Shawn Henfling describes the descent into depression as a “waterslide without enough water” and what it took to finally admit he needed help.
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Willpower, no matter how much you possess, is sometimes not enough to get by. Occasionally, a person will reach an obstacle so great that, despite their best efforts, they simply cannot overcome it. Some people will recognize this immediately, request the necessary assistance, and carry on with their lives. Some will struggle on, using new strategies, different techniques, or even changes within themselves to crawl over their hurdle. Those people, like me, rely on their own force of will to push past whatever slows them down. We fight on, enduring, expecting success simply because we will it. For us, the simple act of asking someone for help is admitting failure and defeat, unacceptable outcomes in our plan for life.
My battle with clinical depression was prolonged simply because I believed wholeheartedly that I could will myself to be happy. My theory was simple: Help was out there for the other guy, but for me, it was an unforgivable confession of weakness. Despite my wife’s pleadings, the cracks showing in our relationship, and the erosion of my patience for even the smallest injustice, I deflected all attempts at getting me to admit how far I’d fallen. “It’s a phase, it’ll pass.” “I’m fine, I’m just tired.” “Rough day at work is all, I’m Okay.” Finally, if someone pushed a little too far with their concern for my well being, I’d snap at them with the classic line, “I’M OK DAMMIT, JUST DROP IT.” The reality, in which I was no longer a full participant, is I was too far from Okay to realize it.
I recently read a book written by Stephen King, Duma Key. In it, the narrator describes his old life and his new life, each divided by specific events. In the book, these events were tragic. I am on my third life, much like Edgar, though my “rebirths” are not separated by cataclysm. For me, there is simply before, during and after depression. The line between the first two lives is blurry. I can’t simply point to a day or an event as the cause or, perhaps, the first domino to fall. Instead, it’s more like a long, slow slide beginning somewhere in my twenties. I’ve often used the term “having been far down the rabbit hole.” To me however, the hole wasn’t a precipitous drop like it was for Alice. Instead, my rabbit hole was like a slide at the water park with not quite enough water. You move slowly and painfully until you hit bottom where you are sure someone drained the remaining water from the pool.
I remember enjoying things over the past few years. While my depression sapped the joy from most of my life, including holidays, hobbies, family, and friends, there were still bright spots. A family camping trip to Penn State for the first game, post Paterno (a loss), a couple of cross country trips on the bike with close friends, as well as a few other “wins” in my day to day life. Those small victories, in retrospect, kept me from asking for help. I saw them as proof that I could make it, that it was, in fact, my fault. I could be happy, but simply wouldn’t let myself enjoy anything. This was MY PROBLEM and MY RESPONSIBILITY to beat it. Through the haze that had descended over my everyday life, I couldn’t see how much I was hurting those most dear to me. I endured for them, but because of the depression, just getting through everyday took all I had. There was nothing left, no energy, and no enthusiasm. I simply wanted to go to bed and suffer through another lousy night of sleep.
I didn’t sleep. For the past several years, a good, sound sleep was a luxury that came only when I was near collapsing from exhaustion. Most days I was in bed by 8pm, 9 at the latest, and up again at 5. I had tremendous difficulty just functioning if I were short even an hour of sleep, and I’d have to make it up again later. My sleep, every night, was broken. I guess if I had to equate it to anything, 9 hours of sleep for me equated about 5 hours of good, sound sleep for someone else. Once again, I saw only how I was suffering and not what damage I was doing to others. In an effort to be selfless, to carry on for the good of everyone else, I was failing to see the consequences of my stubborn nature.
Five years ago I did ask for help. I went to the doctor and took a pill. People liked me more. I slept a little better, handled stress better, and smiled a little. To me, however, it was artificial. I still carried on under the assumption that I didn’t need the pills. I was strong enough to do it on my own, and didn’t need some chemical changing things in my head. That, to me, was for other people. It never occurred to me that I was OTHER PEOPLE. In part because of the artificial feeling it gave me, and because I still operated under the illusion that I could do it alone, I stopped taking my medicine.
The inevitable decline was, again, slow. The pit, however, was much deeper. I mitigated the damage by taking a less stressful job closer to home, and taking up a hobby. I know, you are thinking, “wait a minute, you said you didn’t enjoy your hobbies!” I didn’t, but I knew I should. I felt like if I just kept trying, bulling my way along, the lethargy would eventually break. I was wrong. The more and harder I tried this second time around, the further and faster I slid into oblivion. My patience, never to be counted on for long, was razor thin at the end. When the tiniest thing went wrong, it was all I could do to keep from dropping into a blind rage. Sometimes I threw things, other times I hit things. Never people… and never my dogs… On the other hand, no wall was safe, nor were my knuckles.
I’ve heard survivors of depression describe it many different ways. Some called it a dark cloud, always overhead. In an article I read not long ago, it was a “Black Dog”. To others, it was simply a weight chained to their leg, leaving them desperately gasping for air as they tried to navigate the turbulent waters of life. I’ve discovered that depression is different for everyone. For me, it was all of those things and more. Depression was the great destroyer, rushing about through my life, chasing me along, obliterating everything I worked ceaselessly to build. I kept going. I had to. It was MY PROBLEM and MY RESPONSIBILITY to overcome it. Help was not an option.
I sank pretty low on occasion, though a very select few knew how low. I contemplated suicide twice. At some point in my life, I went from comfortable being alone to terrified of being left alone with only my mind as company. I saw this as weakness as well, and simply couldn’t admit it to the people who needed to hear it most. My wife, Christine, saw my anxiety at her leaving to spend time with her family as anger, perhaps jealousy. No matter how often I tried to tell her it wasn’t like that, I simply could not admit the truth. I got pretty good at handling a weekend alone. I stayed busy, not giving myself time to think. Nights were hard, but I endured.
Christmas time last year was awful. I worked most of the surrounding days, so Christine went to visit her dad for a few days and took the kids. I was alone, and locked inside my head. I talked to the dogs who were usually good for cheering me up. It didn’t work. I tried to let myself be drawn into a movie. That too, failed. I knew there were people I could call. Hell, I should have called my wife, told her I needed her. I should have reached out. But, alas, it was MY PROBLEM and MY RESPONSIBILITY. I sat on the couch trying to decide whether to live or die. I have no idea why I chose to live, I guess the memory plays tricks on us sometimes. I’d like to say it was an honorable decision, that some piece of me realized what it would do to the friends and family I would leave behind. I’d like to say that, but I can’t for sure.
I kept on for seven more months. Some days were better than others. I was noticing, however, that the bad days seemed a little worse and the good days were progressively becoming not as good. I had a string of unfortunate deals go down at work, and I can’t say whether they were my fault or not. Perhaps, though I think at least most of them would have gone sideways no matter what. I don’t recall what prompted me to ask for help. I just reached a point one day, sitting at work, and decided that I couldn’t do it any longer. There had to be more to life than simple endurance. My grip was slipping and I was face-to-face with rock bottom. The destroyer had finally caught up to me.
I made the appointment under false pretenses. I claimed, to the receptionist, that I was only in need of my annual physical. I did have a couple of things to discuss with the doctor, but nothing pressing. That left me an out should I decide at the last minute that it was still MY PROBLEM and MY RESPONSIBILITY. Sitting in the exam room, waiting for the doctor to come in, I was sure I’d finally ask for help. However, when he arrived, I avoided my depression like the plague. I made pleasantries, cracked jokes, and discussed life in general, careful to avoid any inference that I may not be happy. Roughly a decade of depression makes you good at that. Finally, very near the end, I blurted it out. “I’M DEPRESSED.” We talked for a few minutes, and he wrote me a prescription. It wasn’t over.
My first day on the pills I was jittery, like an addict in withdrawal. I couldn’t sit still, my hands shook, and I couldn’t focus. It was awful. Over the course of the next few days, however, the symptoms subsided and I thought that I was in the clear. I’d considered calling and asking for a different pill, something that wouldn’t make me feel that way, and declined. I was all in. For a couple more days, I felt great, better, in fact, than I had in years. I smiled, a huge win in and of itself. Christine went into New Jersey to see some family, and though I was apprehensive, I thought surely I’d be fine. I was wrong.
In life, timing is everything. For some, a fortunate coincidence in timing will land them a dream job, or a future spouse. For others, timing can mean a car accident, an embarrassing moment, or worse. The fates were not on my side that weekend, and I sank lower than I’d ever been. I know now that it was my body becoming accustomed to the drug, but then, all I felt was despair and loneliness. My emotional high crashed. It was as if someone flipped a switch, and I was caught unprepared. I contemplated suicide for the second time.
I’m here. I’m alive, and roughly one month out from the start of my new life. I have accepted help, realized the damage I was doing, and am trying hard to make amends. The past two lives? There is some carry over. My wife, for reasons unbeknownst to me, has stayed with me. I have some close friends who’ve stood by me despite my dark moods and bad days. I have a good, loyal family. I have hobbies that I no longer think I should be enjoying. I do enjoy them, immensely. I’ve rediscovered an old hobby as well. Now I write to clear my mind and, to hopefully help others who may be facing the same daily struggles I do…or did. I still fear my mind, and may never completely get over that, but not to the same degree. Now, when people ask me how I’m doing, I don’t tell them I’m fine. Now, the answer is “better than I’ve been in a long time.” My willpower is as strong as it ever was, but I’m learning to recognize when I need a little assistance. I am more than my depression, and it’s OK to ask for help.
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