Depression is not fun. Those of you who’ve had it know of what I speak.
First, let me clarify what I mean by depression. I don’t mean the periodic ‘down-in-the-dumps’ phases we all experience.
Your girlfriend/boyfriend breaks up with you. You don’t get the promotion at work. Your daughter is struggling mightily in school. You feel terrible in all these scenarios. But most of the time, it doesn’t lead to full-blown depression.
My Bed of Nails
Which leads to that ever-so-difficult endeavor: Describing depression. To those who’ve never experienced it, clinical depression is hard to describe. It’s a type of pain one can’t pinpoint as one can, say, that of a broken ankle or a stomach flu.
Rather than expound further, I’ll give you what many say is the most articulate rendering of depression ever written. It came from the great American writer, William Styron, who, in Darkness Visible, a memoir of his bout with depression, wrote this:
“The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come — not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute…It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul. One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes.”
To that I would only add the physical feeling of heavy-headedness, a dull fog that descends over one’s being, preventing any semblance of joy, thrusting the depressed into an abyss where the soil produces only negative, pessimistic thoughts.
The Odyssey begins: Collapsing at College
My bout with depression started soon after arriving at Princeton in September of 1982. I’d grown up in laid-back Newport Beach, California. The toughest decision most kids at my high school had to make was whether they were going to surf before or after school.
Then I arrived at Princeton with its worldly prep-schoolers, Long Island neurotics and garden-variety over-achievers from every state in the union. The confluence of that jarring change and the crumbling of my first love relationship resulted in my psychic collapse.
My biggest problem in dealing with this convulsive change was that my first 18 years had been quite good. No deaths in the family. No divorces. Decent financial security. Fun with sports. Bottom line: My life toughness muscles were flabby and untested.
A few months in at Princeton and I was genuinely worried that I’d have to spend the rest of my life in a mental hospital. That is not an exaggeration.
My thoughts became consumed with the pointlessness of life. I couldn’t shake the idea that I was just going to die someday so why did anything really matter? I was in that existential funk for the better part of three years.
In retrospect, I should have been treated in a hospital. I’d probably have recovered faster.
Breakdown at Christmas
I kept thinking that everything would be okay when I returned home for Christmas vacation in December of 1982. A couple weeks out I was counting the hours until my flight home. Big mistake.
When I got home, I realized that my life was no longer there. It was gone. Forever. I realized all I had was the awful life back at Princeton.
That’s when I cratered and had a breakdown. I had a pit in my stomach for several days and couldn’t stop crying.
My mom took me to see a psychiatrist, but nothing came of it. Ironically, what saved me from that crisis within a crisis was an English paper I had to write that forced me to focus on something other than how terrible I felt.
Sophomore year wasn’t much better, so I decided to take a year off from school.
My year away from school
I moved home and frankly didn’t have a whole lot to do. Not smart. Too much time to ponder how lousy I felt. Then again, the pressure cooker of the Princeton academic life wasn’t good for me, either.
And that is the single worst thing about depression — there is no answer. No relief. As Styron said, you’re attached to your bed of nails wherever you go, whatever you do.
So I carried my bed of nails with me to San Francisco and lived with my sister for a few months. I saw my first therapist, which was minorly helpful.
Home Not-so-Sweet Home
A few months later, still lost, I headed back home, my bed of nails still snug on my back. I saw another therapist, this one marginally more effective than the last, but continued to feel awful.
My mom, who I was very close to growing up, was beside herself with all this. She possessed a rare combination of being emotionally tough but also unselfish and loving. Nothing could break her. But now that her “baby” was in year three of this depressive journey and didn’t seem to be improving, her shell was starting to crack.
My Battle of Gettysburg
The lowest point came one night when I was in the living room, pouring my thoughts into a journal, anything to get them out of my head and somewhere else.
I was listening to a classical music record I randomly came upon that spoke to me for some reason — Harris Symphony №6 “Gettysburg,” which chronicled the battle of Gettysburg. I knew nothing about classical music but found that I really loved the third movement, a slow and mournful piece depicting the dead on the battlefield after the fighting stopped.
My mom looked at me as she walked past the living room, started up the stairs, then burst into tears and ran into her bedroom. I walked up to her room. Sat on the bed and told her I was going to be fine which, of course, was a big lie.
At that point, I thought my miserable state would be the new-normal for the rest of my life. She kept saying she wished there was something she could do.
Climbing Into the Boat
It’s not that nothing good happened in those three years, or that I never felt okay. It’s just that it was never enough to recover.
The best analogy I’ve come up with is that it was as if I was stuck in the ocean, treading water, becoming more exhausted every day. And there was a boat there, a boat that if I could only climb into it, could whisk me to the comfort of dry land. Sometimes things were good enough that I could pull myself partially up the side of the boat, but never high enough to make it all the way in.
Until one day I did.
Styron, again, described best what it is like to emerge from the fog of depression. Borrowing from Dante’s ascent from the depths of hell, he wrote:
“For those who have dwelt in depression’s dark wood, and known its inexplicable agony, their return from the abyss is not unlike the ascent of the poet, trudging upward and upward out of hell’s black depths and at last emerging into ‘the shining world.’ There, whoever has been restored to health has almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair beyond despair.”
The final line of Styron’s Darkness Visible is taken from the final line of The Inferno:
“And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.”
Beholding the Stars
What finally picked me up high enough that I could climb into the boat and return to the land of the living? In May of 1985 I went on a two-month backpacking trip to Europe. That might seem like a crazy thing to do for a depressed 21 year-old who was a couple tweaks away from admission to the psychiatric ward, but remember, there was no good “answer” so in my mind heading to Europe was no worse than anything else.
In a twist of fate that I desperately needed, my roommate from Princeton hooked me up with his friend, Rick, who was studying in London.
And that was it. I had the time of my life. By day it was hanging out in Trafalgar Square, marveling at da Vinci paintings at the National Gallery of Art and contemplating the vastness of St. Paul’s Cathedral. By night it was chasing women, dancing and partying into the wee hours with my new friend, Rick (who, not so incidentally, officiated my wedding 30 years later).
After a few weeks of this, it dawned on me: I’d made it into the boat and was speeding toward terra firma. After three hellish years, I’d finally come forth, and once again beheld the stars…
Coming soon, part II: What I learned from my depression odyssey.