In my life, I have been officially diagnosed with nameable mental illness twice. When I was in sixth grade, I was sent to the school psychologist to figure out why I wasn’t doing my homework. The hope was that it was a behavioral issue that could be solved. I’m sure he went in to the sessions thinking it was going to be something simple like trouble at home or problems with a bully. There was no trouble at home, and although I did have some trouble with antagonistic other children (who hasn’t), that proved to be another dead end. After a series of tests (mostly brain teasers and conversational triggers), he told me that I have Attention Deficit Disorder. Medication was brought up, but never advised. It’s something I’ve just found ways of dealing with. Most times I am successful, sometimes I am not. Much later in life, about fur or five years ago, I started going to a psychologist weekly. I’ll leave the reasoning for this for a little later in the post. After a few weeks of regular sessions, I ran into a bit of an issue. I was honest and forthcoming in the beginning, but soon got frustrated. As much as I wanted answers to things in my past, in an effort to understand who I am today, we never seemed to get away from the present. Each session started playing out like a “week in review” coupled with a “how did you feel about that.” I got wise to this tactic much sooner than I wanted to, and I started to end-run around the conversational mines I could see him laying down for me. By the end of it, I realized that I had spent the last month of sessions just steering the conversation by telling him what he wanted to hear. He was so proud of my progress. I felt a little bad about that. But before we got to that point, he did have a diagnosis for me. He called it Major Affective Disorder. It’s a blanket term, but it covers ground that I was not surprised about. It covers many forms of anxiety and depression and even Bipolar Disorder. Although I didn’t feel like it was news, I was happy to have a professional finally tell me what I had already guessed.
I have suffered from varying levels of anxiety and depression for most of my life. Like my ADD, there are times I’ve been able to control, and there are times where it controls me. The combination of the three has led to some really interesting moments. I occasionally have what I call “lost days.” These are entire days where I cannot get anything done, because for one reason or the other, I am stuck in my head. It usually starts with anxiety over doing something, like working on a project due the next day or sometimes as simple as making a phone call that I have put off to someone who I am not familiar with. This leads to me being upset about my inability to conquer said anxiety. This leads to me being disappointed in myself, which leads to me second-guessing my abilities. From there, I allow myself to be distracted so that I don’t get too down on myself. This can take many forms, but usually ends up on a website like Buzzfeed, Bored Panda or Looper. Basically any website with a lot of lists to read is fair game. I end up getting hyper-focused on this for a while, opening ten to fifteen taps of lists and other clickbait. Eventually, I come to my senses and realize that I’ve spent three or four hours on this, and this leads me to doubt and hate myself even more. From here the cycle repeats. What looks to outside viewers like a full day, especially since I end up staying a little late because I don’t want to not finish reading whatever I’m reading, in actuality is a day where I should have stayed at home. These don’t happen as often as they used to, but they happen.
If this was the extent of it, I think I would be a pretty content person. But my psychologist didn’t use the word “major” for nothing. This is, frankly, the least intrusive and most benign manifestation of my illness. In my life, it has been so much worse. The reason I was seeking a therapist a few years ago was that I had started having dark thoughts that made me uncomfortable. I found it happening when I was driving home. I would see an overpass, and I would start doing the equations in my head for how fast and at what angle I would need to hit the guardrail or concrete barricade or wall to break through, and then the further calculation for whether or not it was high enough to achieve my goals, or was I just making my issue worse. These were not pleasant thoughts, and I wanted to stop them before it became something more than calculations. So I sought a therapist, and it did help, until I figured out how to play the game. Even after that, I gained a certain amount of confidence from being able to figure out and out-think my therapist that I felt much better. Not perfect, but better. And I definitely wasn’t doing calculations on bridges anymore.
But that wasn’t the worst time. The worst time was late in my freshman year in high school. It was a difficult year. It started in September when a classmate passed away (more on that in a different post), but I can’t blame it on that, although sad, it was more of a push for me to live my life than a trigger for my depression. The things that set me off were both simpler and more complex. I expected to go into high school with a fresh slate. After nine years in the same school with the same classmates, I was a known quantity to all of them. Not really, since I was always too shy and odd for them to actually know me. But I had hoped high school would be a place where I could forge myself anew. By Christmas break of my freshman year, that hope was dying a brutal death. The kids who supposedly knew me were the popular kids, and they had informed the popular kids who didn’t know me all of the essentials, like “awkward” and “nerdy” and other terms that weren’t cool at that time in that place. I had no way to break from the mold that was already cast for me by others, or so my mind believed. But perception is all that was important. There’s no telling thirteen year old me that things will be better and different, even though that has proven to be true. I was, in my view, staring down the barrel of four more years of being an outcast, of not fitting in, of never getting the girl, and all sorts of other horror stories that my mind concocted. I saw no solution. I saw no way forward. I saw no hope.
The worst part was that I didn’t reach out to anybody. I had and still have loving and supportive parents. My home life has never been an issue. I could have talked to them. They would have helped me make sense out of it, or they would have moved mountains to find someone who could. In actuality, they would have understood it much better than I would know, but I wouldn’t realize that for another six or seven years (that event will probably be another post). I had some really good friends. They knew the real me, and they would have been understanding. My friends from grammar school and middle school had mostly moved away, but they weren’t far. People like Kris (of the infamous mix tape) and Kevin (who I have yet to post about) were great friends, who despite their own problems would have gladly lent an ear to mine. Even some of the people at my lunch table would have been good sounding boards. When Adam Sandler talks about “the freaks at table nine” in The Wedding Singer, it proves to be an accurate description of my lunch table. We only had a couple of things in common: we were all in the shunned Gifted and Talented class and we were all too intellectual for standard lunch room discussion. Even so, a couple of people at that table, Joe (whose mom would still pack his lunch, even though he was a senior in high school, but would never give him the full pack of Brownie Bites) or Melanie (who I still expect to see as a cable news pundit any day now, she was way too involved in politics for a junior in high school) would have gladly let me vent to them, and they may have been able to provide perspective on how to navigate high school on the fringes. My school had a decent guidance counselor. My school had a psychologist (who was definitely an ex-hippie). There were any number of people I could have reached out to. But there was no telling me that. I was sure that the walls were closing in. My entire life was being written right then and there, by other people who didn’t know me, and there was nothing I could do about it. My only option was to get out, take the last exit. I planned to kill myself.
I use the word “planned” because I went far being conceptualizing or contemplating. I planned it. I almost got as far as the when, but I had the how figured out. I knew I couldn’t do it myself. I lacked the gumption to jump off a tall structure, I knew I could never do anything as initially painful as strangulation or cutting. I had no availability to firearms. I needed something to do it for me. I needed an outside force to enact upon me, ending it all. That’s how powerless I felt. I lacked the power to even try to commit suicide. I settled on a train. There were some train tracks not far from my house. I could hear them at night. They bordered the back of the cemetery that I liked to hang out in. And I knew the trains went by there pretty fast. I had resolved that I would find the right day and time and jump in front of one. In my head, I knew it would make my parents and my family sad. I knew that my friends would be upset, but I thought so low of myself I figured they would get over it and move on pretty quickly. I didn’t think the rest of my classmates would care very much. They seemed to move on with ease from the last person in my class who passed away, and he was popular. They wouldn’t even put me in the yearbook. In all honesty, the person who I worried about the most was the train conductor. Would he lose his job? would they think it was his fault? How would he feel about it? Would he feel guilty about it? It didn’t seem fair to him. I had to do it in such a way that the conductor may not even know it happened. I had to time it right so that he didn’t have any reason to second guess his abilities.
So I started spending a lot of afternoons by the train tracks. I would watch a train go by, try to catch some sort of number or something to identify it, and write down the time. I had to do all of this with limited visibility, since I didn’t want some nosy conductor noticing the same kid by the tracks every day and ruining my clever scheme. Admittedly, I had a love/hate opinion of the conductors.
Obviously, I didn’t go through with it. It wasn’t a meddling conductor calling the authorities on me. It wasn’t that I lost my nerve. It wasn’t that I finally reached out to someone, and they made a difference in my life, though that would be the better story. It wasn’t that I got help and lived a healthier life, though I should have. In the end, it was the promise of an event that kept me from killing myself. One of the only places I kind of enjoyed being was in my church’s youth group. That March, we got told about World Youth Day 1993. This was a gathering of the youth of the church every few years. It was a bonding experience, filled with workshops and activities to strengthen our faith and our worldwide church. It was started by Pope John Paul II as a way of reaching out to the future generations of the church. It moved all over the world, and this year it was going to be in Denver, Colorado. To top it off, my diocese was going to send a large delegation of the youth groups in our area. I could go to Denver. I could see the Pope. This was exciting! More than that, this was something to look forward to, and the first sign that maybe my future wasn’t as written in stone as I had thought. Even more than that, this gave me something to hope for. In the end, that’s what I had needed most, because that’s the thing I had run out of. I had happy days as well as sad days. I had laughter and things I enjoyed doing. The one thing I didn’t have was hope. This gave me something to hope for.
World Youth Day was a life changing experience. I may or may not talk about it a bit more in depth at some point, but the details are not as important to its basic existence for the sake of this post. Of course, any psychologist reading this would probably say that my abandonment of my life ending plans due to a trip indicates that I wasn’t really going to go through with it after all and I was just making elaborate calls for help. They may be right, and thankfully I will never know. There’s a strong possibility that I just needed one thing to bring me back from the brink, and I found a convenient catalyst that seemed suitably epic to make a good story, because I do look for the best story in everything. None of that psychoanalysis matters in the end, though. What matters is the ways in which I failed myself to get to that point. I was never as alone as I perceived. I was never as trapped as I perceived. But I couldn’t hear that then.
I’ve had other serious episodes in my life. I’ve had panic attacks. I’ve allowed the darkest thoughts to creep into my mind. But I never got as close as I did that spring.
If someone finds this who is in the place that I was in, I hope this helps you in some way. There are only two things that you should really take from this. First, no matter how alone you feel, you’re not. Beyond the fact that it is almost statistically impossible to be completely unique in a world of over seven billion people, I can say with certainty that there are people close by that are just like you. Maybe you’ve met them already, maybe they’re right around the corner, waiting to meet you. But they are out there. And they’re awesome. Second, there is no shame in seeking help. For you, your mind is both your best friend and your worst enemy. Having a neutral party from outside of that bag of cats going on in your head is very helpful. Maybe you need a professional, maybe you need a matronly figure, or maybe you just need a friend. Regardless, you can’t fight this fight without help. And it’s important to know that you are the one who will be fighting it. All of the out side help is there to prop you up and keep you going, They’re role is to be the Mickey to your Rocky. They train you, the motivate you, they make you punch slabs of beef, but you’re the one who has to go toe to toe with Apollo Creed at the end. And you can, even if it takes two movies to finally win the fight.
P.S.- Before anybody comments about my choice of header image, please realize that I thought very carefully about it. I did not just write a post about suicide and use an image of a jumper for my header. A jumper faces the ground as they descend. I used an image of falling. It’s an image that I think speaks really well to what depression feels like. It feels like you’re falling and you won’t ever stop. I’m sorry if it upsets anyone, but I really didn’t want to mince words or images on this one.