(Nov. 19, 2017) – This will be brief. It’s late and I’m tired and soul-sick.
Nothing bad has happened. I’m at my parents’ house in Niceville, Florida (yes, Niceville) following my retirement from the Navy. I’m between jobs at the moment and planning to do a massive road trip. But the upheavals I’ve experienced these last three months (retiring and leaving my beloved Navy behind, selling my house and losing my own home and sense of place, among others) have taken a very heavy toll.
This is nothing unusual for anyone retiring from the military, but I have a unique issue to add to this, and that is the well-publicized struggle I have with depression and anxiety. But, the question comes up for those who don’t live with these things—what is depression? What does it really mean to live with chronic depression? After all, doesn’t everyone get depressed now and then?
Well, yes, everyone does. And that is why one can use their own occasional bouts of depression to get an idea what life is like for those of us who never, NEVER have a day off.
I can only use my own personal experience, but I will. Others may experience depression differently, but what connects us all is the sadness, the meaningless, and the lethargy of never-ending pain.
For me, the deep sadness is best described as…imagine the unimaginable grief you’d feel if you had to stand and watch everyone you love literally burn to death in your home…after you started the fire (accidentally or not, doesn’t matter). They’re all dead, horribly dead, in front of you and your home, your place, is turned to ash in front of you…and it’s your fault.
That is what I feel. Every second of every minute of every day. “They’re all dead, and I killed them.”
Live with that and see how cheerful your outlook is.
It doesn’t matter that my family is alive and well (my parents are in the room now watching TV as I draft this). It’s a mental health struggle; for no cause we can definitively identify, the emotions are running amok on their own accord. Everyone knows that, when one is sad, one has little energy or desire to do anything. Sadness and grief bring a loss of purpose and meaning, and a “what’s the point?” attitude about doing anything.
I feel that every day. It never stops. I can run from it, keep it at bay with my medication regimen, structure and order, scheduled activities, and (most effectively) company. But it’s always there.
Now, pile on top of that the incessantly high anxiety I feel. Basically, since I joined the Navy and have been through a few…er…interesting experiences, my fear response has developed two settings: completely off, or full-blown I’m-about-to-painfully-die loud. No middle ground, no gradual ramp up from nervous to tense to afraid to panic. Just 0 to panic in 10 seconds flat.
Sadness is a very painful emotion. I live with that pain in my head pressing on my brain everyday, all day. My mind is already very frenetic by nature; I’m hyper-intelligent and very quick, so my thoughts are always racing as it is. Now, add more incessant pain through the unending, now-on, now-off anxiety level I’m stuck with, and you have the conditions I experience every day, all day. The combined effect is a psycho-emotional noise pressing against my brain and driving me mad.
The pathology is identical to people who’s bodies are severely injured and live with severe chronic physical pain ever day. That pain presses against their emotional state making them prone to anger and lashing out, especially when it’s bad. They get sympathy because we can see their injuries. People like me often get told to “cheer up” or “get over it” and are treated as if we are choosing to wallow in despair. Granted there will always be the odd weirdo who does choose to wallow in despair. But most of us would gladly trade our internal, invisible pain for a sunnier disposition if we could.
Anyway, this is my advocacy moment for mental health, and it’s brought to you courtesy of some very severe meltdowns I’ve had this past week. The stress and grief of leaving the Navy (even when a thing is the right thing to do, it can still be incredibly painful) and shifting into a new phase of life was a bridge too far on top of the noise I live with.
I even went back to self-injuring briefly. Not like I used to when I used to chemically burn myself, but I did use a metal lanyard clip to beat the crap out of my forearms. The self-injury came from a dual need—an irrational need to punish myself for being such a crybaby (I told you mental health issues are not rational) and a need to somehow drive the pain to a place where I could touch it, feel and release it. By injuring myself, I forced the pain to a physical level where I could (temporarily) heal it.
This was the first time in…wow…ten years I was driven to self-injury. The cacophony of grief and despair and panic was so bad it was like it was physically crushing my brain. I could get none of my friends on the phone to help me talk myself down (don’t judge them—this was in the middle of the night during a work week). In my broken state I completely forgot crisis hotlines exists for us veterans.
This is why we who suffer from depression and anxiety need to talk so much—we have to get the pain out. Some talk more than others; I’m famous for it. But, again, I’m not wallowing; most of us aren’t. I’m just hardwired by personality to work emotions out verbally…and you can see the depth of the emotional hurricane I have to live with.
Please hit me up with any questions you may have about depression or anxiety. If I can help you understand a friend, a loved one…or even yourself, I will do my best. I am not a psychologist; I’m a photojournalist, historian, and mystery writer. But I can listen and give you my experience as a friend, maybe even help you research hotlines or professional help.
If you are in crisis and are considering injuring yourself (or killing yourself), please call 911 immediately! I know it’s hard to believe when you’re in that level of pain, but life is worth living. And I mean that; I know–I wound up in the hospital for 3 days on suicide watch at my first command in 1998 after swallowing five boxes of sleeping pills.
By the way, today (Nov. 19) is my 46th birthday! 😉