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:
- No one likes me
- No one could ever like me
- 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.