Life, Only Moderately Messed Up, part 2: Getting Help

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post, “Life, only moderately messed up: understanding (my own) high-functioning depression” that was widely shared and appreciatively received. This is a somewhat overdue update to that post, and intended very much in the same spirit, both as a way to process some challenging experiences in my life through writing, and as a way to signal to people that I’m someone they can talk with about these issues.

pills

Writing that post two years ago is one of the most important things I’ve done, because it’s opened conversations with friends, family and students that would not have happened otherwise, allowing people to approach me to talk about depression and allowing me to share my experiences with them and add them to my support structure.

The TL:DR; of that post is as follows:
– I’ve been a high-functioning depressive most of my adult life
– I wanted to come out as someone living with depression so friends would know and help me cope, and so students and others could approach me to talk about these issues
– High functioning depression is hard to recognize because it often isn’t externally visible, leading people to live with it, instead of seeking treatment.

It’s that last point I want to talk about here.

Part of the reason I wrote that post was to make it more likely that I’d seek counseling or try antidepressants the next time I felt moderately depressed. That’s not what happened.

In October of 2015, my wife Rachel told me that she wasn’t happy in our marriage and that we needed to seek counseling. We did, but by late November, it was clear that our problems weren’t easy ones to fix, and that we were in for a rough road ahead. Other factors intervened – my promotion process at MIT took a major step backward, and I started thinking seriously about leaving MIT. I left the board of an NGO I’d spent a huge amount of time and energy advising in a way that was deeply hurtful to me. With these things happening all at once, the days growing shorter and the winds colder, I found myself – almost overnight – in a very dark place.

In my previous post, I wrote, “…I am deeply fortunate that my depression is something that’s not life threatening. But that’s allowed me to gloss over long stretches of my life when I’ve not been my best, where daily life is a heavy lift.”

This time, and all of a sudden, my depression was life threatening. I started experiencing long bouts of suicidal ideation, detailed thoughts about how I might end my life. I wasn’t especially scared that I was going to act on these impulses, but intense thoughts of suicide are no fun at all, and I recognized that they were a symptom I needed to address before they wore me down and turned into something more dangerous.

And so I got help. My physician got me on an SSRI and, when the first one came with some unpleasant side effects, got me on another one very quickly. A very dear friend, hearing me talk about suicide, gave me the best intervention I could imagine. She told me:

“I love you.
You have been here before and you know you’re not always going to feel this way.
If you decide you need to go, talk to me so that your decision doesn’t end up ruining the lives of the people you love.”

I’m not sure it’s the best generic speech to talk someone off a ledge, but it worked well for me. And, critically, she introduced me to her therapist, who’s the first counselor I have felt understood where I was coming from, that I didn’t want to regress to childhood and heal decades of hurt, but needed some acute, immediate help in coping with the challenges of my life.

I got better quickly. Within a month, I was able to help Rachel through a challenging trip to Texas to visit a sick relative. Within two months, I felt significantly better than I had before my life started to go off the rails in October. By March, I found myself coming to the realization that SSRIs and therapy are probably part of the toolkit – along with walking, weightlifting, and a marvelous circle of friends around the world – that helps me harness my quirky brain (and we ALL have quirky brains) in productive and healthy directions.

I was high functioning before. I am higher functioning now. And that’s important, because life inevitably includes circumstances that are beyond your control.

On April 1st, Rachel asked me for a divorce. We are now in the process of moving her and Drew to a new house and diving our books, our art, and the physical and financial detritus of 23 years together. More importantly, we’re doing so in a way that we hope to break the script of most divorces. We’re committed to staying good friends, to spending time together with our son, and to keeping our many friends in the Berkshires and elsewhere from having to choose between the two of us. We’re trying very hard to stay on the same side, the side that recognizes that people grow and change, and that sometimes you continue to love someone but need not to be partnered with them. It’s hard work, and we don’t always get it right. But I’m starting to have the previously inconceivable thought that there’s life after losing the partner I’ve shared my entire adulthood with, and that the new life that follows divorce could be as wonderful as the life that preceded it.

But here’s the key bit: I would not have been able to handle this divorce if I were still moderately messed up. I would not have the resilience I’ve been able to display, the ability to be kind to someone who’s (understandably, necessarily and unintentionally) hurt me so badly. I would not be able to act with grace, to be the father my son needs me to be, to keep listening to and supporting my students at a time when I need so much support. I would not have survived this transition if I had not – at my darkest moment last year – gotten the help I needed.

And so I have a request. If you read my earlier post on high-functioning depression – two years ago, today or any time in between – and it resonated for you, please get help. Maybe that’s drugs and therapy, which worked for me. Maybe it’s yoga or running or weightlifting. Maybe it’s meditation, or prayer or co-counseling. Maybe it’s a practice of talking with a friend every day about how you’re feeling. What I’m asking is that you don’t continue accepting a reality in which you are high functioning, but far from as whole and resilient as you could be.

I’m asking you not to do what I did for 25 years.

Not just because it’s such a fucking waste of time to lose so many days to that feeling of fighting your way through a vat of molasses to get through the tasks of the day. Not just because being sad and scared and lonely slowly erodes your sense of self and prevents you from seeing yourself as the marvel you are. But because life is going to kick you in the gut sometime, and being able to weather that blow and get up again is hard to do even when you’re whole.

We don’t get to choose what happens to us. We do get to choose how we react to it. And we can choose to prepare ourselves for that kick in the gut, to make sure we’re as strong and graceful as resilient as we are capable of being.

As with my previous post, this isn’t meant as a cry for help – I’m doing pretty well, thanks very much. My family, many of my friends, my students and staff have been wonderful about helping me through this transition… as has my beloved ex, which is something I couldn’t have imagined being part of a divorce. I wanted to share these thoughts because I’m so grateful for the dozens of people who came out of the woodwork to counsel me through my divorce, to tell me that it will get better. I wanted to share with my friends so they know it’s okay to talk to me about what’s going on, that I’m okay – and Rachel’s okay, and Drew too. And I wanted to invite you – whether I know you or not – to reach out if you need someone to talk to about these issues.


Also published on Medium.

This entry was posted in ideas. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Life, Only Moderately Messed Up, part 2: Getting Help

  1. Debbie Dilley says:

    Ethan, I vividly remember reading your post from a couple of years ago, and I remember saying “that’s me, someone else is like me”. I’m glad that you are going through this process and are so open about it. I’m going through something similar but not by choice….my body is tired of my brain being the one in control and I’m in the middle of a war. I’m also on meds for the first time….which is such a strange experience in general. Much love and hugs to you!

  2. Pingback: pinboard May 14, 2016 — arghh.net

  3. Alanna says:

    The end of a marriage is terribly painful, and I am glad you have good support in facing it. I hope all of you can come through it happy and emotionally intact.

    I spent most of 2007-2008 in a fog of postpartum depression. There were so many genuinely bad things happening in my life – mainly my father’s steep decline into dementia – that I thought my feelings were appropriate. Sad and scared and lonely seemed like the correct response to my life. The depression resolved on its own as my baby got older, but it was as you rightly point out such a ridiculous fucking waste of human life to be so miserable. I could have faced the actual bad in my life so much better if I had been functioning on all systems.

  4. Nikita Katenga-Kaunda says:

    This may sound selfish, but I’m glad I’m not the only one who goes through dark patches. At times, reading your post was almost akin to reading a confession of my own life. It can be horrible, that dark void that offers no semblance of hope. I go through patches of it from time to time, but less so these days in comparison to the past.

    I must say it is incredibly heartening and inspiring how you are handling the divorce. It must be a very painful thing, but it’s good that you’re being resilient. I agree with you when you say being miserable robs us of what little time we have.

    Keep your head up :)

  5. Kathy says:

    It requires so much energy to mask depression and anxiety. If I could do things over, I would have asked for help sooner and stopped acting like I was fine. I’m glad you are doing better and thanks for talking about it.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I wish I trusted medical science’s understanding of the brain, and questionable interests of the pharma industry more than I do. I’d be interested in your opinions on this essay (and/or the book on which it’s based) http://harpers.org/archive/2007/05/manufacturing-depression/
    since the drugs seem to be helping you in ways they never actually did for me.

Comments are closed.