Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Inside the Depressed Mind

Please bear with me as these memories coalesce, sometimes haltingly, sometimes with rapidity.

When I was in college, I had a few friends who suffered what I suspected were breakdowns. One of these friends took some time off from school. He later returned looking kind of shell shocked. In fact, with the distance of a decade, I wonder whether he might have experienced a shock of another kind.

One summer, we worked together. I remember I thought he might be gay and a potential romantic interest. Nothing came of it. He was serious, earnest, and kind. I could share my imagination with him. After his time away, he was a different guy. His speech was more halting, he seemed more distant, and he had a disconcerting wildness in his eyes from time to time. We still keep in touch occasionally.

Another student, a young woman, took some time off, as well. For a while, she lived near campus. I remember visiting the house where she was renting. It was an enormous old Victorian in the process of being converted into a satellite location of a prosperous local inn. That Friday of my visit, we explored the many cold rooms with their built in fixtures and large windows. We went into the attic until my friend became spooked. I went exploring in the cellar. I wanted to know every inch of that house. That same house later became the home of my dreams. I imagined young sons and daughters of mine inhabiting the rooms and living a storybook childhood. I transposed the house onto the rocky cliffs of Maine; I was enchanted.

That same night, we made supper in the ancient kitchen. My friend was familiar with whole foods and co-op shopping long before I was, and I was enthralled with the earthy, organic authenticity of it all. Making food was a deep pleasure for me.

I remember an early morning trip to a neighboring campus where my friend picked up a used standard transmission Honda hatchback station wagon. I went along because I could–just barely–drive the stick shift for her.

This friend of mine was always shy. She was kind and she often had difficulty putting her frustrations into words. She was ancestrally Jewish and came from New York. If I’d been straight, I would say I had a crush on her; from my position, I simply enjoyed her as a fascinating friend.

Time passed, and we fell out of contact. A mutual friend informed me that she had joined a cult near New York City, that her parents were distraught, and that contacting her had become impossible.

During all this time (consisting of my sophomore and junior years), I spent each day laboring under a burden so enormous that, a friend pointed out when I spoke of it recently, it’s amazing that I was able to complete any of my work for classes. Part of the burden came, I’m sure, from struggling with being gay. I thought being gay would be the end of my world, and I fought it with all the emotional and psychological energy I could muster. My power in these realms, I discovered, is enormous. My college advisor once suggested to me that my emotional mind was so powerful that, if I could harness it for positive thinking, I would have amazing capabilities.

I was also always a sensitive kid, and a bit dark. My mother can recount stories of my youthful sensitivity. My favorite is a bit more superficial and more humorous. I remember going to a “sticks and pucks” pre-hockey league for very young boys. After a trial skate or two, my parents asked me whether I would like to continue with the lessons. No way, I replied, and complained of how barbaric the whole thing was, in second grade words, of course.

I remember a summer vacation by the shore in Rockport, Massachusetts. As we walked along the wharf in the early evening, my mother laughed. She was having such fun! I thought, she’s such a good-time gal – I don’t know where I got that phrase – and I don’t know what I’d do if she died. I was always performing obsessive rituals in the hope that they would ward off an untimely death for my mother.

By sixth grade, I was almost completely isolated. I used to spend recess lonely, walking the farthest reaches of the playground while every other boy in my grade played football with the male sixth grade teacher. I remember struggling to comprehend my feelings. I didn’t know what to make of them.

That loneliness would be echoed when I headed to college, and initially, it sent me reeling. At first, I did what I always did: I buckled down and hid in my homework. My grades were good.

By the second semester, I had to drop a class and my grades sunk. The saddest day of my freshman year was Super Bowl Sunday 1993. I was ready to give out. I bawled to my parents on the phone. I was unable to wrestle away the loneliness. For the rest of the semester, I would spend Sunday afternoons by my computer, missing my parents. I wanted to live in a house with a family, not as an independent, solitary pseudo-grown-up in a dorm.

My sophomore year, I became gradually more obsessed with fighting my own homosexuality. Having a girlfriend and my first sexual experiences was interesting, but I couldn’t sustain the attraction. That summer, I returned to the camp where I had worked the previous year, but I became lost in my own sad thoughts much of the time. My doubts impaired my ability to work easily with the kids and my lack of confidence showed.

By my junior fall, I needed to start every morning in the shower talking myself into functionality. Finally, I admitted being gay and that it was possibly tolerable. I managed to connect with a friend of mine and have my first gay experiences. He made two brief trips to my parents’ house, even; I enjoyed walking on the line of acceptability. I wanted to tell my parents. He left for a study abroad. We had plans to rendez-vous that never worked out. I descended into an emotional hell. I had my first flush time of a fairly open gay life on campus. I spent spring semester celibate but active. Things between me and my first boyfriend became awkward through the mail; I became paranoid and suspicious and he finally wrote me off. I convulsed emotionally and suffered from paranoia.

I started a relationship with the woman whom I would marry and divorce. I lived off campus with her during my senior year. Each morning, again, I would awake in terror in agony. I would go to her room, and she would talk me into the ability to face the day. She would spend evening after evening talking with me, carefully reasoning me out of my paranoia and hysteria – first about my ex-boyfriend, then about an unending myriad of anxieties. She was patient and kind; my love with her was sincere.

During this time, I began to confront more and more what I referred to as “the aches”. Today, untraceable body aches are listed as a sign of depression. In 1995, they weren’t on the literature I looked at. I was sure I had a horrible disease. Cancer? AIDS? Something else debilitating?

Even today, I have to talk myself out of such anxieties–lately it’s been Parkinson’s. The aches went on into my post-graduate year in Boston and into my life in Vermont. When I was distracted and socially involved or working on a serious intellectual challenge, I forgot the aches. In my quiet moments, they were nearly paralyzing and were terrorizing harbingers of illness and death. I could barely move; somehow, I kept going.

During a required physical exam in the fall of 1998, I finally cracked and told the doctor about my hypochondria. He probed further and I gushed forth with what I deemed a shameful recounting of my obsessiveness, anxiety, and mystery aches. He prescribed medication – I remember starting it on December first – and the aches gradually went away. It was miraculous; I could function again.

During the spring and summer of 2003, an ex-partner encouraged me to quit my medication. I tried it, and the old, familiar terrors, paralysis, untraceable pains, and unremitting fear returned. As my ex-wife had done, he walked me through my mornings, got me out the door, and was my crutch in the evening. When it was clear that a relationship with him was hazardous to me for other reasons, I broke up with him, and finally succeeded in ending things on the third try. But then I was alone. I became a nervous wreck. My body shook all the time. I was seized with terror whenever I was alone. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t talk to friends, family, or co-workers without edging on hysteria.

My family and some of my friends were loving and kind. My parents were tremendously frightened, as I was relying on them in my worst moments of panic. There was no significant other to buffer the onslaught of my despair and emotions. Many people didn’t understand, and I lost some friends. Finally, I started a new medication. I began a slow, slow crawl out of despair. Most mornings, I would wake up an anxious wreck. Conversation with my housemate was an invaluable life raft, helping me get emotionally upright in the mornings. She helped me laugh at myself just when I needed to. Nonetheless, any disruption to my routine could start a panic attack, and I had special prescription medication for those occasions, as well.

There were days when I taught classes barely able to speak without stumbling over my words. But I kept on going with the support of my principal and our lead guidance counselor.

Today, I feel small shadows of that anxiety many days, but I am managing to stay well connected with people who give me a sense of belonging and value. I work on my individual, interior life with the help of a long-term therapist–and the journey is intellectually exciting as well as emotionally necessary. I do not dread time alone. Sometimes, I respect my own mind, body, and personality. Sometimes, my medication makes me shaky; if I drink caffeine, I can nearly start stuttering! Often, I astound myself at how well I manage despite the internal vibrations of my mind and pulse that seem to threaten to take over and shake me to the ground.

I don’t know how I manage to persevere. Maybe it is that incredibly powerful emotional mind my advisor spoke of. But I remember thinking many times that the difference between my two friends’ inability to hold on and my own ability to continue seemed so fragile and undefined. I was glad I was on the functional side of the line; I was humbled and sometimes scared by the subtle differences of mind that allowed me to continue in society where others cannot. I do not believe this makes me superior, though; only slightly better adapted to modern life. Modern culture –with its pace, pressure, intolerance, violence and waste –make survival as a different, sensitive person difficult and, at times, intensely painful.

I am currently experiencing a strong upswing in my life, but I am always acutely aware of the presence of depression and anxiety in my life. I look forward and move on, but with a profound sense of my fragility.