ROFL: Random Outbursts From Lar! LarryNocella.com

5Feb/11Off

I’m Depressed! I’m Here! Get Used to it!

THE FIRST DECISION

The two most important women in my life come from opposite ends of the privacy spectrum. My mother lived by old-world Italian reticence, private to a fault. My wife is at home in the modern era, spilling every detail of our lives onto Facebook in real time.

Living between these extremes, the pros and cons of both styles jump out. There is dignity in privacy, in not broadcasting every trifle. At the same time, there is value in sharing, in using experience to learn from and teach others. Those opposites pulled at my decision as I pondered if I should write this. Do I tell you something I'd rather keep private? Or do I spill the ugly details?

I've decided to share. Why? Because of you of course. Yes, you. Reading this. You. Or maybe someone you know.

Because there is definitely a time when sharing beats silence, and that's if you can help people. Mom was all about helping people, so while I lean toward her style of privacy, I think she'd appreciate why I've decided to come out.

What I'm trying to tell you is I take an anti-depressant. Were you expecting me to say something else?

BACK SEAT DRIVERS FOR YOUR LIFE

Well I'm not gay (maybe metro, but not gay) and it seems that coming out as homosexual would present a whole different set of challenges than announcing you're medicated for depression. That said, I think I can sympathize. Depressed or gay, there are some interestingly similar responses from the ignorant.

In both cases, you're told it's a choice, that you can "get over it," that you're just being lazy, selfish or self-indulgent. Funny thing is, all those accusations invariably come from people outside the experience. Non-gay people tell gay people what being gay is like. Non-depressed people tell depressed people what being depressed is like. It's like having a back-seat driver for your life, for your entire being.

Maybe it's human nature. Maybe it's the evil twin of the American dream or positive thinking. If you believe the myth that you can be anything, then if someone is sick or unfortunate or wired differently, you'll say it's their choice.

Regardless, as usual when I encounter ignorance, before eviscerating it I enjoy a good laugh. Yeah it's my fault. I'm lazy. There's nothing I love better than looking around at the miraculous good fortune I've had, all the love and comforts I've enjoyed my whole life, and still feeling sad. It's awesome to feel bummed when there's no reason to! It makes me so happy! Oh wait…

We'll get back to battling ignorance later. Sadly, it's not going anywhere.

THANKS TO THOSE WHO LED THE WAY

So yeah, I take an anti-depressant. No biggie. Each morning, I wake up, pop a pill and life goes on. And like the clever campaign to remind gay kids that things get better (see It Gets Better Project) I'm hoping this essay will do the same for those suffering from depression as I did. When I finally realized I had to take a pill to stay sane (or my best impression of it) I found great comfort in the fact that others had struggled with this ailment and still enjoyed great success in their fields.

If others (Terry Bradshaw, Howie Mandel, Woody Paige, Mike Wallace and Maurice Benard to name a few) hadn't come out as having similar annoying mental quirks, then the challenge to prevail would have been much tougher. I'd be uncertain that success was something I could ever achieve.

Their openness about their (our) illness inspired me, and the few times I've opened up to those going through the same thing, I've seen the positive effect sharing has. "You too?" They ask, surprise in their faces. "But you're so… together. Fortunate. Successful. You're an awesomely totally cool chick-magnet." Okay, I made up that last sentence, but the point is, people in the midst of battling depression, what feels like a battle for your very soul, are surprised at the possibility that it can be overcome.

So while I'm not as famous as the dudes I mentioned, let me add my name to the list. I'm Spartacus! A pill-taking Spartacus!

THE SUDDEN CRASH THAT TOOK A LIFETIME

So now, my story… It begins innocently enough. I've always had an overabundance of thoughts about anything and everything. I've obsessively filled countless notebooks with scribbled ideas large and small. I thought it was cool to have such an active mind, but I do remember sometimes lying in bed, hopelessly begging my mind to stop racing.

I also remember enduring a common symptom of OCD: the urge to put things in some kind of order. One part of my mind would say "Who cares what order the folders are in?!" The other part would insist I put the folders in a certain order. I would do it just to shut up the obsessive part, even though I knew the activity was pointless.

None of that was unmanageable. It was annoying, but not crippling.I even thought of my racing mind as a benefit and/or hazard of being a writer. Athletes become physically fit but risk physical harm by pushing their bodies, writers become mentally fit but risk mental harm by pushing their minds.

In my early 30s, the engine of my racing mind started to overheat. My life went through massive upheaval, and even though I'm sharing, details aren't needed here. Let's just say a lot of bad crap happened in the span of a few months. There were multiple deaths of people I loved, I hated my job, and other heavy aspects of my life all churned into a mix that literally knocked me flat.

The crash coincided with the arrival of fall, the shorter days bringing down my mood more than they usually did. I stopped doing things I enjoyed, I spent days terrified, and I wasn't sure of what. I wasn't suicidal, but the idea did cross my mind. Of course, I preferred running away. But to where? To do what? I had no idea.

I got to a point where I was afraid to get out of bed. I remember the day of my crash, thinking, I have to go to work, I have to go. But I was so scared of another day at a job I hated, I can't describe it. I would rather have had a deranged person charge at me with a knife. That kind of fear would have made sense. No such luck. I put on the bravest face I could muster and went to work, and that's where I crashed.

By "crashed" I mean the fear became so strong, I couldn't breathe. I could barely see. Finally, I woke up on the floor of the men's room. I blacked out a second time at my desk a few hours later. My wife rushed me to the hospital. I thought I had survived a heart attack, but when they ran all the tests they said my heart was completely fine. "You had a panic attack," the E.R. doc said, and I wasn't even sure what one was.

A STRANGE JOURNEY BEGINS... STRANGELY

The E.R. gave me some meds, told me to see my primary doctor for possible long-term meds and maybe a referral to a therapist. The journey had begun, but not without a detour that's worth mentioning.

The crash happened around Halloween and of course I had been invited to a costume party. By then I was sky-high on the drug they gave me in the E.R., my pupils huge even in bright light. Inside my mind, everything was vaguely funny.

You can see the result of my stoned state in the strange picture included with this article. Pre-crash, my plan was to use a child's Batman costume and cram my adult-size body into it just to look ridiculous. The thing exploded except for the ears, belt and cape. I added "buffs" from the TV show Survivor for modesty.

Friends came over prior to the party. "You're not seriously going out in that?" they asked. Though my mind was in chaos, my immature side is apparently indestructible. Confronted with disbelief, my resolve hardened. "Hell yeah I am," I said. At the party, I met these two very nice ladies whose names I forgot (or never knew) and we had what felt like a three-hour discussion about something. They were fascinated with my costume and I was just glad to be alive. That's all I remember. I have no idea what any of us said.

Looking back at that time and that stupid embarrassing picture, I am always reminded, in your worst hour, you will survive. You will look back, and you will laugh. Every Halloween this picture makes the rounds among my friends, its full significance never known publicly until now. That picture (termed "Batgirl" by my buds) is a symbol, a reminder. That was my darkest hour. Even then, I was still enough of myself to act like a jackass.

HELLO IGNORANCE MY OLD FRIEND

So getting high for a party (even if legally) was fun, but it doesn't make for a solid future life plan. As I mentioned earlier, what has made this whole journey so challenging is the ignorance. People don't understand depression. That included me. Even victims aren't immune from stereotypes and myths. The bad information made everything worse. My mind began racing with worry.

Sure I could take these drugs for a long time, but was that going to turn me into a chemically lobotomized zombie? Was I going to be so spaced on meds that I would show up to work in my Batgirl outfit? Would I ever be genuinely happy again? Most of all I worried about my true nature. Where did I end and the pill begin? Would I lose the essential Lar-ness that we have all learned to love, hate, tolerate or ignore? Would my personality become something false?

All the fears represented by those questions never came true. Once the daily pill settled into my brain, I felt normal. The pill doesn't guarantee happiness. It simply gives me a chance to experience happiness and sadness in a normal way, as opposed to an unnaturally debilitating way. I would describe clinical depression as different than sadness. Depression is something else, much more powerful and primal. It's practically supernatural in how it shuts down your most basic drive.

As I was fighting back against my internal ignorance, I was also taking on external ignorance. A nurse once told me to just exercise more and eat right, think positive, and I'd get over it. Think about that: a medical professional telling me to just walk it off. That advice was truly laughable because she knew so little about me and had no idea that was how I always lived. I love thinking positive and eating healthy and have never quite understood people's desire to sabotage themselves with alcohol and drugs. In moderation those things are entertaining, but I like them a lot less than the average fun-loving dude.

Fortunately, my doctor was awesome. He kept saying "If I told you to shake off high cholesterol, I'd lose my license. This is exactly the same." It took me a while to accept that, but my experience has proven him right. The lesson I learned was, don't judge the cure, just go with it, do what you have to so you can get back in the game.

YOUR BRAIN AND COMPUTERS

The way I understand depression is by comparing the human mind to a computer. Both have two parts: hardware (the physical material) and software (the instructions that run inside the hardware.)

A human mind is the same, it has hardware (your brain cells and the chemistry within) and software (your thoughts.) A psychiatrist is a hardware specialist, they deal with brain cells and brain chemistry. A psychologist is a software specialist, they deal with your thoughts. If your depression is psychological, it is possible you can think your way to happiness. Say you're too hard on yourself, you might be able to train yourself to stop self-punishing thoughts and snap out of sadness.However, no amount of mental training can fix a chemical problem.

Using the computer analogy, if your software is running poorly, you can just install new software (think new thoughts.) If you alter your computer's internal chemistry (say with a spilled coffee) no software is going to fix that.

For me, my software (my thoughts) was and always has been upbeat and positive, but I still got KO'ed by depression because in my case, it originated from a hardware malfunction. No matter how great your software (your thoughts) it isn't going to work if your hardware (your brain chemistry) is messed up. Make sense? Well it does to me.

YOU AGAIN?

So where I am now, things are damn good. As for this challenge to my life, I'm at the "and he lived happily ever after" part.

For those also struggling, remember things were rocky before I got here. I've never liked taking medicine. A part of me just doesn't because I want to be self-sufficient and independent. Relying on meds of any kind (even basic pain killers) activates some macho part of me that views reaching out for help as weak. Some people say that anti-depressants are over-prescribed. That's no doubt true in our "do anything for money" society. But that doesn't mean it's true for all.

In my case, I fought as hard as I could against taking the medicine, and I just couldn't hack it. I even went off the meds twice, succumbing to what I've learned is another common ignorance about mental health: that you can be cured and then go off the meds. In 2003, my life was going crappy, so it made sense I needed the meds. By 2006, my life was much better. Yet when I went off the meds, I felt as bad as I had in my darkest hour. I also went off them again in 2009 just to try it out. The symptoms came back like clockwork. I've done my personal testing, so now I'm convinced.

Every time I settled on the drugs and the internal noise quieted, my mind was still, at last. For the first time in my life, I could control my thoughts. No more racing. The stillness was awe-inspiring. Is this how other people live? I wondered. It's beautiful. I remember lying in bed, staring at the wall, not thinking of anything.

I've experimented with meditation, I've been to mountaintops, islands and deserts, but I've never experienced such peace.

CONSEQUENCES

So here's my message to those who are depressed: you're not alone. You will survive, but only if you get help. Go to the doctor, go to a therapist, go to the hospital, check yourself in a mental home. Whatever you need to do to survive, don't judge it, just do it. You won't be cured overnight, but there is no reason to prolong your suffering.

Along the way from that low point on the public bathroom floor to this very moment, I've met so many wonderful people, I've been humbled. I never knew I was so blessed. It almost makes me want to swan dive onto the toilet floor again, just to see the moving and comforting sight of those who I suspected were my friends proving themselves as such by rushing to my aid with many words and gestures of kindness and support.

So now that I've shared, I feel good that maybe this will help someone, but what about any negative consequences? What if some future employer sees this and refuses to hire me? Or an insurance company sees it and refuses to cover me? What about me occasionally toying with the idea of getting into politics? This could be slander fodder for my opponent. What if they succumb to ignorance and think I'm some unstable lunatic? Should I re-think this sharing business? What if something bad happens?

So be it. I will take that on when or if the time comes. My only concern now is for someone like me, who might right now be scraping themselves off a public restroom floor and wondering what the hell just happened. To them I say, you will be all right, you will overcome.

Maybe right now, someone is heading to a costume party with a head full of drugs and fears, wearing a Batman outfit designed for five year olds. To them I say, yes the walk home will be painfully cold and difficult, but it will not last forever.

Friends will warm you with their arms around you and before you know it, you'll be laughing again.

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Larry Nocella writes The Semi-True Adventures of Lar blog at LarryNocella.com. He's the author of the novel Where Did This Come From? The world's first CarbonFree(R) novel according to Carbonfund.org. The book is available on Amazon.com as a paperback and Kindle eBook. It is also available for other eBook readers.