April 18, 2015
Presented without comment.
The front bumper hangs off my silver 2009 Hyundai Sonata. It’s zip-tied to the rest of the car. You could chalk it up to casual wear-and-tear, just a thing that happens after eight years and 160,000 miles and the slow corrosion of time and the Texan sun. In a way, we’re all sorta fighting that battle. Against time. Against decay. Against high mileage. And we’re all just sorta holding it together with zip-ties or duct tape or fresh coats of paint covering our dents and scratches.
My dad, when I went and surprised him on his 60th Birthday, driving the 13 hours from Austin, Texas to Madison, Alabama, remarked, “You should probably get that thing fixed.” I still haven’t. Today, I want to tell you why.
It was an extraordinary Friday by any measure. I’d been offered a promotion and a raise at work, and a bidding war broke out between the two internal creative agencies at the corporation I work — and still work — for. I took $6,000 less in annual salary to jump from one agency to another, because I wanted the opportunity to work on brand-level projects, instead of campaign- or product-level. Really. It paid off in the long run, and it is still one of the best professional decisions I’ve ever made.
I got out of work feeling like I’d just conquered the demons I’d first stared down two and a half years prior. Which demons? The ones I wrote about here:
My success felt like the capstone on a long, arduous climb up the ladder from the ashes of destitution. That evening was my victory lap. I left work early to play a Happy Hour show at a downtown Austin bar. I drank free gin-and-soda. I covered 2 Chainz. I smiled a lot.
I then meandered a block up Brazos to a bar, owned by a woman I’m cozy with, staffed by people I grew to love. I sat at the corner of the bar, furthest away from the windows, and did shots with the drink-slingers. We laughed. We chatted breathlessly. And at 9:14 p.m., I wrote this:
I’d crested, emotionally and professionally. And my mind, almost immediately, and right on time, knowing my own history and tendencies, began to wander and ponder, “Is this it?” And my mood declined, gently and gradually at first, yet growing exponentially in its darkness and totality. My thoughts consumed me: “What took you so long to get here?” “So fucking what?” “No one loves you.” “You don’t deserve this.” “You deserve better.” “You’re a fuck-up.” “Why are you so sad?” “You’re going to die alone.” “You’re too stupid, too careless, and too lazy to fucking function.” “You’ll fail at this, like you do at everything.” On and on. Darker and darker. I took a full bar of Xanax, and waited for pharmaceutical salvation. It never came.
At 2:38 in the morning, on April 18, 2015, I left the bar without saying goodbye, put the keys in the ignition, and drove in no particular direction, just … away. I took the 35th Street exit, pulled into a wealthy, wooded residential neighborhood, floored the pedal and closed my eyes.
I do not know how fast I was going when I first felt the tires crunch, and then careen over, the median. It was fast enough to be freeing. I am no longer bound by the rules of the road, the laws of life, the prison of space-time. I skidded over what I felt was tall grass, still increasing in speed. A buzzing, ringing noise — the kind you hear in psychological thrillers, engulfing silence — hung in my ears. Still I did not turn the wheel. A loud, jarring, abrupt wallop. And then: I felt nothing.
Reluctantly, I woke up. I checked the clock. It was 3:17 a.m. I’ll never forget that time. I looked around. My car was immersed in a thin thicket of trees. I was dazed, gasping for air. My head was ringing. My shoulders sore. The backlit air-bag deployment thing had turned on, but the air-bag never deployed. And for as woozy as I was, on the inside I was screaming. “You fucking asshole. You couldn’t even succeed at killing yourself.” I did not cry. I sat there, revved the car in reverse, and drove the busted mess on two flat tires to the shoulder of the road, where I called AAA before falling asleep again. I was tired. I’d been tired for years. I suppose it’s worth telling you why.
I remember the first time I knew I was depressed. I was 8, and it was during the Gulf War. Our classroom was penning letters to troops stationed in Iraq, and I took mine home to finish. My mother, who to that point always checked my homework, read the note I’d started, and she fixated on one sentence (probably paraphrased): “Just like the Dow Jones, my life is finally getting better after years of depression.” (This is apparently the dark comedic sense I had at the time, but it’s also rooted in actual metrics.) She screamed, “What the fuck is this shit? Is your life really that bad?” It’s a question I still regularly ask myself, always in that tone of voice. I objectively reason with myself, and never come to tidy conclusions.
I’m not sure how the depression started, but I can easily spot — with the benefit and quasi-wisdom of hindsight — the streams of gasoline which emboldened the blaze. Almost every night, or at least what felt like every night, between the ages of 10 and 15, I went to bed to the dulcet tones of my mother yelling at my father. About how he didn’t care enough. About how careless, lazy and stupid he was. And then she’d turn to me sometimes and tell me, “You’re just like your father” — never meaning it as a compliment.
My sister and brother would occasionally come into my room at night, crying. I rarely slept in those days. I began using day-time moments when my parents would fight as an opportunity to practice my drums to drown out the screaming. I watched full plates of dinner get thrown against walls, I’ve seen holes punched in drywall, I even once watched my mom mount my dad like a horse, beating him for lord only knows what minor reason. I’ve been kicked, smacked, slapped and cussed out. When I’d inevitably torpedo my own success, due to undiagnosed, unheard mental and emotional trauma, I knew a verbal lashing awaited me once she found out. When I’d overwork my asthmatic lungs, I heard, “Do you want to die?” When I failed to send in my application to college at the early deadline, she berated me so badly that I left the house and walked toward nowhere in particular. I ended up in a Catholic church, kneeling in a pew, and when someone wandered in, a lightning-bolt of fear coursed through my veins, and I ran away before returning back home to feebly finish my cold dinner, the silence as loud as her screaming was.
I was always steered away from taking big risks. I remember secretly applying to the University of North Carolina during my freshman year, somehow getting in, before being told on August 1, 2001, that I was not allowed to go, because I was “not an adult” and couldn’t “take care of myself” or adult responsibilities. And she’d point to instances in the past where I was a total fuck-up.
I remember at the nadir of my 2012 unraveling, after my car’d been repossessed one mere week before I’d start the job that ultimately led me out of the dark cycle of debt, toxic loans, and sadness, that my mother called me up screaming about how nice she was that she paid the $2,200 to get my car out of the pen — something that I did not once ask her to do — and that I “owed” her, “big time.” Plus I owed an extra $1,000, from some extraordinary debt she’d paid in 2004, that I never paid her back for, and that she initially thought was $4,000. She didn’t talk to me for over a year, because I did not pay her back, because I was still, silently, dealing with forking over half my paycheck to payday cash advance centers. I did not tell her about this, because — again — I did not wish to be labeled a fuck-up. I could not be “careless, lazy and stupid.” Any one of that triad is still a trigger word for me.
But those moments don’t exist in a vacuum, and the causes and intensifiers of my depression cannot solely be traced to what I’ve just named, nor are they eminently knowable. I’ve had strange, strained life experiences that have all shaped me to some degree, and I suppose I am wired a certain way that predisposes me to feeling the way I do. I do not hate or blame my mom for how I feel, or felt, or how I ended up 200 yards off the road on April 18, 2015. I love my mom. I forgave her long ago. And I genuinely enjoy spending time with her when we get to meet.
My mom did the best she could: She got her mental illness from her mom, someone who steered her away from taking big risks, someone who put too much pressure on her to be perfect, someone who withheld love unless she felt her daughter deserved it. My sister has a Cluster-B personality disorder. My brother is on the spectrum. Trauma is intergenerational. We pass our insecurities down to our children. I worry one day I’ll pass these same insecurities down to mine. In my head, I still think I’ve never married because I never felt “ready,” or couldn’t “afford it,” or was too lazy, careless and stupid to care for someone else since I was too lazy, careless and stupid to take care of myself.
The first time I went to therapy, I went in 2001 because my mom made me. I saw a social worker, who treated me the way any social worker would treat an 18 year-old who, on-paper, was pretty good in school, and had meaningful friendships. I left with a referral to a clinical psychologist. I left his office without a diagnosis, but with a prescription for Zyprexa. I would take it in the evenings, and sleep for 14 hours a night.
I was put on courses of Prozac, Zoloft, Wellbutrin and Lexapro between 2001 and 2012. None worked, and the side-effects were brutal. I’ve been taking Xanax, 0.5mg, nearly every night since November 11, 2011. That helps me sleep, but it doesn’t do for me what you’d think it would. It merely makes me feel normal. I’ve tried to stop, many times, but each time the rebound symptoms resulted in a litany of intense anxieties including hypochondria. In 2013, I saw a neurologist, a cardiologist, a pulmonologist, a urologist, an immunologist, a psychiatrist, an ENT, a gastroenterologist, and I had moles checked for melanoma. I visited the ER dozens of times. I learned that I have a deviated septum, asthma, some allergies, a primary immunodeficiency (IgG,the cause of my asthma), and a “good heart.” I was seeking help, but all the wrong kinds.
I went to therapy again in 2013, and felt no better after 90 days than I did at the start. It wasn’t until January 2014 that I finally found the therapist who would help me understand myself. Her name was Daisy, and she busted me out of my funk. She gave me actionable steps to improve my life, including repairing my relationship with my mom — who wasn’t on speaking terms with me because I still hadn’t paid her back — and ending my relationship with my girlfriend at the time, which was making me miserable. I also had shoulder reconstruction, and recovered fully from that. My career was going well. I was starting to put away money. I was doing what I loved and made excellent friends. Then my therapist moved to Seattle, and I found a hypnotherapist in 2015, and things were great. Until they weren’t. Until I sat there in that bar, thinking the darkest things about myself. But why, when things were finally going so well, did I decide to quit while I was ahead?
My depression and anxiety stem from an abusive inner monologue, a decidedly unkind, unrelenting voice I’d never quite fully been able to silence. Instead of vanquishing my demons, I’d spent much of my life trying to outrun them, or work around them. I dive into that realization here:
The Machine Becomes Self-Aware
A journey to the deepest part of my psyche, a deleted scene from the deepest part of the desert, and the harrowing end…
You can read all that if you want to, it’s somewhat instructive, but there’s a lot of navel-gazing. I want to talk, more broadly, about suicide itself — and, particularly, why people don’t reach out — at least from my own experience. This isn’t an alternative explanation to things like “toxic masculinity,” or “mental health stigma,” which are valid, but more of a supplement to fill in some gaps and provide shading and nuance.
Let me start with the obvious: Depression makes us feel bad. It makes us feel like life is worse than it actually is. What happens when we feel this way? We tend to take less care of ourselves, and reach out for help less. But there’s more to it than that.
My depression also makes me feel guilty. Do you remember the question that’s stuck in my mind forever? “What the fuck is this shit? Is your life really that bad?” I actually feel bad about feeling bad about my life, which, objectively, isn’t that bad. “Come on, John,” I ask myself, “You shouldn’t feel this sad, worthless or anxious, you fucking asshole. Toughen the fuck up. People have it so much worse than you ever will.” And, of course, that voice — although unkind — is correct. I am a straight, white male in America, 2018, who is financially comfortable, professionally fulfilled, and a pillar in my community. I’ve never had to endure the traumas of rape, domestic violence, police brutality, racism, wage gaps or persecution. I’ve never been shot at, or had a parent or close friend die, or suffered a debilitating illness. I haven’t earned my depression. My depression is invalid. Therefore, it should not exist.
I’ve also been conditioned not to talk about my mental struggles with romantic partners or close friends. Not at length. Not more than once. My exes all despised when I’d go deep into the recesses of my own mind. They, I believe rightfully, didn’t want to perform that level of emotional labor. After all, the sexiest thing a man can be is emotionally reliable. I’ve learned that time and time again, as I’ve watched emotionally reliable people find love while I’ve managed to fritter away the love I could have received in a cloud of insecurity, and fail to attract anyone I’d set my heart on. (All my relationships were happy accidents I stumbled upon without looking for them.) I don’t bond well with other men, at least not emotionally, because of that societal thing we always talk about with men not being open with their feelings. My introspection gets funneled inward, and no one truly asks if I’m okay. (At least, no one asks it wanting an honest answer.)
All my mental health discussions happen with my dad (who is amazing), and with people who tend to listen only long enough to respond with, “it reminds me of how I felt when I _______” which is a pet peeve of mine, because it sits uncomfortably close to “how do you think I feel?” Which is something my mom said a lot in response to me voicing my displeasure, insecurity, sadness, loneliness or worry.
Therapy helps, but it’s hard to find someone who can really help you. I’ve found that magic bullet once. I’ve seen seven therapists. The one who changed my life moved away. On one particular day — with seemingly no one else to turn to — I called the suicide hotline. I want to tell you about that experience.
I called the suicide hotline sometime in 2013, as I was dealing with the encircling vultures of anxiety, hypochondria, toxic debt, imposter syndrome, depression and loneliness. I was driving, and I was thinking about killing myself. Not, like, in the moment … just, I was making plans.
The suicide hotline is staffed by volunteers, who — if you do voice an intention to cause self-harm, or a particular brand of sadness (as I did) — will set you up with a local inpatient facility: an inpatient facility that is not free. An inpatient facility that’s not always covered by medical insurance. Also, an inpatient facility. With the endless parade of qualifying questions, I likened it to a bizarre brand of lead generation, a form that preys upon people at their most vulnerable. The suicide hotline may not have prevented my suicide — not in that moment, anyway — but it did convince myself that it wasn’t all that bad, because I did not wish to commit myself to an institution that I’d ultimately foot the bill for. This is obviously anecdotal, and there is some data (notably a 2007 research study) to suggest that the suicide hotline is marginally helpful, but that was my experience with it, so hopefully it sheds light upon why I tweet things like this:
I’ve been more depressed, for longer, than I was the day I decided to drive with my eyes closed. I sunk into a dark, drunken depression that cratered last year. It napalmed my relationship and nearly destroyed my career, before I finally crawled out the other side. I documented that journey here:
I want to tell you what I’ve done, to try and take ownership of my thoughts and emotions, and become more mentally healthy, but I want to preface this by saying everyone’s depression and anxiety is different. What afflicts you, and what afflicts me, are probably not the same. The roots, stems and leaves are as wide-ranging as humanity itself.
Since August of 2017, I’ve done the following more often than not:
- Drank 3L of water daily
- Cleaned for 20 minutes per day
- Run for 20–60 minutes per day
- Scheduled weekly “fun” with people
- Eaten more plants and fewer processed foods
- Drank about 95% less alcohol
- Smoked about 95% fewer cigarettes
- Weekly yoga and meditation
- Poured myself into rewarding work (like writing!)
- Traveled as much as I could afford
That’s what it’s taken just to get me normal. (Whatever the fuck that is.) It’s a herculean task — a perpetual homework assignment that’s never finished. And, you know what? It’s working for me, for now. Am I cured? Fuck no. But I’m happy to report that, just like the Dow Jones, my life is finally getting better after years of depression, and that I own (and manage) my thoughts and emotions better than I ever have, at any point in my life prior to right now. I find myself less prone to wild mood swings, and my energy remains pretty consistently high unless I’ve just torn through a heaping plate of Lamb Vindaloo. I haven’t won the fight for my happiness, but I’ve found some weapons that make the fight easier to win. I am, currently, a very happy human, who just happens to not be very awesome in all areas of life — the area of “dealing with shit without feeling a whole bunch of things,” in particular. (Also: I cannot dunk. Very sad.)
And, yet, the front bumper still hangs off my silver 2009 Hyundai Sonata. It’s zip-tied to the rest of the car. For me, that busted bumper is a reminder: A reminder that we all have our scars, we all have our histories, and we all have our struggles we suffer through. That we’re all just sorta holding it together with zip-ties or duct tape or fresh coats of paint covering our dents and scratches.
It’s also a very personal note to myself — a reminder that my life is fragile, worth fighting for, and that the work it takes to win that fight is never-ending.
And, also, that I’m lucky to still be in the ring at all, still rolling with the punches, until that final bell sounds — hopefully not a second too soon.