Loneliness – An Essay About Depression
I am not your ordinary guy. I have known that for a long, long time. I have learned to accept it, to live with it, and even to appreciate it. I appreciate that I am unique. In these difficult times I am even proud to be different. It is just that it can often be lonely standing out from a crowd.
My childhood was pretty normal, up until my mom died – at least I considered it to be normal. I learned later that my parents had separated and that my mom was planning on taking me with her to live in California, far away from the rest of my extended family in Montana.
My mom drove me down to California on a trip that included passing through Idaho, Washington and Oregon. One of my mom’s closest friends lived in Oregon, so we stopped for a visit. Then we went to Hayward, just across the bay from San Francisco, to visit her parents.
On the trip back, my bother joined us for the drive back to Montana. We got all the way back to Butte, my home town, when tragedy struck. We were hit by a drunk driver and my mother was killed. My brother and I had to escape the car through our sunroof, and the last sight I saw was my mother’s face, covered in blood. This, as you can imagine, turned my whole world upside down.
The next few months were nothing but a blur too me. I couldn’t tell you whether I still played with other kids, watched TV, or did anything fun. Mostly, I was just going through the motions. When I got back to school after the summer, everyone was incredibly kind and expressed a lot of sympathy. I wish I could say that I received it well and thanked them, but my whole world was alien to me.
That’s how it went for a while. My dad had taken over caring for me, and since he worked a lot, I had a lot of time to myself. The following summer, my dad got sick. The Leukemia my dad had been diagnosed with when I was 2 came out of remission. He went to a couple different hospitals before ending up at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. He married a lady he had been dating so that if he died, I would have a guardian. He also hired someone to take care of me while he was in Seattle because his new wife was there to help care for him.
He returned four months later, having undergone a bone marrow transplant. Luckily his father had a brother, and these brothers each married two women who were sisters, and one of the brother’s daughters was an almost perfect match for my dad.
I wish I could say that my life returned to normal, but it didn’t. My step-mother and I had a difficult relationship. She had a lot of rules that I didn’t like and I was often resistant and argumentive. Eventually we found some common ground and had a much better relationship. I was fortunate, however, to have 10 more years with my dad, who almost was gone before I had a chance to know him. He survived 26 years when most people didn’t live longer than 5.
Off to college I went. Just as my life seemed to be brightening back up, it took a huge dive back into the abyss. I went to MIT, and although looking back now I am incredibly grateful for my time there, it was a painful experience in a number of ways.
All my good friends were in Montana, and Massachusetts is incredibly far away (many of my friends had never even heard of MIT and thought it was a school in Montana somewhere). I would only go home once or twice a year. We didn’t have Facebook or any other social media to keep in touch (the internet was in its infancy and many people didn’t even know what the internet was).
Making new friends was much harder in such a diverse place. Where I had grown up, it was mostly white middle-class families who had been born and raised there. MIT was my introduction to a lot of groups of people like Jews, Muslims, foreigners from Europe and Asia, and members of the LGBT community. All this diversity kind of made me feel like I needed a community too.
In high school, that community had been the band. Most of my friends were there as well as the people I had dated. We went on trips together, practiced for hours in parking lots and streets, played at concerts and football games, and even just hung out after school.
MIT had a really small marching band that was held together by the students. I lasted one year. I did play with the MIT concert band, but there wasn’t the same kind of bond that I had hoped for. The closest thing to a community I found was in the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity.
Even with my fraternity brothers giving me support, I was awfully lonely at MIT. In high school I was a top student, but at MIT I was fairly average. It was quite humbling to be around people who were incredibly smarter than you. While some of us were founding companies while taking 7 classes, others were struggling to just pass 3 or 4, and there were lots of long stressful nights. It was the first place I had been a student where people I knew committed suicide.
I never felt that urge, but I certainly did cry a lot and thought about leaving and giving up. I got so emotional sometimes that it kind of distanced me from friends because my behavior was erratic. If it hadn’t been for my dad, I probably would have left.
Eventually I realized that I wasn’t there to compete with the other students. I didn’t have to finish in four years (some students took 10 years or more to finish a degree). I could slow down and choose my own pace. I could graduate with less than stellar grades and still be successful. With this I was able to finish my degree.
Then came the real world. Just as moving from high school to college had been hard, moving to the real world was hard too. I was even lonelier in the real world. College puts a lot of people in the same situation together. The real world is a mess of people in totally different situations trying to make it through each day.
Just like at MIT, I tried to find a community to belong with. I tried churches, bands and orchestras, service groups, etc., and nothing worked. I continued to spiral down, and then one day I stopped being able to sleep and had no appetite.
It was the scariest time in my life. I literally thought I was dying. It got so bad I quit my job and went to live with my brother for a little while. That was when I learned I suffered from depression. I began medication and therapy.
Recovering from depression is the most difficult thing I have ever had to do. Every day feels hopeless, and you are constantly scared that you will never feel joy again. People try to help you by reminding you that you are loved and that there is no reason for you to be sad. Sometimes they tell you to get off your butt and fight your way out of the dumps.
One thing a lot of people don’t understand is that depression isn’t sadness. In my opinion, sadness would be so much better – at least there would be a real reason why you felt the way you did. With depression, you wake up each day feeling awful even though you haven’t done anything yet. I would generally feel better at night and then be right back in a slump the next day.
It took more than three long grueling weeks before I felt any better at all. With a lot of diseases, people understand that you are suffering, but depression is an inner fight and is often invisible to others. People can misinterpret your inactivity for apathy and laziness.
Eventually, however, I did get better. I was able to return to work. I returned to spending time with friends. I did some traveling through Europe and around the US. I still was lonely, but it was better than being depressed.
Since then, I have had several major relapses of depression, and each time it has been a long struggle to get back to feeling good. The last one took almost nine months, and it was incredibly hard on my family. I’ve now switched to a new treatment which seems to be working well, and thankfully I am not having relapses any more, not even small ones.
I am still lonely though. Not because I am alone. I have a wonderful caring wife and loving children and good friends and a great job with really smart coworkers. I just sometimes feel different from them, disconnected, not normal. I attribute some of that to my nerdiness, and some to my introverted lifestyle, but a lot of it stems from depression.
I wasn’t diagnosed with it until after college, but in truth it started when my mom died and when my dad got sick, and I have been living with it ever since. Although I am treating it well, I don’t believe I will ever be cured. I will feel that loneliness, that disconnection from people. My emotional behavior will be off, and I will upset people and make them uncomfortable. I will do my best not to, but it will happen.
The important thing is that I have learned to cope with it. My life is full of great moments and memories, and although there is loneliness and hardship, there is also joy and comfort.
Just like at MIT, I have come to realize I am not here to compete with others but instead am living my own journey. I don’t have to be a socialite or have hundreds of friends or impress everyone I meet. Other people may consider me odd and quirky, but I am happy with who I am. It is lonely standing up for who I am, but as long as I remember that happiness comes from within, I will do just fine.