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.