Darkness Falling

On spending years dealing with depression every way other than dealing with it.

 

This is the second in a series of essays on depression from some of the Good Men Project’s most valued voices. The first in the series is here.

I’m sitting on a rock high up a hill from my parents’ house in Rockport, Maine as I write this. I can hear shotgun shells in the distance. It must be hunting season.

The leaves have begun to turn. There’s a chill in the air. I am smoking what I have promised myself is the last cigar. I’m listening to Natalie Merchant on my earphones looking out as dusk settles over the hillside and the Penobscot Bay beyond. It’s half time of the Patriots game. Tom Brady has been having his way with Peyton Manning’s Broncos. But none of that seems to matter.

My wife and 7 year-old son are in Florida. They just got back from Busch Gardens and by text report frolicking in a pool back at my in-law’s house. Tomorrow we’ll all be together in our beautiful home in Brookline.

Down the hill my son and father are waiting for me to watch the rest of the game. But I’m sitting on this rock sucking the last bits of nicotine, wondering again, after 47 years, why darkness is falling.

♦◊♦

Last summer I had an uncle shoot himself to death. He was old and had medical issues. He didn’t want to be dependent or waste away in a nursing home. There was something Hemingwayesque about it. I don’t care how old you are, shooting yourself takes a certain amount of courage. And insanity.

I don’t want to die. Like my uncle, I’ve struggled mightily with my addictions, among them booze. I’ve resurrected myself after massive blunders as a man. And yet there are days where I still struggle. I still feel empty. I still don’t know why I am on this earth. Smoking cigars is just one more way to fill the hole that depression leaves.

♦◊♦

I was an unhappy adolescent. Looking back I was severely depressed but at the time I just did what I could to handle what felt like a family where I didn’t really fit in and a school where I most certainly didn’t fit in. I swam and then ran obsessively, ten and sometimes more miles a day. The burn in my legs on some dirt road way off in the hills surrounding our home in Amherst, Massachusetts was my one release. If it was snowing and dark all the better, as it would only increase my sense of being alone and away from that which I did not understand. Only now can I see that it wasn’t my parents or my peers at school I was running from but my depression.

♦◊♦

In college I began to drink for the first time to fill the void. And my addiction extended to food.

But I also met the first man, a coach, who encouraged me to face directly into the darkness, to test the theory that there was a bogeyman chasing me that I could outrun. I rowed for a division two school. Our races barely made the local paper, an obscure sport at an obscure school. Yet they became the only way in which I was able to look my demons straight in the eye and tell them to fuck off. It wasn’t about running forever to exhaust myself just to be able to sleep. It was about the mental preparation required to relax under extreme pressure, about summoning that part of my soul that knew that I could be great at this one thing, about believing in myself in a way that I never had been able to in the past.

We won a lot of races that few if anyone who wasn’t involved in them cared about and I got my first glimpse into what my world might look like if it was filled with sun light rather than constant shadows.

♦◊♦

During my 20s I was in complete denial about my soul-sickness. I built a huge edifice of what I thought manly success might look like. I took my ability to focus in a boat and ultimately learned how to translate it into a certain cutthroat determination in my business dealings that was successful beyond my wildest dreams. But it didn’t mean shit in terms of my interior life. I was building a house of cards.

My 30s and 40s have been a much more conscious effort to grapple with the demons who torment me. I got and stayed sober. I focused on being a good dad. I ultimately got remarried after a miserable divorce. I even wrote a book about being a good man.

That all worked up to a point. But I have found over the years that depression is like the weather. You can be doing everything right—going to therapy, taking medication, working out—and yet the fog can roll in at any time. All you can do is sit up at the top of a hill and look out at the view and remember who you are, where you came from, and that you are not alone with this.

♦◊♦

As my cigar burns to that last bitter end that I both love for its intensity and loathe because I am going to have to put the damn thing out, the Mumford & Sons song “Reminder” comes on my iPhone.

A constant reminder of where I can find her
Light that might give up the way
It’s all that I’m asking for without her I’m lost 

My toes are cold as I listen to the words. I drop the tiny ball of fire in my fingers to the ground, smash it with my heel and walk down the hill.

It’s dark now. But the moment of despair has passed. I imagine in my mind’s eye the sunshine that’s beating down of people on the other side of the earth and will, soon, find it’s way to me too.

 

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About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 18-year-old daughter and 16- and 7-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter @TMatlack.

Comments

  1. As someone who suffers from chronic, clinical depression, thank you for writing this post and helping to show people things that are normally swept under the carpet and shouldn’t be.

  2. It wasn’t until I was 34 that I really started to deal with my depression, that had been with me most of my life. It is still a battle and it is far from gone but I am more aware than ever before of my feelings.

  3. This is one of the most honest, vivid descriptions of depression I’ve ever read. You absolutely nailed the sentiments that haunt me, too. In fact, I just read parts of this to my husband to further illuminate the darkness of this disease.

    Thank you for sharing your words. It’s through this type of sharing that we all have more compassion for each other, and, hopefully, ourselves.

  4. What I love about this is how it sharply separates the difference between positive mental health and externally ticking the ‘achievement’ boxes; the two are aften wrongly conflated. They aren’t mutually exclusive and I think better understanding of this would lead to greater empathy.

  5. Wow— thank you for writing this! Brave stuff! It is so hard to really see what goes on inside someone else’s head….thanks for helping us to peel away the layers!

  6. I re-blogged what I wrote a few days ago:

    I follow some amazing fabulous people here and I know they don’t understand what I’m talking about. So go do your homework and find out what bipolar is and aspergers is and borderline schizophrenia is and then you’ll understand me better.

    When I say I wrote 10 books in a two year period I did. How? Because I have one of the the above labeled illnesses. But to me they are not illnesses. They are gifts.

    There’s not one invention that was created be it a book or a lightbulb that did not have the alchemy of these illnesses as an underlying base.

    Mental illness is a stigma in our society, but I would state that breakthroughs in science, biology, medicine and the arts would not have been possible without being a person afflicted by one of these mental illnesses.

    So time to go look up these illnesses and find out that they are chemical imbalances that affect the neurological and emotional centres of the mind.
    Then never look at mental illness with a stigmatic voice again.

    Yes we cannot fit in to the “normal” population because we are annoying and irritable people who live out our lives in in-normal ways, which gives us the stigma that we don’t belong.

    However I challenge you to construct an argument to prove me wrong. I will always win because while you think we are playing three chess games at the same time we are in fact playing six – the board is magnetized and there are three games underneath each board you don’t see.

    As a writer the logic holds that you must construct your novel in such and such a way. That’s how it is taught. But in fact we are creating new models to contain the words and worlds that thrill you or move you to tears.

    I’m tired of living in the “real” world and allowing myself to be influenced by conformity; that is what has held me back from releasing onto the world my work and I’m sure there are others who feel the same way.

    Tonight I give voice to the misunderstood. We are different, but its what makes us radically authentic.

    update: In news that will shock no one, Swedish researchers find writers are unusually prone to depression, mood disorders, and substance abuse. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-19959565

    related:

    Novelist Virginia Woolf, who wrote A Room of One’s Own and To the Lighthouse, had depression and drowned herself
    Fairytale author Hans Christian Andersen, who wrote The Ugly Duckling and The Little Mermaid, had depression
    US author and journalist Ernest Hemingway, who wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, had depression and killed himself with a shotgun

  7. Wow, it was like I wrote it myself. I don’t think most people understand what this feels like. I am almost a mirror image of the article. Somedays it is all I can do to move forward in any positive direction. I too struggled with drinking (conquered it) and went through a divorce. The now distance between me and my children compounds the depression, as I don’t feel like anything more than the biological donor of three beautiful and magnificent kids. I miss them so much everyday, and I feel like such a failure when I can’t be there to help them with school, or life, or whatever. Or even share all the beautiful small moments (good and bad) in life that people blissfully seem to ignore. It is not in the cards that I can be any closer geographically to them right now as finances are tight. He is spot on about depression rolling in like a fog regardless of the situation. Every day is like a battle anymore, I do what I can to win the war, but it is neverending. On bad days, I can hardly focus, and find myself pacing frequently in an effort to cement my thoughts. I really don’t know what to do anymore. I have good days when I feel there is hope, and bad days, where despair wraps its cold evil grip on me. I formulated a routine that I try to follow to keep me from sticking my head in the sand, but at night and in the quiet (especially the quiet) I feel the fingers of depression choking me out, and my mind races toward all that is negative. I know I must continue to move forward, and I feel like I need to excel at this point of my life (44yrs old) to avoid living a life of regrets. I quit making lists (too depressing) and made a flow chart instead, it gives me an ” If / Then” option to keep things on track in some manner. I want my children to be proud of me. I want to be able to give them the things that I always dreamed I could. My oldest daughter has relegated herself that the career of her dreams is just that, “a dream”, because of the cost of college now. I spend most of my waking days trying to figure out how to make her dream come true, it has become as important to me as breathing, and drives me forward. I would love to be in a relationship again, but I truly don’t want to subject anyone to the unannounced vistor that depression can be. I feel toxic. I also live in a small town where I really dont fit in, too eclectic I think. I thank God for music and the internet everyday. I pray that things get better, but I know they won’t unless I drive change and set goals. I just don’t see happiness as one of them anymore, it is like an elusive gift granted to others that I can only admire from afar. I know so many more people have problems far greater than mine, and I am thankful for what I have, and the friends that I have made, but even on days when I should be happy, in the back of my mind and thoughts, I am not. Thank you so much for posting the article. I honestly thought that I was the only one that felt that way. I don’t feel as alone anymore. Take care.

  8. Anne Thériault says:

    This really hits home for me, especially at this time of year. I’ve struggled with depression for, well, pretty much my entire life. For a while I thought that I had it under control, but then my son was born and everything went dark. I recently wrote about how hard it’s been for me the past few weeks:

    http://bellejarblog.wordpress.com/2012/12/30/winter/

    Thank you

  9. Well, that hit me square between the eyes. Someone else struggling with the darkness.

  10. I run the risk of being shot down here, but I can so relate to this article as well that I wanted to tell you about my experience in case it can help anyone here who has commented.

    I’m 42, and I too – could have written this article. Depression, exhaustion, smoking (even though I promised myself I wouldn’t) Going for a run so I can sleep at night, going from one form of self medicating to another- sugar, coffee, alcohol, and food- also divorced, restless and agitated at times, alternately exhausted or energized.

    I’m a fit Mother of two, and successful, social, and “have it together…. and after all this time of wondering WTF is wrong with me? Why can I be so focused some days almost to the point of brilliance, and other days can barely get out of my own way. It was suggested I had depression- so I too took this journey to try to come to terms with this “thing” inside myself that I seemed to have no control over. I took med’s – yada yada.

    Three months ago I was finally diagnosed with Adult ADHD. I’ve had it my whole life, and everyone missed the signs because I had been so good at developing coping strategies. At first, when it was suggested- I was in denial- I thought ADD/ADHD was something completely other than what it really is. I learned that the most prominent signs of it are depression and anxiety – which are the Co-morbid disorders that also accompany it. I started reading about it- and I had one of the biggest Aha’s of my life.

    As a woman in the prime of my life – I’ve now researched everything I can get my hands on- and being the daughter of a surgeon who I’m positive also had it ( he passed when I was 20) I have been able to understand that the area of the brain that controls executive functioning is also the area impacted by those with ADD. The Dopamine we need to feel clear headed is not released properly in the brain. It’s neurological…. and it’s biological- meaning it’s inherited from one of your parents ( most likely). Most of us use nicotine, alcohol and all the rest to self medicate.

    I have no attachment to whether or not this what you are really struggling with, but wanted to suggest you look into it. I just have a feeling, and I hope this helps. Loved your article- thank you for being vulnerable.

    Warm Regards,
    Monica Rodgers

  11. Pipe Dream

    My whole world moves in treacle
    But without the golden glow.
    It unfolds before my eyes
    My reactions far too slow.

    With an alcohol clouded brain
    and bloodshot eyes still full of sleep.
    My incomprehension is perfect
    I don’t know what to discard or what to keep.

    I stood up to be counted,
    I tried to be a man,
    But like grasping a disappearing morning mist
    It slipped through my hands.

    The harder I look for a reason to continue,
    The easier I see of a reason to quit,
    The juxtaposition of existence,
    And the irony of wit.

    The bells ring out in silence,
    It’s louder than it seems,
    I lay back and take a hit,
    From the exhaust pipe of my eternal dreams.

    I wrote this about a year ago before I sort help. I forgot about it until I found it recently. I still have a way to go, but looking back on this I can see the progress I’ve made. I want to continue, and write what comes next.

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