Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

I thought we had a deal, man.

Sunny green path” by Alain Detaille is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Did you forget? Did the details get fuzzy? I can understand that. You’ve been riding my ass for close to 30 years, so I’m sure it all runs together for you.

Let’s recap: you started messing with me seriously back in the tenth grade. You got me thinking everything that could have a negative interpretation was negative. If she didn’t smile at you this morning in the hallway, she must not want to have anything to do with you anymore, right? (A friend later pointed out this is sometimes called “Automatic Negative” thinking.) That first thought would set off “The Thinking Spiral.” I thought in circles about why things were so negative, then branched off that to think new negative stuff. With each revolution of The Spiral, the more sadness and anger I felt. When you were in high gear, I could get from she didn’t reply to my note to she and all her friends hate me now for some reason just going across the hall from Algebra to Chemistry between classes.

John Cusack as Lloyd Dobler, worst/best role model ever. Say Anything. Dir. Cameron Crowe. 20th Century Fox, 1989.

A common pattern formed in high school: pursuing relationships with intellectual equals who had their shit together in scary-awesome ways that I felt I was almost, but not quite, worthy of being with. Devoid of real confidence, I got in the door on pseudo-swagger. I did pretty well with the flirty banter. I then torpedoed the whole thing when you fired up your over-thinking. Then I’d jump to negative conclusions and general patheticness. We first laid down those tracks when I was 15; today they are deep ruts, often traveled.

Sure, I had some successes in high school. Just none of significance on the romance front. I am one of the winners of the 1989 National Council of Teachers of English Achievement Award in Writing for the State of Michigan. I won an award for my acting performance in a production of Greater Tuna in my senior year of high school. I was (and am) proud of those accomplishments and others, but you didn’t give a rat’s ass.

Should I have been satisfied? C’mon.

Ask almost anyone, and they’ll say “Oh, you were in high school, and you did a great job! Don’t worry about girls, because nothing is serious in high school. Just have fun!”

Ask a hormonal 15–18 year old boy? All The Things not related to Getting The Girl are secondary. You know how it is. Maybe it would have been different if we played a sport with a cool factor … but even then, you’d have made sure we stayed on the bench.

How many times did we do the mental gymnastics that went like “I’ll do this thing, and then she’ll say something like blah or blah-blah, and then I’ll give her THAT thing, and then boom, she’ll want to start dating.”

Pro tip: that shit never worked, and never works. Two different women at two times in my life, at times when I’ve blown it with them, have said something like:

If you were just you, instead of trying to be who you think I want you to be … and if you just lived in the moment instead of pushing some agenda … we could maybe have worked out. But you can’t just be you, and you definitely can’t not have an agenda.

Over the last 30 years, I internalized this twice-given advice in Garth Algar’s voice: “Live in the NOW, man!”

“Live in the NOW, man!”—Garth Algar played by Dana Carvey. Wayne’s World. Dir. Penelope Spheeris. Paramount Pictures, 1992.

My teens were just the start. By college, you and I were cookin’ with gas. You were on me all through my twenties. Whenever things felt like they were starting to go well, you found a way to kick off The Spiral. Off we’d go again, deeper into the pit. Reaching for the bottom that never comes.

You got so embedded in me I couldn’t tell where I stopped and you started. We bonded. We were me.

Together, we failed in work, in life, in love. We made choices for me based on the picture you painted: Unworthy Man. We settled on relationships that weren’t healthy or fulfilling. Terrified of being alone, we went back into relationships my gut had (rightly) told me to get out of. We spent (way too much) time with people who were “projects” that made me feel better about myself.

Whatever we managed that looked like success had you infused in the foundation, I’d never forget they were artificial successes. The “successes” were not bad, but a little low and a little slow in coming for someone with my potential, right?

They came unstuck from the car seat rail eventually. “Earbud Finger” by me is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

My twenties are a blur of rage and disappointment. That’s how you like to manifest: rage. Because tough guys don’t cry, right? We rage instead. The path behind me is littered with things I’ve accidentally broken (those Ray-Ban Clubmasters, that bike, and don’t forget the car seat) in fits of rage. I can usually keep you bottled up, so well that most people can’t even tell you’re in there. Every once in awhile, though … boom. Sprinkled amongst the broken stuff is a series of poor decisions you influenced—people I should have called, but didn’t, opportunities I should have said YES to, but didn’t—that still haunt me twenty years later.

Remember after the dot-com crash, just as we rolled into 30? A year or so after that, when I’d Moved Back In With My Parents for “a little while” (four years), I went for a walk one sunny afternoon. I should have seen a bright path, lit by the sun filtered through the trees. Instead, it was dimmer … and I thought I could see you in my peripheral vision. It was like looking down a dark hallway with the sun and the trees way down there, hard to make out. Once I saw you, I thought maybe it’s time for medication or something. I remembered that Terry Bradshaw interview I’d read. Bradshaw said depression medication didn’t make him feel drugged, but rather made him feel more like himself.

That’s when I decided to try getting rid of you.

My primary doc agreed that I might be a good candidate for an antidepressant. After 17 years of you trampling through my life, I thought the end might be near.

After 17 years of you trampling through my life, I thought the end might be near.

After three days on meds, I started feeling better. I found myself laughing, as though I were greeting an old friend and waving. I felt like I’d found myself. Yeah, there were irritations: I had insomnia for the first couple weeks on the medication, and my dick quit working right. I worried that combination would drag me down enough for you to sneak back in … but you were just gone.

grau in grau mit gelb” by Alexander Stielau is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

On some level, I knew you weren’t gone gone. Every so often, you made your presence known. I’d get lazy about refills on the medication, and if I made it a day without a dose, you’d show up. Like you’d been hanging around, doing slow drive-bys in front of the house. Waiting for an opening to get back in and snuggle up with me.

Those periodic brushes with you kept me careful about my meds. I was not going to be a takes-meds-for-awhile-then-stops person. I was all right with that. For the most part, I was happy. My dick even started working again.

You’d left your scars on me, though. It took a long time to work through all that stuff. Finding the parts of my life where you’d convinced me to settle for “less than.” Sorting those parts out and moving on. The wrong places (it’s over between us, Los Angeles), the wrong relationships and the wrong career all looked better in the rear-view mirror.

My kids were born. I moved back out to my own place. I co-founded a startup. Things looked good.

I never forgot about you, though. That hundred pounds I’ve gained since the first kiddo was born is on you. Mom blames it on the Captain Crunch and the endless consumption of Wheat Thins, but you and I know the truth: The Captain was just the messenger. You are the XXXL around here, not me. (Or XXXXL, depending on brand. Talking to you American Apparel sonsabitches who are reading.) I just wear the shirts for you because I always get stuck with the work of both of us.

I reconnected with some close friends I’d fallen out of touch with, thanks to you. They became my support network posse, like a suit of armor designed specifically to repel you.

Successes started feeling like real, legitimate success. The company I’d co-founded had a successful exit in 2013. Nine figures is hard to pull off if you’re just faking it, which made it easier for me to own that success. Your late-night taunts about not being good enough were a dim memory.

Just another sunrise, as seen from Dream House kitchen table. “Mt. Diablo Foggy Sunrise” by me licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Things were great. Buy-the-dream-house level great. A serious, indisputable victory. I appreciate your absence during that whole process.

But you’re nothing if not a patient son of a bitch. A few years later, my divorce got underway. The kids struggled at school. I couldn’t stop thinking about the next startup we did.

Me in the process of learning that “launching soon” means six weeks or less, far less time than I needed to launch. That lesson only cost me all my credibility.

I’m sure you remember the Jexy story.

API guy leaves API Management company he co-founded to build company whose only product is an API.

API guy announces too early, you sabotage his confidence so he has a terrible time raising enough money to keep going, and spends too much of the money raised on contractors.

You made sure I second-guessed myself all the way through that startup. Eleven months later, API guy admits defeat and goes back to consulting work, which he does for the next four years. Your job there was done.

Just like that, you were circling again, waiting for your moment to sink your claws back in.

I brought my concerns about your possible return up with my doc, just in case. Doc tweaked the dosages in my med stack, and within a week or so, things were looking better. “Better living through chemistry,” one of my good friends said when I shared that news. I was hopeful I might not see you again for another ten years. Maybe more.

“Better living through chemistry,” one of my good friends said.

Yeah, I know. You were just delayed, and not even by much. You’d gotten sneaky while we were apart. You learned how to get on my back without attracting so much attention. We weren’t breaking shit anymore.

Okay, we weren’t breaking shit nearly as often.

One of my support posse pals got sick, and was in a bad way for awhile. My divorce slogged on, and my stockpile of cash disappeared quickly. I learned about Alternative Minimum Tax the hard, expensive way. You were pleased with those developments. My support armor was weakened, I was panicking about money, and I was spending more and more time being angry.

Untitled” by watchtheflash is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I can see it so clearly now, looking back. When things were good, I still had a broad emotional range. I got mad, but not supermad, and not for long. It wouldn’t last the whole day. Get mad, let it wash over me, and be done. You know, like normal people.

When you’re on my back, it’s nothing like that. I’m angry all the time. When I talk-rant about what’s bothering me, it’s like spitting razor blades. The words are vicious, crafted to convey and inflict pain. The snark is too dark.

By the end of 2015, I had pneumonia and was cruising for bankruptcy. The state of almost-divorced seemed like it had no end.

I wondered vaguely if you’d snuck up on me yet again. Inconceivable, I thought. I’m properly medicated! Circumstances seemed so lousy, my darkening mood must be a natural result of the pneumonia, divorce, and all the rest. Surely this will pass.

That’s your greatest trick: helping me think of excuses to cover for you while you quietly drag me down.

When you’re not around, I can take enough steps back to consider my behavior. I can analyze trends. I can figure out reasons why things may have happened however they happened.

When you’re on me, though, I can’t step back far enough to see your influence. If I pull back from a rage-filled moment, it’s just enough to examine what’s pissing me off more closely, like pouring gasoline on a fire. I’m unable to step back far enough to see I’ve been mostly angry for weeks or months.

Ironing board. Side pipes. Just-the-right-touch red calipers.

Then it was 2016, and I gave up on keeping Dream House in the divorce. The kids and I moved out of Dream House and put it on the market. A heartbreaking move. After my nomadic childhood, I thought I’d finally landed at the “permanent residence” those forms are always asking about. Nope.

The fog of rage and sadness distracted me from a promise I’d made to Be There for a buddy who had a very stressful weekend coming up. As it turned out, you and I were in free fall into the pit that day. When I showed up at last, it was too late to be helpful, and that relationship took a big hit.

Hello, Darkness. You fucker.

What the fuck, man. You were gone. I thought we had a deal. I take the meds, you vanish. Not complicated.

Just like you, though, to break a deal. You pushed me further and further down into the pit. You preyed on that lousy year like only you can.

You helped me over-commit and under-deliver with work. You kept alarm clocks from waking me, and filled my limbs with cement. When I did manage to get out of bed, you wrote your transparent, excuse-ridden bullshit emails to clients. Ashamed, I’d go back to bed.

Me, working on a team, dancing—and proving the “working with other people” thing. “First Round 2008 Holiday Card” by First Round Capital, 2008.

Later that year, it seemed like I might shake you off. I did a little bit of work I was happy with, and I started perking up. There were intermissions in my anger streaks. My support posse noticed. One suggested how important it was for me to be working, especially with other people. That was spot-on, of course, but you were around just enough to make sure what I heard was blah-blah-blah about how I couldn’t make it on my own.

When I agreed to a soul-crushing spousal support figure to wrap up the divorce, that was your moment. You didn’t hesitate to shove me into the pit, where I alternated between rage and despair as I fell.

See, I’d been avoiding working for big companies for 20 years. We both know I do better working with a small group on a mission. But with that spousal support nut, I caved and took a job at BigCo. Yeah, I had a steady paycheck after that, which eased the sting a little. But never enough to make it feel worth the trade-off. I worked so hard to get off the direct deposit addiction, and there I was again: silently screaming, every minute a reminder that I’d failed at independence.

To my co-workers reading: I’m adjusting to BigCo living. One of my HR goals for the year is assimilating the culture! ;D

You didn’t let up. When I wasn’t at work, my conversations with friends and family were arrogant rants. Long angry tirades about nothing significant. Gradually, fewer and fewer had the energy to listen. I was unable to stay out of bed most days. When the 2017 ball dropped, we were alone again, you and I.

Darkness. My old friend. My only constant “friend,” maybe. Even though I’ve always feared being alone, feared not getting praise from someone, anyone … I never really am alone, am I? You never disappoint.

Like before, I finally realized what you’d done. Despite how effective my treatment had been, my defenses against you had fallen. My treatment was part of why it took so long to see your influence. By the time I figured that out, a tremendous amount of damage was done.

Another visit to the doc, another tweak to the med stack, and sayonara, motherfucker.

Sunrise Through Tree” by me licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Refrain: I am left to pick up the pieces of your rampage through my life. Relations with my support posse are seriously damaged. I have so much to repair I don’t know where to begin. Saying “I’m sorry” is woefully inadequate. In fact, no words help—only actions will. It’s going to be a long road back.

What I can say, though, standing here in the rubble, is:

I am still here. I am still me.

I am beaten, bruised and spitting blood … but victorious just the same. I watch you fade back into the shadows, leaving me more vigilant than ever.

I’m keeping track of my mood trends so I can try to spot those times when you’re sneaking in the back door. I’m setting up the weight machine at home. I’m changing my diet (for real/at last/not kidding, Mom). I’m not counting the number of days since I last got laid. I’m writing.

I’m living in the now, man.

Which brings us to the end of your unwelcome surprise visit. So long, Darkness, my old friend. For now, the sun is rising.

I wish I could tell depression off like this. Actually, I wish I could light depression on fire. But I can’t.

What I can do is tell my story. I’m an accomplished software developer and entrepreneur, and I have major depressive disorder. I’m also a new volunteer for Open Sourcing Mental Illness. Mental illness is common in software engineering; more common than you think. Find out more about that at osmihelp.org.

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Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.

Clay Loveless

Written by

Area Man

Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.