PREFACE: This is a condensed version of my experience with the illness of depression. I am a man who was given valuable experiences that lead to enormous growth. It is not an indication of having a completely self actualized or enlightened sense of self. It is rather an understanding that through this difficulty, I have grown, and that I have many miles yet to travel.
A MAN APART
When it hit me, it was like crashing into a wall of bricks. Only these bricks were invisible. I had no idea where they came from, or why they came. This made it all the worse, and left me with a deep, desperate, and abstract feeling of unreality. I knew one thing – it was a feeling so desolate, and dark, that I would never be the same. I felt as if I was on a planet with which I had no connection – I was from some other unknown place with no hope of returning. I was alone and disconnected. I was a man apart.
My first thought was that perhaps I was insane. Had I gone crazy? What the hell is this foreign desolate feeling? AND, what in the hell am I? Like anyone that realizes they are wounded or in danger, I immediately thought of running for help from family. Only, they weren't my family anymore. They were strangers, and that sense of security and safety that comes from being “connected” and near the ones you love, was gone forever. It seemed as if everyone in the universe was completely blind, disconnected, and foreign. They were just robotic automatons going through life unconsciously responding to data and stimuli.
Changing Colors Changing Tastes
When I looked at a child, all could see and feel was his as yet unrealized empty meaningless life. Food didn't taste the same. The air was like a thick humid oppressive cloud hanging from my soul blinding and disconnecting me from what was. Things that had brought me pleasure – a movie, a book, a friend – no longer brought pleasure. Sleep was rare. Everything was empty and black. Beauty was black. Love was black. And everything was at a distance. I was in a void completely separate from everything I had previously known.
The abstract nature of what was happening to me made shouting for help impossible. It was as if I was speaking a foreign language. I was presenting with – well something - I really didn't know what ? Was it pain? Confusion? Sadness? Insanity? I mean, what can anyone do when presented with “this”? We don't discuss “this”. The abstract nature of ones existence – and whether it is real - isn’t covered in school.
Desperate, I went to a Psychiatrist who, to his credit, prefaced our session with “I'm going to ask questions that may seem odd, but bear with me. Uh your age? Sexual orientation? Experience with drugs? Any homosexual experiences? *Oh, and what does it mean when I say the grass is always greener on the other side? And, what would you do if you found a stamped addressed letter on the sidewalk (Referencing my ability to think in the abstract, as well as test my frame of logic and reality)?”
These seemed to be absurd, disconnected questions with no relevance to this Black Dog, this mystery and insanity. I don't remember his saying anything that could explain what happened to me. He offered nothing that would help it take shape, have touch and form, and therefore be fixable. Without explanation, I was given medication that made me feel doped up and spaced out. I stopped taking it. Why should I? What's happening to me wasn't physical; I was crazy – so how could a pill help?
As a teenager, I was lucky. A high lottery number kept me out of Vietnam - my generation’s life changing event. Many came back from that place having experienced trauma at an age that acutely defines one's life. Many came back dramatically changed. Many came back, men apart.
My first life changing event occurred when I was a devout member of a generation (The 60's man), that was going to make a change – a paradigm shift into the way one looked at the world. Of coarse this involved hallucinating drugs. The world no longer seemed to be this flat insane place filled with hypocrisy, conflict, terror, and ambiguity. Reminiscent to those embracing the French Revolution almost two centuries earlier, WE were going to make a change. This was a revolution….. Two drug overdoses gave me my first glimpse of insanity, and altered reality. Both were painful, delusional, and terror filled. I spoke about them to no one.
Another life changing event came when I broke up with a woman I loved deeply. I had also hoped to be a guitarist, and an instrument builder. Music was my passion. While building a guitar, my hand slipped into the tool I was using. BOOM! I looked down, saw missing fingers, and immediately thought, “wow, this is life changing. Things will never be the same after this moment.” I wondered how I would play guitar? During a break from numerous surgeries to rebuild part of my hand with skin grafts (Where my hand was sewn into my leg for a month), I drove home for a visit. Upon opening the door I found my father lying motionless on the floor. He had passed away a week or two before. BOOM. Another life changing event.
The insanity, this “Black Dog”, gave me a permanent visit a few months later. It was also life changing. I knew things would never be the same. Like my missing fingers, I was gone. I wasn't the same. I didn't feel the same. It was as if someone had opened my head, taken out my brain, and replaced it with the brain of an alien. I was a man apart.
Being alone with this was difficult, and extremely frightening. Insanity, fear, panic, and separateness surrounded me 24/7.
At that time, from a spiritual standpoint, I was somewhere between an Atheist and an Agnostic. Add a dash of cynicism and suspicion, and that was my “inner” location. I couldn't reach for God – how can you reach for something that doesn't exist? And wouldn't reaching for God just be a way of fooling myself, or a sign of weakness? *Regardless of this, I tasted every “ism” and “anity” out there, and found no magic elixir, no born again experience. I didn't know it at the time, but I was being introduced to a process. A slow, one step at a time, interpersonal, spiritual, and evolutionary process.
Through the years, things lightened up a bit, but the unreality, the darkness and depression, the fear and sleeplessness, the tastelessness, was always there. Just as I thought that maybe I wasn't weak and crazy, another life experience would kick my butt. Eventually I saw another Psychiatrist and began counseling. It was difficult opening up that secret door where the “black dog” lie, but it had to be done. EXPOSURE. I felt I had to let out all my ugly. I would leave no stone unturned. I also began taking an anti depressant medication. Each day was filled with fear, self loathing, and the disconnection to life. I was diagnosed with Major depression. Hmmm… It had a name. It had a reason. This gave what was happening to me, definition, shape and form. This made my experience concrete and tangible. It was something I could see, feel, and touch. Maybe I wasn’t insane, or humanistic-ally invalid. Maybe I wasn't an alien?
I knew I had to DO SOMETHING. I had to create action. I made myself absorb beauty, nobility, and hope – if they existed. When I saw the child’s smile and the budding Rose, I felt empty and hopeless. BUT, I made myself repeat, “There is validity to that child’s smile! There IS beauty within the petals of that Rose.” I made myself exercise, and focus on doing things one step at a time. When in action, be only within that action (Sounding Zen-like?). No multi tasking. Focus on one thing at a time. Film, Art, and Music also helped to lift me. I slowly discovered that within the nucleus of art, was the pure seed of man’s dignity and nobility. Mathematically I came to understand the equation, dignity + nobility + love = Hope.
Eventually I came to realize that there was beauty and order in the universe. This was my first glimpse that maybe for me, there was a God. Reading about men and women giving of themselves and overcoming obstacles lifted me. It gave me hope. But, I could only embrace this process on an intellectual level - on a thinking level. I couldn't do it on a “feeling” level, because everything felt so bad, so colorless, so tasteless. But, I was going to absorb this dignity, nobility, and order – I had no choice. I had to survive.
About two weeks after starting the medication, I began to notice that something was a bit different. The weight of the “Black dog” was reduced. I started to find interest and validity in being human. “Man, I haven't felt like this in decades!” I began to realize that what was happening to me had a name and a reason. It wasn’t some abstract bolt of insanity and suffering that would hit me for no reason, or because I was bad. It had shape and form. Therefore, I could deal with it concretely. (I could utilize methodology and design a road to health).
I realized I had been “depressed” for a very, very long time. I became more aware of the brain/body connection. I studied the inner workings of brain chemistry and gathered a bit of understanding about the importance of our neurotransmitters. I continued my internal exercise of positive self talk, and the beauty of art. I developed an invisible “toolbox” containing all the things that got me through the night. Things like friends, exercise, journaling, walks in the woods, prayer, meditation, art, music, dance, and sharing issues with trusted others. I would literally clean a corner of my house knowing that each accomplished step was a metaphor for those internal steps necessary for growth, integration and a connection to being human. I would try to be introspective, without over focusing on myself. I would seek balance.
I began to make friends with depression, with my enemy. I began to embrace that “Black Dog”. As I have learned more about him, he has surprised me less. I gained strength and confidence. He and I were brothers. The “Black Dog” became my rocket ship jetting me far beyond the limited horizons I had been clinging to (And sometimes still cling too). My illness, the “Black Dog”, was my teacher. It instructed me in the ways of weakness, strength, resiliency, compassion, spirituality, honesty, forgiveness, and hope. It has increased my depth of vision, and acutely steadied the balance of the ying and the yang, the happiness and the sadness of life. It’s a strange but beautiful irony, that ones worst enemy can become a guiding force toward balance, health, hope, gratitude, and unity. I am not perfect, and I still struggle. But, I am becoming a part of something, and no longer a man apart.