I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the nature of depression, following Heath Ledger’s death. (Though now it appears that he may not have killed himself after all, which makes me deeply regret my earlier comments, though they were made out of a heartfelt anger that someone as talented as Ledger, with a small child, would take his own life.)
Tonight I watched an excellent film called Neverwas, about a psychiatrist (Aaron Eckhart) who gets a job at the hospital where his father, a famous children’s novelist (Nick Nolte), was once remanded for his suicidal tendencies (which he later made good on). Eckhart’s character is haunted by the memory of finding his father’s corpse hanging from a tree, and he can’t sleep. At one point in the film, he says to his childhood friend (Brittney Murphy) “Sometimes I just want the night to be over.”
The line resonated with me, because it’s a feeling I understand to my core. I’ve never been clinically diagnosed as bipolar, but every bit of anecdotal evidence suggests that I suffer from bipolar II disorder. I’ve had any number of severe depressive episodes, sometimes lasting for months, as well as hypomanic episodes without number. and while I’ve never made any serious attempt at suicide, I’ve certainly contemplated it for most of my life, starting in late childhood, and I’m prone to being physically and emotionally self-destructive.
I’m not telling you this, by the way, out of that pathetic impulse which drives so many in our society to wear their neuroses as badges of honor. There is nothing particularly interesting or unique about my situation. It’s simply the way things are for me. Sometimes it’s an embarrassment, when I get hit with it and it’s impossible to shrug off or deal with. But mostly it’s just life.
I have difficulty sleeping at night — somehow I always end up awake, even if I make a concentrated effort to keep a more normal schedule (asleep by midnight, up by eight a.m. or so), as I’ve been doing the past few weeks. I’m not sure why — circadian rhythms and so on, I suppose, but it’s something I’ve dealt with my entire life, just like my depression. I seem to function best if I go to sleep around dawn and wake up around noon or one in the afternoon — I can still deal with the waking world during the latter half of business hours, but I have all of the dark hours to myself. I have no idea if this is related to the depression I suffer, or if it’s a separate issue entirely.
But the point is that there are good nights and there are bad nights. The good nights are when I feel enervated, creative, excited about whatever shiny thing it is my magpie brain has fixated on that moment. On those nights, I write songs or software, or I work on my novel, or I simply watch movies or read and think about whatever it is I’m taking in. Simply sitting around thinking, for me, is productive; it’s all research, so to speak, for everything else that I do. These are the times when I feel most comfortable with my existence, when I feel as if I have a purpose for living. Those nights always end too soon: I look up and the sun is rising as if it never went down.
Then there are the bad nights, when my house becomes a narrow-fitting cage, reminding me of all of the chances I’ve pissed away and the life I might be living, if I weren’t so lazy and stupid, and I can’t catch my breath at the thought of how much of the small, sad life I actually have made for myself is already over. Every light bulb is dimmer and every shadow is deeper and time crawls on its knees. On those nights, I can’t work, can’t create anything, can’t think; I hunch myself up in a chair or on my couch and I go catatonic, staring at the wall. And I just want the night to be over.
The hell of it is, I never know what sort of night it’s going to be. The bad nights can go on for months. It makes it impossible for me to be creative or useful in any way.
This is something that’s hard for people who don’t suffer from these feelings to understand. I would love to simply get over it and go about my day. I can’t. It’s the mental and emotional equivalent of waking up and not being able to move your limbs. Or maybe blurry vision is a better example — everyone else can see perfectly, but try as you might you just can’t bring things into focus. Everyone else is seeing the world in color, and you’re just seeing dim dreary shades of sepia and gray the color of dirty water.
And almost nothing makes it better. Sometimes I can distract myself, but usually I’m actually too depressed to even figure out ways to stop being depressed, which is no less true for sounding stupid. In my own case, personally speaking, I can tell you that the only thing that can really draw me out of depression is…well, quite frankly, sex. Getting laid has, on more than one occasion, kept the gun out of my mouth, in quite literal terms. It usually makes me feel better for several days — just relaxed and generally more cheerful. I mean, maybe that’s obvious, but I think it runs a bit deeper here, something to do with brain chemistry. And the longer I go without sex, the more likely I am to have long strings of those bad nights. (At least until recently; I’ve sort of given up on the idea of sex and love and all that shit, and I seem to be doing better in general. In defeat I am triumphant, I guess.)
I go back and forth on my attitude toward all this. To be sure, depression has caused me a great deal of trouble in my life, more so perhaps than anything else. It makes it difficult for me to simply buckle down and be a normal member of society. It interferes with my work and occasionally causes problems in my personal life and I suspect that most of my friends are pretty tired of watching me turn into a zombie or a quivering pile of shit every so often. It drives my family crazy and I’m sure it’s been hard on the women I’ve had relationships with.
But it’s also simply part of who I am, and part of what drives me to do the things I do. And over the last thirty years, I’ve figured out ways to manage it, mostly. It could be worse — people with bipolar I disorder tend to suffer psychotic mania, which — despite what my various editors might tell you — I’ve never had to deal with. I get manic sometimes and excitable, and there’s probably a lot of times when my mouth can’t keep up with my brain and I sound like I’m babbling incoherently…but I’ve never had a real psychotic episode in my life, save for one unfortunate experience involving hypnotic regression in my mid-teens. (I’m not even sure if that was actually a psychotic episode, or something much stranger and actually external. Maybe I’ll tell you about it some time, but not tonight.) That’s part of the reason I’ve never bothered to really seek psychological or psychiatric help. I’m not insane. I’m not delusional — quite the opposite, actually.
Rather, I think I’m like a car with a transmission that gets stuck in first or second or reverse every so often. Of course, when that happens, you usually just sit in your driveway and wrestle with the gear shift until it goes where it’s supposed to. Unfortunately, I don’t have that luxury…so I just move along in that same gear for a day or a week until it finally gives and everything starts moving again the way it’s supposed to.
It can be managed. It can be dealt with. I’m proof of that, though I suffer the emotional and physical scars of dealing with it for a lifetime. And that’s why I’m always so angry with and contemptuous of people who don’t manage it or deal with it, who put a gun in their mouth and spray their brains on the ceiling or slash their wrists and bleed out in a bathtub. I’m angry at and contemptuous of myself for having those feelings, because I know where they come from — nowhere. I’m always on guard against the treachery of my own misfiring brain, and that’s a responsibility I have to accept, as does anyone who suffers from depression.
At my absolute worst moments, I have to remind myself that ending my own life would be an incredibly selfish and cruel thing to do to the people who actually care about me. I also have a responsibility to those people to not hurt them by annihilating myself. I take that responsibility very seriously, and I don’t have much patience for people who don’t. That’s why I’m still angry at my friends Sara Harms and Jerry Krasovich, both of whom killed themselves fifteen years ago, back when we were in high school and our real lives seemed like they were never going to begin. We’re all soldiers fighting in the same war, and they got killed because they let down their guard. It was stupid of them, though it always still hurts to lose them nonetheless.
But it’s hard sometimes, when the night drags on and there’s nothing worth watching on television and no new books to read and nothing to keep your mind from relentlessly turning back on itself. Hard not to just want all this shit to just be over with, to not have to think or hurt anymore. Hard not to think of ways to do it without hurting anyone, as if that was even possible. (Just walk out of your house, go out to the desert as far as you can — nobody will know for sure, maybe you just decided to start a new life, right?) Hard not to wonder if there’s an afterlife, because it’s suddenly not quite as theoretical a proposition as it is on the good nights, when it’s just part of philosophical discourse.
Hard not to wonder if there’s a God, and if there is, whether or not you could take Him in a full-on street fight. Because fuck Him for making a world like this and putting you in it in the first place. If that God exists…man, he needs somebody to kick his fucking teeth in. Like Indiana Jones said: “You wanna talk to God? Let’s go see Him together. I’ve got nothing better to do.”
I do the best I can…but I’ve always believed, since I was a kid, that there was a pretty even chance that my life would end at my own hand. The older I get, the less likely that becomes, every single day. There are more good nights and less bad ones. Small favors, right?
And now this one is almost done. Time to do some dishes and turn in. Sleep well.
A suggestion on sleep/wakefulness.
You’ve often told me you’re nocturnal, and the scuttlebutt among your friends and family is that you generally stay awake all night working at your computer, and sleep much of the day.
I’ve never had a problem with depression, but I used to have some sleep rhythm problems. A lot of this is traceable to an overactive mind; too many neurons firing in the brain when they shouldn’t be.
Main suggestion to help with sleep: DO NOT fall asleep in a room with the windows covered by curtains or shades.
It is absolutely essential for natural light (and a great deal of it) to penetrate the room at sunrise. Do whatever is necessary to make damn sure that the room is suffused by sunlight as soon as the sun comes up.
No matter when you fall asleep, if you always awaken to natural light at dawn, and keep to this routine religiously, this will have a massive effect on your circadian rhythm and your body’s ability to stabilize its own internal clock. Gradually your rhythms will adjust to being awakened naturally at a “normal” hour, and you will start craving sleep earlier and earlier, so that you get the traditional full 8 hours sleep, or something like it.
Josh, I have a great deal of sympathy. My own problems are comparatively mild – A barely diagnosable case of Atypical Depression with a helping of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
And it still interferes with my work and life, especially as I try to compete with all those mild cases of undiagnosed unipolar hypomaniacs.
I hope you find the peace and comfort you seek. Continue to fight the good fight. I’m glad you’ve considered what ending your life would do to the people that love and care about you. Jerry Krasovich was the love of my life and still is to this day. 15 years later and I still can’t get over losing him. Though I have moved on with my life, he is with me everyday. So please, please, please, take care of yourself, for you will never know just how many people are out there, somewhere, that care about you.
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