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.

 

Nearly Winter In State College

Golden hued white against the gradient halfblue
Comet tails of the anthropocene
Jets arc up out of Baltimore and DC
The glint of their skins lost in the crystalline winter southern sky
Over the Appalachians
Altitude so great as to become an abstraction
Passengers plying their way to Chicago, Denver or Los Angeles
Christmas presents wrapped and boxed in the hold
And on earth, at my kitchen table
I look out on the snow-covered lawns, breathing deeply
Banana bread and coffee fill the air

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.

Different Soil

The land heaves to meet the sky
An arch of sandstone and limestone
Washed away by a quarter billion years’ rain

Among the scarred hilltops and ridged remnants
In a green valley in the wilds of Penn’s Woods
I sense the transience of my position

Where I come from I was certain
Of many things which are just as untrue
The words, clinging to the heels of my feet as I tread Iowa Avenue’s sidewalk

As you breathe, there, you feel them
Words pass through the membrane of your lungs
Dissolve in the blood and cross a barrier to saturate your being

Breathing here, the oxygen is the same
Knowledge and wisdom flow through the valley
But I miss the words

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.

Differences Are Interesting

My wife and I just moved from Iowa to Pennsylvania.  I was born in far northern New York, but we moved to Iowa when I was only a few months old.  Although I’ve spent time in Europe and West Africa, I have never lived anywhere but Iowa for more than five months.  I’m finding that what I miss the most is, obviously, seeing my close friends nearly every day, being able to visit my parents any time, and running in to people on campus who I know whenever I walk around.

I know that many of these things will change with time – I will know more people here, I’ll make new friendships, but my parents will still be far away.  For me, that is really difficult.

I grew up in a small university city, and knew every road, location, pattern, sound, smell, image, time and context in intimate detail.  I had walked or biked nearly everywhere in Iowa City, and that was comfortable.  The sense of place and my sense of myself were deeply integrated.  One of the most valuable things for me about going to school at Iowa was that in my spare time, I would get in my car and explore Johnson, Cedar, Washington, Henry, Lee, Linn and Iowa counties in extreme detail.  I could drive out of town in any direction, for 200 miles, take any turn, and come back in to town from any direction I chose.  I would often depart town in the morning on a Sunday and come back late at night, my pump primed to write new poetry for class the next day.  Now I’m in a new small university city, but all those deep interconnections are missing.  It will take a long time (possibly the rest of my life) to rebuild them here.

I like this place, I like the few people I already know here.  I like the mountains, but I miss the gently rolling plains and the comfort of the way all the streets and roads are perfectly aligned to the cardinal directions.  I miss knowing interesting historical details about the place I live, like why “Blackhawk Mini Parkis called that.  I miss having a beer at Bo James or The Mill with friends. I miss driving past the airport where I learned to fly and remembering cleaning airplanes there with good friends who left town in the other direction a few years back.

I miss knowing that if someone had the last name Yoder or Swartzendruber or Stutsman, they were from the area.

I miss Kevin Olish, who died last year, suddenly, and was a familiar face and interesting guy at the Co-Op, always talkative, always with something interesting to say.  Once, I was wearing a UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs t-shirt my dad had given me.  Kevin said, “I used to live in Santa Cruz, nice town!  Expensive town.  I like it here better.”

I’m sure I will get to know all sorts of characters and characteristics here in Happy Valley.  Over time, I’ll come to appreciate the unique aspects of life here.  One of the things I like most so far is how genuinely nice and helpful most of the people I have talked to here are.  That seems like a platitude, but it’s not.  It’s deeply not.  People here are, as far as I can tell, mostly just nice all the way to the core.

Identity In Transit

In my last job, one of the things that kept me up at night was the notion of electronic identity “in transit” or “on the wire.”  Specifically, I was concerned with protecting the electronic credentials of our customers from any kind of eavesdropping, spoofing or tampering as they were transiting the network at the moment a person entered them in a web form, login box on a computer, on their smart phone, or anywhere else they used their officially issued username and password.

Now I find myself in physical transit, from Iowa to Pennsylvania.  Along with that transition comes the need to re-prove who I am to a number of different agencies and institutions.  Those agencies are rightfully concerned with the prevention of any kind of tampering or spoofing of my identity in physical transit.  Along with that concern comes the need for rigorous forms of identity proofing and vetting in order to obtain new credentials.

Because I do this for a living, I knew the kinds of checks that were going to be required to prove my identity in my new location.  I was atypically well-prepared.  Before the movers arrived, I carefully packed all my incredibly precious, practically irreplaceable, highly combustible paper government-issued proofs of identity in a special box in the center of my car’s back seat.  Like a baby.  I knew that the checks to prove who I am to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would be burdensome, but I never really had the opportunity to experience them first-hand, and all at once, before.  Here are my experiences so far.  Please note that these experiences are likely nearly identical in every state in the union (thank goodness I didn’t move to California or my ability to drive would have been in question and I would have had to get fingerprinted!)

The Drivers License

I started with what appears to be the “intermediate certificate” in the trust chain rooted in US citizens’ birth certificates and social security cards: the state-issued drivers license.  This form of physical identity has the following attributes:

  1. It’s highly vetted
  2. It’s issued by a state agency
  3. It has your photo and signature on it
  4. It has your address of record on it
  5. Its issuance is rooted in more deeply-entrenched forms of identification
  6. It’s not so irreplaceable that you can’t carry it with you everywhere, like you can’t with a birth certificate
  7. You must carry it with you everywhere to effectively operate in the modern world
  8. You can’t get one if you don’t already operate effectively in the modern world

As such, most other forms of daily identity proof are rooted in the state-issued drivers license.  To obtain this, I had to drive 10 miles out of town (good thing I have a car and an existing drivers’ license) to a small building where I had to write a check (no cash or credit accepted – are government agencies even permitted to not accept US currency?) to the PennDOT and surrender my Iowa license, present a Social Security card (why?) and any of the items from list A and two of the items from list B:

A

  1. Birth Certificate with raised embossed seal (not a copy)
  2. Certificate of US Citizenship
  3. Certificate of Naturalization
  4. Valid and original US passport (not a copy)

B

  1. Tax records
  2. Lease agreements
  3. Mortgage documents
  4. W2 form
  5. Current weapons permit (US citizen only)
  6. Current utility bills

Note that were I any less than a fully employed and housed person of good means (I carry a passport, and can afford a safe deposit box in which to keep my social security card, birth certificate and passport) I would have an extremely difficult time obtaining a license or photo ID in Pennsylvania (which, were it not due to the action of the ACLU, would be required to vote in an election here.)  If I didn’t have an Internet connection or at least access to a phone, I wouldn’t have been able to determine what I needed to take with me beforehand, and might have needed to make multiple trips, in the car which I thankfully own and am licensed to drive.

Luckily, the address on my check was not required to match my Pennsylvania address of residence, doubly so due to the tear in the space time continuum that would have been caused by identity in transit issue number two:

The Bank

I like credit unions- they exist to serve the membership.  The credit union I currently use in Iowa is a community credit union, meaning it has a community charter, and anyone in the area (a huge area) can use it.  I can still use it because I have existing business with them.  I want to get a new account at a credit union in Pennsylvania because I don’t want to pay ATM fees for withdrawing cash here, and I need to get a safe deposit box to put my incredibly precious and practically irreplaceable, highly combustible paper government-issued identity documents in.  The credit union here does not have a community charter, which means I need to have proof of employment at my new employer to get an account.  That’s fine, I can just do that when I start work at my new employer.  Here’s the fun one though: the credit union asked for my Pennsylvania drivers’ license.  Imagine if the drivers’ license office had decided that the address on my check (no cash, credit or Trobrian Island yams accepted!) needed to match my official Pennsylvania address of record.

Car Title

These next two things are not technically personal identity issues, although they deal with the state-issued identity of my car, which is almost as tightly controlled as the state-issued identity of me as a person.  When I went to the credit union in Iowa (which owns the lien on my car) to ask them about transferring the title to Pennsylvania, they said “don’t move to Pennsylvania.  Anywhere but Pennsylvania.  That is the worst state to transfer a title to.”  I’m not kidding, that’s verbatim.  So, clearly that’s not going to be a problem.

Vehicle Inspection

Iowa does not require any kind of periodic vehicle inspection (this shows in many of the cars on the road) and does not have what the EPA considers to be an air pollution problem, so does not require California Air Resources Board (CARB) certification.  You can legally (and actually) buy a car in Iowa that does not comply with CARB specifications.  If you take your car to Pennsylvania when you move, it’s MY2008 or newer, and it doesn’t have CARB certification, it must have over 7,500 miles on the odometer or you are out of luck, I guess.  Perhaps you could just drive to the King of Prussia Mall a few times to run up the clock before your 20 days to register your car expires.  Of course, in your formerly non-coastal, more-polluting, non-CARB-certified, extra-dinosaur-burning-mobile, that would just cause more pollution, not less.

Neighborly Identity

For the past week, we have had numerous neighbors in our condo association stop by to say “hi” – this was nice the first few times it happened.  Now it is becoming clear that they are investigating whether we are going to depreciate their property values and/or throw wild parties all night.  We are a prematurely elderly, workaholic grad student/professional couple with no kids.  Hopefully they will figure that out and stop ringing our doorbell while I’m on conference calls.

The Grocery Store

Loyalty programs abound!  They are all slightly different and all have weird different rules.  To obtain today’s lowest price on spaghetti sauce, I had to create an on-line identity at the new and different (to me) grocery store and print out a temporary loyalty card on my laser printer, which I bought at Staples, with a discount, using another loyalty card, with another on-line identity.

I understand the need to do many of these things, even most of them.  On the other hand, they are extraordinarily onerous and not at all customer-friendly.  In some cases (voter ID laws) they are blatantly and intentionally disenfranchising of certain segments of society.  That’s a problem.

Update (4/13/2013) – Title and Registration

I don’t know what the credit union thought would be so difficult about getting the title and registration transferred.  Within a couple days of me sending a form to them asking them to send the title to Pennsylvania, I had a new title issued in Pennsylvania, plus my registration and license plate.  It was probably the easiest thing to do yet.