MY LIFE WITH DEPRESSION

by Larry Roberts

 

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 personal.

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 cost me.

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.

 

Larry 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.

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BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/May 2006