The Journey that Defeated Depression
The power of the alarm clock is remarkable and the level of irritation it can induce is astonishing. We all know that feeling; fast asleep on a cold Monday morning when the alarm clock deity plays the excruciating five-minute snooze game with us. Many of us overcome this lethargy and get up to start the day. It’s not easy, but we don’t have a choice. Whether it be a job, or school, or some other obligation, it is essential for us to defeat the obstacle of the alarm clock.
But for many years of my life I lost that battle on a daily basis.
It wasn’t for a lack of discipline nor a lack of ability, but rather, a complete dismantling of my ability to function as a human being, and this was only a symptom of a much larger affliction.
Waking up became extremely difficult. When you have nothing; when there is no one you care about and nothing to strive for in your life, getting out of bed is one of the most infuriating things to undertake. Often I would give up that battle before it even started and simply not go to school. I would say that I was ill and that would be that. After I began to fake sickness, I started to actually become sick on a very frequent basis. During one winter at my worst, I probably missed 12-15 days of school. I wholeheartedly believe that the difference between the days I was actually sick and the days I pretended to be sick was slim to none. My mind was so twisted beyond recognition at this point that my mental instability was having a physical effect.
The affliction I speak of is depression, a vile sickness that none are truly immune to. Powerful in its grip and elusive in its identification, depression is different in the sense that it is very difficult to fight. There is no cure; no vaccine or antibiotic that will make it go away. Sure there are medications, but the thing about depression is that ultimately you cannot be happy unless you choose to be. No amount of medication or external intervention can force that choice. I will explain more about my personal depression as I progress, but for now that is an adequate taste of the extent of its hold.
This story begins in seventh grade for me. There are a million roots to the problems I had, but the most identifiable came on the last day of summer before my seventh grade year. I wasn’t a very social kid to begin with and I spent a lot of time with my dogs, Luke and Ruby, a beautiful English foxhound and a Beagle. I loved those dogs more than anything in the world.
It happened early on a Monday morning (absolutely no happy story has ever started like this). It was late enough in the morning for me to have reached that stage of semi-consciousness but far too early to be fully awake, and I was still in bed trying to catch a few last minute Z’s. Outside my door I heard continuous scratching on the floor that lasted for several minutes.
I told him to shut up. That’s what I said to my dog; “shut up I’m trying to sleep.” Whether I should or should not feel guilt for this, I do not know. But I do.
“Oh God, he’s having a seizure,” my mom said as she walked up the stairs.
I think deciphering what went through my brain in that moment is virtually impossible. The sense of dread was overpowering, and I bolted out of bed. We rushed to the animal hospital and after hours of confusion and anxiety, our fears were validated; he had to be put down.
For whatever reason, I didn’t cry until later. I remember looking into Luke’s eyes as they laid him on the table. They were milky and faded, and it was at that moment that I knew I could never have my friend back. I looked into his eyes while they injected him with death, and he looked into mine as I held his paw. I felt the life slip from my companion and watched as his last breath left his body.
Something changed in that moment. I think it woke me up a bit. Up until that point I had never really had anything bad happen to me. I lived the peaceful but ignorant life of a child. In that moment, though, I realized that life was imperfect…and that specific thought would haunt my mind for years to come.
Looking back at the two weeks that followed I can almost laugh. There’s really nothing else to do as I think about how impeccable the timing was. About ten days after I lost Luke, I was sitting in the hospital.
The walls were white. A lot of people consider white to be a peaceful, soothing color. However, this white was anything but peaceful or soothing. This white filled my brain like old, rotten milk; thick and viscous. The walls mocked me – taunted me. They left me unable to think, unable to process the words that had just been uttered.
I had been diagnosed with a kidney condition which prohibited me from playing contact sports (I was in love with the sport of football and played for my school’s team). Moreover (as I was just a twelve year old kid and entering that stage where drama was huge), it sounded to me like I was going to die an early death. I thought my life was going to end in less than a decade. Those two events in a few weeks are a lot to put on a twelve year old’s shoulders.
My progression into depression wasn’t instant, however. In fact, I wouldn’t say I was “depressed” for a long time after that. But these events set the stage for my great act. It was gradual, but after those things happened, I stopped talking to people as much. I stopped socializing slowly, but deliberately. I lost interest in the remaining sports I had to play and the other things that I loved. As I became more and more isolated and idle, I started to feel what I call real depression. It was no longer the sadness of a death or diagnosis but rather a deep set pain.
At first, it went away after a bit, and I returned to some sense of normalcy, but then, it always came back. Slowly the time I spent depressed increased until for months at a time I was stuck. It cycled to the point where even when I was not depressed, my mind was on depression because I knew, I could feel that it was coming back. I began to live in fear of my lack of ability to control my own emotions.
I remember sitting down on my mother’s bed one late afternoon after a night of staring at my wall and sleeping. She looked at me, confused, uncertain of why I had ventured from my room. I spoke softly, as if speaking the words too loud would force me to acknowledge their existence.
“Mom, I need help.”
There it was: the light at the end of the tunnel. Everyone always says that admitting the problem is the hardest part. I had done just that, so I was good, right?
We found a therapist and I began seeing him on a weekly basis. We worked on a lot of things, and I could tell he was trying.
Winter was coming. The weather grew colder and the days darker. Despite the therapy, I was not improving. I heard what he was saying, I did, but even though I had asked for help I didn’t want help. I am still surprised that I asked my mother for a therapist; it was so out of character and bizarre. Yet, I think the reason I asked was because some part of me knew I needed help. Though, in my mind, seeing the therapist quickly became a total waste of time.
During this winter socializing became completely nonexistent. I stopped talking to anyone unless it was absolutely unavoidable. I had created massive circle around myself and constructed a wall to keep everyone out.
At this time my parents began arguing as well. It was quiet at first; not in the sense that the volume was low but rather that it was almost invisible to me. I know now that they tried so very hard to keep the arguments hidden from my sister (who was four at the time) and me. Unfortunately, it could not be concealed forever, and I began to notice as it became more frequent and more severe. It weighed heavily on me and I felt helpless to stop their conflict. Often if I was anywhere near the vicinity of the conflict they would finish their quarrel and then one or both would turn on me and I would become the target of their anger. As the frequency accelerated, I became more and more callous to it and quickly stopped caring completely, at least consciously. I don’t blame them for the difficulties, times were hard for everyone, and I was not the only member of my family depressed. I certainly did not make many positive contributions to the dynamic during this time either.
Some part of me would not give up though – something inside me would not surrender. I was never the type to give up easily, and even though life was proving to overwhelm me, I still hung in there. I had this expectation that if I could only get through the winter; if I could only make it to spring, then everything would be alright. I could get through this depression if I just made it to the spring.
This part of the story is probably the hardest for me; not because I had a terrible time, but rather, I had such amazing opportunities presented to me and I did not fully take advantage of them.
Alright. I love American football. Oh god, I love American football (I believe I mentioned this earlier). That sport, for whatever reason, is simply riveting to me. I am extremely attached to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers and love both teams with a passion. It just so happened that as a joke my father had promised me that if the Steelers and the Packers ever made it to a Super Bowl against each other, then we would go. The odds of that happening were unbelievably slim, so I never entertained it as an actual possibility.
But then they met in the Super Bowl in 2011. When my dad told me that we were going to the game in Dallas, I was shocked. That moment is probably the closest I had come to actual happiness in over a year. We went to the game, I had a great time. Then we got back home and it was like I had hit a brick wall going a hundred miles an hour. I fell right back into depression the moment I got back and this time it was far worse than usual.
Spring break was fast approaching at this point and I was going to France for two weeks. I didn’t want to go. Can you believe that? I didn’t want to go. Initially I did, but that desire quickly faded as my depression worsened. I told my parents so many times that I wanted to stay back, but they decided that I had to stick with the decision to go; so I went.
It was a lot of fun. I met a lot of really cool people, though in a lot of cases my social anxiety kept me from truly getting to know anyone. Again, I went home after this wonderful trip.
By everything I mean whatever bit of mental stability I had left. The expectation that making it to spring would make things better had been crushed. I look at it as if for a long time I was playing this game with depression. I knew I was pretty good at masking how depleted I was mentally and emotionally though I didn’t have many people to mask it from. I fought it for a long time as well. I tried to overcome, but depression is just not something that I could have beaten by myself, and at that time I would not accept help from anyone.
I became suicidal. I lost complete control of my emotions and of my mind. It is very difficult to describe what I felt in that time, but it was something along the lines of utter hatred for the world. I despised everything and everyone and blamed everyone but myself for the dysfunction of my life. My thoughts were toxic and hateful toward myself and anyone I came in contact with. My mind spun out of control, constantly dipping back to the thought that I simply wanted it all to end.
And then there was the sadness; the overwhelming sense that I had nothing; no friends, no interests, no strong qualities or skills. I felt like a pile of waste. Days were spent on autopilot and nights in tears.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I decided to end it. In a final act of despair and anger I tried to end my own life. I won’t go too much into detail here, but I ended up in the Emergency Room and then later on in a mental hospital. I got out and went home on shaky ground and spent the next two months walking on a tightrope.
And then everything changed.
I knew that something was off the moment they told me that we were going to California. It was a bizarre trip; the kind that you ask for as a joke and then it fades due to impracticality. But for some reason they had decided to take me out to Cali and I knew something was wrong. We spent four days there and they were relatively enjoyable, but something was off the entire time. Then we went to board the plane back home, only it wasn’t going home. It was to Vegas. They told me we were only checking out some camp and that if I didn’t like it I didn’t have to go.
We got there after a long drive to Utah and they told me to leave my wallet and phone in the car. For half a second I wondered why, and then it hit me like a hammer to the face. We weren’t checking out the camp…they were dropping me off.
Alas! I had been betrayed and I was pissed. I said some really mean things to my parents which do not need to be repeated and then I was off, whisked away to the wilderness.
Depression reared its ugly head in those first two weeks. I could not leave; this was a therapeutic wilderness program, and we were in the middle of the desert. We hiked 3-10 miles daily, carried forty pound packs with all of our supplies, and had to learn different wilderness skills (like making fire with a bowdrill kit, carving, and navigation among other things). But most important was the overwhelming sense of my own mind. There was no technology – no distractions. All I had for many parts of the day was my own mind and nothing else. It was torture, but in the end I had to come to terms with my own mind. I had to face my depression or I would literally go insane out there.
It was here that I was aware of two choices. I could stick with depression and probably never get out of it, or I could start moving forward and begin living my life. It seems like such a simple choice…
I chose to stick with depression.
I remember one afternoon at the end of my second week, I had a staff come and sit with me on this bright blue tarp. I had just refused to hike anymore and said that I was done with this program. I would no longer comply. I had isolated myself on this tarp under a juniper tree and basically built a mental wall around my area broadcasting that I didn’t want anyone to come near me.
Yet, this man decided to come and venture into my mental abyss.
“Hey,” he said, sitting down beside me.
I literally looked up and glared at him and then put my head back down.
“I know this is difficult,” he said quietly. “Life’s not easy.”
“Really?” I responded sardonically. “I hate it. I don’t want to be here anymore. I’m done hiking. I’m done with everything.”
“Sometimes it’s not about what you want to do. You can’t just give up when things get difficult – you’ll never be able to grow as a person that way. Life will never be perfect. You do the best you can with what you’ve got.”
Life will never be perfect. These words hit me like a freight train. Such an obvious message. Such simple meaning. These words are what changed my life. Up until this point I had felt entitled to happiness. I felt like I had suffered so much that I just deserved to be happy all the time, when in reality, that is not practical. Life will never be perfect, but that just makes the good times all that much more important. It means instead of spending my happy moments dreading the bad moments (like I had been), I needed to enjoy the good moments. I needed to be in the moment. I needed to live my life rather than just exist.
Life will never be perfect. I had plenty of time to think about those words as thinking was what I spent most of my time doing out there. I decided to finish out this hike, we had travelled about five miles, and I had no idea how far we had left.
Call it coincidence. Call it fate. Call it God. Whatever. It just so happened that about a mile past my tantrum point we arrived at the end of a long valley with mountains on three sides of us (leaving the only path to take behind us).
“That’s not supposed to be there,” one of the counselors said, indicating to the near-vertical wall of rock in front of us, “guess we’re going over!”
I looked at him. I looked at the mountain before me. I looked at him again. He was serious. Despite my fear, despite a lack of motivation, despite an utter hatred for hiking, I made a decision in that moment. I was going to climb this mountain. It was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. The mountain face was almost a straight drop and reaching the top involved jumping to a few ledges, climbing roots, and boosting each other. I was terrified. I didn’t think we would make it, but somehow we did.
When we reached the top, I stopped and my jaw dropped. The view was the most beautiful thing I had seen in my life. We were peering over the edge of the world and could see way off into the distance. Far across the desert we saw a flash of light, then another, and another. A thunderstorm was raging off far away, so far, in fact, that we could not hear the thunder following the strikes of lightning. Yet, standing there, watching this stunning event take place in front of me, I thought, maybe I can do this. Maybe a better life wasn’t as far away as I thought it was.
The path did not end there. For over a year after I left the deserts of Utah I was still in pretty intensive therapy. Today I am thriving as I make my way through life with a new perspective. I no longer dwell on the past, nor do I spend all of my time wishing for the things I don’t have. I live my moments, every one of them, to their fullest and strive to improve myself every day. It’s been years since I left treatment and honestly, I have no regrets. I do not live regretting the way things happened and actually feel that I am much stronger today because of the adventure I’ve been on.
It is not easy to overcome such darkness. So many people today are trapped in that mindset, within a cage that they constructed for themselves. Not everyone can walk out into the deserts of Utah and have an experience like I did. I was lucky. But for those who are stuck, know this; no path needs to be walked alone. Some people in this world are bad people, but many others are not, and that is what life is about; finding the people that make your life enjoyable and surrounding yourself with them. Then ask them for help; good friends will be there for you. You can change your mindset. I am living proof that no matter how deep of a hole you dig for yourself, it is escapable if you get help. All you have to do is choose that you want to be happy and then work toward that goal.
After all, when it comes down to it, that’s all any of us really have in the end. Our own thoughts, feelings, and the people in our lives really define us as human beings. So who do you want to be?
Photo by Asaf Antman