I like to write confessional
essays, you know the kind, where the author tells something about
himself and uses what he tells to make larger points. What I try
not to do is to make my "confessions" universal, because that
cheapens not only the specifics of my life and the events I am
writing about, but also the experiences of people with whom I
share important things in common.
As I begin to write this particular
essay I am especially concerned because I will be writing about
my own depression, an intimate and painful experience, one that
mental health professionals and the media too often define as an
easily treatable illness. Many mental health educators teach us
that depression is a disease in the same way that heart disease
and diabetes are defined as diseases, an illness easily diagnosed
and treated. In other words, the public is being given a simplistic
medical model for a common life problem that is complex and always
My life has never been simple.
Born with CP, I grew up with a conflict between my felt reality
and the reality that was pressed upon me by my family and preached
to me by society. My family treated me as ordinary and expressed
high expectations about what I could accomplish. At the same time,
I got the social message that I was different, that people were
making allowances for my physical "handicap"; and while
I pretended it didn't bother me, it hurt to be stared at in public.
I felt greatly pressured to handle a painful truth: I felt "ordinary"
inside, but couldn't tell my family how bad I felt about the way
I was treated out in the world. I was afraid they wouldn't understand.
The conflict left me with feelings of anger and isolation.
It was a fag joke that gave a
name to what I felt for the other boys in my junior high school
classes. At the age of thirteen I had discovered one more thing
that I couldn't talk to anybody about. Already cut off from the
people around me, this made me even more worried about disapproval
and rejection. And a new fear emerged: I knew by then that gay people
got killed. Now I was afraid of violence.
I was a sensitive boy caught
up in some very painful problems. As I reached adolescence, it became
easier to simply ignore and repress my feelings. I learned to tell
people that I was fine, to withdraw from peers and family. I escaped
into comic books, television, sexual longing, sexual fantasy and
masturbation. I was sad and alone.
I am eighteen years old and I
want to stop feeling so bad. I am sad because I am lonely for a
guy I thought loved me but obviously didn't. I am angry and devastated
because I promised myself that if a chance for sex and love presented
itself I would risk it and I did. He does not live near me and the
few times we get together I travel by bus or ask my father to drive
me, even though the guy has a car, is in college and doesn't have
a disability. After six months of sporadic sex and no return of
the love I feel for him, he tells me it's over. I face another awful
truth: He wanted a few orgasms while I wanted much more. He was
a jerk, stringing me along. Just for his own pleasure.
Beyond the pain of rejection
my loneliness grows deeper. Day after day I feel less connected
to my family. An invisible wall separates me from them. At school
even the meager connections I've managed to make with people disappear.
I am alone and numb. Day after day I think about letting myself
fall backwards down the stairs. As I am crawling up, I could just
lift my hands, push off, and let it happen. My stomach hurts, I
have headaches, but I don't care. The pressure in my head is getting
worse. Why does it hurt so much? I remember very clearly the morning
it happened: the decision to do something, to try to stop the pain.
I take a deep breath, let it out, go to the medicine cabinet and
drink down half of a large bottle of aspirin dissolved in tap water.
The pattern of self-destructive
behavior continues to plague me for the following decade. Almost
annually, I'd come to a place where I couldn't handle the pain,
when the numbness, hopelessness, pressure, panic and rage overwhelmed
me. Each time I would poison myself. Sometimes I truly wanted to
have it be over and sometimes I did it so somebody would help me.
Sometimes I did it because things weren't going my way.
I am in my twenties sitting in
my therapist's office talking again about how badly I am doing.
It hurts. No matter what I do it seems to always hurt. I notice
that I am banging the rims of my left wheel, emphatically telling
him what I am trying to tell him. I compulsively rub my forehead
with my ring and middle fingers. Anything to soothe the pain. Why
won't it stop? It hurts so much.
This is my day: I get up around
11 a.m., shower, eat some soup and watch television. Each of these
things is an accomplishment. Get up. Take a shower. Eat some soup.
Watch television. These are the things I give myself credit for.
A few years ago, at the beginning
of summer, I wonder again why I cannot feel better. I try to tell
myself that I do feel better, but I know that I don't. Ross, my
partner, agrees. He's watched me struggle for weeks to get up to
go to work, and he tells me that all I do is complain about my job
and how tired I am. He says that I am tense and can't relax unless
I zone out entirely, that I seem genuinely depressed. He tells me
how unstable my mood is, that I seem fine one day and not the next.
When he says it's been going on for much longer than I think it
has, I become even more concerned.
I start to take an antidepressant
then, something that I have resisted for many years. I told myself
that I had good reason to resist medication. I didn't believe that
depression was biological, therefore drugs wouldn't work. I was
a political activist and I was critical of psychiatry. But the truth
is that my resistance also had a lot to do with stupidity and fear.
I let a bunch of mixed up things keep me from trying something that
might work. And it did work.
I tell my therapist that I can't
subscribe to a common definition of depression as feelings, especially
anger, turned inward (and ignored or unrecognized). I know precisely
what I had felt at every moment, whether I was happy, sad, fearful,
angry, enraged, resentful, disappointed, or bored. I was often afraid
to experience what I felt, however, and unwilling to tell other
people about my feelings. What was the point? It didn't matter anyway.
I tell him, too, that I can't accept what I was told by the clinical
staff at one of the psychiatric units where I was a patient, that
depression is a biological illness I had to learn to live with.
My own experience of living with
depression made all of those explanations too pat. And as my knowledge
of the mental health system grows, I can't stand the fact that the
law allows people diagnosed as mentally ill to be locked up. If
a psychiatric diagnosis will make me vulnerable to coercion, I want
as little to do with mental health treatment as possible.
The contradictions that I have
to live with continue to be difficult. From being a sensitive boy
badly hurt I grew into a young man who hurt himself. I was caught
between how my family saw me and how society saw me. Once I realized
I was gay I feared rejection by both family and society-and had
no one to talk to about those fears. I was deeply in love with someone
who used me. Although I got help from the mental health system I
have since come to recognize its shortcomings and to fight against
them. My brain chemistry has an impact on my mood state, but so
does the fact that I know how to repress my feelings, something
I did for so long because it seemed safer than telling people how
I really felt. The limits my CP imposes on me are very real, but
so are the stupid questions strangers ask about my disability. My
resistance to antidepressants is as puzzling to me as the fact that
they help me feel better. I regret how much that puzzlement has
A majority of the many depressed
people I have met assert that they can't wait to get back to who
they "really are" and live their "real lives" again. I can't subscribe
to that way of thinking. Who I am and what I've done with my life
seems inextricably bound up with the very fact of depression: I
came out while depressed, had lovers and partners while depressed,
had sex while depressed. I came to a more developed political consciousness
while depressed, learned to write while depressed, became a political
activist while depressed. I found my career while depressed and
developed my professional talents while depressed. I dealt with
depression, sometimes serious bouts of it, for the first fifteen
years of my soon-to-be twenty year relationship with Ross Haarstad.
It's October 1987, the night
before the Out and Outraged civil disobedience action at the Supreme
Court to protest the Hardwick decision upholding the right of states
to enact sodomy laws. A few months earlier I'd been in a psychiatric
hospital. I speak about this to the lawyers working with the protestors
because I am concerned about risking arrest. What if I am jailed
for longer than anticipated? What should I do if I have an emotional
crisis? Should I risk it? The lawyers fail to offer much reassurance.
I am pretty confident that I will get out of jail on the day of
my arrest but I can't be sure.
The next day, as I crawl up the
steps of the Supreme Court with my affinity group, after a parting
kiss from Ross, I realize there are a lot of things I can't predict.
But that action was about my
life and my liberty. Mine and everybody else's.
©2006 Larry Roberts
Some of the other BENT writers who
have addressed the subject of depression include:
Danny Kodmur: Life Under the Spotlight
George Steven Powell: But I Don't
Like You Like That
Don Roy: I Wouldn't Sleep with Me
For an unsusual view of the sociocultural and political dimensions
of depression, see the documentary, We
Donít Live Under Normal Circumstances. -ed.
Roberts lives with Ross Haarstad in Ithaca, NY, where he is active
in the movement against forced treatment in the mental health
system. A poet and writer, he has been published in Bent and recently
in the journal of Whosoever Ministries (www.whosoever.org), an
online community of LGBT Christians, where he also wrote about
depression. The kiss between Ross and Larry was captured on the
official video of the 1987 March on Washington. Larry had more
hair then, a fact that depresses him, but he resists the media
and pharmaceutical assault on baldness.