This has been a dark week for us in Cape Charles. We lost two of our best and most loved—one local, one far away in France. There is a pervading sadness that most of us feel, but this sadness is good. It’s healthy, part of life and resilience and moving forward.
For others, like me, it churns up some of the old crap, what Churchill called his black dog—depression.
When I was two, my younger sister Amy died. She was only just one, and the loss nearly immobilized my mother. For the next year or so, I was kind of on my own, being raised by a village of family, mainly my grandmother who had moved in with us. While everyone tried to cover, it was a sad home. Until my mom got pregnant and gave birth to my sister, a beautiful, happy and vivacious child (she still is).
I know my mom never really got over losing Amy, but things were still better and closer to normal.
I’m not sure that I was depressed as a kid, but I probably was. However, I was way too busy to notice. I played and watched almost every sport, and almost every minute of the day was filled with athletic activity. I was like this all the way to 12 or 13. But then I got in a bit of trouble and was shipped off to military school. I think the depression first started showing up there. I still played sports, but the environment was regimented, and my time was no longer mine. For the first time in my life, due to mandatory study halls and quiet times, I actually had to sit and be with myself. This didn’t go well, and I eventually got in a lot of trouble and was expelled from the school.
The depression was in place now, but I was back to my own devices. I still played sports but realizing the limitation of my body as my peers got faster and stronger, my interest waned. But I found surfing and the ocean, which provided the imagination and physical exhaustion I needed.
When I hit 15, I feel like things were starting to turn for the worse. It was at this point I began to self-medicate with DASS (drugs, alcohol, sex and, surfing). It’s really all I cared about, hence my awful scholastic performance.
Have I ever attempted suicide? I would tell you no, but there was this one incident in high school. A friend raided his granny’s medicine cabinet and lifted a bottle of Dilaudid, which is a very heavy narcotic. I took six before school, right after my mom left for work. Luckily, she came home after forgetting something and found me passed out. Dilaudid, taken in high doses can cause respiratory failure and death. My mom got me to the ER and they forced me to throw up the contents of my stomach. If my mom had not come home, would that be considered a drug overdose or a suicide? Or both?
I somehow graduated, and my dad enrolled me in community college. He was smart though—he put me in a school close to the Outer Banks. As expected, I partied like crazy, but made good grades and transferred to James Madison, where I met the best friends of my life…and partied like crazy. Even if I was depressed, I was rocking too hard to notice.
When I finally left Harrisonburg, I moved to Richmond where I married my girlfriend and got a stupid job in a camera store. Poor, bored, miles away from the ocean and not near any of my college buddies, things went south.
Depression began to take hold and eat away at me from the inside.
It became hard to get up in the morning, telling myself why bother, what’s the point? The depression can manifest in unusual ways–anxiety, anger, aggression, and irritability–you’ll be angry and not even know why, or the silliest little thing will set you off on a tirade. Or, you just clam up completely, shutting out everyone, even the ones you love the most.
And my poor wife was stuck with this mess as I tried to remember how to love her – and you wonder why she would ever want to be with what you’ve become. Eventually, she realized she didn’t.
Then I tried to find the things that once made me who I thought was. I struggled, but fell back into art and music, and moved to Washington DC to be closer to my old college friends and former bandmates. And I partied like crazy.
Back in self-medication mode, I was all about fun all the time. I joined a new band and threw all my creativity into it. All of this provided some insulation, only it wasn’t as strong as it was when I was younger. I drove a cab back then because I thought I needed freedom. I think I needed the freedom to hold off the parasite that was now living inside me. I knew I was depressed, but I couldn’t define it in any meaningful way. The weight and moroseness slowly piled on until you just stayed in bed, hoping for sleep. Or you partied like crazy.
The problem is, it’s not all the time. You find yourself dipping in and out of depression. But as I got older, I dipped into it more often.
After I married my second wife, the euphoria of that love gave me a new lease on life. I really don’t think I felt depressed for a few years. It eventually did come back, manifesting itself in its stranger ways. My wife noticed, and also noticed that I was much worse in the winter months—she even bought me a sun lamp to help with the SAD (seasonal affective disorder). Nothing really worked, and I found myself self-medicating in what I laughingly called my search for the perfect martini. As a professional adult, somehow the martini seemed sexy, classy and widely acceptable. Of course, it’s like, “Dude, you know you just drank a whole bottle of vodka.” I even had my own thing called 6mb (six martini blackout).
No matter, it never leaves and is always down there. My mother’s death from cancer changed me forever. I watched her die. On Thanksgiving; so much for that holiday.
In my life, I had a beautiful and wonderful wife, two wonderful kids, a great dog, a nice house and a job and career I loved. I could smile and walk through it like a champ, but I was eating away inside, emotionally paralyzed only being set free after the second martini.
I knew it, but didn’t understand it. Why was I depressed? Was it from my childhood, from when Amy died? Did those formative years set me on that path? That probably has something to do with it, but I found out later it was mainly genetic.
After years of dealing with this, my wife finally forced me to try anti-depressants. I tried a couple but had no success at first, but then I tried Lexapro (escitalopram) which is an antidepressant in a group of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Serotonin is a chemical neurotransmitter; SSRIs affect serotonin levels in the brain.
As crazy as it seems, it works for me. After taking it, for the first time, almost in my entire life, I felt halfway like myself (whatever that is). I wish they put that stuff in the water. To be sure, it’s not a cure, and the depression is always still there, but the edge is gone, and things are manageable. I still self-medicate with a martini now and then, but the 6mb days are pretty much behind me. I’ve also learned that downtime is not my friend. And despite some injuries, I’m back in the water surfing again (just not well).
After this awful week, people and friends are questioning themselves. Why didn’t I see it, why didn’t I help, why wasn’t I watching closer, why wasn’t I there for them? None of this is anyone’s fault because you can never really see it. It’s a personal thing, something that even the depressed person will never understand, and may not realize themselves. You may be depressed, but you may never know why. You may not even notice it, you just think that’s the way things are.
In my case, I was lucky enough to have a person that knew me well enough to force me to take care of myself. There is still a stigma to mental health, yet no one stigmatizes it more than the person that is suffering from it.
It is very easy to ignore depression, to hide it, to push it down or party past it. Sometimes it can overwhelm, to the point that there is a real comfort in the quiet and warmth of oblivion. So it goes.