Depression has a bottomless appetite for destruction, and it almost destroyed David Perez.
It took me 23 years to find a reason to live. I had experienced joy, passion, rage, and total despair, but had not once felt completely at ease with any of it. I did not relax until 24, and it took two suicide attempts, years of self-hatred, therapy, and a moment where those who cared for me most saw me hit the bottom to get there. Things have been tumultuous since, but I have so much to lose now that harming myself seems unfathomable. I am extraordinarily fortunate. Many in similar situations, including a close friend of mine, could not find a way out and killed themselves. It is a reality I think of daily.
We first became acquainted when I was in second grade. It was a class during a particularly boring afternoon. Very few seven-year-old boys could spell “Czechoslovakia” properly, much less find it on a map. I could, and was proud enough of this feat to write on the exercise sheet: “I want to kill myself in Prague, Czechoslovakia.” I spent an afternoon in a shrink’s office. I liked him because he looked like Bill Clinton. We talked at length about the 1992 election. He seemed to think I was fine.
Four years later, I hung up the phone on my grandmother and tried to asphyxiate myself to death with a sock wrapped around a doorknob. I was 11, picked on daily and getting into fistfights almost as often. I genuinely wanted to die, but my mother came home before I could figure out how to make myself pass out. I was in and out of therapy for the next three years. My mother strained to keep it all from flying apart. Sometimes, it didn’t work. Our running dialogue until I was well into my twenties was one of recriminations and sarcasm between moments of innocence and humor.
The good doctor was a mild-mannered man with a weak handshake who didn’t really know what to do with me. In hindsight, he had no chance. I was an angry child, wedged into the body of a man rapidly approaching six-feet tall with a fierce intellect and no sense of emotional restraint. Occasionally, my mother would sit in as well; her and her baggage squared off against my monster and I. (The enemy of my enemy is my friend, after all.) Those sessions stopped quickly.
If he treated me like an adult, I reminded him indirectly of my tender age and my genuine innocence of the world of adults. When he treated me like a child, I ignored him, staying silent for minutes at a time. He whined in a dull, placid tone: “This isn’t going to work if you aren’t cooperating, David.” I would nod, smile, and continue to count down the 40 minutes until my mother came to pick up me with a check in hand. Sometimes, payment was an issue. This did not help me respect a process I already saw as wasteful. We would head home and have the following dialogue:
“How’d it go, Dave?”
“It was alright.”
The conversation usually ended there unless my mother wanted to pick a fight. If she did, we would argue for the entire car ride home, sometimes for days afterward.
As the sessions continued, I began high school. My monster now had a name—clinical depression—but it remained abstract for now. What was all too real was that I began a term of four years in an all-boys Catholic school at precisely the moment that I craved female attention the most. I completely lost my mind. I left early to head off to the all-girls schools, came in late, and threw batteries in class. Indefinite JUG, the Catholic school equivalent of detention, was the punishment; I absconded from that, too. I even flunked classes, which brought about a very public verbal and physical assault from my mother after parent-teacher conferences.
Oddly enough, I was really happy. This was in large part due to the furtive and awkward attentions of Stephanie, an overweight girl from a nearby school I tried miserably to make conversation with when we weren’t having sex or making out on mall benches. It didn’t work out, but then others followed. I turned it around academically, only to get thrown out of school and then reinstated for something I hadn’t done. I can’t win, I thought, but at least I’m fucking. This was a real accomplishment.
It was a shock, then, when the urge to harm myself returned during a school dance. Where did this overwhelming feeling of panic and despair come from? It had been nearly three years, and plenty had passed; but my skin was cold to the touch now and I was sweating profusely…what’s happening to me? I refused a dance and walked out early, ashen-faced. A teacher asked if I was all right; I waved him off. I rode the bus home, and shivered in my bed: I could not talk.
I spent some Saturdays with a woman who said she was going to change the way I thought, the way I behaved. These sessions ended quickly, and the feeling of despair lingered for another year. I attempted to drown out the feelings of self-loathing with copious amounts of food and pot. I gained 60 pounds in a year, the stretch marks and extra skin scarring my torso to this day.
To my pleasant surprise, I ended up on a gorgeous campus where each spring was a riot of color and everyone else felt even more unsure of themselves in social situations than I was. Here, I thought, I would bloom.
I spent my 18th birthday sobbing on a bench in the rain. The comically awkward parties remained intimidating throughout my time in college. This absurd turnabout was only made tolerable by copious amounts of alcohol and pot. For the first time in my life, I was quite often the slow kid in class. My confidence crushed; I went to class only when it was a subject I was confident I could handle. Gradually, I adapted, but I could not shake the nagging voice telling me that it’d be easier if I just ended it all.
The friends I made kept me at Swarthmore, their terrifying intellects checked only by the depth of their compassion. They took me on road trips, built bonfires, and then ate hallucinogens by the handful—all the while overachieving. I couldn’t keep up, but the peer pressure to do something great kept the monster in check. I was having too much fun eating tuna fish with pasta and mayonnaise; laughing too hard at defrosted whale dicks flung at cars; flaunting my pipes on college radio between bong rips. Life was happening, and I was content.
My senior year began poorly. I was now noticeably obese. Hair was falling out of my head in clumps. Worst of all, I couldn’t breathe. I spent most of winter in bed, inhaling steroids to keep my airways open, reading Faulkner. I would not graduate on time. This was a failure, but not catastrophic: I only needed a few extra credits. Spring came, and I would not leave my dorm room. I slept 15, 20 hours at a time. The doctors prescribed Atavan. I wanted to peel my skin off. My inner monologue would not stop, blathering on and on until I passed out. I stopped taking the pills. Nothing changed.
I finished my credits the next fall, juggling a job and an apartment. Things seemed back on track, but I wasn’t right. My misery had morphed into something more sinister. I was set on suicide. The date was even decided—May 28, the day before I was to graduate.
March folded into April. Obsession with my impending death overwhelmed me. I watched fatal racecar crashes on YouTube repeatedly, taught myself how to tie a hangman’s noose. I slept three or four hours a night, if at all. Weed and whiskey were now supported by my first dabbles in cocaine and a steady supply of Adderall. People complimented me on my weight loss: “You look great—working out?” I was being devoured from within.
The night before my graduation, I sneaked away from the parties and walked into the woods with a significant length of cable wire. I was nervous, but this had to happen—this all would end. I sat out there for hours, occasionally searching for a tree that could support me. I found the right tree and stared in disbelief at the rising sun—had I fallen asleep? I slung the cable around the tree, put the noose around my neck and jumped expecting an end. But I had given the cable too much slack, and I landed with a thud on the forest floor.
Just then, a jogger came through the middle of the woods, mumbled “Good morning,” and wandered off. Did he not see that I had a noose around my neck? It still doesn’t make sense.
I went back to my apartment, threw a few tables and chairs, ripped off my clothes, and passed out. I thought I could try again after the ceremony. I awoke to my mother pushing in my window, calling my name. It was the worst moment of my life, lying there half-naked, clumsily getting dressed as my family carried my belongings and a hollowed-out version of myself in a car back to New York.
On the opposite couch from me now was a mustachioed man with a pot belly who prominently displayed a Columbia diploma on his wall and spoke for 20 minutes about the impressive reputation of Swarthmore and its slight inferiority to Columbia (“not quite an Ivy”). This did not pluck any heartstrings. When I called him later that week to tell him that I would not be continuing with him, he spouted a string of obscenities and accused me of betrayal. Shocked, I called him the foulest word extant in American English (it begins with the letter ‘c’) and hung up the phone.
I moved on and found a gentleman with a trimmed white beard, a strong aversion to bullshit, and an interest in politics. There is little to say about our sessions because I don’t remember much of what was said—though I remember what his bathroom looked like and that I read an old Men’s Fitness article on kettle bells every time I sat in his waiting room. Whatever happened, it worked. The loathing I felt withered into an occasional surge of doubt and discomfort. We talked of women, of my dreams, of irrelevancies. I felt comfortable being honest for the first time in my life. Confidence remained elusive, but self-respect had to begin someplace.
A year passed, and we shook hands. I went to Paris to start grad school, and all sorts of nonsense went on. There were times where I did not leave the apartment for days at a time, but I survived and was a bit bemused to note how intact I was when I made it back home. My family, especially my mother, held my head when I wanted to put it through a wall. They kicked my ass when they thought I was dawdling. Most of all, they listened and tried to understand. I live for them, and for myself.
I will not lie to you or myself and say I destroyed my monster. We are brothers with the same memories, scars, and triumphs. We occasionally stare at the train tracks and wonder, but that’s an idle thought these days. At least I hope it is. There is no broadly applicable cure or triumph to trumpet here. I haven’t gone all Tony Robbins and embraced a BRIGHTER, MORE BRILLIANT ME!!! That would be a lie. The truth is harrowing; but the alternative is lying, every day, to everyone, forever.
More from David Perez: A Modern Indignity.