Princess cards she sends me with her regards,
Oh, bar-room eyes shine vacancy
To see her you gotta look hard
―Manfred Mann, For You
I had just come off a ten-year stretch of depression, scattered with a few bouts of mania when Dan came into my life. For years I had been diagnosed with a major depressive disorder. I did have periods of extreme highs, where I became excessively talkative, painted and wrote nonstop, and rarely slept. I thought my brilliance was just me being me.
About Dan. We worked on the same team for a Southern California city. We were drawn together like magnets and are tight to this day. We formed an immediate alliance over the shared task of working for elected officials who blew in and out like the wind, while we scrambled to make the newest mayor’s dream become a reality. New regimes could mean new jobs for us. Heady stuff. Oh yeah, and somewhere along the way, we became lovers.
One fine Orange County, California day, where everything is Disneyland perfect, I woke up to an imperfect day blanketed in heavy gloom and hopelessness. I was absolutely fine when I fell asleep. Where the hell had my happy run off to during the night? C’mon, this is the land of the sybarites, where everyone is happy, who stole mine?
It happened that fast.
It was one of the deepest darknesses I had experienced. I drove down to a store, bought a pack of cigarettes, and started chain smoking. Funny thing about smoking. I didn’t smoke then, but a psychiatrist had told me that there was a high correlation between people who were depressed and people who smoked because nicotine is an anti-depressant. I tried hard to prove this theory true before I went to work.
When I got to City Hall, I ran to Dan’s office and spilled my guts. It was then that he first shared with me that he was seriously depressed, suicidal, and had been so since he was a teenager. How do people like us gravitate towards each other? Is there some kind of invisible sign we wear? Perhaps there is a Depressives Anonymous and people are secretly brought together. I’ve never been a believer in coincidence. We were planets meant to collide and ultimately for life. Dan brought me to his psychiatrist. I mean, he literally brought me.
He called for an emergency appointment, threw me into his car and drove me to Mission Viejo Hospital to see the almighty Dr. Swanson. I call him this because I quickly learned that he spoke and you listened. When he affirmed my continuing depression/bipolar II diagnosis, I went through nearly every anti-depressant available. Most launched me into mania, and it was about this time Dan tipped Dr. Swanson off that I might be bipolar I. He then had me take endless tests to confirm this new diagnosis.
Buh bye anti-Ds, hello Lithium.
The almighty Dr. Swanson was the first doctor to suggest a psychiatric hospitalization—shocking me to the very core. I never told anyone he recommended this as an option. It was just too extreme. There was no possible way I would even consider it or discuss it. I was only depressed. Psych hospitals are for very crazy people. Years later I became one of those crazy people and won two psych stays to prove it to the world.
I’ll play the game and pretend
But all my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity
Like emptiness in harmony, I need someone to comfort me
―Simon & Garfunkel, Homeward Bound
This is what my every day life had become. Or Groundhog Day, if you prefer.
Each day was a forced series of minimum tasks I would suffer through in order to find my way back to bed again. I woke up precisely at 6 am. I took my meds and drank one cup of coffee. I got dressed after a quick shower paying no attention to what I wore, nor did I care what I looked like. I am a person of routine. I crave structure. My focus was my sanity.
The many bipolar med combinations I tried seemed to make no difference. I was still very depressed and occasionally suicidal. My doctor’s answer was to try new meds and wait and see. I reached expert level at Try New Wait And See, but I remained depressed.
I could no longer remember what happy felt like, but I knew I once was. I only left the house for work. Most of my friends eventually stopped asking me to join them in any kind of activity. All I could say was, “No. I’m depressed.” Only the very attuned and loyal stayed.
Dan was one of those few. In many ways, he saved my life. I read motivational memes that said, remember your true friends, the ones who never left. And I understood. There were few, but they never left.
Eventually, I did not work anymore and I could lie in bed to my heart’s content. I spent my time dreading the impossible task of showers and dodging any attempt to leave the safety of my comfort zone. I had invented isolation. Or so I thought. If it wasn’t for my dog needing a walk a few times a day I’d likely have mummified.
Therapists have always called me out on my isolationist behavior. “Take a walk, join a club, or go out with your friends.” I’d pretend to agree just to end the conversation. I knew I wasn’t the only one. I watched television ads for depression drugs that showed vignettes of people sitting on their couch staring into space through empty eyes. The worst one for me was where a woman’s dog sits staring at her with his leash in his mouth. She could not go out and walk her dog. And neither could I.
It was just the way it was. I was an isolationist. Plain and simple. I knew it wasn’t healthy, but back in my decade of low self-awareness, it was the only way I knew how to survive. And, most importantly, how to fight the perpetual ideation.
Fill my heart with discipline
Put there for the teaching
In my head see clouds of stairs
Help me as I’m reaching
The future’s paved with better days
Eddie Vedder, Better Days
As it turns out, depression and isolationism have now become a story I just tell about. In one month I will have been stable for four years. Is there a chip for this?
My depression, as well as my isolationist behavior, is long gone. I’m out and about. I play with my friends. I drive after dark. I have fancy lunches with Dan. I fly across the country. I take risks. I fall in love. I paint and write. And I’m in the Happy for what sometimes feels like forever.
I’ve grown wings and I can fly again. I finally found an effective med buffet and I learned superpowers in therapy.
My isolationist tendencies are now locked tightly inside my Pandora’s Box. My hard-won new self-awareness learned in therapy has paid off tenfold to thwart any careening veers off Stability Road. But I must confess―there are bumps. It still happens. Sometimes up. Sometimes down. And the protective shield I use to hide behind until I can right myself again? Just a wee bit of the isolation. Enough to contemplate, learn, adjust, and go back in again. Armed a little bit stronger, and a little bit smarter. I’m happy to have left this self-defeating behavior behind. I’ve learned in therapy that it’s okay to bring it out if I need to. Just not to make it my permanent address.
I control it now—it does not control me. I use it now to protect myself. My shelter from the storm. And then I return it, no receipt required.
And so it goes. I save myself. One more time.