My Friend Carl

I met Carl when I was working as a systems programmer on the “Directory and Authentication” team at The University of Iowa. It was the summer that the Iowa River overflowed its banks and we hauled computers up the hill from the Lindquist Center to higher ground. We had all relocated (permanently, as it turned out) from our old offices in that 1970s brutalist concrete bunker up to the formerly “dead mall” up the hill. My new office was a cubicle perched atop a piece of steel plate covering the old escalator shaft on the second floor of what had been JC Penneys.  You could feel the steel flex when you walked on top of it.

Part of our task at this job was to do provisioning of enterprise services. Occasionally some new person who needed early access to things would get flagged and we’d create their HawkID ahead of time and pre-provision access to groups by sticking override codes in our provisioning database. Carl was such a person – a senior IT security administrator – and I was on-call that week so I got to provision his early access. The day he arrived, something told me he’d be a cool dude, and I always wanted to make good impressions on the IT security folks. I walked his username and initial password over to him directly. He was really happy with that and we became friends immediately.  We were the ‘vintage 1978’ dudes.

Over the years, I took many long walks at lunch time or in the afternoon with him. We’d IM each other and if something at work was pissing us off, we’d say ‘fuck it’ and go for a walk and talk. That always helped us both.  When I moved away from Iowa City we drifted apart over the years.  We’d IM occasionally and he’d share his pics from his trips to Japan and Scotland.  I didn’t go back to Iowa City for a long time.  The last time we saw each other was probably three years ago.

This afternoon I got a text from a friend who worked with him: I should call back, urgently.  I called him and he gave me the news that Carl had been found dead in a park this morning.  Five minutes later another friend called to give me the same news.  I felt my heart drop into my feet.  I felt dizzy and disconnected from reality.  I still feel that way.  I will probably feel that way for days.  Life is too short and too precious.  That seems like a cliché, but it is not.  Take the time to connect with dear people and to live each moment – we don’t have that many of either.  Here’s to you, my friend. Safe travels beyond the gray curtain.  *hugs*

Soup to Nuts

I’ve had severe chronic depression since I was twelve years old. The warning signs were probably there before that, but twelve was when I first remember knowing what despair feels like.

Several people either in our family or close to it died in close proximity to each other that year.  The winter of 1990, I started compulsively washing my hands.  I was obsessed with germs, cancer, chemicals and death.  I was sure I would get cancer from some toxic chemical I was somehow exposed to.  I went to a child psychologist who prescribed Tricyclic antidepressants, which seemed to work, but made me very hungry all the time.  I binged on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  I had been a very skinny little kid, and now I started to gain weight.

The next year, in junior high, I started to become ashamed of my weight, and started to wear baggy sweatpants and hoodies because they were comfortable and easy.  A girl in my math class loudly told another girl that “girls don’t like Nick because Nick doesn’t like girls.”  I don’t remember what I did to make her say this.  I was genuinely not interested in anyone of any kind in junior high.  I went on antidepressants in the winter.  The fall of my second year in junior high, there was a mass shooting on the campus of The University of Iowa, and I remember riding in the car past the Physics building where it happened, on my way home that night, the snow quietly reflecting the police car, ambulance and fire truck lights on Iowa ave.

I took part in various talk therapy regimes in high school, none of which seemed to really help my mood or cognitive patterns.  I tried different antidepressants, and eventually ended up on Prozac, which seemed to have fewer negative side effects than the tricyclics.  I got a good group of friends, some of us computer people, some band, some journalists or debaters.  We pretty much all smoked pot, and that helped quite a bit.

The fall of my first year in college, I ate a pot brownie and had a week-long dissociative episode.  I no longer wanted anything to do with pot after that, and ended up having to get back on stronger levels of antidepressants.  I did not live in the dorms in college, instead living in a condo with a good friend, very far away from downtown.  As a result, I did not have a normal social life during college.  My friends were all coworkers, most of whom were 10-20 years older than me, at my wonderful job at a public policy center.  They were and are absolutely wonderful people.  Working there was the high point of my college experience.  I gained valuable IT skills there that are the basis for my current career.  In college, I did not take part in the usual underage/heavy drinking, but man did I eat  a lot of pie.  By the end of college,  I weighed 295 pounds.  I had never dated anyone, either in high school or college.  By this time, I didn’t think that anyone liked me or could ever like me.  My predominant cognitive untruths were:

  1. No one likes me
  2. No one could ever like me
  3. My body doesn’t matter (disdain for the flesh)

The last year of college, I did behavioral talk therapy with a very kind guy named Len.  He helped identify these cognitive patterns and we talked about how they could not be true.  The spring of my last year in college, I took a handful of magic mushrooms, and found that I could understand and visualize math in a way I had not been able to before.  I believe this was the beginning of my emergence from depression.  It took another three years of thinking about my negative cognitive patterns before something finally clicked.

After graduation, I got an entry-level job in IT at the university.  I was very fat.  I had still never dated anyone.  I was out of breath doing the most minor tasks.  In 2003, I took a photo of myself with my Nokia camera phone, and saw how fat I was.  I did not want to die early, fat, having never had any real loving relationship with anyone beyond my immediate family.  I threw the Prozac in the trash and bought a bicycle.  I started biking around the trailer park where I lived, every night, first for 15 minutes, then 20 minutes, then 45 minutes.  I started to walk, and then to run.  I started the Atkins diet.

By 2004, I weighed 160 pounds.  I had lost roughly 140 pounds in 10 months.  I was running every day.

In the fall of 2006, I took flying lessons and started to date.  My first three dating experiences were a fizzle, a very scary obsessive and toxic relationship, and then a superficial and uncomfortable short-lived thing.  In 2007, I got my private pilot’s certificate from the FAA, and started to work at the airport part-time.  I got stronger on that job, and flying improved my mind, my body, and my relationships.  I got a wonderful set of friends who I am proud to call friends to this day.  I met the woman who would eventually bless me with the honor of her partnership in marriage – a strong, smart, beautiful, relaxed, scientific, iconoclastic, confident and funny woman.

In 2010, I did something about my problems with my body image and had a lot of ugly excess skin removed from my stomach.  I didn’t do this for anyone but me, and it was worth it.  I was still working out every day, and I hadn’t had a need for antidepressants in seven years.  In 2012, I got married.  I was struggling with wanting to advance in my job, and not getting to where I wanted to with that job fast enough.  The late fall of 2012 brought the Sandy Hook shootings, and I remember feeling very strong depression for the first time in years, walking around outside our apartment building, smoking a cigarette and feeling that the world was a terrible place.  Then a friend and mentor called and offered me a job – what I thought was my dream job.

In early 2013, we moved to Pennsylvania for the job.  The job forced me to grow and learn in ways I cannot fully comprehend.  It challenged me.  It was a wonderful team, but we were up against truly insurmountable institutional dynamics.  We could not win.  I started to wake up at 5:30 a.m. without an alarm clock, then 5, then 4:30, then 3:00 a.m. – worried about problems at work I could not solve.  My fight-or-flight reflexes were fully charged up nearly all the time.  I sensed real danger to my livelihood, and by the late winter of my second year at that job, I found myself at the top of a parking structure after work, looking at the mountains, and considering jumping off the parking ramp.  I knew I needed help.  I immediately went to my physician and got on Paxil for the anxiety and depression, and Lorazepam for the anxiety and sleep issues.  This helped a lot – and I sought out talk therapy, which also helped a lot.  I started to gain weight again.  I gained 20 pounds, and realized I needed a change.

In the spring of 2015, I weaned myself off of Paxil.  Getting off Paxil was interesting – I had another dissociative episode that was almost exactly like the time I ate the pot brownie in college.  I felt like I was walking around 10 feet behind myself for two weeks.

I got a job that allowed us to relocate to Colorado, a place we have both always wanted to live, and where some of our very best friends live.  The sun, the less stressful job, the natural beauty and outdoor recreation, and the fact that Denver is further south all have strongly helped my mood.  My battle with depression will never be over, but now I recognize when I am at a low point, and I can do something about it.

 

Pain, Depression and The Winter

I recently took a work trip to the San Francisco Bay Area, to attend a conference.  The trip, the conference, the people, were all great.  I enjoyed it, it was uneventful.  A number of people at the conference started to fall ill toward the end of the week.  The day after I returned home, a Saturday, I got a high fever and started to have flu-like symptoms.  I stayed in bed that weekend and the first two days of the next week.  The aches, pain and fever of the flu turned into a sort of general late-fall malaise that stuck with me the rest of the week.  By Friday afternoon, it was warmer weather (the 50s), but rainy.  I was so worn out I had to go and work from home – I could not be in the high energy environment of the office.

Earlier in the week, my wonderful and caring wife had left town for a conference of her own.  I was home alone, and started to feel really low.  On Saturday, it was cloudy, colder and gray.  I woke up with a terrible cough and took some cough syrup.  I started to get odd, sharp pains in my neck, back and left arm, very sharp and atypical for my normal migraine symptoms.  I thought I was having a bad reaction to the cough syrup.  The pain was so unusual, I did not identify it as migraine related pain.  The pains would last for 5-10 minutes, and recur every 30-45 minutes.  This was like the worst ice cream headache you can imagine, but behind my left ear and eye, and in a way that’s almost indescribable, simultaneously very distant and immediate, like it was happening to someone else and being transmitted from them to me.  The pain was metallic and so intense I could taste and smell it.  In the afternoon, the weather changed rapidly, the wind started blowing, and it snowed.  Finally, at about 10 p.m., the pain was so unbearable I decided it must be migraine related.  I took my migraine meds and fell quickly asleep.  My migraines have always been tied to weather, so far as I can tell.

Today, Sunday, I awoke feeling better – it was a clear day.  By 10 a.m., the wind had really picked up.  I started to feel dread and panic.  Not depressed- downright panic and fear.  I took some deep breaths and decided to take a drive across the valley to calm my mind down.  That actually worked until the sharp, odd, intermittent pain that I had the day before returned.  I went home and took more migraine medication.  I fell into a deep, dark depressive funk.  All my lifelong friends, and my parents, were in Iowa.  My wife was away and I needed a hug terribly.  I felt I had made a very bad mistake leaving home to come work in Pennsylvania.  I wanted to run but couldn’t because the pain was so intense.

I came to a sudden realization: This panic, depression, fear and anxiety were all related to my migraine.  It was a mental manifestation of some neurochemical cascade that was in progress in my brain.  While I could not control it, I could try to understand it.  I had experienced a panic attack before, and my friend Ryan had picked me up from work and drove me around and talked to me to calm me down.  While few things in life are as terrifying as a panic attack when you have no one around to help you through the fear in a rational way, I had succeeded at understanding this reality.

I still find it incredibly strange and unfair that specific combinations of sunlight or lack thereof, heat or cold, and changes in atmospheric pressure and wind can trigger such intense chemical reactions in my brain and the rest of my body.  At times, I am nearly powerless before the cruel tricks of serotonin and norepinephrine.  This realization gives me more tools to fight back, so long as I can remember: it’s the genetics talking, and it will go away if I give it time.

I’m looking forward, intensely, to Thanksgiving with my wife and her family in our house.  I’m looking forward to driving home in December and spending a couple weeks with my parents and wife, and seeing old friends.

The Part of Me That Could Cry

All text and images copyright (c) 2013 by Nicholas Roy. All rights reserved. No duplication or reuse without written consent of the author.

Gilbert Street, Iowa City, Summer
Gilbert Street, Iowa City, Summer

I remember crying easily as a child. When a grandparent or family friend died, I remember crying for a long time. In high school, I remember sobbing in the stairwell because I got a C. I had a long bout with depression between the ages of 8 and 22.

By the time I was 25, I was dangerously overweight, from eating, from the depression. I remember thinking: I’m going to kill the part of me that is sad. I don’t know how I did it, other than to say that through some force of will, I stopped being depressed, and I lost about 140 lbs. I have kept the weight off and have not been depressed for over 10 years now.

Evening summer sky above an Iowa prairie
Evening summer sky above an Iowa prairie

This afternoon, I came the closest I have since been to falling back into that despair. My wonderful wife is across the ocean doing her research. I have not been able to hug her in over two months, and there is more than a month left before she is back. I’m in a new place, with a new job. The new job is the hardest I have ever had. I’ve easily been able to think my way out of tough spots in jobs before, but this new one challenges me in ways I have never been challenged before. I miss my wife, my parents and my friends.

The sun sets over an Iowa tallgrass prairie
The sun sets over an Iowa tallgrass prairie

This afternoon, I missed Skyping my wife because of a dumb problem at work that really isn’t a problem. I haven’t Skyped with her in nearly a week. I missed her going to bed by 13 minutes. I know, because I have the Facebook chat record to show it. I was driving home when she messaged saying she was going to bed. I was so angry at myself for missing this chance to see her face. I was so angry and so sad. I felt the welcome point of a dark gray cone of despair1 puncture my sternum from the outside, the point pressing against my heart. I felt the tears well up inside. I let out a muted shriek of disgust and pity.

And then it was gone. I did not cry. I could not cry. I had killed that part of myself in order to save the rest of me.

My Parents' Garden
My Parents’ Garden

1 Dark gray cones of despair are about 8 inches long, with a vertex angle of roughly 10 degrees.  They are nicely Gouraud shaded.  Yes, I saw the cone.  It was a “Donnie Darko” moment.