I recently had what I now realize is a rather large success.
My next appointment isn’t for six weeks.
For those who don’t know, which is probably most people, I have privately struggled with depression for a number of years. It wasn’t until recently that a name was given to my personal rainy day parade.
I have dysthymic depressive disorder.
It’s not as dynamic as bi-polar or as sinister sounding as a Clinical Depression. It’s a mild chronic depressive disorder. In my case my brain simply doesn’t make enough serotonin. That’s the chemical that makes you all happy and feel good. My brain produces it, just not enough for me to casually enjoy a tortoise trying to pin down a tomato to big for it’s mouth. Oh I can enjoy that sight, but I have to work at it.
Dysthymia is a sneaker upper. You don’t realize anything is wrong for quite some time. The world is kind of grey all the time. It’s almost as though it is always about to rain, but not quite yet. You are in a constant state of, “Please just let the hammer fall!” The problem is you don’t realize it. There are good days, but even those are tainted with the thought that eventually this day will end and you won’t be enjoying it anymore. It builds and builds and builds and builds and builds and builds and builds and builds and builds and I think you get the point. Food doesn’t have quite the same taste. Scotch isn’t as smokey. Animal documentaries aren’t as enlightening. You slowly lose the will to live.
I should pause for a moment here to say that I have never been suicidal. I have no doubt that there are others who are afflicted with the same depressive disorder as myself and have made an ultimately tragic direction. I only highlight that while I have entertained those thoughts I always set them aside as irrational and not an option. I am not planning, nor have I ever seriously entertained the thought of inflicting serious bodily harm upon myself.
Losing the will to live meant that I didn’t enjoy things that I used to love. That sounds rather cavalier, but until you lose the desire to enjoy anything at all I don’t think you can understand. For me every stand up gig was just another show. Magic didn’t contain it’s namesake. Two constants in my life grew to become dull and a chore. That was when panic set in. I knew I was at my absolute lowest in December of 2013. I don’t really remember why I was so miserable. I just remember laying on my couch and being wracked with uncontrollable sobs as I systematically canceled my performance schedule for the next six months. All I could do was play Ocarina of Time and escape into a world where I was a nameless but never celebrated hero. (NOTE: Video games are awesome but not a substitute for therapy. DO NOT LEARN THIS THE HARD WAY.)
That was when I finally sought help.
I knew I needed to see a professional. I had a problem that I wasn’t going to be able to overcome by myself. Finding a therapist is a very daunting task because it is not something that anyone is well equipped to do. There is no classroom where one of your teachers say, “At some unspecified point in the future you are going to need to talk to a professional about your brain being a douche knuckle to you. That’s just part of the human condition. Here is a step by step guide to finding a the right one for you.” That is something we really should equip future generations with.
The first time I went to a therapist it was a train wreck. The head shrinker latched onto one portion of my identity and did their very best to help me categorize myself based on the sole fact they had gleaned. This is the conversation we had. While the facts are the same, some of the exchange has been altered in an effort to make an incredibly bleak time more hilarious for the reader.
Therapist: So you are a nerd?
Me: You could identify me as such yes.
Therapist: Of the major characters of the original series of Stark Trek which would you say you most identify with?
Me: I never watched the original series.
Therapist: But you are a nerd.
Me: Yeah, but there are a lot of nerds who never watched Firefly, and if they had it wouldn’t be off the air now and we wouldn’t be sitting here.
Therapist: How about you just answer the question?
Me: I don’t think I can. I never watched the original series. I saw a fair amount of Deep Space Nine. I guess I sort of identify with Odo, but more during the second and third series when he is starting to make friendships but still feels lost. I’ll be honest, I didn’t pay much attention. I only saw a few episodes and in the later seasons he really changes a lot. Especially when he starts dating Major Kira. I only saw the last half of the episodes because it was on before Battle Dome…
Therapist: Erik, I think you should take this seriously. Of the original series, which of the characters do you most identify with?
Me: I am taking this seriously, I did not ever watch the original series of Star Trek. I don’t know the characters. I’m 28, that show was off the air before I was born.
Therapist: But you know the archetypes of the characters?
Me: I know the archetypes that the actors’ public personas were. Does that count?
Therapist: How about Spock? Do you think you were the most like Spock?
Therapist: That’s very interesting because [WHITE NOISE.]
My first experience with therapy was not so much a healing experience as a lesson on how all nerds know everything there is to know about Star Trek. Not only did I not click with this therapist, I spent the remainder of the evening trying to figure out how to bounce the check I was going to write for that session.
I went through a few others until I found my current therapist. I met a kind and gentle woman who was able to surgically cut through all of my defense mechanisms and force me to confront things that I had been hiding from since Star Trek The Original Series went off the air. We tried a number of different avenues when it came to my personal healing quest. Normally you would call it a journey, but sometimes I like to pretend I am a wizard. Wizards go on quests. Not all of the methods of personal growth were for me, and my new brain druid could tell that.
We started with a type of therapy called Mindfulness. This delightfully crackpot way of approaching the universe was bestowed upon us by the delightful crackpot known as Jon Kabat-Zinn. For a hyper rational like me, reading his book was like trying to translate the cracks in a brick wall using a Mandarin to Cyrillic dictionary. I’m sure mindfulness has helped a lot of people. I’m not one of them. The worst part is I have half a dozen books on mindfulness in my iBooks library, and all of them stare at me like a mob of compassionate sand-rakers. Let this be a lesson to anyone trying to undergo self improvement. Buy the physical book. When you discover that you want the author to jump into a lake of turtle poop; you can get rid of the actual book.
Eventually we hit on two things. The first of which was a compound called 5-HTP. Without going into all the nitty gritty it is a pre-cursor for the happy hormone serotonin. Turns out you can’t mainline serotonin. When you do that they call you a heroin addict. My therapist wasn’t licensed to prescribe heroin. Something about insurance. People like myself who don’t naturally make enough serotonin can take this supplement to help their brain get back to normal hormonal levels. This allowed me to get to the real work of unpacking my self created shame spirals and learn to combat negative self talk and self image. I was ready to begin the Jewel song of my life. The second thing we discovered was that I experience shame like an otter experiences a river.
I began the long and tedious process of learning to forgive myself for not having hindsight. To allow myself to accept that when I was young I was going to make mistakes. To allow myself to stop making jokes about learning to accept the kindness of others and just actually accept the kindness. There was a lot of work done in reframing my own self image. I never realized what a powerful and destructive force that shame is. I will never underestimate it again. Spending as much time as I have in the shame pits that I have dug has not been pleasant. It’s a quiet and scary force that we must all guard against.
This all came to a head a week after my 30th birthday when some very close friends of mine threw me a birthday roast. For those who have only seen the knife twisting blood baths that are Comedy Central specials, a real roast is the supreme act of comedy love. A group of comedians chooses to celebrate another by gathering all of the people who love that comedian in a room and then say the things to their face that they would only otherwise say behind the roastee’s back. It’s tremendously uncomfortable, embarrassing, and highly creative. It’s the greatest gift one comedian can give to another when it’s done correctly. My roast was masterfully done from the most sincere hearts I have ever met.
A few days after it happened I had an appointment. My therapist hammered away using that room full of people as evidence that I wasn’t the horrendous pile of garbage that I had grown to view myself as. Finally things started to click. All of those mean people were right. I’m not just a heap of bad. A few sessions later and I was beginning to forgive myself because my friends had given my therapist the greatest tool anyone who subscribes to “Modern Psychologist” could ask for. They gave her a room full of incontrovertible proof that there were other people who loved me unconditionally.
A few weeks ago we got half way through the session and realized that things were better than they had been in thirty years. It was like I was seeing in color again. Indian food had spice. Scotch was suddenly delicious. That tortoise has got tomato all over her face and it is awesome!
Together we decided that I didn’t need to come back for six weeks.
My brain wasn’t being mean to me. I had the skill set to cope with being a human. My brain still doesn’t make enough serotonin, but I have a tool to help with that. It’s been a very long road filled with a lot of fluids leaking out of my face. I didn’t know what I wanted out of therapy when I started, but it turns out all I needed was to be told that I don’t need to talk to a filthy hippy for six weeks.
I’ll take it.