Friday, February 19, 2010

Fury From the Sky

At the place where I work, I volunteer to lower the US flag to halfstaff on those days when it's appropriate. Usually, it's to honor a fallen American, especially those from Michigan. Looking back, I've lowered the flag seventeen times since September 11, 2008 for various men and women, young and old, according to the Governor's emailed announcements. I feel a sense of duty to them and their families, and since I'm not serving myself, I do what I can to thank them for their sacrifice.

Today, I lowered it for Army Sergeant Dillon B. Foxx, of Traverse City. Now, I didn't know this young man. It's a coincidence that I have family in Traverse City, and that caught my eye as peculiar. What really got me, however, was his unit: the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. I'm pretty sure this Army unit is a direct descendent of the one my dad served in. Back then, it was called the 508th Airborne Infantry Regiment. My dad served at Fort Kobbe, in the (Panama) Canal Zone. Over the years, that unit saw changes in mission and location, and was absorbed into the 82nd Airborne Division.

I've been lucky in that I've only known a few people who have died in the Middle East. I've been luckier in that I am able to live my life as I see fit while others defend my right to do so. It might be cheesy of me, but I feel a connection to this particular soldier, this particular sacrifice.


I am in a fog...or at least, I was three days ago.

I don't know how depression is classified medically, but I know how it affects me.

I currently take what's been described as a mild anti-depressant. At the time I started it, nearly ten years ago, I was on half the typical dose for those given this drug. Like many people, I knew I had some problems. Like most young men, I believed my lack of self-discipline was the main issue, and all I needed to do was buckle down and get my head on straight, and all my ducks would fall neatly into a row. The idea that any alteration in my brain chemistry (1) was to blame, or (2) would fix my shortcomings, was ludicrous. I was, after all, a whole being, created like any other, but simply existing in different conditions than those who had more successful lives and healthier relationships. The challenge for me was to find the correct conditions in which to live, and success would be mine as a matter of course.

Trouble is, by the time I was 25, I had been married four years and had just become a father. I had tried and re-tried to finish my college education until I ran out of money and got kicked out of the College of Engineering and Computer Science. Fine, I thought, I'll go another way. And I did. To make lots of long stories short, by the time I was forced to deal with my depression, I had firmly entrenched myself into a pretty specific set of emotional, social, and economic conditions, and the search for that lofty optimal setting was looking pretty grim.

There's also a fact that only hindsight can provide. Though I still believe that self-discipline is the biggest factor in changing my life (and really, who ISN'T this true for?), I was wrong about the brain chemistry thing. As it turns out, the way depression works--at the brain chemistry level--is pretty straightforward. It amounts to sitting someone with short arms down at a wide table and asking them to reach across. They simply can't do it--not while sitting down, anyway. And for that person to be at a table with many others, most of whom are perfectly capable of reaching across the table, and be expected to do exactly the same things as those others, is expecting too much. When they try, it's obvious they're struggling. Some can eventually do it, but only with great effort, and the possibility of being ostracized or pitied.

So it is with depression. People with that kind of limitation don't like to be recognized or singled out. We hide, try to blend in. When we're reaching across that table, next to our long-armed family members and coworkers and friends, we don't like anyone to notice the trouble we're having. It's usually obvious to those around us, but only that we're failing to achieve, or commit, or follow through, or some other desirable end result. What isn't obvious is the reason. Typically, that doesn't matter. The end result is more important, and any "reason" for failing to get there has a label: excuse.

I got to a point in my life where I realized this was happening, and cutting down on the number things I had to concentrate on wasn't an option. Therefore, in the storm of my life's accumulated tribulations--marital problems, work challenges, home ownership, parenthood, etc--I threw in a little towel. Fine, I said again, despite my better judgment. I'll take the damn pills.

And to my immense surprise...nothing changed. Nothing inside, anyway. The way I described it then was like this: if you are accustomed to going through a door and running down a hall to another door, you really are only aware of those two, and they're the only ones you'll consider using, even if that last door always leads to trouble. But if you slow down a bit after coming into the hall, you might notice how many other doors are available, and possibly make another choice. Another favorite desription is related to navigating a turbulent ocean with rocks jutting up all around. When that ocean is calmed, those big rocks are still there, but more easily avoided, and furthermore, smaller rocks become apparent which were hidden before. Not all of these are avoidable, but at least in a calmer sea they are visible beforehand, whereas before they would have taken you completely by surprise. So it was with my reactions to certain stimuli, and things that were happening to me as a result of decisions I had no idea I was making.

My only regret is the loss of some degree of creativity. I blame my loss of interest in Liberty Fleet (and my part in its eventual demise) on my meds.

But I know now I need these drugs, and that was a difficult thing for me to come to terms with. Being drug-free has two major effects.

When I'm off meds, my mind begins to float. It becomes free from those things that would restrain it longer than a moment, usually longer than it takes to complete a task or make good on an obligation. It moves among all those stations of my daily existence--work, family, chores, mortgage, timesheets, dinner, kids' schedules, marriage, etc--as a function not of their relative importance to my life as a whole, but their immediate demand for attention in a given moment. Off meds, my mind goes adrift, prone to every crashing wave on the stormy sea of adult responsibility. The pilot, you see, isn't paying attention to the instruments.

This, of course, is not the most devastating effect of my depression. In fact, in an existence that entailed less responsibility, it wouldn't be much of a problem at all. I guess that is likely the reason I wasn't diagnosed before age 25. Granted, off meds I become an irresponsible flake, but many young adults go through a stage closely resembling this at one or more points in their lives. I even venture to guess that this first set of symptoms may not even be depression-related at all. Indeed, the way it reads, it looks more like an attention deficit or executive processing thing. Whatever else may be at work, however, I cannot possibly deny that I'm depressed. The second major effect ensures that.

I state this factually because when I'm unmedicated, I very easily slip into all the standard descriptions of a depressed person: difficulty concentrating, feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest in hobbies and relationships, and persistent sad or empty feelings, among other things. I take myself too seriously. On the few occasions that I smile, it looks more like I'm twisting my face than being happy. I am uncomfortable in adult social settings, afraid someone will "out" me because I obviously (as far as I can tell) don't fit in.

Usually, the trouble starts when I just put something off a little, then I drop a few balls, then I'm missing deadlines (real and perceived), and before I know it I've effectively dropped off the face of the earth. It all ends in avoidance and isolation, followed by feelings of guilt and worthlessness over all the people I've disappointed (or pissed off) and all the things I've let go or lost track of. I tell myself I'm just not cut out for that kind of role in this life: the role of a successful, happy, satisfied person. Or the role of someone who can take care of his family.

I know all of these things about myself. I've had to learn them to survive without ending up in a cardboard box or padded room. I've seen the cycle at work over and over. In fact, until a few days ago, I had been unmedicated for almost a week. I hate needing them, but no matter how much I would like to hit a reset button in my soul and get a clean slate, times like this make it impossible to forget my limitations. I guess that's why the insurance company calls them "maintenance drugs."

I sometimes wonder when (not if) I'll end up in that cardboard box or padded room. I do legitimately fear that I'm losing my mind at times. I already have an embarassingly bad memory. There are times I am unable to do a simple calculation in my head, or look at a word like "are" and fail to recognize it. I have fits of stuttering, when I've never before had any trouble speaking. I even go through old blog posts and wonder at the intelligence and self-worth of the man who wrote them. I fear for my sanity sometimes, but I know that if I'm ever going to truly lose it, there isn't anything I can do to stop it.

So I take my medicine, and I'm at the table again, short arms and all, but this time equipped with my booster seat. It's not comfortable admitting I need one. Most days, it feels like I'm pretending...pretending to be normal, pretending to be healthy, pretending to be CAPABLE. I don't like that. But the alternative, pretending that all the effort I must go through to reach across that table when everyone else simply has to extend a hand is normal and healthy, is without a doubt the greater of two evils.