We’d recently reconnected via social media and shared a chat about our experiences of being depressed in high school. We had been peripheral acquaintances at most, and we remarked that perhaps we could have been supportive friends to each other had we known the other was struggling within the same all-encompassing grey cloud. I hoped he would be open to an interview about his experience of depression, since mental health issues in men are so rarely discussed in the culture outside of professional circles, and he agreed.
“Depression is such a central theme in my life, I can’t separate myself from it. Guys are conditioned not to show or talk about this aspect,” he observed, agreeing that the public conversation about men’s mental health issues has a long way to go. He’d had his first Major Depressive Episode at age twelve, and continued to grapple with the disorder well into adulthood. A single man in his mid-thirties, he’d at last broken through due to a combination of factors. “Dialogue, communication and connection have been inextricably linked to me coming out of depression,” he told me. For many years before there had been bleak periods of intense isolation and misery, which impacted his life negatively, drawing it down to a very small existence.
His parents separated when he was in middle school, splitting up, then divorcing a few years later. He described wanting his father gone and a feeling of relief at no longer having to live with him. From the time he was small, his father had beaten him as a form of manipulation and control. He and his mother moved after the split, and he began to experience many changes, some of which were hormonal, due to the onset of puberty. He had no present male role model or father figure in his life during this critical developmental stage, no one there to explain what was happening to his body, to normalize it for him. Then the dark, depressed moods began. “I thought the world was falling in on me,” he recalled. In his last year of middle school he withdrew into himself, failing his classes, distancing himself from friends. “I was getting into the abyss of depression, having crazy, vivid dreams. All I wanted to do was sleep.” He struggled alone, no support sought or forthcoming from family or friends.
When high school started he participated in his school’s drama department, which provided a temporary outlet, but soon acting offered no release. He didn’t know if he was anxious or depressed, or both. He transferred to a different school in tenth grade, and completely shut down, finding himself almost unable to speak. He couldn’t respond to people, in class or socially. School became terribly boring as a result, and he began to fail. His father, fiercely protective of his own public image, chose to become involved, likely fearing his son’s undeniable mental health issues would reflect poorly on him as a father. He took his son to a doctor for an evaluation at which powerful psychotropic medication was prescribed. Looking back at the appropriateness of his father’s decision to place him on a strong drug regimen, he remarked, “I was fifteen. That’s what was wrong.”
Depression was becoming his identity as his circumstances worsened. His mom had a mental health collapse of her own, chalking it up in part to her son reminding her too much of her ex-husband, and sending him to live with his physically abusive father. Living with his father was an untenable situation, his father’s need to manipulate and control him as strong as before. He described an episode where his father attacked him, then called the police, accusing his son of having beaten him when they arrived. The cops hauled him off to jail, where he stayed for five days. He ran away from home at sixteen and slept on a friend’s bedroom floor.
He had thoughts of suicide and seriously considered ending his life several times. He made an attempt one morning, washing about seventy Tylenol down with alcohol. He recounted an eerie scene of total teenage helplessness, heading off to school with the pills and alcohol working their way through his system. He bought a two liter bottle of Mountain Dew, sucking it down, adding it to the toxic soup. He became violently ill, throwing up for hours. He chose not to go to the hospital, dealing with the physical fallout alone. As his body jettisoned the poisons, he realized he didn’t want to die. He found himself concerned for his physical well-being, realizing the concoction had affected his system, effects which lingered. He worried about his liver.
“I felt different and awful. I started skipping school, dropping classes. I dropped out.” He stopped going to school, knowing he wouldn’t graduate after failing and dropping so many classes, choosing to work instead.
But before all this, he had been a popular kid. He was student president of his elementary school, well-liked, friendly, and engaged in school activities. He’d been involved in everything. Now, upon entering young adulthood, he was involved in nothing but his depression.
He spoke about life after high school, how the next decade was wrapped up in an unhealthy relationship with a woman who destroyed him, further isolating him in his depression. He had longed for a partner, feeling shunned by peers for living outside the status quo, having a dearth of the accomplishments they were beginning to accumulate. “I obsessed for years about where I should be at this age.” He shunned his peers back for their lack of acceptance, withdrawing into his relationship. He had picked the wrong person. She lashed out at him in negative, damaging ways. Her constant, harsh judgement of him shaped his self-image. He began to feel he was being left behind, that he was too far behind, hanging on tight to the one thing he had, his partner, despite the dysfunction and abuse.
“I have the best life on the planet,” he told me, catching me up to current day. “I’m happy every day. I’ve certainly turned the corner.” Well, so how did he do it? “There’s a progression and a lot of luck.” He had spent a lot of time in his own head, as many people with depression do, a preponderance of negative voices swirling there. “My brain has always been a flowchart, analyzing life like a robot. Playing out scenarios of the future, causing me to do nothing, because I’ve been holding up a tiny shard of experience.” He meant that his mind tended to race through possible decisions, taking them to pessimistic conclusions and dismissing them, causing a sort of life inertia. But he was beginning to understand that his brain was only able to grasp a small fragment of experience in its calculations, and that perhaps the conclusions it was reaching weren’t the only ones available.
He’d become very shy, having stopped listening to others or himself. At seventeen he had come to believe he hated people, the social isolation he felt from peers due to his lack of convention and the emotional abuse from his partner factors which reinforced his belief. He realized his relationship was “a buoy I clung to in a sea. I took my last shred of dignity and let go.”
With the relationship over, he had nothing. He went to live in near total isolation in a cabin in the woods at age twenty-six. He roughed it. He coached a high school basketball team and worked as a night manager at a hotel. He describes this period of his life as very lonely. He was recovering from a head injury–a hard punch to the face during a basketball game. He believes he may have sustained a traumatic brain injury that caused changes to his thought process. The pessimistic flowchart and its inertia-causing deductions were yielding to a new spontaneity, a tolerance for living in the moment. His old and new brain were working together to guide him, an unexpected benefit.
With nothing to lose, he decided to take six weeks and travel the country. He’d spent his years of solitude reading voraciously seeking information to prepare himself for life, as life was passing him by. As his travel plan began to take shape, he was struck by Christopher McCandless’ lamentations about his isolation during the experience documented in Into the Wild. He sensed he would have to let people in during his journey. Before he set out he decided he would “make himself uncomfortable, say yes to everything”, a leap of faith from a depressive life that had become stagnant.
Within two weeks on the road, something had clicked for him, changing his life forever. He attributes the critical shift in part to luck, that the early social interactions on the trip were positive. For someone sure he hated people, an awakening was occurring. “I realized I hated masses of people, masses of masses. Turns out I love individuals.” As his isolation melted away, his quality of life was increasing.
He was changing, his depression remitting with each new experience, each fostered connection. He was living his life on a smaller scale, no longer projecting his thoughts into a bleak future replete with failure. He described embracing his depressive thoughts and making them work for him. Fresh realizations began to occur, altering his perception entirely, creating a sense of safety and eradicating fear. “Everything about reality is so narrow. It’s false. I do things because I believe I can.” He noticed that he could not separate himself from his experiences, and that as a result, his understanding of reality was reduced to his perceptions, a “small shard” of a bigger picture. Life was about creating experiences worth living; a realization that became clear as anxiety about fitting in to the status quo, about falling behind and having nothing to show for his life faded. Self-acceptance was the new normal.
“I like how bizarre I am, that I don’t fit into a mold. I can mingle with all types of people. We’re all lost.” He had begun to see himself as part of a larger group–the human family, letting go of his isolative tendencies and seeking interaction with others. His experiences throughout his depression had made him more empathic, allowing him to connect with others in ways he hadn’t previously imagined. “I don’t think you can go through depression without developing empathy,” he told me.
What has he learned from his mental health evolution? What’s his life about now that depression no longer forms the center? “I’ve gotten better at not thinking about everything. I do what feels right. Every time I do something from intuition, it turns out good. I laugh off bad experiences. I’m very confident, and it makes people want to spend time with me.” The skills he applies today, the new insights and behaviors, were developed “during the big hole of depression”. He worried he had wasted years, but understands now that his brain was working during his depression, making possible his current state.
“Life to me is to be lived in the present. It’s all you have. The big shift came in challenging my comfort zone.” He described his life’s work as traveling, meeting people, making new connections and having many conversations. His essential ingredients for happiness are being outside, being with people, and having free time. With those keys in mind, he’s structured life on a smaller scale, with limited planning, keeping an openness to exploring upon arrival. “Life is too complicated for us to get our heads around. We don’t have all the pieces. Projecting the future is toxic.” He’s found meaning through following connections to others while embracing chaos, understanding he’s too close to his own experience to see the order or the path. His improved mental health appears to be directly related to his ability to let go of trying to see the future, make order from it, and fit in with what he “should” be doing at his age.
“My life used to be a prison cell with a crack of light under the door, the requisite food and water. Now I’m in a room filled with beams of light, and I could follow any of them and it would be right. The people I was most intimidated by now wish for my life.”