About five years ago, I noticed that Lucius had been making a lot of typos on the story and essay drafts he sent me and on his Facebook posts. I brought this up during one of our phone talks, and he complained that everything looked far away and surreal and he had a hard time finding the keys. Since he’d suffered from vision problems for years, including macular degeneration, and had often been behind on his eyeglasses prescription, I offered him sympathy but no advice, until he brought up the issue a few more times over the following week.
“Is your prescription current?” I asked.
“Yeah, I just got glasses a few months ago; it isn’t that. This is freaking me out.”
“How’s your stress?”
He puffed, incredulous that I’d ask such a dumbass question. He labored under constant worry, as I well knew, but this wasn’t a glib question and I waited. Finally, he said, “Terrible, man. I’ve been having trouble with this new vampire book, and I just can’t sleep.”
“Do you get up in the early morning?”
“Yeah, I guess. I don’t know. I sleep during the day because I can’t sleep at night. I’m just wiped out and can’t get any work done!”
“So, these vision problems,” I said, “they’re not getting better. Everything looks too far away, like maybe your prescription is too strong?”
“Yeah, right, exactly.”
“You feel lightheaded? How’s your mood?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you happy?”
“Fuck no, I’m stressed.”
“But do you look forward to stuff? To the writing?”
“I’m telling you, I can’t write.”
“I think you’re depressed,” I said. I explained how in my early twenties I had the same symptoms. I wasn’t especially unhappy, but I’d a similar issue with my vision, and I’d gone to the doctor several times over four months. I got a root canal that was probably unnecessary, I took antibiotics for a possible ear infection, I convinced myself that one of my dives had been too deep, when it wasn’t, and I ended up in hyperbaric recompression. Finally, I had an MRI that came up clean, and the exasperated neurologist told me to see a psychiatrist. I got on Prozac, quit a job I didn’t like, and in two months, the symptoms went away.
Never shy about trying a drug, Lucius immediately went to the doctor and got on Prozac. Just as mine had, his symptoms lifted within two months.
In a Facebook thread I started last year on evo psych, I noted, “Depression may be an adaptive tendency that kept us from making a bid for increased status in the ancestral environment when social or other environmental factors were against us. Having consciously to weigh these factors might not have been practical. Having to think about behavior can be a big liability. I was surprised by an angry raccoon in the dark once when I went running, and my body put me into defensive mode before I had a chance to think about it at all.” I still cleave to this reasoning. It may very well be an evolved mechanism to keep us down, subservient and cautious. Writers are especially vulnerable because more than anyone else, they tax their theory of mind creating and relating to characters, not all of whom they’re on good terms with. When you’re unsure of your standing in the tribe, it’s the better part of valor to be cautious, but the stakes are too high and the variables too numerous for this to be merely under conscious control. By the time you realize you’ve alienated your peers, it may be too late.
It took me quite a while to put depression behind me. What really ended it, paradoxically, was starting a company, one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done. Many nights I went to bed in high anxiety, but I managed to pull myself together and keep things on track, finishing difficult tasks. I took on just the right level of stress. In that same thread on evo psych I alluded to, I also wrote, “… once they’ve committed to a risky endeavor, like starting a new career, some people report that depression fades. It’s like your body and mind say, ‘Okay, if we’re all in for a status play, we’ll stop with the regulator.’ We can take certain risks in the modern world — at least in the first world — that would have gotten us killed in the ancestral environment.”
But taking risks forestalls depression only if those of us vulnerable to it get enough positive reinforcement. A prolonged confluence of stressors can still break us. Lucius had health, creative, and money issues that overwhelmed him. And recently I’ve had to go back on Prozac because the stress of facing uncertain work prospects, selling a house, and having alienated friends on Facebook by exploring ideas that were too provocative for them. For the past year, I’ve had many odd physical issues. The drug has now alleviated some of them, most notably acid reflux. Doctors asked early on whether I was stressed, but I dismissed their concern; it’s nothing I hadn’t been dealing with for years. Problem is, you can never predict where and how you’ll break, and the feeling of anxious desperation and despair may be a very late symptom, as it was years ago with me and with Lucius.
Bob, I feel that. I inherited a lot of good things from my parents, but high serotonin levels wasn’t in the mix. I was finally convinced by a social worker giving a talk to veterans’ caregivers that depression isn’t a moral failing. I’ve been on sertraline ever since, and plan to be on it unt I die. But in weird news, what has also helped reduce my angst has been craniosacral therapy. It’s way weirder than science fiction…the healing trance is fantastic, and tho I can explain why the light pressure works, it’s still unreal. The triad of depression is a compressed occiput-C1, L5-S1, ans sphenobasilar joint. Weird work. Super fun. In Bend, you have a cranio goddess…Signy Erickson. She’s the bomb!
Thanks, Amy! I’ll look her up.
Bob, an interesting memoir, as always. A certain timeliness given the suicide of Robin Williams. Hmm. As I wrote Williams my brain sparked with uncertainty.Was that really the comic’s name? Doesn’t look right. Oh well,press on…those little doubts rise and niggle from time to time and raise the specter of the unspellable German named disease. I have a life long acquaintance with Mr. Churchill’s black dog. Never knew it might affect vision, since for years I was blessed with 20-10, sniper’s vision. Being far sighted vision only became an issue after years staring at a page twirled into a typewriter. When I drove home I could no longer focus beyond raindrops on the windshield. Reading glasses permitted my eyes to relax for further years. When I was learning to write on deadline under a sarcastic editor, I had to take “stomach tranquilizers.” As I got older the reflux got so bad I was lugged off to ERs a couple times by intimates who feared a heart attack. Migraines,which you don’t mention–or I missed it–were a constant companion. Your theory of depression as an evolutionary adaptation is intriguing.I wonder how that plays into the so-called “impostor’s syndrome?”
I didn’t succumb to medications until the late 90s and had bad luck with them; enormous weight gain, vanished libido, tremors, blurred vision, a general sense of blah. Took a while to find one that helped. Unfortunately it did not also come with weight-loss or restoration of libido. I endured the poking and probing of a UW urologist the same summer as our Clarion West class. The memorable feature was being sprawled on a table naked while my dick was injected with a then unknown drug with remarkable results, The memorable feature was observing with perfect clarity his attractive nurse gripping two handfuls of my erection while he measured…with no mental or emotional reaction. My monitored BP stayed perfectly relaxed. He said he could get me a prescription for the needle and drug, and I said no thanks, my fear and hatred of needles trumped any desire for legendary erections. He said well it will be out in pill for soon–and Viagra burst upon the world not too long thereafter. Maybe I was a test lab rat?
As a “senior citizen” now (I loathe the term) age has added its whacks to the long term indignities of depression. In the end it seems, life sucks and then you die. I am relatively stable on the last medication they tried, and life marches or drags or stumbles along depending on the day. All I can offer is a suggestion to hang in there; death a necessary end will come when it will come, per Shakespeare. Until then, the game may not be worth the candle, but it’s the only game in town. And curiosity about how things turn out next week, next year, is perhaps as strong as the black dog when all the sums are taken.
Thanks for the eloquent, frank post, Bill. Much appreciated!