder is a diagnosable condition with observable and identifiable symptoms.
The former connotations could adequately describe the feelings of a struggling adolescent. In fact, they could describe components of the common human struggle. The latter defines a psychological state that, in conventional theory, requires medical intervention.
When I was in high school, I was placed on anti-depressants. In that I was not alone in my family or my peer group. I went to see a psychiatrist who provided this medication as well as weekly therapy. That was the inception of what has become a relatively stable aspect of my life. I can’t remember what we discussed. I can only imagine that I was less than forthcoming and may have even tried to subvert the help she was offering me. But I have only positive memories of her character and professional quality.
When I went to college at the age of 16 after a turbulent and disorganized experience of high school, I removed myself from the medications and stopped going to a therapist. I remember deciding I was done with them when my dad arrived on campus to pick me up for an appointment in the midst of an awesome all-weekend party with unlimited free booze and cigarettes. We had to drive 45 minutes so I could meet for 15 minutes with a different, boring psychiatrist at her hospital office to adjust my dose of Prozac.
Once I began the practice of neglect, I didn’t think much about professional help over the next four years. I experienced regular, months-long bouts of what I feel safe calling depression. Each year a cycle would occur where positive and energetic feeling would devolve into feelings of morbidity, anger, and sadness. Still, I made it through these cycles trusting that they were just a natural part of life, as indeed changes of mood are.
The crisis that tipped the scale and would prove to seriously effect the next five years of my life began at the end of my senior year of college. Towards the end of winter, I started to experience that same low feeling; this time mixed with intense restlessness and anxiety. I began to lose sleep. A lot of sleep. Chronically. I slept zero to three hours a night for months. I would lay in bed alternately struggling to force myself into rest and panicking that I was running out of time to sleep. My schoolwork and life began to suffer. My thoughts were disorganized. Reading was impossible. I wondered what it was like to feel normal. I yearned for the regular range of feelings I imagined most of my peers enjoyed.
At some point I began frequently calling my parents in the middle of the night to panic out loud. They admirably and faithfully talked with me and tried to help me. After a while though, it became clear that there was nothing they could really do to help or change the situation. One night I called again, complaining that I couldn’t take it any more. My parents got in the car, drove to my college, and took me to the emergency room. A doctor offered me klonopin as an anti-anxiety drug and sleeping aid and told me not to worry. I was young and would live a long, happy life, he said. That re-assurance, though practically ineffective at the time, moved me then and remains with me now.
Over the summer I recovered. I went on a trip to Spain and “walked it off”. I was headed for a PhD program in the fall and the future seemed full of promise. I started that PhD program in September and was enthusiastic about my classes. I was the youngest in the program by a significantly greater measure than in college and couldn’t even drink with my peers at bars. I was living in a suburban area where it was impossible to get by without a car. I was living in a nice apartment, alone.
Very quickly the situation degenerated. I began to suffer from a nervous depression with a primary symptom being chronic insomnia. The late night (or early morning) calls to my parents ensued. The feeling of panic and dislocation intensified. Eventually, I called my parents and threatened suicide. Again, I had reached a breaking point. My mom told me that if I didn’t have myself taken to a hospital, she would call the police to come and take me. So I went, and after a visit to the emergency room was transferred to an inpatient facility. I have actually visited a state prison before, but this was my closest experience to being forced into one. The staff took my belt, shoelaces, and wallet and assigned me a room with a roommate. When I saw my roommate I realized I was dealing with a truly disturbed individual. If I had seen him on the street, I would have briskly walked away. I was sincerely afraid he was going to hurt me. The people in this facility seemed violent and irrational. I was frankly terrified.
Very quickly they realized that I was out of place here and sent me to the other ward where most people were recovering from painkiller addictions. This place was calm and comfortably furnished. The people seemed normal. I watched football on TV for the first time in my life. I met one man in his thirties who had been addicted to oxycontin and was anxious to get home to his wife and kid. He was very kind. I met another man in his late twenties who was physically intimidating. He looked like a bodybuilder, but once we started talking he was very polite and conversational. He had been an Army sniper in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as a machine gunner in a Humvee. He had been hit by an AK-47 round in a firefight and gotten addicted to painkillers during his recovery. He had met his wife while oversees, lost his best friend in action, and said that he wanted to go back because life at home was boring.
I also met a certified kleptomaniac who stole and hid my copy of Moby Dick. I got it back.
I eventually got out of this facility and left graduate school at the beginning of the semester. To make a long story short, the emotional breakdown re-occurred the next year, this time leading to a week long stay in the Psych ward of Georgetown University Hospital and a month and a half long outpatient therapy program. Though I was skeptical on arrival, that experienced proved to by one of the most interesting of my life. I’m grateful I had health insurance and was able to do it. That episode caused a second withdrawal from graduate school, this time from a masters program. Eventually I went back to that program, stayed for a year, and withdrew again. Though the problems were less severe that time, my emotional and psychological life once again got the better of me.
Now I’m a few years removed from all that. I spent the two years after my second withdrawal from the masters program working a stable service job that I happened to actually like. But I wasn’t happy during those years. My emotions felt dulled. I was getting by but felt, in the words of BB King, that the thrill was gone. It felt like a drawn out depression along the same lines as high school. Eventually I was convinced to go back on medication. I’ve tried so many over the years. I had never felt like I had much success with any of them. A certain class, used to combat hypomanic symptoms, had caused a condition called tardive dyskinesia where I experienced uncontrollable body spasms and contortions and felt an inner restlessness that was quite unbearable. It’s hard to describe, but imagine feeling intense pain staying still for a minute.
Finally I’m on a medication regimen that seems to work. I have experienced improvement of symptoms and I feel a basic stability. Even a basic happiness. I am aware that this is not the end, and that I will rely on psychiatric care for the foreseeable future. But I feel no deep dread of life, and no painful disorganization of the mind.
I struggle on a daily basis, though, with a resentment that my life since college has been unstable. That I haven’t finished anything that I started. That my ambitions were frustrated, and that I felt consistently defeated. I have, on the one hand, gained some experience in pain and hard things which will potentially help me later in life or make me useful to someone else who is going through their own struggle. On the other hand, I feel like I have been set back and that the course of my life was confused. Deciding the next stage is my current struggle. I combat hopelessness and confusion often. It’s hard to feel like you can’t do anything. For someone just starting their adult life to be de-railed time and again understandably causes a weariness and temptation to abandon ambition. As long as I feel ok, I sometimes think, I have all I can hope for. After all I’m not really suited to high pressure pursuits. And after all, I can rationalize my stasis as a rebellious act of refusal to take part in the inauthentic world of careers and success. But as the earth continues to turn, I realize that I must find my way, which is not straightforward and not a given. Anxieties about my future and an obsession with not screwing up doubtlessly played a large part in touching off my mood episodes. I have hopefully grown not only more confident, but also more tranquil and accepting of the imperfections in myself, in life, and in the world around me. At the same time, I want to take up my sword and my banner and go forward. I want to live with reason and with passion. I want to raise water from my inner well and give birth to whatever worthy things grow in my heart. I want to live.