This sadness is like luggage you carry around without realizing it. You donít even notice it until one day you look around and realize you havenít done your laundry in six months and the house is a wreck. You just kind of lose time. You start flipping through a photo album and it just leaps out at you. How did people not notice? I donít know if Iím happy now, but I feel like I am, at least, eligible to be happy. I am, at least, a lot less miserable. I gave myself permission to stop going places I didnít want to go and stop doing things I didnít want to do. This is an intrinsically selfish way to live, I suppose, but people who love people with this disease need to educate themselves on what we need to do to manage it.
There is this picture I used to carry in my wallet, back when I
used to carry a wallet. A very old picture of me kneeling on a New
York City street holding my niece who looks tired and aggravated.
The lady behind the camera was my mother and the girl standing
behind me, cropped off here, was my sister. It was my high school
graduation and what struck me about the photo was the little girlís
expression but, additionally, my own. It took me about a half hour
to find this photo, looking through bunches of old photos while
being hammered by phone calls Iíve yet to return and emails Iíve yet
to write. It occurred to me, digging through Yesterday, that in none
of those photos did I appear to be happy. None of them. Iím not
terribly photogenic and have never enjoyed having my picture taken,
but also, Iím not quite sure that Iíve ever been happy. ďHappyĒ
seems kind of relative, and we each define happiness in different
I like to leave my house around 5:30 and chase the sunrise down a winding country road populated mostly by alpaca and bunny rabbits. I donít have a real bike, I ride something that looks like a $25 hundred racing bike but is actually a pretty cheap Schwinn. But it gets the job done. I am perhaps the happiest when Iím out there, in the middle of nowhere, just me and the roadkill watching the sunrise and sucking down crisp mountain air. I donít think Iíve ever truly adjusted to the altitude here, so uphill can be a real challenge. Still, a day without riding is, for me, like root canal, as I know the rest of the day will be about ringing phones and deadlines and emails. So thatís my little worship time with the alpaca: a time when I can ponder things like what is happiness, and does anyone actually have it.
The most striking thing about those old photos wasnít that I looked unhappy but that nobody else in the photo seemed to notice. I think we live life in phases: childhood, where weíre too stupid to realize our parents are insane and our lives are horrible, young adulthood where weíre incredibly arrogant, rejecting everything mama taught us and making a mess of our lives, and then you have that 40-60 range where youíre the busboy clearing away piles of dirty dishes your first twenty years of adult life left behind. Cigarette put out in the scrambled eggs. Looking at the photos, I had a visceral memory. I didnít just look unhappy, I was unhappy. I was flat-out miserable. But nobody seemed to notice or care, so long as I was where they wanted me to be and I was doing what they wanted me to do. This is likely the plot of the next novel in a line of novels Iíll probably never publish: an examination of this phenomena, of people choosing not to see how utterly miserable you are.
Stronger Than Paxil: My morning ride.
When I was about eleven, I think, my mother sent my sister and I to
spent part of the summer on my uncleís farm in rural Kentucky. The
wide open spaces and immense quiet drove my sister (even more)
insane, but I loved it. I have, ever since, sought ever wider vistas
and ever greener pastures, longing for the quiet, stillness and
endless sky of Randy Stonehillís wonderful song
Venezuela. Venezuela is most certainly a song about a guy
like me, about someone afflicted with The Weight. When I was
married, my wife kept dragging back to New York City every chance
she got, ultimately moving there in an effort to force me to follow
her. She either did not realize or did not care that New York was
traumatizing for me; thatís where her community was. Mine was a
community of two: she and I, and for years she was my Secretary of
State and general ambassador, interfacing with a world I was eager
to withdraw from. In many ways, we were both quite selfish. Lacking
the language to express what I was feeling and what was happening to
me, Iím sure to her I just came across as cruel. I wasnít cruel. I
had a disease.
The best and certainly most famous portrayal of this phenomena is actor Hugh Laurieís award-winning portrayal of Dr. Gregory House, an obnoxious and manipulative man-child who nonetheless invokes our sympathy for being so terribly emotionally crippled. House was a man who so obviously loved and wanted to be loved but was ultimately capable of expressing neither. House would spend his holidays alone as social situations tended to paralyze him, or, having been forced into the social event, would tend to ruin it with a comedic brand of blunt honesty totally inappropriate to social or even intimate gatherings. Iím not quite as bad as House, but the character is a (slightly) larger-than-life example of what I am talking about. The main difference is Houseís community is made up of trained professionals whose loyalty to and love for him is somewhat based upon their clinical understanding of his true afflictionódepression. Most friends and family in my orbit simply got mad and eventually gave up. Most of us, myself included, don't realize depression presents itself in many ways. People suffering clinical depression tend to mask it or overcompensate for it by being the life of the party, the one with the witty one-liners. If you ask, most of the time we'll say, "I'm just fine," because the trust isn't there and explaining what's actually going on with us presents a real risk.
Depressed persons can seem gregarious, thoughtful, or perfectly normal to the casual observer. They can be sarcastic bastards like Dr. House (and, often, myself). There isn't always a cloud over their head or a sad look in their eye, but we are terribly, terribly sad on the inside. People with social anxiety conditions are usually using every bit of their emotional strength to attend your barbeque. For me, family gatherings would often turn into a disaster because, in some effort to mask I'd become almost manic, and my preferred brand of humoróa snotty pseudo David Lettermanónever went over well with the in-laws. So the wife would pull out the fire hose to turn me down a few notches without understanding why I was behaving that way. And, two weeks later, she'd drag me to some other social thing, and then another, and another after that, each time for whatever insane reason hoping I'd behave myself. I was absolutely miserableóshe could see the black moods coming days and sometimes weeks before the dreaded social eventóbut she missed the cues about me much as I missed the cues about her. She thought I was just being selfish. I wasn't. Going to those things represented an enormous sacrifice, the kind you only make for the ones you love.
Now that I know whatís going on with me, Iím a lot less obnoxious than I once was, well, at least publicly. Iím still fairly obnoxious inside my skull but tend to repress the thoughts I used to express with ribald humor which I thought was funny but usually offended most everyone within earshot. Not because what I said wasnít true but because it was, and most people, myself included, would much prefer to not hear truth, at least not in mixed company. I am., in many ways, a lot better than I was. Not ďcured,Ē which is a bad and stupid word to use: you are what you are. But, through therapy and lots of hard work, Iíve at least gained a better understanding of the dynamics at work and developed less dysfunctional tools for managing this affliction. Of course, Venezuela (or Sao Paulo, Brazil, my actual preferred destination) is a fairly dangerous place. Stonehillís song evokes images of wandering the beach alone, but wandering the beach alone in South America makes you a target for thieves, scam artists and crooked cops. Still, it is a lovely visual, this movie Randy plays in your mind with acoustic guitars and island chimes. Iíd always hoped to someday end up there, in my own Venezuela, though that hope is now fast fading.
For most of my adult life I have done things I didnít want to do and
gone places I didnít want to go because of
some date on a calendar
or some tribal ritual or another. Iím at these places, with these
people, and I am absolutely miserable.
And these people who insisted I be there donít notice or care. Which
makes me wonder why these people would want me around. I obviously
donít want to be there, Iím not having a good time. Or I am faking
having a good time because I donít want to hurt someoneís feelings.
But my idea of a good time is to be completely and utterly alone,
out there with the alpaca. If these folks actually knew me theyíd
know that. Going to parties or receptions is an absolute nightmare.
Having people in my house, gasp, in my house? Why not just waterboard me. Iíd tell Rumsfeld anything he wanted to know if he
just camped out n my living room for a week.
Back then, there really wasnít language for this business, but today we call it ďSocial Anxiety Disorder,Ē (click to play audio) which is just lipstick on the pig Depression. I suffer from depression. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by people and just canít be around them. A side effect of this disorder is people being mad at me all the time because I donít call or I donít write or I donít come to their party; because the paraplegic won't go bowling with you. My in-laws seemed offended and my wife was routinely upset because they were all extremely social and assumed I didnít like them. I liked them just fine. I have a disease.
I never received love from those people. I received tolerance. They kind of put up with me for her sake. But, in all the years we were together, I never, not once, received a phone call from anyone in that large family. Not one "How ya doin'?" not one invite out for coffee. It wasnít even that they didnít like me. They didnít know me. They werenít trying to know me.. We were just stuck there, like that awkward pause at the checkout waiting for your card to go through. No one, not my family, not hers, ever once stopped to notice how miserable I was. Nobody, even once, bothered to ask if anything was wrong.
Itís not the end of the world. Iím functional. I get up and comb my hair. But my idea of happy involves quiet and wide-open spaces. I have six TVs in the house but do not subscribe to cable and rarely turn them on. I have a telephone but only out of protest. People see me eating alone at a restaurant and park themselves and their noisy kids right next to me. Thirty empty tables, but The Flintstones pitch a tent at the next booth over. I prefer eating alone. If I wanted company I am blessed with more friends here in town than I can count. I am not on Facebook. I don't own a smartphone. I am not LinkedIn. I can be around people, but I canít stay at their house and Lord knows they canít stay at mine. I need my own hotel room and a fast Internet connection. For every hour I have to endure the crush of family and friends, I need two hours absolutely alone.
Robert DeNiro had this great line in the film Heat, where he said, ďI am alone, I am not lonely.Ē And Iím not. For reasons I canít explain, I have lots of friends. I have no idea, none, why they like me. I never invite them over. People think Iím gay or a reprobate preacher, got me a girl stashed down here. Thereís nobody down here but the squirrels who keep chewing their way into the eaves and keep me up nights. And theyíre on my list.
This sadness is like luggage you carry around without realizing it. You donít even notice it until one day you look around and realize you havenít done your laundry in six months and the house is a wreck. You just kind of lose time. You start flipping through a photo album and it just leaps out at you. How did people not notice? Couldnít they see it? Didnít they care? I was so miserable. I hated being there, having my picture taken. Making a record of my being dragged to this place or that event and, so long as I showed up, everybody was happy. But me.
An Actual Smile: Chris, age 13, in the Adirondacks with Wendy Ward 1974.
Don't Worry, Be Happy
Depression taxes faith. Every day you push the boulder up the hill
wondering, every inch of the way, if God is in fact real. It's tough
to have faith when you live on a grey planet. Depression makes you
truly and sadly alone because it's just so exhausting to explain to
people what's going on with you, and then you get the fire hose or,
"Oh, snap out of it." Depression isn't something you can just "snap
To that end, I tend to leave "amen" off of my prayers, preferring to keep the line open. Not sure where we got that ideaóhanging up on God as if we're running up His cell phone minutes. I try and keep an open line to God all day. He's my company, my comfort. Someone I can trust absolutely and Someone Who loves me unconditionally, even when I doubt He exists at all.
There's no quick fix. Depression manifests itself in many ways and requires many approaches to treat. I've posted some warning signs of clinical depression in the sidebar. If that's you, seek help. This is what we men, most especially, fail to do. I'm not sure why; I actually enjoyed talking with someone. I could fully engage my narcissism by having a one-sided conversation with someone who only wanted to hear about me and my dopey problems. Most men I know often refuse any counseling of any kind, as if they are threatened by it for some reason. I don't get it. I will say this: depression, whether mild or severe, is not something to ignore. You can't just do nothing and hope it goes away. Despite what you may have seen on TV, you can't just take a pill and be cured, either. You need to develop skills for identifying what's knocking around inside your head and for learning how to deal with it.
After the marriage, I gave myself permission to stop going places I didnít want to go and stop doing things I didnít want to do. This is an intrinsically selfish way to live, I suppose, but part of my learning to live is acceptance of things I can and cannot do. You don't ask a paraplegic to run a marathon. Depression is a much less obvious challenge, but, for me and many others, giving myself permission or, rather, not feeling guilty about not showing up is key. It was guilt, obligation, and yes, love that had me going and doing in the first place under threat of emotional blackmail. Choosing to not go and not do landed me in emotional agony while going and doing often earned me the fire hose. This is the hell people with this problem endure, and the vicious cycle only compounds The Weight, the sadness in our lives, until we're in real trouble.
Half of the solution is to tell somebody. Open your mouth. Let someone in. The other half is to accept the fact you live with a disability. Once I stopped beating myself up for having a disability, the world became much brighter. I donít know if Iím happy now, but I feel like I am, at least, eligible to be happy. I am, at least, a lot less miserable. You can be, too. Tell somebody; start with God. Come to terms with things you can and cannot do. Get professional help. And watch the clouds roll away.