IN WHICH I FINALLY GET BETTER
It was summer outside, bright and humid, and I was inside, sitting in a big poofy chair, ready to get into it with a new therapist.
“I’ll probably make jokes,” I said to begin our first appointment. “It’s part of the way I talk. I like to make jokes about grim and grisly stuff as a way of facing it. The jokes, the laughs, that’s oxygen for me. Maybe it’s deflection. I’m not sure. I don’t think so. You tell me.”
“Okay,” Julie said.
This was the intake session, where you tell the therapist your story and include descriptions of family of origin, traumas, any occurrence of mental illness on your family tree, current life, health habits, and the reason you made the appointment that put you in the poofy chair.
“I’ve been depressed my whole life, but I only found out about twelve years ago. I’ve been kind of faking my way through since childhood. I’ve managed to stop getting worse. I want to be better.”
“Well, let’s see if we can do something about that,” said Julie. I liked her. Finding a therapist is a bit like dating. You might have to have some very boring or weird or tense meetings before you find someone you connect with. I was fortunate that this felt good right away. For various reasons, I had mostly had short-term relationships with therapists in the past. Just flings. Even a few one-session stands. I had never been able to make much of a commitment. My mind was a wild stallion that demanded to run free.
I continued, “I have to say, though, I have a lot of reasons to think this won’t work. And, yes, I know that might be the depression talking, but it’s also the only evidence I’ve got. It’s never gotten better before, really, so how could it? But yes, I’m ready to try. I hope it works. I doubt it will.”
Julie was a bit younger than me but old enough to have lived a life; she had probably experienced hardship, probably had someone close to her die, so I felt like she would know what I was talking about. She was cheerful but reserved, reminding me of someone I might have known in college who was in a sorority but also kind of knew how silly sororities were.
“What’s really, I guess, dumb? About this? Is that I’ve got this show I host. It’s a podcast about depression, so I spend all day at work thinking about this stuff and a lot of time outside work talking about this stuff. I travel places to give speeches about this stuff. Right now, I’m working on a book about this stuff, too. But it all came out of this podcast.”
“I know the podcast well,” she said. “You emailed me about it, but I already knew it.”
I had emailed her but figured she wouldn’t read the email or remember it if she had because I’m dumb and worthless and everyone hates me. This didn’t make me sad; it’s the way I understood the world to be.
I kept talking, like I do. “But the thing about that show is that it’s mostly about other people’s depression. I feel like I understand other people’s depression pretty well, actually. I can quickly figure out what their issues are and draw information and stories out of them. Make connections they hadn’t thought of. The thing is, I don’t know what is going on with me. It’s hard to see a skyscraper from inside the skyscraper.”
My first appointment with Julie took place after two full seasons of The Hilarious World of Depression. By the time I talked to her, I had conducted a couple of years’ worth of deep and lengthy interviews with comedians, musicians, and writers who had dealt with clinical depression, or “Clinny D” as we had taken to calling it on the show. I’d also spent a lot of time with my public radio colleagues discussing those interviews and how best to present them in order to inform, enlighten, and entertain our audience. This moment, here with Julie, was really the first time I had attempted to do anything to improve my own mental health, which had ranged from “getting by” to “disastrous” for most of my life. I had spent years exhorting people to get help and to believe that they could get better while never believing that about myself.
Instead of attempting to actually improve the health of my mind, I had always looked for ways to just hold on for a while longer. Essentially, it was as if I were living in a house that kept catching on fire but all I had ever tried to do was douse the flames. From there, I guess, the plan was to sit in this charred, smoke-damaged house and say, “Well, now everything is okay!” without having any intention of fixing the walls, patching the roof, or figuring out where the goddamn flames kept coming from in the first place. Friends, that’s just bad property management.
I had ended up believing that it was just too late for me. I was never going to do any better with my mental health, so the best-case scenario was to do no worse. I wasn’t thrilled about that, but I accepted it. The notion of improving seemed a lot like getting your arm bitten off by a shark and then waiting for a new arm to grow back. What you really need to do then is stop the bleeding and launch a podcast about shark bite wounds. Okay, for real though, there are going to be a lot of metaphors and similes in this book. I can’t even define depression. I’ve never found anyone who could. That’s part of the problem. So, reader, it’ll be analogy-a-go-go from here on; strap in.
I was in Julie’s office because there was finally a critical mass of significant events in my life that made seeking help seem viable and sort of urgent in a prevention-of-dying kind of way. One was that I was turning fifty, which is only still middle age if you plan to be a hundred. Frankly, the sands of my mortal life were falling into the bottom part of the hourglass. I was on deadline before my dead line.
Also, lately, I kept wanting to … not so much die as simply not be alive anymore. I didn’t want to kill myself—God, no, far from it—I just kept thinking about how nothingness, a nothingness in which I am not even aware of nothingness, would be sort of delicious. This, even though the world has wonderful stuff to offer, like my family and ice cream and the NBA playoffs. I’d be driving in to work or cleaning the kitchen or trying to sleep and boom! there came the thoughts of longing for the void, a void that I fully understood I would not perceive because that’s the thing about voids. This feeling was morbid and, yes, depressing, but it was also just pesky. What it really was, of course, was a mind that wanted to rest but kept whirring along and pushing me to dark places.
My unique brand of depression responds to stress; specifically, it blows up under stress. When the going gets tough, I don’t get amped up, I get despondent. I turn into a human version of a song by the Smiths. By the time I reached for the phone to call Julie for an appointment, I was basically Morrissey crooning alone in a darkened basement. Stressors included my soon-to-be high school senior son, Charlie, getting ready to apply to colleges, booking the next season of our show, and trying to do a good job writing the book you’re reading right now.
And yes, there’s always stress in life, we all go through stuff, but the rate at which I metabolized stress into depression had gone through the roof. It was a brutally efficient machine.
“What do you have to be stressed about?” the normies might have said, if I ever talked about these things with normal people. “You have a family, a house, a car, a good job. Just deal with it!”
As if I could simply do that. As if I chose this. As if I looked at the options available to me and they were clearly labeled “Perseverance” and “Freaking the Fuck Out All the Time” and calmly said, “Mmm, yes, I select option B.”
Normies and saddies are different, you see. Let’s say there’s a long bridge going over a high canyon and there are two cars on it, one for the normies and one for the saddies. The normies are in a big land yacht of a Buick, weighs a ton, low to the ground. When a stiff wind blows, the normies feel a mild push but continue driving, perhaps casually noting that it’s “gettin’ windy out there!” Then they go back to listening to, I don’t know, Foo Fighters. The saddies are piled into a Model T with a sail on top of it for some reason. They see the wind coming, and it’s all they can do to keep from being blown off the road and plunging into the canyon. The normies see the saddies struggle and wonder what the problem is because, to them, the wind doesn’t seem that bad. “Try being more positive!” the normies shout as the saddies’ Model T goes tumbling off the side and the saddies deploy the parachutes they’ve gotten used to wearing.
I’d had good therapists in the past, briefly, but all I ever took away from therapy was a somewhat clearer understanding of how messed up I was. That’s helpful, sure, but it’s not really progress. Like knowing the brand of refrigerator you’re locked in. And this was not the fault of the therapists I had seen, who were all trained pros and good at their jobs. It was my fault, or Clinny D’s fault. I never wanted to go all that deep in therapy because that’s where the monsters were. I’m talking about the really really bad memories, the deep bruises, the scars, the events that significantly shape a person through injury. Trauma. Rather than tackle the past, I was willing to settle for a tense ceasefire with it, letting my life be like Middle East countries that hate each other. There would be car bombings, but a homeland is a homeland.
I had gone through life with the belief, often heard in simpleminded quarters of popular psychology, that the past is the past and you just have to move on. “Let it go,” the simple-minded say, again, as if no one had ever tried that before. Don Henley and Glenn Frey wrote a song along these lines called “Get Over It” (my response song would be called “Fuck Off, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About”). I suspect most people who choose the willfully simplistic Henley method are people who’ve never had much unpleasant stuff in their past to begin with, because this notion is some bullshit. If you can’t understand your past, then you don’t really know how your mind got to where it is now, because you simply don’t know yourself.
Making matters worse, depression causes the saddie to lose hope. It inserts despair where hope should go, and you’re left at least suspecting, if not believing in your heart, that nothing will or even could get better. So to figure things out? I mean, depression doesn’t even want you to get up, take a shower, and brush your teeth, so something like figuring out how your own mind works feels about as easy as taking a bus to Mars.
Over and over in interviews I conducted for the show, I heard about CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s a practical method of psychological counseling that’s built around retraining one’s thought patterns so that everyday stimuli aren’t converted into toxic thoughts. You tear down the old roads that always go to the bad parts of town, and you build strong new highways to prosperous neighborhoods. On the show, it was the guests who had gone through CBT who seemed to be doing the best. So when I went to find a new therapist, I limited my search. They had to offer this specific approach, they had to be relatively close to my house so I couldn’t talk my way out of going, and they couldn’t be, like, twenty-three and/or named Kristi.
In that first session, I only got about halfway through my biography. I think most therapists and patients can get this all done in one session, but we had to schedule a second to fully describe all the ick. I recall Julie’s mouth actually dropping open during one description of family behaving in a not-at-all-nurturing manner. When you’ve shocked a professional therapist, you’ve accomplished something.
At the end of the second half of intake, Julie paused, collected some thoughts, and said, “You’ve been through more than most other people.” I gave myself a little mental high five for being the trauma champ, quickly imagining a lavish yet morose award ceremony.
The longest road a person with depression travels can often be the one between where they are at present and where they can get help to improve. Seeking that out, making that appointment, and keeping that appointment can be a Herculean task. And yes, that sounds, well, crazy. If you can get better, why wouldn’t you want to do that as soon as possible? It’s like being super hungry but reluctant to go to the Free Pizza Store located ten feet away. (I don’t know how the Free Pizza Store stays in business, honestly.) (Also, now I imagine a depressed Hercules trying to figure out what therapist is in his insurance network and wishing he had some pizza.)
What keeps people away is a fear, one that depression itself is delighted to stoke, that as long as you don’t find out you have mental health problems, then you somehow don’t have mental health problems. If you never get a good look at the monster, then there’s no need to fight the monster. The problem there is that yeah, that monster is real, and if you opt out of fighting it, the monster simply beats the crap out of you all the time.
While I had the monster pretty well contained, I wanted to start throwing some punches. I wanted to feel better.
So we got to work unpacking it all.
JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL AND DEPRESSION BEING SOMEHOW CONNECTED
I got hit by a car on the way to school in seventh grade. Predawn haze at 7:25 a.m., darker due to the usual Pacific Northwest cloud cover. Right by the big roadside sign that read MARINE HILLS, denoting our middle-class housing development, there was an intersection that wasn’t marked as a crosswalk but that kids used every day anyway, skittering across when there seemed to be a break in traffic. Frankly, it’s a miracle that pubescent corpses didn’t litter that road on a daily basis. It was a recipe for disaster, and I followed that recipe. As I crossed, failing to account for a car’s acceleration based on its widening headlights, the driver was failing to account for children darting out when and where they shouldn’t. Yes, I’m blaming myself for getting hit by a car. Habit. Sorry. The screeching of brakes got my attention so that I turned to face the midsize sedan coming at me, got clipped at the knees, flattened my torso across the hood and head-banged it, lost consciousness, rolled across the hood, and was deposited on the roadside, where I woke up.
No apparent damage. I could move everything, and nothing felt broken. The woman who hit me was freaked out but very kind. She gave me a ride home, where my mom looked me over and sent the woman on her way. I didn’t have to go to school that day; Mom went to work. That was it. I stayed home, watching Bob Barker on The Price Is Right and thinking being hit by a car should be a bigger deal than this to other people. I was terrified.
The incident turned into a story to tell people at school, a few days of popularity, and an empty promise by the school to do something to make that stretch of road safer. Since I was physically fine, I regarded this as merely an odd thing that happened. But the older I get, the more I think about it and what long-term effect that trauma (and it was trauma) had. Trauma occurs when something happens that’s too horrible for your brain to deal with, so you just store it away. Over time, the horrible thing, which is still there, starts coming out in a variety of ugly ways, causing mental problems that you don’t even associate with the trauma because it happened so long ago.
Trauma is a wolf and your mind is a house and it’s like, “Oh, I’m safe from that wolf because I trapped it in my house before it could hurt me.” But then a while later, it’s “Oh no! What happened to my house? My furniture is shredded and there’s wolf poop everywhere! How did THAT happen? Oh hey, I’m being mauled.”
A few years before being hit by a car, I had caught a BB from a BB gun in my chest. My friend Dean and I were messing around with one of the BB guns my family always seemed to have in the house. It wasn’t loaded, so we were pumping air into the gun and then shooting each other to find out what compressed air felt like. Smart kids! When we took a break, my brother Rick dropped an actual BB in there. When Dean fired point-blank at me, the BB that he and I didn’t think existed entered my chest and a trickle of blood made its way down my white T-shirt. Before I could comprehend what was happening, I was hurled into our family’s Chevy van and my mom was rushing me to the hospital. We were told that the little metal pellet had missed my heart by an inch. It’s still there, and I forget about it for years at a time until something like an MRI happens and the technician becomes very confused. It would be nice if I could feel as if surviving that and the car whomping made me invincible, but instead it has always made me feel like I could be killed at any moment. I don’t know why Rick put that BB in there.
By junior high, boys and girls were coupling up, heavy metal and its attendant Satanism became crucially important, and everyone was suddenly talking about and consuming drugs. Federal Way, my hometown, is a working-class suburb, so while we didn’t have expensive drugs, pot and amphetamines were cheap and plentiful.
About half of our class seemed to switch from being children to burnout headbangers over the summer before seventh grade. Kelly, a very sweet and kind girl from down the street who talked like a cartoon fawn, pulled out a joint as we walked to school one day, drastically changing my view of her, drugs, school, and, I suppose, cartoon fawns.
Sacajawea Junior High was made up of a series of small buildings, the covered outdoor paths between them serving as hallways. I assume the architects had in mind that this open outdoor plan would allow for a comfortable and less restrictive environment than anxiety-producing indoor hallways. If that was their intention, it was sabotaged by the bright yellow lines painted on the concrete pathways that surrounded the buildings. The yellow lines, abundant throughout the campus, were not to be crossed. A student absentmindedly wandering across a yellow line was to be gently corrected by any nearby teacher, whereas a student flagrantly crossing the yellow line in order to cause a ruckus was to be sent to the principal’s office for punishment commensurate with their wanton yellow-line crossing.
In practice, none of it happened. The teachers couldn’t remember the rules of the goddamn yellow lines and were always stressed out about them. Some of my happiest memories of junior high are of kids jumping on and over the lines and teachers shaking their heads and walking away while the administration’s dream of a student body disciplined navy-brig-style shattered and we laughed as the adults’ spirits broke. Good times.
Depression has no yellow warning lines. In my case, I was already carrying the trauma of two close calls with death. I also had a genetic predisposition, judging by the suicides and bleak life trajectories of various Norwegian ancestors, a low thrum of trauma that just kept getting passed down like a lefse recipe. Then there was just plain ol’ hormone-squirting puberty, which must have had some degree of culpability.
This is why much of the conversation about the origins of major depressive disorder is so often off base. The emotion of being down, unhappy, or despairing as a response to negative circumstances can be excruciating, but it is not technically a disorder. In fact, it’s logical and even healthy. A disorder is when you can’t recover from that feeling. A disorder is when you feel that way even when devastating events are not taking place or when you can’t hold down a job or relationships or take care of your responsibilities.
I will never know exactly why I started to go bonkers in junior high, but bonkers I went. I was sad, yes. Also agitated. Also gloomy. Sad, Agitated, and Gloomy are all dwarf characters from my goth remake of Snow White.
When it started to happen, I had no idea that these were symptoms of a treatable illness, that this was a health condition. Junior high health class was no help. Sure, the resentful gym teacher running the “welcome to adulthood” orientation covered things like puberty, gonorrhea, syphilis, and unexpected body hair, but he never mentioned screaming brains or morbid thoughts. And if it wasn’t discussed there, that meant there was no path from what was happening to “health.” It meant that what I was going through was not normal, and if it wasn’t normal, it was obviously bad. So I kept quiet, as millions of adolescents do every day.
None of the preparation I’d had for junior high ever involved the idea that I would be increasingly unable to concentrate in class, at home, anywhere, really. It was never mentioned that I would routinely fail to remember what a teacher had said a few minutes earlier or what they were saying right in the moment. None of this had been a problem before. I had considered myself to be a bright kid until that point. I was proud of me. But no longer.
At some point in seventh grade I moved into what I now know to have been obsessive compulsive disorder and what I then knew as I Am Going Crazy. It started small. When I turned around to my right I would have to make sure to turn back around to my left, coming back to my starting position, before walking forward. If I attempted to walk forward without reorienting myself, it would eat at me, my brain screaming, “Fix this!” until I stopped, respun, and moved on in temporary peace.
There’s a misconception around OCD that all people who have it are delusional, that they live in a different world where life and death are determined by whether they tap the doorknob an odd or even number of times. But for me, and for a lot of other folks with OCD, that’s not how it works. They know how stupid this whole thing is; they fully realize how silly it is to have to go through these patterns all the goddamn time. They know it’s making them late for work, and like anyone else with a mental illness, they would love to make the whole thing stop, but they just cannot.
Copyright © 2020 by John Moe