Living a Life with Depression
There is rarely a day when I’m not aware of some level of depression inside me. I say rarely because I do remember in a few relatively short periods in my life when it abated completely, or as completely as I have ever known without it. This reality came to the forefront again upon reading a recent article about the long term effects of bullying on adults in the LA Times. This article references a study released by theBMJ which basically shows that people who are bullied during adolescence are two to three times more likely to be depressed as adults. After years of therapy and a couple seriously flawed relationships, there is little doubt in my mind that this study represents me.
Being an artist, I had come to this realization in a recent series of works. Just working on these photos a couple years back helped me see the truth of how bullying affected me.
Thinking back over the years, which I have done many times before, I can’t even remember the first time I was bullied. It happened so regularly that it just became a way of life for me as a child. I also realize now that I was probably born predisposed to this in one important sense — for whatever reason I arrived in this world being hypersensitive to the reactions of others and more than a bit ‘needy’ of attention. My mother recounted for me years later how she knew that I needed more than she could give me but there simply wasn’t enough time in the day to do enough about it. I’m not one to look back at early childhood and find blame there. But, you see, I am from a family of seven, and I’m the third child. The first group of us only got our ‘year’ or so before the next one came along. My particular birth karma was to be left wanting for attention. Fortunately for me, not so much for them, I have two older sisters who took me under their wing, a fact I still love them deeply for to this day.
Nonetheless, my being ‘sensitive’ meant that I was ripe for the picking on. It starts, as it often does, in the family. My aunt took it upon herself to call me butterball, in honor of the Thanksgiving turkey, because, you see, I was a round kid at birth. No one stops to think about these kinds of names when you’re a baby. I’m sure in the beginning everyone thought this was cute. When you’re roly-poly, as I was, it seems fun to give it a name.
The problem comes in when it sticks long after it’s cuteness has worn off. Somewhere along the line, I ‘owned’ being fat. I did not understand why I was the ‘fat’ kid. It became a ‘condition’, as much a state of mind as anything real, that I was to live with throughout my life. Once something like that gets stuck, it doesn’t get unstuck so easily. And in my case, this was the start but by no means the end.
In part because she had a special name for me, I loved my aunt very much, but it turned into a lifelong albatross. It would be years before I would even begin to understand that I wasn’t ‘flawed’ because I was born with a round face and body.
I was a good kid. I liked the attention of being perceived as a good kid. But my need for attention and desire to have my neediness satisfied would, on occasion, turn into fits of rage, not unlike many young kids.
This was, as I see it now, motivated by fear. Very early on, when I was around 3, my mother and grandfather took me shopping with them. Somehow my siblings were not with us and I had some time alone with the adults, with my mother. We were in a department store and as luck would have it, I got separated from them and ended up at the ‘lost and found’ counter, inconsolably crying. It took my mother some time to calm me down. I was convinced she was gone forever. I can still feel the moment of utter panic that overtook me.
Not unlike some other kids, I was full of fear over loss, mostly around my mother. You know, it’s funny about loss. It starts out rather minor but when enough of it happens, it builds up like a pile of bricks that you just can’t dump.
Throughout my first few years, I was constantly getting into trouble with my younger brother, the one who came just after me. You see, without any awareness on my part, I resented him for taking my mother from me. He came along and then there was no more one-on-one time with mom. I didn’t know it but I blamed him. That resentment created a separation between us and it took a long time for me to see how that affected our adult relationship.
By the time kindergarten came along, I was terrified to be away from home without my mother. A real momma’s boy. The fact that I was so attached to my mother did not go unnoticed by the other neighborhood boys. As we transitioned to the first and second grades, my general sense of fear, my connection to my mother, and an almost complete lack of confidence in anything sports related, meant that I was to be the ‘sissy’ target. And anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of that barrage knows it’s not fun.
Did I know I was gay then? I don’t think so. I didn’t know the concept yet. In those times, that word was not in use that way and no one that I knew ever talked about homosexuals. Did I have a sexual identity crisis? I’m not sure about that either. It never crossed my mind that I would be anything other than a boy, ultimately a man.
But did I know I was different then? Absolutely. Why? I can’t say. There was some inner voice telling me I wasn’t the same as others.
When I was 4 or 5 years old, I was sitting in the kitchen while my mother was cooking dinner with her sister helping out. Standing at the counter, at some point in the conversation my aunt turned to me and said, “When you have children of your own, you’ll understand what we’re talking about.” I pondered this for a brief moment and said to them both quite clearly, “I’m never getting married and never having children.” Maybe I was expressing disappointment at being denied the attention I needed. Maybe I knew somehow that I was different in a bigger way. I don’t know but I remember the brief exchange still.
My life in grade school became a series of fun times, mostly with my brother and sisters and one or two other friends, mitigated by moments of complete fear and rejection. When I was included in sports activities, at the first sign of incompetence, I was shoved aside. What does a sissy know about sports anyway? It got so that I intentionally stopped trying. Why should I try? None of the other kids were going to celebrate my accomplishing anything. They were just waiting for me to fail. And frankly, so was I. Somewhere in this process I developed an inner idea that if I wasn’t great at something, I didn’t care about it. I also made it my goal to be good at whatever I did. Underneath, I knew that being ‘different’ meant I was also ‘special.’
There is a funny kind of arrogance that comes from self-defining as an outsider. At the same time that you want acceptance and recognition, you gain a stature within yourself by establishing and owning your otherness. It takes a lot of guts, most of which in my case came from fear rather than courage.
Because I had brothers, though, I did try. I wanted to be the big brother who could. That only worked for a while, though. You see, my brother next in line was just an amazing sports person and completely without fear. Once he took the reins of a physical activity, no one was going to stop him. I kept trying but slowly slipped in their estimation.
As the curse of karma would have it, I was an early maturer. By the time I was in 5th grade I was showing clear signs of maturing sexually. Once that started to happen in earnest, I knew I was different in a way that wasn’t good and I was in bigger trouble. Boy scouts became terrifying. Even with the scout masters trying to help me, I was being targeted by the others. Because I was now convinced that I shouldn’t even try to play any sports, I withdrew and tried to be the smartest person I could. And you know, being a know-it-all and a sissy is really just setting yourself up with a red target on your back.
At 10 and 11 years old, I started actively seeking out any kind of validation I could find. This led eventually to having a sexual relationship with a neighborhood adult man. Today he would be called a pedophile though at the time he felt like a safe haven.
At 13, the last year in grade school, it was exposed in the neighborhood that I had been having sex with this neighborhood guy, and so the thing that I most feared was now out in the open. None of the neighborhood kids were surprised. By this time most had walked away from me because of my difference. The shame I experienced from this was unbearable. I can honestly say that this is the moment when the depression set in. Before this point, I wasn’t aware of being ‘depressed.’ After it, I knew things shifted. Forbidden from seeing this particular man and completely ostracized from the neighborhood boys, my inner life came to an end.
Throughout these years, it had gotten so bad that I never walked to or from school on the sidewalk. Rather I found a way to get there and home in the backyards of all the houses in hopes of not being seen. If I was trapped, as happened sometimes, I would simply give up. I remember letting a group of teenage boys beat me up. At least this gave me some sense of connection with them. I wanted to be liked by them. I wanted to ‘love’ them. But there was no way for that to happen without my being hurt. So for a brief time, I let that happen. Choosing to be hurt in order to find love was to be repeated many times in the future, just in different ways.
High school came and serious depression hit. I gave into having a couple girlfriends in order to feel connected to someone and to try and avoid being victimized more. My first girlfriend introduced me to drugs, the perfect way out. Once that door opened, I did not want it to close. For the next couple years, using drugs was the way I managed, and it was cool. I had friends suddenly. And I found music as well. I learned guitar, and with the drugs and the music I started to make a new world, albeit one that was dark, depressed and mostly in hiding. My parents sent me for some classical guitar lessons as a way of showing support for my doing something that was deemed productive.
I’m certain I have my fear and depression for bringing me to art and music. High school was spent avoiding being beaten up and humiliated, and learning to be an artist through music and paint. It was the only place I felt ok most of the time. And of course, the arts program is the land of the misfits, and it felt like home. Every day was gray, but it was my gray and no one was going to take it away. Smoking cigarettes, smoking pot, dropping acid, playing music, I even stopped bathing except for once a week or so, all as part of my new found way of belonging.
It’s very hard to remember the details of high school. I have a couple friends from that time who were outsiders in their own way. But mostly, I have forgotten almost everyone else. Once it was over, I went about wiping away the names and faces of all the people with whom I interacted. The odd thing is, the only people other than my few good friends that I remember, are the ones who tortured me the most. Their names are engraved in my mind like some memorial.
Music gave me a life and ultimately was the thing that opened the first doors for me. As a result of being in a band, I met another gay person, another teenager who, for a long time, became my best friend. Our friendship ended as a result of his then new partner’s ultimatums and years of missed opportunities to stay connected in a meaningful way. His recent, presumably final (unsolicited) admonition was to tell me that I had made many bad choices in my life. All I could think was how very little he really understood what I was dealing with.
He also, in the last year of high school, introduced me to the first love of my life. Once that happened, I started changing. I realized I wasn’t alone. There were others like me and it meant something big for me. And then being in love was just amazing. I threw all into it, not realizing that I was so ill-suited to loving anyone.
This was the first time in my memory as anything other than a very young boy that I can remember the depression lifting. Did it completely leave? No. But the light came in. What started to emerge was a very smart, talented young man whose development emotionally had been arrested since childhood. I had no skills for dealing with dating, loving, fucking, anything. But I started to see the light, as it were.
Of course, that didn’t last. First loves rarely do. And when it left, much of my lightness went with it. What I couldn’t have understood then was just how much I was trying to alleviate the shame of being me — a gay know-it-all sissy — by finding a love to fix it.
Each loss built on the last and they stuck around like internal friends who drink heavily.
My first lover and I stayed friends almost until his tragic end from AIDS. And I did go out and date, and try and connect. But I did so from the point of view of someone who is depressed and ashamed of who he is. “I don’t deserve the good looking guys.” “I’m not good enough, that’s why they don’t like me.” These mantras of young love are not always freighted with such a challenge. But when those mantras turn into how you see yourself in the world, the problems become persistent and pervasive.
I have only recently realized that I have sabotaged my entire adult working career because I have stayed out of the limelight, preferring the comfort of dissatisfied sidelines to fear of having to stand up only to be shot down, or worse, humiliated. Nonetheless, I made a good life for myself in spite of what I have been dealing with. My life is full of exhibitions of my work, and design work that has been used by both small and large businesses alike. I relied on my talents to motivate me and it has continued to provide me a good life.
Over time, I just learned to live with the depression. And I did find two partners, both of whom I spent some many years with. Yet, both relationships were bound to fail because I was in them in part as a way of healing my boyhood damage. Whereas my first relationship, which lasted just shy of 25 years, was filled with very good things, it was also filled with shame and humiliation which I knew all too well. He did some amazing things for and with me but there was a steep price. We have remained friends, in great part because we came to know each other like few others in this life would ever.
My second relationship was a glorious disaster. If my first gave me a platform to start to grow, my second gave me the chance to see what that deep romance novel love is really like. Until, of course, he pulled it out from under me with no warning and with complete abandon. You see, I walked into a relationship with a narcissist and anyone who has ever been with one can tell you, you never feel as good as in the beginning nor as betrayed as when they snuff out the attention and false love they showed.
Depression learned as a young person is a tough nut to crack. I’ve had a couple very good therapists who have helped me ‘understand’ what happened. I can see it all with much greater clarity than ever before. But the feelings that get embedded when you’re young stick like glue, both the good feelings and the bad ones. Bullying, without someone balancing the scales, leaves behind powerful residue.
There is no doubt in my mind that I have been graced with an amazing family and a few good friends. They are, as are all, full of flaws. But throughout everything, I knew and know to this day that I am loved. And I love them. Very many people do not have that, even without being bullied. And so my life resonates with that love, a love that my parents instilled in us when we were young.
I still live everyday with the residual depression that came about from feeling like I was not worthy, that I didn’t deserve to be happy, that I was not good enough, strong enough, good looking enough. You name it, it’s there. All because I was born ‘sensitive’ and didn’t know how to manage the terrible ways that people treat one another.
Shaming, bullying, physical abuse — these things only point up a deeply seated flaw in human nature that should not be encouraged. If there was a benefit to them, it has long ago lost its usefulness. But it persists.
It has been my choice to not take drugs to manage my depression. I have instead chosen to work with it, to live with it, and to use it to the best of my ability to put out art that tries to connect people. Being someone who has lived with depression for at least 50 years, I have learned that it can push you to see the things that bind us together. It is not easy, and at times, it can feel dire. I can’t imagine what my life would have been had I not had this to live with but I can see that slowly people are starting to recognize how important our early lives are in our development.
I know that some of my greatest insights, my deepest awareness and the great sense of love I have for people comes largely as a result of having to struggle with depression. You see, it is an albatross, and for some it is too heavy a load, but it also opens up doors to seeing. Maybe, through perseverance and a commitment to one another, we can slowly move away from shame and humiliation as a rite of passage in cultures worldwide.
The one thing I know today is that I wouldn’t trade a single one of those bad choices if it meant I would have not gotten the insight into people and myself that I have today as a result.