Part 1 chronicled the story of my three-year battle with depression in my late teens and early 20’s. Today I’ll relate the lessons I took away from those challenging years.
LESSON #1: Sometimes life can be unbearably hard.
First, let me define what I mean by ‘unbearably hard.’ It’s not just going through a rough patch where things aren’t going your way.
It means feeling so low that you honestly don’t know how you’re going to make it through the day. On my hardest days, I had so much anxiety that I would go on three separate runs of around four miles each just to try and tire myself out.
A life crisis
One phrase that describes these states is ‘life crisis.’ I know many going through acrimonious divorces experience this absolute desperation. Same with losing a loved one. Ditto those battling substance addictions.
Why was this a lesson I learned? Because up until I was 18, I’d never had anything close to days like those. I’m not saying everything was peaches and cream every day for 18 years, but I’d experienced nothing close to a life crisis.
Ironically, that fact is singlehandedly responsible for the tailspin I fell into. I had no experience with serious adversity growing up.
A runt vs. Muhammad Ali
So when this brew of circumstances arose, that I described in Part 1, I was utterly incapable of handling the situation in a healthy manner. It was like a 100-pound weakling being thrown into the boxing ring with Muhammad Ali.
I’m convinced that I’d have responded better had somebody clued me in along the way that life could be unbearable. Even though my parents both grew up during the Great Depression, I don’t think either of them ever found themselves in the abyss, so they couldn’t have prepared me.
But I can, and will, prepare my three kids. How? Not by scaring them. Maybe they’ll never fall into the abyss. But I will make them aware that it’s a possibility. And that if it does happen, I will drill it into them that they can make it out. How?
That leads to…
LESSON #2: Sometimes it comes down to simply not giving up.
If you asked me how I, a clueless teenager, crawled out of the abyss, my answer would be simple: I didn’t give up. That’s all it was. Nothing more complicated than that. Not having the tools I’ve learned these past years on the spiritual path, all I could do was just hang in there.
Believe it or not, I think sports helped me on this. How? Because particularly with tennis, I had gotten good over my junior years at never giving up in a match. At digging down in my gut and saying to myself, “It’s not over until this guy wins match point.” So while I had weak muscles in the adversity department, my “Never give up!” muscles were strong.
The S word
Of course, the only alternative to hanging in there when you’re trapped in the abyss is the big S word. Suicide. Fortunately, that never became an option I seriously considered.
But I do want to offer my two cents on this. People say things like, “I can’t believe he did it. He had so much to live for.” Or, “How could anybody do something so selfish. Look at all the pain she caused her family.” All that stuff is true.
But what people miss is that suicide can be a rational decision. Not a good decision, but a rational one.
How? Because when you feel so terrible, and you’re convinced that that feeling will never subside, ending it all is the only viable solution for ending the pain. I hope that makes sense.
If you haven’t been in that place, you probably think I’m crazy for writing that. If you have, you get it.
Depression is a dangerous disease
And this is why depression is so dangerous. It’s not like cancer where the health danger lies in good cells going bad that can lead to death.
No. The danger of depression is that you feel so badly that you end it all. It’s an incredibly dangerous disease.
The moral of the story, and then I promise I’ll move on, is this: If you, or someone you know, is clinically depressed, do your best to get them professional help.
That will mean at least talk therapy with a psychiatrist or psychologist and probably antidepressant medication. In dire cases, it could mean hospitalization, something I probably should have done at my lowest points. I did the therapy during that period, but not the antidepressants as they weren’t that effective in the early 1980s.
LESSON #3: Gaining admission to a beautiful club that I never wanted to join.
It took some years to realize it, but after dwelling in the lowest of lows, one gains automatic entry into the club of those who’ve been there, too. It’s a club nobody would join if given the choice. But once God, the Universe, nature, the Supreme Being, the One…puts you in that abyss, you’re in, whether you like it or not.
Why do I call this a “beautiful” club? Because it is. I think I can sum up in one word what being thrust into this club instills in those who become a member: Compassion.
The best thing that came out of my trying time was that I feel for people who are going through it. It could be a friend going through a divorce or a teenage daughter of a friend who is struggling with depression.
Especially with the younger people I try to help, I tell them about this club they will join once they make it out of the abyss. And that they will be a better, more compassionate person once they make it out.
Most important, I tell them what I wish someone would have told me: That they will make it through if they hang in there. That the worst part of my ordeal was having that feeling, that knowledge, that things were never going to get better. Hearing that from someone who’s been there can make a difference.
So yes, groveling in the abyss of life is indescribably painful. But it made me a better, more compassionate person for which I am deeply grateful.
My favorite Greek poet, Aeschylus, captured this sentiment beautifully:
“Even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”