Two years ago, a doctor in an emergency room officially diagnosed me with depression. For me, it was hard to say at what point the usual negative feelings we feel all at times slid into what could fairly be characterized as clinically depressed. I was in my mid-forties and I had long before been diagnosed with anxiety, although I didn’t take that too seriously. I had seen psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals for what had been, for most of my life, mild symptoms. I was an underachiever, easy to anger, low self-esteem… these things were comparatively mild, but I did feel that they were enough beyond average imperfections to hamper me in life. There were days when I wondered if there was really nothing wrong with me but living in an environment where an individual’s self-worth was almost entirely based on achievement. Then again, I had difficulty maintaining relationships. So, I sought professional help. We explored various possibilities, all of which were eventually eliminated except for anxiety and episodes of anhedonia. Although the possibility of clinical depression was raised on several occasions, my symptoms always seem to fall short of being diagnosed with that.
Flash forward a few years…
As some point that’s hard to identify, I began sliding into a depression. Now, I wonder whether or not I have always had a proclivity, but I can confidently state that my recent depression is qualitatively different that previous times when I felt unmotivated. In the past, when I’ve felt myself sliding into a funk, I’d kick myself in the ass, as people like to say. I’d exert my willpower to eat better and exercise more and make sure that I got good quality sleep, some time out in the sun during the day, I would do some meditating, and in general engage in all those good, healthy habits intended to make you feel better. Since I already had a lifestyle most people would consider healthy, during a period like this I’d be a veritable model of clean living. Usually, after a few day, my funk would lift. Was it what I did or just the passage of time? I don’t know.
This time it was different. No amount of kicking myself in the ass was making me feel better. This time, seeking professional help, I knew something was seriously wrong. However, since I had moved, I had to seek out a new therapist. I had a hard time finding one. Once I did, I found I had a hard time convincing him just how serious my problem was. I felt like I wanted to die. I didn’t have a plan to kill myself, but I really, really wanted to somehow just fade from existence. I could barely do the dishes. Always an untidy person, my apartment became shockingly messy and disorganized to the point that I had more and more problems just functioning. I continued to apply my usually de-funking habits, especially the dieting and exercise because now I was beginning to put on weight. I exercised for an hour and a half a day instead of my usual hour. I kept a diary of everything I ate with a goal of twelve hundred calories a day, which I most succeeded in doing, and I never broke down and “binged.” That just isn’t a habit of mine. I was using the same nutrition reference I had used for a number of years. My weight stayed stubborn, my lack of motivation continued, and I still felt like I wanted to lie down and be swallowed by the earth never to be seen again.
If I can judge by what other people have told me about themselves, my normal diet is a bit healthier than the average. Since I was not athletic as a teenager, I started exercising for health at a young age and as an adult I continued, and added to, that routine. In terms of drug use, I tried cocaine once and didn’t like it. I’ve probably smoked pot a good twenty or thirty times. I didn’t drink in high school, nor did I drink regularly in college, but I do recall getting drunk at parties a few times, falling-down drunk only once, usually just thoroughly tipsy. In my twenties, I was something of a weekend drinker, having several beers while listening to bands. Around the time of my depression, I had long since settled into a habit of drinking wine with dinner a couple of nights a week and my social life no longer contained weekends with lots of alcohol. In short, I think my use of mind altering substances has been rather minimal. Alcohol would be the only one I’ve used regularly, and that was never out of control and have never even briefly wondered if I had a problem. If I feel that I’ve been drinking too much, usually due to the calories not the inebriation, I just cut back. It’s never even felt like an effort.
For much of my life, I’ve had people compliment me for my willpower, for my ability to say no to unhealthy foods that taste good, for the regularity with which I exercised, for the fact that I was self-employed and could arrange my own schedule and stick to it without anyone reminding me. So, when I first started seeking help for my depression, which wasn’t yet diagnosed, when I found therapists telling me to exercise, eat well and try to work harder, I was flabbergasted at first. Then I became frustrated when I realized that that was about all the help that was on offer.
What I was feeling was that I had done all the “right” things my whole life, and there I was in my mid-forties, single, back in school for the fourth or fifth time trying to make myself employable, with no social life, and just finding little to enjoy in life. I had already experienced in my attempts at online dating that a failure like me is examined for what I’ve done “wrong.” Now, obviously I’ve made mistakes or I wouldn’t be in this situation, but I haven’t made any of the big, obvious mistakes. Suddenly, I found that I was under suspicion of possible drug use, excessive drinking, loafing, a lack of self-discipline and so on. After all, we live in a meritocracy so I must somehow have been lacking in merit. Throughout my late thirties and early forties, I’d been in a cycle of trying harder and continuing to fail. As I expressed it at the time, “I feel like my wheels are spinning and I’m going nowhere.”
The inherent unfairness in life is not great, but I could live with it and alone it wouldn’t make me depressed. However, the general attitude that if you’re not a success it’s because there’s something wrong with you and the chilling effect that had on my social life was a problem. I began dreading social situations that involved meeting new people because of the question, “What do you do for a living?” It’s a bit old-fashioned these days, but growing up I was told that that was an impolite question. I can understand why it was once seen as rude. Worse yet, I started feeling that I didn’t know what to do. You know what they say about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results… Well, that was the place I was at. I wanted to improve my social life, my work life, my love life, but I didn’t know how. All the recommendations from other people were things I’d been doing my whole life and which had failed to get results. This is when my lack of motivation started. I had gone back to school, yet again, in hopes of getting something of a career going while I still had enough years left in my life to enjoy it. I found that I no longer had any confidence that this would yield any results. I was doing more of the same and I started to ask myself why I was expecting different results this time.
So when I started to see a therapist and he suggested that I exercise, diet and get myself back in school, it felt like a slap in the face. It felt like an insult to my entire life as a good, clean-living, disciplined person who had done all the right things. Worse yet, I felt as if he wasn’t listening to me. I felt as if I had wasted my entire life doing things I hated in order to please other people, in order to be seen as worthy in this society.
A few months later I would ask some police to take me to the hospital, which they did and where my symptoms were finally taken seriously. (Much thanks to all the helpful people in the emergency room at Bergen Pines.)
Well, all that is the necessary preface to understand what I have to say. A few days ago, in the wake of my more recent crisis, I found myself saying to someone that I hadn’t learned coping skills for living with depression. After I wrote that in an email, I started searching for information on the internet. What I found reminded me that I had done this search two years ago after I got out of the hospital with my diagnosis and I remembered why I abandoned the effort. The advice was mostly diet, exercise, meditate, don’t drink too much, don’t take drugs, get out and socialize, do some creative work, all the damn things I’ve spent my entire life doing from adolescence onwards, and most of which I fucking hate. I’m going on fucking fifty and I feel like I’ve spent my entire life doing what other people have told me I should do. I hate exercising, truly hate it. For much of my adult life I’ve exercised an hour daily, assuming the occasional missed day, realistically that’s about five hours a week or two hundred and sixty hours a year. I spend two hundred and sixty hours a year doing something I truly hate. One of the bit of evidence contributing to my “anhedonia” was when my doctor asked if I enjoy food. Of course I don’t enjoy my food. I’m on a fucking diet. I’ve been on a diet since I was twelve. I could enjoy food, but I don’t eat anything that’s enjoyable to eat. I’ve never not enjoyed a pile of quality french fries, but I almost never ate them. They’re fattening. I don’t actually enjoy meditating either. I can’t say I hate it, but I’ve only ever done it out of a sense of obligation, the idea that meditating might make me a better person. Maybe, but then again who knows. Remember that anxiety I mentioned earlier, well a lot of that is social anxiety. I find socializing with strangers to be very draining. It’s difficult and not enjoyable. As far as the creative work, what can I say, may I laugh in the face of people of the good people who make that suggestion. Not only was I doing all these things during my slide into a depression, I swear that these were the behaviors that made me depressed. When I hear these suggestions, I get a crazy thought in my head I that I want to take an exacto knife and carve into my flesh little hatch marks for each day I spend living someone else’s idea of a good life, like a prisoner in a medieval dungeon. Then I remember that the only person I would be hurting would be myself.
I wish all those well-intentioned people with their good advice would just acknowledge that they don’t have a fucking clue. One thing that irks me is realizing that I could diet and exercise and get thin, find a guy who I don’t really like that much but would be willing to play the role of boyfriend, find a job that still wasn’t a career but at least satisfied other people that I was “trying,” and be not one iota happier, still be wishing that I could die, but if I did all those things no matter what kind of internal pain I was in a therapist would think we were making progress.
Anyway, I’m going to publish this and then put on my sneakers and go for a jog, not because I like jogging but because I desperately don’t want to feel depressed anymore and despite the fact that I believe it doesn’t work I can’t quite bring myself to stop doing it because who am I to disagree with all the supposed experts. That will be about an hour and twenty minutes wasted doing something I hate on the off-chance it will help.
Also, I would like to kindly ask that no one comment unless you feel that you can relate to where I’m coming from, as they used to say back in the seventies.