“You’re a good man,” the doctor says to the patient at the end of each session. “You’ve experienced a lot at a young age, and have emerged as a mature adult with a unique perspective on things, especially for someone your age.”
It’s not easy. The stigma that goes with mental illness is one that can brand a person in ways that change how people interact with them on a daily basis. It’s entirely unfair, but it’s still where we’re at as a society in 2015. And that’s before you even consider trying to get help for something that grabs you like nothing ever has before.
That patient is me. That doctor is the psychologist I’ve met with on a couple of occasions after I was diagnosed with dysthymia during a recent physical. The Mayo Clinic online defines dysthymia as mild, but long-term depression. It can interfere with your ability to function and enjoy life.
Let’s work backwards just a little bit. Anyone who knows me knows that life has been, well, it hasn’t been easy. I’ve chosen not to see it that way and quite frankly you’d be hard pressed to convince me that my childhood was more difficult than anyone else’s growing up. I think when you go through trauma at a young age, it can become your norm. And while that’s not necessarily bad from the standpoint of how hard things hit you when they happen, you’re also not mentally prepared to work through the stages of grief and what comes with it.
And maybe that’s what I’ve been feeling. I first felt what I would call “off” in the summer in 2013. We were coming up on the 19-year anniversary of the horrific accident that shaped and changed our family in ways you can only imagine. Stepfather killed. Two brothers injured badly. The wounds were physical; the wounds were not just physical.
But every year that day would come and go, and that day — July 17 — would suck, but the feeling of dread would pass the next day. In 2013, that funk came about a week earlier and left about a week later. Maybe longer, I don’t really remember. I just didn’t find interest in things I usually liked, but I took some St. John’s Wort — self medicating, which I probably wouldn’t recommend — and felt pretty normal before too long. A similar thing happened last year, though I would say it maybe lasted a bit longer than the year before.
When you don’t really know what depression is, you’re not really sure what to look for. For me, I sort of figured I was going through something like that, and for me it was like having a boulder on my shoulders. My brain, usually dynamic and ripe with ideas, jokes and stories, had nothing to offer. I struggled at times to maintain focus, and I found myself irritable for no real reason. I tried like heck to hide it, and think I did a decent job. I faked smiles and laughs, but all I could really think about was the cosmic pointlessness of everything around me.
And I mean think about it. In the last year I’ve done some really amazing things, and I’m pretty sure the next year will be just as great. I’ve started a job that probably 90 percent of men my age would kill to have — watching sports for a living — and I do a handful of radio spots a week. I still play baseball, have a nice apartment and am married to the love of my life. We are looking for our first home together, have a few bucks in the bank and have the world at our fingertips.
And it was like…..what’s even the point?
I should be clear: one place I’ve been blessed is that I’ve never had visions of self-harm. Nothing close to that. That’s one part of the mental illness that I think I’ll never understand, though through my increased awareness is something I have much more compassion for. I’m extremely fortunate that the extent of my issues are looking at my day-to-day schedule and saying “what’s the point of all this?” Again, I feel really lucky.
The latest spell came on the trip home from my grandfather’s funeral. Gah, was that hard. My grandpa was my everything; you know, that one person that is your hero. I’m not talking about sports figures, actors, or people you don’t know. That person who lives their life on earth in a way that nobody ever has to lie about their character. That was this man. He’d been on borrowed time after a few heart attacks over the last 25 years, but sometimes it’s just the finality that hits you so hard. I had the opportunity to speak at both of his services, and it was very therapeutic for me.
We got through the weekend or whatever OK, but when we stopped halfway through on the six-hour trip home, I immediately felt something creep over me. It was something I couldn’t shake, like I had grown weary or tired basically immediately, and I couldn’t do anything to shake it. Energy shots, coffee pouches….nothing. It got so bad my wife had to drive for part of the rest of the ride home, which if you know me is a pretty big deal because I kind of have a tough time riding with other people driving.
Anyway, I could pinpoint basically the moment the fog — I’ll call it that just because it seems to fit best — settled on me, and I could also pinpoint the moment it left. If you pushed me on the dates I could probably figure it out, but it was between two and three weeks, and it lifted the second I passed I94 and Radio Drive on my way to play our season-opening doubleheader in Spring Valley, Wis. It’s funny that it was at that intersection, because we’re all heard the Shaneco radio jingles that remind us of that spot. It’s hard to explain exactly what happened, but basically it was this: a *puff* sound/feeling in my brain and the sensation of a fog lifting. The *puff* was like if you tapped a bottle of baby powder and it made a white cloud. Vivid, tangible, and quite frankly kind of cool.
It does worry me a little bit though about when relapses can happen. I’ve felt a little funky over the past couple days, and I’m sure there are triggers in a number of places that I may or may not be aware of yet. In talking with the doctor, I said I didn’t want to consider medication. “The lows aren’t low enough to sabotage my highs,” I said, praying that it didn’t sound terribly ignorant because he’s the one with the degree and I’m just a guy. “I agree,” he assured, and I felt as though I’d said something quasi smart.
For now I’m going to just work on the external factors that I can control. Improved diet, added exercise and maybe an experimental reduction in caffeine from time to time. Nothing terribly drastic, but I just couldn’t rave enough about how good I’ve felt in recent weeks, and I can’t stop thinking about how I need to get and stay there.
But now to wrap this up before it gets even more long-winded, there’s one thing I’d like to ask of you. It’s really easy for everyone to help with the stigma of mental illness, and you can do it every day with virtually no effect on your daily life. Instead of using the word “depressed,” consider using the word “disappointed.” You aren’t really “depressed” after your favorite baseball team lost three games in a row, I don’t think. Similarly, use “eager” when you’re excited for something to start instead of anxious. You’re eager to see your best friend after a long time apart, rather than anxious.
It’s a small, but simple way to band together to use words in ways that can uplift people going through these issues. Thank you for your time,