My Life was Saved by a Webcomic
Trigger Warning: Contains discussion of physical and sexual abuse, firearms, and suicide.
Depression is not an easy thing to discuss — particularly in today’s society. There is a stigma associated with depression — that asking for help makes one weak. It’s an uncomfortable subject. People sometimes squirm when it’s brought up, not quite sure what to say, as if it’s somehow communicable, as if they may catch it by opening up about it. But the more people I’ve spoken to, the more I’ve found lives touched, broken, or shattered by depression. This essay may make you uncomfortable, and I’m not sorry in the least. I’m not sorry because the stigma of depression destroys families, friendships, and lives.
The stigma of depression kills people.
And the stigma of depression will end with me. I am not yet ready to be identified, but I will not be quiet because it’s uncomfortable — for me or for you.
For more than two decades, I have carried with me a set of feelings. On most days I pushed them away; some days I couldn’t. On those darker days, they came out as moodiness, agitation, anger at those around me for the slightest infraction. These feelings are not just mood and emotion but they are so real to the point that they affect breathing and the senses. Nothing about these feelings felt like “me” but just the same, they’ve long a part of me — a part I fought desperately to control and manage on my own.
One day, these feelings intensified into a crushing sadness and undirected anger. And after more than twenty years with these feelings and some weeks into this intensification, only then did a single, simple word come to mind to describe these feelings: Depression.
Perhaps it sounds stupid — In retrospect as I write about it, it certainly feels stupid. How could I have missed this? As a child of two parents who had their own struggles with depression, how did I not know? And the answer lies in the disease itself. Depression clouds everything, makes it hard to escape as it pulls you deeper in.
How fucked up a feeling — to realize an inability to express the crushing sadness other than to lash out. It had never occurred to me. I set my sadness to the side. I managed it. Got married, had two amazing children. Built a career. I was who I needed to be in any given moment, switching in and out of the context needed at the time. To pay the bills, to do my best to support my family. But the feelings were there, each and every day. Many times in those early months I thought about killing myself. The thought of holding a gun in my hand, putting it to my temple, and pulling the trigger. I even knew which one I’d use. The ugly and utilitarian Glock, of course — it means nothing to me, slightly nicked from a modification gone awry when I first came to own it. Not the Beretta or the Sig for which I feel some sentimentality. Even in death I felt unworthy and undeserving of something nice. Every time I got into my car, I would feel a desire to simply drive into an overpass support at 75 mph to see if that would be enough. Probably not — damn safety of modern cars and trucks. A drive to the airport or to Costco became a life-and-death struggle for me — which overpass would be the one?
Through all of this, I never really cried or expressed the emotions I was feeling. I did my best to get them back into their box where I thought they belonged, away from the day to day, but I just couldn’t do it. After a while, I realized: I didn’t know the last time I had actually cried. Like, ever in my adult life. I honestly never noticed. Sure, I shed the occasional tear. The loss of my dog a few years ago, to cancer, before her eighth birthday. That was rough. Unfair. I squeezed out a couple, felt sad for a few days, and moved on. Life goes on, has to be managed, controlled. Only in the midst of this deep depression did I realize: For 25 years I have been saying I can’t cry. No time. It’s not worth the energy to actually feel. And after 25 years of doing this, I actually couldn’t cry. I just didn’t have it in me anymore. Even as I sat here and typed this fragment, at the time three months into a crippling, mind bending, life altering depression the likes of which I have never before experienced… I feel intense sadness, but the tears didn’t fall. I see the people around me, how they are affected by depression. My now ex-wife, my children. But the tears don’t fall.
Somewhere in this period of time, as I came to the realization that this was not something I could manage myself, something made me re-read an excellent webcomic written and drawn by The Oatmeal, entitled “It’s Going to be Okay”
In that moment, re-reading this webcomic saved my life.
“… Our journeys are short … Life’s ephemeral nature lit up against a backdrop of stars … We are all passengers pitching downward into the night … We’re all helpless”
It resonated with me. It got through.
I realized in this moment that what I was experiencing was depression.
I realized that I couldn’t do this on my own.
I realized that this was “not just in my head” — that it was a medical condition.
I realized that I needed help.
But how to even find a therapist? What does one look for in a therapist? This became a struggle unto itself — I discovered the vast absence of access to mental healthcare in the United States. I found it incredibly challenging to find a therapist with the particular set of skills needed and that I felt comfortable with. Even the most basic things are a struggle; mine was vast lists provided by my insurance carrier’s website, lists which couldn’t be printed or sorted. And once you identify a therapist with the right skills, who you are comfortable with, I can almost guarantee you that he or she will not take insurance. It is a system seemingly designed to prevent access to care.
After a false start or two, I did eventually find a great therapist. As a man, as a provider, it was very hard for me to open up at first, to admit to both myself and someone else that I cannot do it all on my own, to come to grips with my own shortcomings. In one of my very first sessions with my therapist, she repeated to me a fairly common expression in mental health circles: Depression is rage turned inward.
But why was I so angry? What had caused this state for me over such a long period, and what had caused it to intensify as it had?
I have never had much memory of my childhood. The absence of memory never meant much to me; I just figured that was the way people were, that no one carried strong memories of their childhood. Through therapy and through a trusted therapist I found out that this is not the case. I was able to piece together fragments from a history of physical and sexual abuse — a history that my psyche had tried to protect me from for 25 years. A history I carried, but didn’t know. I may never know the full story but now I know that it is there. I was finally able to understand the parallels between abuse and abandonment in my childhood, and in my married life — a discovery that eventually among other factors led to my seeking a divorce to break the cycle. But even sitting on a therapist’s couch, in an utterly safe and comforting environment in her cozy office, discovering long suppressed memories, I still didn’t cry. Even as I questioned these memories — are they real? Which is better, if they are real or if they are fabrications? One might think I’d be bawling, ugly, messy, snotty crying. I wished I WAS bawling, ugly, messy, snotty crying. But still. The tears didn’t fall.
Today, I can say I will no longer let depression control me. I will no longer live with this stigma. I have a serious illness and that illness is depression.
Today, if anything will make the tears fall, it isn’t the sadness. It’s the thought of my friends who have become my family over the years. My friends who go through their own struggles with this horrible disease. My friends who were there for me in the midst of my coming to grips with this disease. It’s my friends who have told me they love me like a brother, that if needed they would be on the next flight, and who meant every word.
As with many serious illnesses, I am learning that I can manage it through treatment and live my life.
As with many serious illnesses, I will live with it for the rest of my life. I am not cured. I have not been saved. I do not view this as “Oh, I had a problem but I’m better now.” I now recognize depression for what it is: A disease, but a manageable disease. I will live with depression for the rest of my life, but will manage it with the help of medical professionals. Depression will not be the end of me. Rather, I will do everything I can to be the end of depression.
It’s taken me nearly a year to write this essay. I cannot be silent. If these words help just one person seek treatment, if these words help someone reach out to their loved ones to open a dialogue, then writing them down and sharing them have been worth it hundreds of times over.
I plan to continue this dialogue and speak openly about depression, and particularly as how it affects men in professional careers. In this journey I’ve spoken with countless good men who struggle with depression every day. Family men, with good jobs, but who won’t talk about it. For them, for my children, and for those to come, I will no longer be silent and I will no longer feed the stigma. My children will not live in a world that depression is met with feelings of shame for its discussion and for seeking treatment.
Depression is rage turned inward. One day, I made a conscious decision to put the gun down, to not be angry with myself, to get help. Today, every day I wake up and make a choice, but it is a different one. A choice to be happy. And I truly am, for the first time in a long while.
This is my story. You may have played a part in saving my life. The reasons vary, and you may not even know it. In some cases, you may not even know me. But today, I am here, writing these words, because of you, and I will never forget that. Maybe you were a friend to me when I desperately needed one. Perhaps something in your own story resonated with me. Or you took a phone call from me. Please just know: You saved someone’s life, my life. I will forever be grateful for it. Thank you.
If you are lucky to not be affected by depression, please understand that it is not something someone can just shake themselves out of or “get over it.” Depression is a disease. It is a horrible, ugly, terrible disease, and it is no less than an epidemic in our society. Just as they both struggled with depression, both of my parents died following protracted, terrible battles with cancer. It’s easy to understand cancer because it is visible. Depression is different only because it is less visible; made worse by the stigma of conversation in our society. The reason I am writing this is to do my part to end the stigma. Countless numbers of men told me their stories in a one-on-one setting but were horrified by the prospect of telling their stories in more public settings. Just as we cannot ignore cancer, we cannot continue to ignore depression, to not talk about it. Please. If you read these words and relate to them, first get help. Talk to your doctor, your significant other, a friend, your pastor, rabbi, priest, or imam. Whomever feels comfortable. As a good friend of mine said, someone who helped me: “Fucking reach out. I can’t speak for the rest, but I’ll fly my ass wherever to help.”
Nearly 45,000 people die every year from suicide in the United States; 90% of the people who commit suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time they take their life. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US, and the second leading cause of death between the ages of 10 and 34. And this is underreported because unsuccessful attempts may not be included in statistics.
When broadened to depression not resulting in suicide, more than 25 million Americans over 18 suffer from depression; this is 5–8% of the population, more than suffer from heart disease, cancer, and HIV/AIDS combined. It doesn’t have to be this way. Depression is among the most treatable of psychiatric illnesses. Between 80 and 90 percent of people with depression respond positively to treatment, and almost all patients gain some relief from their symptoms. But first depression has to be recognized, and it won’t be recognized if we don’t talk about it.
If you were touched by these words, please consider making a donation to one of the excellent charities that focus on mental health. You can find a list at Charity Navigator.
Statistics provided by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.