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.