DEAR BJ: Some Happy Thoughts on Depression

AND SO… a brave soul stepped up and became the first victim, er, recipient of my so-called advice. I urge the reader to remember that the following is worth exactly the amount you’re paying.

It’s unlikely that there is a person breathing around here that isn’t in some way personally affected by clinical Depression. With the capital “D” I’m referring to the diagnosed illness, as opposed to the blue feeling that comes with events and passes with time. Clinical Depression is different, and go ahead and google it if you’re not familiar with the symptoms, etc., but as mentioned above, we all either know someone who suffers, or are intimately involved, since almost 15 million  people in the US suffer,  and here’s a fact that I just learned: the median age at onset is 32, which is right around the time C. says he was diagnosed.

C. calls himself an open book, but I’ll protect his privacy by using his initial. On his ‘about me’ page, he describes himself as, “a husband, a dad, a grandpa, a Soldier, a son, and most importantly to me, I’m a Christian.”

C. then says he was diagnosed 4 years ago, and although the illness doesn’t define him, it’s a bigger deal than he thought. He thought he might shake it. Now he’s trying to, “find the old guy again, or reinvent a new one.”

So C. has drawn a picture of himself, and what he believes he needs to do, and I’d like to take that picture and put it in a new frame. That’s my sneaky way of “reframing,” which is a way of addressing anything differently than the way you’re doing it now, without having to use the pretentious word, “paradigm.” Sneaky, eh?

Let’s start with trying to “shake it off.” First, because now we can’t use that term without thinking Taylor Swift, which breaks the ernest mood I’m trying to create here, and second because trying to “shake off” clinical depression is like trying to shake off cancer. Or diabetes. Add to that the stigma of mental illness, top it off with the masculine ideal of ‘toughing it out,’ ‘sucking it up,’ and, yes, ‘shaking it off,’ and you have a recipe for a chronic illness that not only won’t just go away, but that will worsen with time and lack of treatment.

Go ahead and try to shake off clinical depression, we'll wait here
Go ahead and try to shake off clinical depression, we’ll wait here

It’s scary to admit that we’re sick, especially when we are seen — and want to be seen — as the rock, the provider for our family, the problem-solver, and it takes more courage than most men have to say, “I need help.”

But what a difference that makes! Treatment is here, and it may take weeks or even months to find the right meds or cocktail of meds that work inside your brain, but once you do, the clouds can lift, the side effects dealt with, and you can own your life again, instead of your depression owning you. So that’s the biggest, baddest (in the good sense!) tool in your tool box: the right meds, and it’s also proof that you need to change your thinking about what you’re dealing with: it’s an illness, not some haters who are gonna hate, hate, hate…

‘Soldier’ suggests a veteran status, and if this is the case, there are issues specific to your situation, like PTSD, and also conditions to the type of treatment you get. I’m useless here, but the internet isn’t, and if you need help navigating or handling paperwork, I’ll be happy to help. And speaking of helping… if you have the option, head over to your local VA Hospital and talk with the men and women there, be a part of a support group, or even call out the numbers in a Bingo game. It feels good to have value to others, it’s distracting in a positive way, and it just feels good to give. And if you’re a vet, who else can understand what you’ve been through?

Finally, there is God. And how lucky you are to have your faith! There are thousands of articles and books online that address the relationship between God and depression, and atheists and agnostics don’t have that tool in their toolbox.  Ask Him for help and listen to Him. Find others who worship and share this illness, and commune with them, and live in the Fellowship of His Word, because there is no room for the ‘black dog,’ as Churchill called his depression, when you are in service to Him.

Your illness should not be a secret. “We’re only as sick as our secrets,” is one of the many slogans of the Twelve Step program, and letting it out can be as liberating as starting to feel the effects of your meds working. There’s even a website, http://www.postsecret.com that celebrates the sharing of secrets, and it creates a warm, communal feeling with strangers who share together every Sunday.

If Mom and Dad are Old School, you don’t have to share with them, especially if that’s where you got the “shake it off,” attitude. Share with those you can trust won’t judge, and the others? Fuck ’em. If you just can’t handle them (anyone you feel won’t ‘get it,’) on a Sunday afternoon, it’s because of your sinuses, or a pulled muscle. You don’t need to be around people who judge. Except for Mike Judge: Beavis and Butthead, for a retro laugh.

Some days, revel in the Glory of God, other days, let the grandkids climb all over you and soak in their joyful faces. Some nights, read or listen to stories of brilliant and courageous people who have battled round after round with the Beast and share their pain and success, and some nights lie in the arms of the woman who loves you no matter what. Who loves you until you can love yourself, which, given time, the right meds, and the tools, you can and will do.

And before we finish with reframing, let’s take a look at your attempts to, “find the old guy again or reinvent a new one.” How’s this for presumptuous: don’t.

Depression bleeds you of your most precious resource: energy, and to try and find who you were is frankly, a waste of that limited commodity. And so is trying to reinvent the old guy. There’s no point to moving backwards, and what you’re really addressing is the idea of finding the ‘you,’ that isn’t deep in the pain of this illness. By using the tools, in time, that guy will emerge, but he won’t be the old one. He’ll be the new, improved, battle-scarred one. Stronger in the broken places, and filled with gratitude and a renewed appreciation for his family and the world around him.

Stay still, or move forward, at the pace you can. Push yourself a tiny bit and see how it feels. Treat yourself like you treat your grandkids: with unconditional love and infinite patience. And treat your wife that way, too. Don’t look back yet. Look forward, or up. Or close your eyes and take a deep breath, and maybe a nap. You’ll get there.

Peace and love to you and yours,

~Mstphen fry


When Dreams & Mothers Die: My Weekend with Marc Maron

From the doorway I scan the cluttered, filthy living room of my mother’s apartment, mouth-breathing in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid the smoky stench. Large pieces of mismatched furniture are buried under layers of towels and clothes. The desk is piled Jenga-style with books, papers, plates, cups, ashtrays, and more books, all of it frosted with dust. The only source of light is a small, curtainless window that accentuates the accumulated misery.

All this to take in, and so much more: the kitchen, with its bounty of rotting food, zoetic with crawling and flying critters, and of course, the porcelain jewel in the festering crown: a dump of a dump hole, eco-rich with mold, mildew, and its odors.  All of it was mine alone to deal with, and I was already too exhausted to do anything other than stand in the doorway and survey the squalor.

Two days earlier, my brother called with the follow-up news I had been anxiously awaiting for half a day:

“Yeah, I found her.”

“Oh, thank god!” My muscles, taut with hours of tension, deflated with relief. Since his call that morning, I fretted, and frantically did the only thing I could from three states away: informed the nearby hospitals and local police stations that my elderly mother, whose short term memory had been a problem several times before when she ventured out of her house, was now missing. Since this was the only time she hadn’t eventually made it back home, I had never imagined such a phone call, but it was clearly one that those on the other end of the line were accustomed to: they would excuse themselves for a few moments, then let me know in a sympathetic tone that they had no news for me. With each call, my fear and stress climbed. But then my brother called with the uplifting news that she had been found.

The one way to tell your sister that Mom’s dead that’s worse than my Bro’s

“Oh, thank god! Where was she? Is she okay?”

“No, she’s dead.”

And that’s how my brother informed me of our mother’s death. He explained that she hadn’t gone missing; she was on her bed, covered by her quilt, which is why he missed her when he checked her apartment earlier that morning. Because her home was so disgusting, he scanned the area quickly and left, and it wasn’t until nightfall when a savvy cop asked him to check all the rooms again that he found her.

Mom's house looked very much like this
Mom’s house looked very much like this

He found her, and dealt with the body, and then called me. And now here I am, staring at the shabby remnants of my mother’s life, and I’ve got the weekend to empty her apartment, because Bro told the landlord it would be ready for painting on Monday. He can’t deal with any more of this right now, and the unspoken but very strong undercurrent that runs through all our discussions is, he not only dealt with her dead body, but he dealt with her alive, which was probably far more devastating, as she had become, by her 77th year on Earth, pretty much an unpleasant pain in the ass that everyone avoided as much as they could.

But he couldn’t: he was her son and she had moved all the way East from California to be with him and his family, who were now treating her like she was a zombie covered in Ebola. I dealt with her when we both lived in LA, when she had come out of a heart attack-induced three day coma with a brain injury that caused an extreme personality change. This is common enough so that there’s been a Lifetime movie of the week about this, but when it happened to my mother it was vexing. Very, very vexing  And after I did my time, including acting as her conservator rather than allow her to give her money away, and having had escaped, and there was enough of a buffer between us so that I only had to tolerate excruciatingly tedious phone calls filled with detailed minutia: “so I got in the car, and saw that I needed gas. I drove over to the Shell station on Connecticut…”

Now I was in her doorway, she was suddenly gone, a fact I could not possibly integrate at the time, and I had less than two days to empty out what remained of her existence, all of which was covered in dirt, dust, crumbs and ashes.