CONTENT WARNING: Discussions and depictions of illness and death, depression, mental health issues, and suicidal ideation.
I’d like to introduce you all to an old friend of mine. He’s been gone a long time, and though I didn’t want him to come back, there’s something oddly comfortable about his presence. He’s a known quantity, an all-too-familiar voice. He’s persuasive, persistent, and punctual. He can be kept outside, but once the door is open, he roots himself to the couch, and it seems like no force on Earth can remove him.
His name is depression.
He is fear and doubt and inadequacy. He is grief and loss thought overcome and now reborn. He is cloud and shadow, fog on the road, snow driving against the windshield.
He is darkness, stealing sight. He is numbness, stealing feeling. He is deafness, stealing away the sounds of music and all voices but his own.
He is death.
He is death before death.
He is the storm that fills the sky from horizon to horizon, blotting the sun and filling the air. He is the ice that buries the green and living earth. He is the cold that drives the breath from your lungs in shuddering gasps. He is hunger that can never be filled. He is death.
He is death, and after death. He lingers in the ruins of life that was, holding back mourning, holding back healing. He carries off the shards of broken hearts and buries them deep; the heart goes on with jagged edges and cracks where love should be.
He is after happiness, after love, after friendship. He speaks up in what silence falls after laughter and joy and comradeship are gone. He speaks of your “fake friends:” of how they only stick around because they have to, how they don’t care about you, that no one could because you’re broken and unworthy of love.
He is before you wake, before you speak, and before you sleep. His voice is loudest in the quiet and the dark. He is peace-stealer, health-taker, love-killer. He shouts when goodness is silent, and boos once the song is ended.
He is death.
He is death before death.
He is death that comes too suddenly.
He is death that should never be.
He is death that takes the brightest lights and snuffs them out.
He is death that revels in death. He is that which hates humankind and calls himself its friend.
He will always be.
He is, and should not be
And never should be
And never should’ve been
And yet he is.
I don’t think I ever realized just how sick grandpa was. As a well-read kid raised in a conservative Christian environment, of course I knew what death was… at least in the abstract. But when I woke up one morning during my seventh-grade year and found my mother and father crying in the living room, a dimension of death I’d never considered finally sunk in: that when someone dies, they’re gone forever.
That conversation you had? The one you can’t even remember? That was your last. That time you saw them? When you couldn’t look them in the eye? That’s the last time you’ll ever see them. Those few memories you’re able to hold onto? The good ones, and that bad? That’s all you have left of them.
It would be neat to say that my struggle with depression began that day, but life is rarely so clear-cut. One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn about depression is that it doesn’t need a reason to appear – it just does. Depressive episodes have been part of my life for so long that it’s hard to imagine it without them. It’s easier to think they’re just a part of my personality, or that I could control them if I just tried harder. It hardly helps that they began to occur in middle and high school, in the midst of so many other changes.
As a quiet, studious, and irritatingly self-serious teenager, I was constantly being called “mature” for my age. Truth is I wasn’t mature; I was just too damned depressed to be getting into trouble. I hardly had the energy, passion, or conviction to do what I wanted to do. The one thing I could be, however, was a good student. School offered structure, well-defined requirements, and a consistency that adolescence otherwise lacked. Even outside of school, my weekends were just as busy. Saturdays were Van Winkle Family Fun Days (I’m not kidding, that’s what we called them), with some kind of outing or project around the house. Sundays were reserved for Church, brunch with family friends, and the occasional trip to the movie theater. Between that, youth group, homework, and family movie nights during the week, I was busy, happy, and distracted.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not ungrateful. I had a great childhood, with loving parents and lots of activities that helped me learn and grow into who I am today. Even so, the constant buzz of activity catered to my personal mix of depression and anxiety, keeping me busy enough that I didn’t spiral or have time to worry (or even plan) for a future beyond College. I rode the highs and lows of my own mental state without realizing there was something wrong. So what if I was sad sometimes, seemingly without reason? I was just being a wimp. And what did it matter if some days the thought of going back to school was enough to bring me to tears? Everyone felt that way… right?
It was only after High School ended and College began that the cracks in my façade began to show. The feelings I’d always buried deep began to claw their way up through the soft earth. I started college at Southern Oregon University, planning to stay at home while I completed my Gen Ed courses. Then my family moved away. In my first year of college, I (somehow) had more free time, less structure, and a sudden absence of 90% of the people who’d defined my existence. My friends were also off at college far away, and as a shy commuter student at an extremely liberal school, I didn’t make any new ones. It didn’t seem worth the trouble: I’d be gone in less than two years, after all.
I found new distractions instead: Netflix, video games, and food filled the empty spaces in my life. In particular, I fell in love with Doctor Who for the first time. For some reason, the idea of a dashing stranger who swept in out of the blue and showed people a better, more meaningful way of living appealed to me. No idea why.
Then one day, driving home along I-5, I found myself bawling. It started just after I left school – I think I actually left early because I couldn’t hold it back any longer. I don’t remember the circumstances, and knowing what I know now, there probably weren’t any. In any case, the pointlessness of living spilled over me as I clutched the steering wheel of my ’99 Buick Century, mind spinning with a thousand dark, violent, hateful thoughts. It was raining, and as I looked across the lanes at the oncoming traffic, I thought how easy it would be to cross the narrow divider and end it all. No one would ever know for sure it was suicide. My family would mourn, but they’d already shown they could move on without me. They would be fine.
Writing all this down after five years of learning and healing, I’m horrified at how distorted my thinking had become. I had no idea I was struggling with a mental illness, or that my thoughts could even be diseased and disordered. As the “smart” or “gifted” kid, I always thought of my brain not only as a valuable asset but as the very seat of self. My thoughts were my reality, my identity. Even with a deeply religious upbringing, the idea of the soul or deeper self behind my thoughts never really sank in… or if it did, I fell into the trap that so many Christians fall into by denying mental illness under the guise of spiritual warfare.
For whatever reason, I never acted on those suicidal impulses. I had enough lucid moments to realize how good my life really was, and that suicide would be a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Depressive episodes were still usually limited to two or three days at a time, usually ending with an unprompted outburst of tears. I kept myself busy when I could, and distracted when I couldn’t find the energy to leave the house. Eventually, I made it through those two years at SOU and was accepted at Biola University for the fall semester of 2014.
The two and a half years I spent studying film were some of the best in my entire life. For the first time since leaving High School, I actually made friends. I engaged with a community I understood and enjoyed. I learned how to interrogate my faith and engage with spirituality in a way that was more than just performance and rote recitation. I worked with talented young filmmakers on a wide variety of projects, learned how to produce quality work, and began to refine my creative voice. Surprisingly, I fell back in love with writing in the last semester, penning the first draft of The Gräzland Tales in my final semester… an unexpected choice that put my life on a whole new trajectory.
But more than ever, I was distracted. Whenever life slowed down (which didn’t happen often, but there were moments), a wave of fear and worry swept over me: fear for the future, fear of loneliness, fear that the world would discover me for the creative fraud I was. Behind the armor I’d built out of work, stress, and dedication, there was a vacuum – a void with no passion, no purpose, and no hope.
I didn’t realize there was anything wrong with this, and so I did what I always did: I doubled down. I threw myself into school, exercise, and creative projects. I filled every waking moment with work of one kind or another. The distinction between play and toil vanished as even the things that brought me enjoyment became sources of stress – but being stressed was better than being alone with my thoughts, so I pressed in. I became obsessed. I became fearful of failure and addicted to successes. The life-sucking effects of this were most apparent in my exercise and diet: by the end of my final semester, I weighed in at a startling 115 lbs on “good” days – i.e. days when I’d gone hungry every meal and was too tired to notice that gaunt face in the mirror. I mentally counted calories and took pleasure in the ever-lowering number on the scale. After all, even if I could control nothing else in my life, at least I could control my weight.
And then, less than a month after I graduated and returned home for Christmas, I lost my other grandfather. It was utterly unexpected, and even when he was hospitalized with respiratory problems, no one expected it was that serious. My dad, my uncle, and I drove to Oregon to help our Grandmother. We decided within a day or two that he would be alright, and so my uncle and I rushed back to Mammoth to beat an oncoming storm front. I remember squeezing my grandfather’s hand before we left. I looked into his tired eyes and said something. I still don’t know what it was.
My uncle and I returned to Mammoth just ahead of the storm. As I stepped out of the car, my mother opened the door. There was a look in her eyes that I knew all too well; one I’d tried very hard to forget. It was the look in her eyes the morning her father died, all those years ago. She barely needed to speak for me to know what had happened.
I broke. The walls, the armor, the façade… none of them were enough. Her words tore through the defenses I’d built like the kindling they were. Whatever was left of me was a vapor. It floated ghostlike through the house, coming to rest briefly on whatever it could find – a chair, a sofa, a kitchen table. At one point I remember lying down in the bath, trying to breathe, trying desperately to still the world around me. It didn’t work.
Though it was only three years ago, my memories of the days that followed are fragmented at best. Driving northward through the storm the following morning, with next to no sleep. Hospital lobbies. Hallways. Doors. So many doors. The parking lot was frozen and slippery. And then finally…
One last hospital room. Our old pastor, saying a prayer over the unconscious body of one of the most lively, loving people I’ve ever known. Hearing his last breath leave his chest, and finally knowing.
I don’t mean to be gratuitous in talking about this, nor am I asking for pity, sorrow, or condolences. It happened three years ago, and while no one really “gets over” trauma, I no longer mourn my grandfathers. I still miss them, of course. I wish I could speak with both of them now that I’m older: that I could’ve asked them all the questions I have and learned who they were when they weren’t being a grandpa. I wish I could tell them how much they meant to me.
Instead, I celebrate the men I can remember. I rejoice that they’ve found rest at the end of many trials. And I am thankful that I had them for as long as I did. Most people aren’t so lucky.
The reason I tell this story is to show the trauma that finally broke my self-made illusion: that shone a light into the darkness of my own heart and made me realize that dreaming of dying was not normal or healthy. It showed me that even though life ends, it also goes on. It made me think about living past 25 – something I never thought I’d do. And so – in Mammoth Lakes, of all places – I began to live. I made friends who genuinely knew and cared for me and were willing to talk about life and death and what really mattered. I went to counseling: both for my disordered eating and mental health issues. In the company of my family and with the help of my friends, I began to heal. I started to create as part of my recovery, staring the first version of the blog in June, and eventually self-published The Gräzland Tales. I dedicated the book not only to my grandfathers, but to every family member who’d helped me through the toughest years of my life. And then…
Well, you know most of what happened next: I’ve posted the lion’s share of it on this blog. I began working three jobs, wrote my second book, then realized I was losing focus on what mattered. I was able to adjust my workload, began writing and producing the podcast, and, most recently, realized I was ace and began to celebrate that identity. I began acting, appearing in two small shows and forging new and wonderful connections with fun, kind people. I was good. I was happy.
And yet, depression returned. As deeply as I was shattered by my grandfather’s death, that darkness was deeper still, and I realize now that I’ll never be truly free of it. With the help of counseling and therapy it may become less severe, but it will still be there. This most recent episode really began soon after I came out, a little more than a month ago. Even though I was on vacation, far from the stress of work and free to create without limits, I was still tired. Once the fear of being rejected and the overwhelming relief of acceptance were gone, I felt utterly numb; and honestly, feeling still hasn’t fully returned. The experiences since that point lack definition and emotional dimension. If I didn’t know better, I’d almost think I was dreaming. And then, a week and a half ago (give or take), I found myself wondering if it wouldn’t be better to put an end to this pointless procession of meaningless days.
Don’t worry, you’re not reading a suicide note. I’m still here. After all, who’s going to keep the podcast going if I’m gone! (just kidding… mostly). Nor is this a plea for help: I’m already seeking counseling, and I have more than enough support from my incredible family. I’ve surfaced a little bit from the downward spiral – enough, at least, to write this piece. Depression really isn’t something you can honestly talk about until you get a little healthy perspective. It’s also something that shrinks in dimension whenever you talk (or write) about it honestly. Seriously, if you’re struggling with feelings of meaninglessness, hopelessness, and depression, I recommend you start writing about it – every day if you can, and as often as possible if not. It doesn’t have to be polished or even sensible: just the act of externalizing those negative thought patterns gives you the ability to see through them. Otherwise, your head becomes an echo chamber that constantly drags you down.
I’m writing this for many of the same reasons I wrote Ace: to share my experience, and to assure those struggling that they are not alone. Unlike that piece, however, I am urging you to get help. Whether that’s the professional aid of a therapist or the support of a trusted friend or family member, reach out to those you know can and will help you. Don’t let others (or your own inner voice) tell you that you just need to tough it out – especially if you’re a guy. The phrase “boys don’t cry” is nothing more than a bitter, hateful lie. You’re a human being first and foremost, and to be human is to laugh, smile, frown, sneeze, and yes, cry. Today’s definition of masculinity, though improving, is still a toxic mix of stereotypes and broken idealizations. If you need help, get help. If you want help, get help. If you think you might need help, get help and work it out later. None of us can go it alone, and there is no shame in seeking or accepting a helping hand.
I’m not writing this from the top of some mountain where I’ve transcended the ups and downs of depression. If anything, I’m on the uphill slope, slowly trudging towards a summit I know will lead to another valley. Life gets better. That’s what people always say, right? For the longest time, I thought it was a lie. Then my life did get better. And then it got worse. Then it got better again. And worse again. And better…
But it’s still life.
Life, good or bad, is better than death.
Death will never get better.
And while there’s life, there’s hope.
Do you wish to continue?
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, don’t pretend it’s not important. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline today and get the help you need today.
The Trevor Project is “the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people under 25.”