Thirteen years ago, I was diagnosed with dysthymic disorder, a chronic condition that is considered less severe than clinical depression yet typically features similar symptoms that exist over a greater period of time. Prior to my diagnosis, I had likely endured dysthymia for five to seven years with very little therapeutic and no medical intervention. It took a lot of time for me to seriously consider that my symptoms were not caused by my circumstances but merely aggravated by them. The real cause of my recurring malady, or so my experience suggests, is a chemical imbalance that can be corrected to a degree by the appropriate medication.
Those ignorant of depression and its insidious nature might conclude that I had “nothing to be depressed about” when the condition first manifested itself in my late twenties. After all, I was a happily married new father of stable employment living in our own home in a pleasant suburban neighborhood. A loving and caring network of extended family, friends and neighbors enriched my life. I had plenty of outside interests to enhance my leisure time. How could I have been depressed? But, of course, the illness doesn’t work that way.
I was unhappy with my job at the time. Though I held a management position, the work was not particularly meaningful, my salary was modest, the benefits were dwindling and my responsibilities were increasingly stressful. Nor did there appear to be any chance of advancement or improvement. It was not an uncommon situation, but my response to it was. I began to feel hopelessly locked into my circumstances, powerless as the joy began to drain from my life like sands in an hourglass. In my darkest moments, I was convinced of two things: there was no way out, and it was only going to get worse.
As my untreated condition grew worse, suicidal ideation reared its ugly head for the first time. My wife and I took a wonderful, albeit short, vacation that we enjoyed immensely. Yet at the end of one of the best days I’ve ever experienced as a traveler, I was sitting alone in the hotel tub finishing off a glass of wine, and my mood darkened as I thought about the job to which I would soon return. That was reality, I thought; this was merely a temporary break from reality. I slipped down in the tub until the water was up to my nose. I wanted to submerge and never come up. For the remainder of our time away, I consoled myself with the fact that our plane might crash on the way home, and that would be the end of my problems. What problems, you may be asking yourself. Such is the nature of depression.
“People who kill themselves think they’re solving their problems,” a beloved family member once opined, “but they don’t realize they’re never coming back.” Au contraire, mon frère. It’s the very idea of a permanent lack of consciousness that is devilishly appealing. But what about your family? Your friends? How could you do this to them? Behold the suicidal mind.
Eventually I did extract myself from that unfulfilling occupation and embarked on a truly meaningful vocation as an elementary school teacher. But that did not eradicate the suicidal ideation. In fact, I was plagued by it throughout graduate school, a particularly stressful time during which my wife was the sole breadwinner as I plunged into my studies full-time. I availed myself of counseling services to improve my mental health, but aside from the cold comfort of expressing my predicament, little improved. I came away believing that if only I made it through grad school, the depression monkey would jump off my back for good. SPOILER ALERT: It didn’t.
And if I thought that grad school was stressful, I was totally unprepared for the pressurized cauldron that is the life of a first-year teacher. Hypersensitivity to criticism and perceived rejection, symptoms of dysthymic disorder, are unenviable traits for someone who is deflecting challenges and corrections from all directions. I was beginning to wonder if I could hack it. The old saw, “failure is not an option,” truly applied to me. There was no way out but through, as far as I could see. But rather than toughing it out, I once again sought help. This time I was referred to a psychologist, who made the diagnosis and introduced me to serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a class of drugs that would address my suspected chemical imbalance for the first time.
It wasn’t a magic bullet, but gradually things began to change for the better. I got through the mind-scrambling whirlwind of my first year and emerged on the other side as a better teacher for my next group of students. Now a family of four, we joined a church and became very active in it. In fact, as I entered my late thirties, I was more fulfilled and anxiety-free than I had been in years. And I began to think that, perhaps, this busy and rewarding social life within our church was what I had needed all along. If only I had divined that sooner, I would have saved myself a lot of trouble. Yes, that was surely the very truth of the matter. Can you see where I was going? Right down the road to a stupid mistake. I abandoned my meds without any professional consultation.
And I was fine! Which only proved me right. Until I was proven wrong. Until months or maybe even a year later, when I was haunted by the same cycles of negativity that I thought I had conquered. Until I was driving home and hoping that someone would crash into me. Why, it wasn’t embracing the church that had changed everything for the better after all. Nor was it my increasing mastery of my profession. To be fair, it probably was no one thing. But whatever it was, it included serotonin reuptake inhibitors. A painful lesson learned, I went to my doctor, who ordered the first in an ongoing series of prescriptions.
My life is good. It’s not without its challenges, setbacks and frustrations, but whose is? It would be a grave mistake to expect otherwise. But here’s the annoying thing: the suicidal ideation persists. My medication keeps me rational enough to avoid indulging these grim scenarios, but it can’t eliminate them. I have learned to acknowledge and dismiss recurring images of, say, a noose closing about my neck, just one of a gallery of macabre thoughts likely to pop into my head when I am stressed or bored (or, the worst of all, stressed and bored). The images can be frustratingly persistent. One year, nearly every time I passed a red-painted beam that protruded from a balcony of my school, I could not help but picture myself hanging from it. Which is a hell of a thing, I know, and furthermore, it’s why so many people who suffer from depression are unwilling to acknowledge or treat it. You don’t want people to think you’re crazy.
I’ve thought about publicly divulging my experiences with depression for a long time now. In fact, I’ve wanted to, as I know for a fact that I have benefitted from everyone else who has done so. And it seems like the only way we’re going to stop people from feeling ashamed of their depression is to show just how prevalent an illness it is. When someone you know and love goes through it, you gain an empathy you might not otherwise have. As a teacher, it’s always seemed unwise for me to do anything other than keep my dysthymic disorder strictly private. Why should I give anyone ammunition that they might use against me, however ignorantly? But after witnessing the reaction to Robin Williams’ death and the outpouring of empathetic appeals for understanding, I feel like it’s selfish for me to keep my experience to myself. Someone reading this might find some hope in it, just I as I have been comforted by others who have shared their dark times.
How can there be so much help available yet so many depressed people who take their own lives? I don’t know. But maybe we can at least create a culture of acceptance that will encourage the discouraged. So the hell with the consequences. If you know me, and if you’ve assumed that I “have it all together,” know that I am one of the millions who persevere with depression. And if that surprises you, just think about how many others you must know.