How I Knew I Was Depressed

How I Knew I Was Depressed photo by indieman

For Norbert Brown, it was when he was asked a question he couldn’t answer.

—-

It was a Sunday evening in the middle of summer, about seven or eight years ago. The air was hot and sticky—it was the kind of humidity we get on Cape Cod that soaks into every piece of paper until it’s completely limp when you pick it up. Notes and binders were spread out and wilting all over the kitchen table in front of me. I had too much to do, and I was way behind.  I looked at it all, baffled just trying to figure out what to attack first.

Then my 10-year-old son and teenage daughter said they were going for a swim. I didn’t have time to go in the pool, but I thought that maybe if I cooled off I could be more productive. Or at least maybe I could think straight. So I said I’d join them.

My son was pretty chatty as a child. He had—still has—a mind that trips and jumps and leaps from topic to topic, idea to idea, and sometimes as a result he is shockingly insightful and completely hilarious in the same minute. My daughter’s voice is expressive—musical, even—and her laughter has been a consistent delight to me since the day she was born. So this break—this time away from my troubles, in the company of two of my favorite people—should have been refreshing, relaxing and invigorating.

But I didn’t feel a thing. My mind might have been racing with the things back on the kitchen table, the deadlines sliding by me, the executives who were expecting me to produce work I clearly wasn’t getting done. But it wasn’t—instead, my head was full of industrial noise; it was the droning soundtrack of Eraserhead in there.

I squatted in the shallow end, my head just above water. My mind was not a blank, but nothing going on in there was any earthly good to anyone. My kids chatted and laughed and played, and it was like they were a million miles away. No single sound made sense, no single thought could take hold. It was nothing but noise until my son’s voice penetrated with these words:

“Dad, do you even know how to have fun anymore?”

There was no cynicism or irony in his tone. He wasn’t complaining or being judgmental: he was asking a sincere question. I was his dad, I’d been fun at one time, and I wasn’t fun anymore. He was just wondering if I’d noticed, and if I knew why. It was a question I couldn’t evade, from a person who deserved an answer.

And the answer was: No, I did not know how to have fun anymore. And at the same moment I knew that was the answer, I recognized its corollary: I USED to know how to have fun. Something had changed.

♦◊♦

I’d spent the 90s climbing the ladder in a company that was growing so fast we couldn’t keep up. I felt like I owned a piece of that growth—I was an inside guy—I had a seat at the table when the major decisions were made, the big secrets discussed.

Then, we were acquired. Business got soft, and we were heavily leveraged. Cuts had to be made, and I was one of the cuts. It’s a pretty common story, and at the time I felt like I was weathering it well. I had skills. I had experience. I did a year of consulting (with my former employer as my biggest client) and then an offer for a new job in a new city just appeared one day on my doorstep.

It felt a lot like fate.

Which may be why I couldn’t make sense of my own failure at my new job. I knew my stuff—knew how to make decisions and make things happen. Except, things weren’t happening. Not the right things, and not fast enough. Choices baffled me. All of a sudden I couldn’t read people—couldn’t manage a staff and REALLY couldn’t manage my managers. Simple organizational tasks overwhelmed me: I, who had lived for years with a File-O-Fax in my hand before smoothly transitioning to a Palm Pilot, couldn’t keep an accurate calendar. I couldn’t face MAKING a to-do list, let alone trying to actually cross things off it. Taking usable notes in a meeting was impossible. I arrived at my office in the morning with no plan for what I’d do all day, and left without really being sure what I’d done.

♦◊♦

My son’s question forced me to recognize all the things that had changed—not just that I couldn’t have fun, but that I couldn’t organize my work or express my ideas persuasively. Something HAD changed, something was wrong, and I had to fix it.

Which is how I discovered I was depressed.

It turns out, not everybody’s depression looks the same. I didn’t feel sad. I didn’t sleep too much or too little. I was generally not that irritable, and I hadn’t lost interest in my family or other things I cared about.

For me, the most striking symptoms of depression were cognitive. I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t keep track of details—not even the important ones. I couldn’t make decisions or draw conclusions. I’d always considered myself a pretty smart guy, and the scariest thing about the changes I’d gone through was that all of a sudden I felt like I was really, genuinely stupid.

But that question—“Dad, do you even know how to have fun anymore?”—gave me something to cling to. Because it suggested that I USED to know how to have fun, just like I USED to be smart. So maybe if all that could change, it could also change back. So I went to the doctor. And I got better.

By getting better, I don’t mean that all my troubles went away. I still don’t know if I failed at my job because I was depressed or if I was depressed because I failed at my job—it’s a chicken-and -egg thing. But I parted company from that employer on cordial (if not friendly) terms, and we’ve both moved on happily. I had some therapy and included an anti-depressant as part of my daily routine for a while. I’ve been managing without either for some time now, getting through the ups and downs of everyday life, making my lists and getting things done.

But the legacy of that evening swim and my little boy’s question is profound. I learned that life doesn’t always move in a straight line, and that you have to listen for important clues. I learned to notice when things aren’t right, and that things that aren’t right can be fixed.

I discovered that the pain and confusion that was plaguing me at the time was taking something away from my son, and my wife and my other two kids. And I learned that one of the most important things I could do for the people I care about is to take care of myself.

photo: indieman / flickr

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About Norbert Brown

Norbert Brown is a freelance writer, producer and actor. He writes speeches and large corporate event scripts as well as essays and reviews, and he’s currently developing a solo theater piece called Slide Show. He lives on Cape Cod with his wife Liz, two of their three children (the third is fully cooked and on her own, but visits frequently), a dog and far too many cats.

Comments

  1. What an insightful essay— there is so much denial that goes on that sometimes someone pointing out the little things to you can wake you up to your own inner state…

    Your story of layoff and re-adjustment hits home— sometimes you try staying so busy and doing all kinds of activities to keep from going over the edge… But sometimes you can feel those nagging dull headaches and your face feels almost numb to your own touch, like you have a latex mask over your own face….

    For me, the cure was re-connecting with family and friends and constantly working and trying to challenge myself doing new tasks, either at the gym or taking a class…

    Depression has many faces— and comes and goes…

  2. Norbert, thanks for a helpful and insightful essay. I’ve been dealing with male depression ever since I was 5 years old and my father tried to take his own life when he was unable to find work and felt the pressures to support his family. I’ve dealt with depression in my own life and specialize in working with men. Too many men and those who care about us, think of depression with symptoms such as sadness, sleeping too much, loss of interest in life, etc. As you point out, depression can be expressed in multiple ways and are often different for men than for women.

    We still believe that women experience depression at twice the rate of men. But that may be because we have defined depression with symptoms that are more common in women.

    By sharing our stories, as you have, we create a more nuanced and honest look at the reality of depression in our lives. As we go deeper we can also heal and we can reverse the trend of male suicides that occur at rates of 4 to 18 times higher than for women.

  3. oooh, how dare you share so much raw feeling, honesty, and wisdom?

    You’re a dude aren’t you? C’mon! ;^)

    With all the threads about maleness, manliness, and masculinity I think this article sends the perfect message without the hand wringing.

    Agreeing with Jed, men sharing stories and gut wrenching details like this are the source of healing and improving ourselves.

    This really sneaky form of depression is something I’ve not heard other men talk about much.

    You’re a great man for moving forward and choosing to take care of yourself so that others can continuing enjoying your gifts.

    Thank you, Norbert!

  4. Thanks for this, Norbert. It’s so important for men to hear other men talk openly about depression.

  5. Norbert, I know exactly what you’re talking about in this article. It’s what we used to call a “nervous breakdown”. This happened to me five years ago after open-heart surgery and going back to work too soon (in Burma). It took moving back to the States and readjusting to life to slowly get back to a sense of normality. I won’t say, “Get well soon!” because that’s too much. Take your time.

  6. Male or female, depression sucks. What is most difficult is the negative feedback loop that many get trapped in–you feel depressed, your cognitive abilities suffer, you make bad decisions (or none at all), bad things happen, you feel depressed, and so on. Thank you for this story.

  7. I don’t know what to do.
    I have tried so hard to be tough and I guess I too have now been diagnosed with depression.
    I am second guessing everything.
    I hardly believe it could be this way.
    I just started a medication today.
    I don’t feel good about it.
    I just feel I have over reacted.
    This sucks.

    • Norbert Brown says:

      Ashleigh, it’s important for you to realize that getting the help you need is a sign of strength, not weakness. It’s hard to understand depression as an illness when you’re in the middle of it, but that’s what it is. You wouldn’t beat yourself up for having the flu – don’t beat yourself up over being depressed. And most importantly, you don’t have to feel like this forever. Take care of yourself.

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