Darkness

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Today is Good Friday. It's not a special day for me, in that sense. I don't look forward to it, or devote myself to a particular discipline other than going through the Three Days, one night merging with the following, ending on Sunday morning. Napping on Sunday afternoon. You get the picture.

It's a problematic day, for one thing. Kind of depends on your theology, and emphasis. But however you view this--literally, metaphorically, symbolically--it's hard to escape the logic of the story. You can't have resurrection without the cross. We have to go there.

But I'm not there at this moment. It's not really on my mind, Good Friday, other than schedule. I have some baking to do today, and I have to return a car I rented for a couple of days, this week being a nightmare for a one-car family and a church 30 miles away. It was worth the $80 to skip those hours on the bus, carrying food in a backpack, etc.

So I've got stuff to do. Better get busy, then. I'll just write for a while.

...

Most of you reading this know the story, or a chunk of it. I wrote a book about a lot of this. I won't reflect as much as recap. Briefly.

I was conflicted as a young man, drawn toward the theater for the obvious reasons and because I was good at it. Don't discount that last part; I always enjoyed performing and showing off, but I wonder a lot if I was attracted to the form just because I had some natural ability.

And while I had friends and eventually educators willing to encourage this, instruct me, guide me, support me, there were some others in my life. People who sat down with me and explained how to open a checking account, establish credit, make my way in a harsh world, and a lot of making that way was working harder than the next guy. This was an easy thing to learn, really. More difficult to practice, but not complicated at all.

A work ethic would come in handy in the acting business, although it guarantees nothing, of course. I started putting in 60-hour weeks when I was 18, in fact, at least summers in the college years. I worked two jobs when my wife became pregnant with our daughter, clerical work but enough to slide us into solvency of a type. We did OK for a couple of 20-somethings with stars in our eyes.

My wife's show biz aspirations grew rapidly, as she became something of a Northwest sensation in the classical music world up here. I seem to lose interest in acting while still in college, and even though I did some theater at first in Seattle, I eventually thought I'd end up just playwriting and it turned out I had not much in the way of ideas.

I could work, though. I started a business in 1990, frustrated by the usual suspects in the working world, and hard work again made the difference. It was deadly boring work, only lightened by a steep learning curve when it came to computer science. I was down there in my little basement home office, pounding the keys, studying, practicing, always there. It broke me, I think.

That's all I can figure. That, and certain genetic time bombs, and a stray life event here or there to get the ball rolling. It didn't take that long. My wife seemed to be happy and fulfilled. My daughter was precocious and kept us on our toes, mostly just a delight. My son was born a couple of months before I went into business, and so I was a constant presence in his life, always in another room but there.

Although not really there, not always. At some point I started taking dives into a bottle of vodka, and eventually I just swam in there most of the day. But you should know this, most of you. Old story. Sobered up, a dozen years ago. Went to treatment. Felt better. Still feel better. A year after that, lost a bunch of weight, got in better shape, better health. Happier. Happy, happy.

It was necessary to be positive, because some serious shit started to happen. Again, old story. All are OK now. Sober Chuck showed up just in time, just when my wife's vision started to decrease and my son started to decompensate, and it got so much more interesting. I flailed a lot, wandered hospital hallways, made countless trips to child psychologists and counselors, lawyers and doctors and therapists, trying to be as supportive as possible.

So that's probably part of it. Things got busy. I was grateful to be healthy and functional, fully conscious and present when my family needed me most. Finally, that is. Finally able to be of use.

And I just forgot something.

...

That's the problem with having a Big Bad in your life. It's possible to see it as the problem, and not a symptom. I drank too much, once, compulsively and unable to stop until I did. The burden of that was lifted, miraculously although pretty much by the book. Still a miracle, it seems.

Three years ago, a side gig that paid a bunch of bills and kept my writing jobs open and possible stopped. Just stopped, as happens. Contract not renewed, what can you do. Didn't see it coming. Wasn't ready. Assumed something else would pop up. Eventually I got a job in development for a nonprofit, very parttime but useful, I thought. It wasn't a great fit, mostly because I was too far away from the community it was located in, and served.

At some point around then, my grandson was diagnosed with diabetes type 1. I took a hard look at my own eating habits, noticed the indulgences casually made every day, not having to worry about counting carbs and weighing grapes. I decided to try to eat better. I avoided sugary products for a week, hoping to dial down my sweet tooth. I continued to take marathon walks and hikes, once across Puget Sound (30 miles), often 10 miles or so. I left ice cream behind. I was happy with my weight, but wouldn't have minded losing 5-10 pounds, because who would mind such a thing?

Anyway. I lost my appetite, my ability to sleep well, and 44 pounds over nine months. It was crazy. At a routine physical, before the results of lab tests came back (very alarming), my doctor had me take a self-assessment exam thing and I was pretty high up on the depression scale. As if you guys needed me to explain that. Duh.

It had happened before. Not in the same way, but I've had a few depression diagnoses in my time. As in this case, it was considered moderate, not severe. There was no ideation, in other words. I was just depressed. I got a pill. It worked OK. I gained a few pounds back, not nearly the whole 44 but I found a good place, as it turned out. I still watch the scale, but I seem steady. I sleep just fine.

I had some episodes over the next year. Nothing major. The medication made me uneasy, for various reasons, but it did seem to have a reasonable effect.

I stopped it a year ago. No magic work for me had shown up. I was roaming around the freelance market, and I had at least one opportunity that seemed promising go poof! after a bit of daydreaming. But I felt OK. I never quite got back on track in terms of regular exercise, but even downsizing my regimen still meant I was getting plenty.

Health insurance cost me nearly $1000 a month. Me. This absurdly healthy man, who had stellar blood pressure and cholesterol levels and blood sugar levels and a level of fitness that would have been pretty good for a 25-year-old. A thousand bucks, because I was pushing 60, and I couldn't justify it. I figured I'd drop it for a while, hope for the best, try to survive until I got more money coming in (in case you just dropped by and were wondering, the medical expenses from my wife's and son's--and in a way, my--illnesses cleaned us out. Just out. Our equity in this house saved us from bankruptcy, but you know. Old story, here in this country). So no more antidepressant.

I dunno. That could have been it.

...

I'm not crazy about the word battle when it comes to people and health. I get it. Just don't care for it much. It implies something I don't believe is true, which is that determination and aggressive, proactive management can change the outcome. I mean, sometimes, sure.

But I'd prefer endure, I think. "Battle" implies a binary; you either win or you lose, or at least that's the plan. If you lose, you fail. I don't think cancer victims fail so much. Maybe it's just me.

Whatever. You want to say I've been battling depression? Fine.

My battles are always in the ring, metaphorically. I was a big boxing fan as a kid, no doubt influenced by my father and Friday Night Fights, black-and-white TV, blurry figures punching. Then Ali and Frazier, and so on. There's still some magic, although I can't imagine following the sport anymore. But I own all the Rocky movies, and I've been known to dive into YouTube for some of the glory days of Ali-Liston and Marciano and LaMotta, etc. Sorry.

So that's what I see when I see my battle. In a ring. Loud noise. Chaos. I'm always face flat on the mat, bloodied and bruised and seriously beaten, dazed and unsure. I can see my corner man, my manager, conventional casting. He peers through the ropes at me, eyes wide, his voice pleading.

Stay down, he says.

...

This is depression. It does not encourage you to get better. By definition.

...

And everybody has it. Good grief. I look at a handful of the people closest to me, and a fair portion of them have been in the ring, I know. So I'm not opening any eyes here.

But I really thought I was OK. No medication, but doing OK. I kept trying to find some kind of work, but I'm not good at that, having been my own boss since I was 31. A job interview? Haven't a clue. Put in some applications for menial work, clerical work, etc. Sometimes I got rejections within 20 minutes. It was strange. Nearly 100 of these are in my archives. I stopped applying after a while. I guess I'll start again. I'm a little unclear on what I should do. I'm not ready in any sense to retire. I can't even imagine what that looks like. Probably a lot like what my life has been, really, for the past 30 years. Just more free time. I can continue writing for newspapers until they disappear, but my readership is aging and not going to grow. And there's little money in it, even after all of these years. Not enough to live on.

There are lots of things to fill out the picture. I'm open to reflecting on all of this, trying to learn from mistakes, always eager to add more warning signs to my collection, to look for, to be wary of. Again, this was pretty much garden-variety depression. It happens.

...

I started hiding in September, I guess. Around September.

I took long naps. I slept late, went to bed early. Sleep was the only comfort on the horizon, unconsciousness, KO-ed into oblivion. I lost. I failed. Go to sleep now. Shush.

I stopped talking, or spoke of strange things, incoherent things. I rarely left the house. I wrote by muscle memory: Verb follows noun, adverb follows verb. I just hoped it would come back, but it didn't seem likely.

And I lied. People who love me were concerned from time to time, and I lied in the most perfect way a person can lie, by telling the truth. Just enough truth.

I was encouraged to take a class at a local university, exploring the Pacific Northwest and its culture, particularly its thorny relationship with religion. I wrote some about this. You might remember, some of you. Kept having problems finding the parking garage and getting lost, very funny. Me and my sense of direction. Even though I worked for a few years directly across the street from that garage. Let's all laugh together.

I went to class, consisting of several people I knew and liked and loved. I tried to engage in the conversation, wiping the sweat from my forehead, trying not to sound crazy. And made plenty of jokes. Jokes are what I do.

C'mon, people. A grown man, nearly 35 years up here in this region, and I can't park my car? You think it's because I just have an odd sense of direction?

I was the crazy one, and I knew.

I tried to read the required texts. The words were blurry, the concepts sometimes crystal-clear but the transmission a little iffy. I struggled to find my thoughts on the content, and when it came time to write commentary on my take and the takes of others, I froze. I had nothing to add, nothing worthwhile, I couldn't even imagine what to write.

This would be me. Having problems writing.

...

I dropped the class, eventually. I have a feeling my classmates are confused, maybe a little upset. Can't blame them. I wouldn't talk, couldn't. Too ashamed. Too confused. Too busy trying to hide the sweat dripping in my eyes from the thought of everything. Everything.

And there are probably other friends. I can feel the disturbance in the force, although I can't rule out some paranoia. Still, I think I lost some points. I should have been more honest. I should have stopped saying I was fine, at least. Maybe I could have shrugged my shoulders. I really didn't see how they could help. It's not like I was all that clear about help, though. I mostly wanted to sleep.

Some days I did nothing at all. I didn't watch movies or TV, listen to music, read. Well, I always read, but not for entertainment. I stayed away from social media, knowing it was a giant target for inappropriate manifestations of mental illness. I was mad at everybody for a while, in fact. That makes sense, sort of.

Stay down.

It's darkest right before it gets pitch black, you know. That's how it works.

Stay down.

I'm not sure how that was supposed to end.

...

I touched on this subject in my column a few weeks ago. The suicide of a college football player bothered me, just the shock of his family and friends. "I'm fine," I kept hearing, over and over. I just a wrote a little. I hinted that I'd had some experience.

A lady wrote me back. A few years older, now retired after a long and successful career in business. She took a little medication, she said, but mostly gardened and took walks, and nodded as she read. Yep, she thought. That's me.

So I write this now. Just in case someone else needs to hear, but as I said: Pretty standard depression experience.

In other words, I didn't make suicide plans, or anything similar. No plans to hurt myself or others. No cries for help at all. You've heard the phrase. You know what's interesting about a cry for help?

It's a CRY for HELP.

I asked for help a dozen years ago. It felt weak and foolish to ask again. I guess. I didn't examine that too much. I just said, "I'm fine" and moved on, referred a little to being a bit depressed just to keep those who loved me at bay long enough to get better on my own. I wasn't about to jump off a bridge.

Here's the thing. Probably the most important thing.

I really, really, really wanted to die.

So.

...

I don't know what happened, either. I'll just suggest this: Over the years, I have written so many goddamn stories about snow. Just a million references over the years, how snow comes in to save the day. Snow is my romantic mise en scène, always perfectly arranged to augment a life moment. You gotta have snow at certain times. Honestly, I have no idea. Just spitballing here.

It snowed on Christmas Eve. I went to church and it was snowing, it snowed while we were inside, I came out and the car was covered. We went to visit with friends and it snowed all the way there, all the way home. It was a White Christmas, a rarity up here. A Frank Capra rarity. A George Bailey event. I could be making all of this up, except for the snow, but it snowed and snowed and somehow I got my life back.

That's all I got.

...

I still don't know what to do with the rest of my life. I still have financial concerns. I'm not as ambitious as I used to be. There is yard work to be done. I need to up the exercise. More veggies, less peanut butter, that sort of thing.

It's possible I need to repair relationships, although I have no idea how to do that. I have no problem apologizing for my behavior, but I'm not sure what I can say. I let people down. Sometimes you don't recover that. I will continue to breathe.

I don't want to die anymore. I'm sleeping just the right amount, I think. Appetite comes and goes, but generally I'm good. I still get a little irritable, but that's passing. I'm really fine now, although God knows don't take it from me.

You could take it from this. Over 3000 words, I see. About 75 minutes. I could do this all day.

...

I have no advice, no answers, no solutions. No real help. Just my story.

And if this is recovery, and I assume it is, I understand the concept, and the continuum, always moving in one direction or the other. I haven't had a drink in a dozen years. I haven't always been sober, if you follow. I feel more sober today. I feel OK. Fine, even.

I just experienced something, and I figured I eventually should write it down. To remember. Maybe to help, although I'm dubious about that sort of thing. Once again, it's an old story. It's out there in various forms, various lives, various results.

And I have no idea about the snow thing. I just noted that weight lifted and stayed lifted. It might have just been time. It was gradual, too. Took this long, in fact, to feel far enough away to have the perspective to write about it.

Depression has probably been around all my life. It explains a lot, actually. I should probably be on medication. I should try to get some health insurance. I need some sort of job, or else I need to write something useful.

But today? I need to take this car back. I need to bake some cookies. I need to remember that there's a reason I look forward to this particular week, to remembering, to marking. To thinking big thoughts. To understanding hope, finally and again. It may be Friday, but Sunday's coming. For today, though, Friday's good enough.

Chuck Sigars1 Comment