Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I Still Don't Understand It

I started this entry months ago and finishing it has been difficult because it admits something that I don't every like to admit: weakness and vulnerability. But reading about friends struggles have made my personal struggles particularly poignant and I want to share my experiences on this subject in part to let them know that they aren't alone, in part to help someone who might read this, and in part at a catharsis.

I've written about my sometimes turbulent upbringing, but it wasn't all bad. I sometimes wonder if it was really bad at all or if it was all my perceptions and just in my head. Part of the point of my recollections is to remind me that at times it was actually bad and that I had some reasons to feel fear, anger, hatred, and sadness. But I don't know if it really justified the sometimes overwhelming feelings of loneliness, unhappiness, and hopelessness that I remember growing up with.

I remember often crying myself asleep as a child. I felt unloved. I was incredibly unhappy and didn't foresee anything ever changing and wishing I could die. I remember thinking about suicide. My dad had a huge Bowie knife that I'd imagine pushing up under my rib cage into my heart. He had a 32 caliber pistol in the top of his closet. We had rifles and shotguns around the house along with ammunition and none of it was locked up. Taking my life would have been easy and part of me really wanted life to just end. I knew I could do it and the main thing that stopped me was the sheer futility of the act.

It seemed to me that God had perpetrated a cruel joke. My Mormon upbringing had taught me that I'd always existed as a spirit child of God and that my spirit was eternal and could never die. I learned that life was a time of forgetting and probation where I was being tested to see if I was worthy of the greatest gift God could give: becoming a god myself. There were really only two alternatives, exaltation and godhood or eternal damnation as a servant of the exalted in various degrees of lower glory. In the grand scheme of things, there was no escape. Suicide was just an illusory escape from a mortal torment to an everlasting one. As soon as I died, I knew I'd wake up in the spirit world feeling just as unhappy but with the bitter knowledge that I was now damned for all eternity. I found myself wondering why God didn't leave open the option to just cease to exist. I found it a bitter pill to just have to be long suffering, not only for this life, but forever. Instead of providing comfort, my religion made me feel even more hopeless; it was like a grand eternal game that I just couldn't win. I thought that if God really loved us then he'd give us the opportunity to just end it all and blink out of existence.

The greatest blessing in Mormonism is to have an eternal family. However, in our family we prayed together daily for harmony in the home and rarely seemed to experience it. The thought of spending forever with my family usually didn't seem like a blessing. One of the happiest days of my life was the day I left for college at BYU. I had hurried through high school in 3 years mainly so I could escape my house and unhappy public school experience and move out on my own. My mother was crying as I got into the car with my dad to make the 1000 mile trek to Utah and it was a struggle to keep from laughing out loud and busting out a huge smile because I was so incredibly happy to finally be making my escape.

College, by and large, was great. My social awkwardness still left me with few friends, but being in control, studying what I wanted to study, and setting my own direction felt great. I associated with the people I wanted to and did the things I wanted to do when I wanted to do them. I even became very marginally active in church for quite some time. Strangely, to me, I felt very happy on Sunday mornings reading my scriptures with the dorms to myself while everyone else was at church. It seemed strange to me at the time that I felt more spiritual and comfortable in the quiet of my room than I ever did in the meetings.

I exercised regularly, played intramural sports, and carried a very heavy load of engineering classes while keeping my grades up to maintain my academic scholarship. I didn't date much because I'd left my first true love back in Iowa. I was at peace, but I don't know if I was very happy. I do remember times of extreme sadness and loneliness however. I remember one instance where I was so depressed that it felt like I simply couldn't get any lower. In the depths of such sadness I found myself on my knees praying and I felt a wash of warmth and elation flood through my body. This had to be the burning in my bosom, the Comforter, that I'd learned about in the scriptures. It felt like pure love and convinced me that God loved me and cared.

I experienced peace and comfort from reading the scriptures and pondering how I could apply them to myself to be happy and to make those around me happy. My religious experiences drew me back into church activity even though they rarely provided the same comfort as my private studies and after two years of college I left on a church mission to Bolivia.

From time to time I post recollections of my mission. It was very hard in every way imaginable, but I had a sense of purpose and it gave me a confidence and brightness that I'd never had before. I lost a lot of my fear of social situations and matured into an adult and gained experiences that helped form me into who I am today. I suppose that it helped that I completely believed in what I was doing and teaching without any doubt. It was no cake walk, but I loved the experience and was proud of my service.

But through it all, I struggled to find happiness. In some ways I think I'm a "can do" person who tries to find the positive in things and tries to make the best of situations. I've tried to focus on things that are within my control and ignore those that aren't. So, why have I always struggled with these periods of unhappiness and gloominess?

A few years ago a friend related that anti-depressants had literally saved his and his wife's lives. This surprised me because he seemed like such a positive, happy guy. But apparently he struggled with deep depression and managed it successfully with happy pills. I wondered if they'd help me and he encouraged me to talk to my doctor.

Over the years, our society has become much more accepting of happiness through better pharmacology. I've read many articles explaining the dangers of depression along with the little 10 question pop quizzes to assess whether you might be depressed. I always felt dismissive of them because the quizzes seemed like they were designed to diagnose everyone as depressed. At least they always seemed to show me to be moderately to deeply depressed every time I took one. Since I felt normal I figured that it was just part of a publicity campaign to sell more drugs.

This spring, when marathon season was over, I felt burned out. I figured it was just from the effort of a long, aggressive training season and the stresses of work and family. But I just felt no motivation to train, I was constantly tired, and all I wanted to do was sleep or watch TV. I'd be riding along on my motorcycle and wonder what would happen if I crashed and realize I didn't really care. I'd come home and not want to walk through the door. I felt pretty hopeless and sad and like I was sleep walking through life. I felt so crappy that I went to the doctor because I was convinced I was anemic, or had diabetes, or hypothyroidism or some other physical malady that was causing me to feel so bad. I just felt like crap, all the time. I didn't want to come home, I didn't want to go to work, I really didn't want to do anything. I was just going through the motions and figured something must be wrong.

The doctor listened to my symptoms and ordered up blood work but then he said, "What do we do if the blood work comes back and everything is normal?" I said that I didn't know, but that I guess I'd just have to get used to the fact that the way I was feeling was normal. He asked if I'd considered that I might be depressed. He started to say there are no tests they can do, but then stopped and pulled up a list of questions on his PDA. I laughed as he started to ask the questions because I knew where it was going. They were the same questions I'd answered before and they showed the same thing they always had. I was depressed.

I left the office with a some samples and a prescription for an anti-depressant. The next day the doctor called to tell me that all my blood work was normal, but I already guessed that it would be and had already filled the prescription. Fortunately, previous conversations with my friend and reading had left me with at least the intellectual understanding that the drugs might help me. I also suffer from migraines, so I'm particularly aware of how altered brain chemistry can affect mood and perceptions.

The pharmacist and the enclosed literature suggested that it might take several weeks before I'd feel any difference. It didn't. Within just a few days I felt much better. Things didn't bother me as much and, it's difficult to describe, but things just felt normal. But normal without feeling down. I felt alive normal. Not magically happy or anything, but the things that I thought were making me unhappy no longer seemed to matter. I had more perspective and things felt good, rather than hopeless.

My family doesn't see any difference. That bugged me at first because I thought surely everyone could tell. I kept waiting for someone to notice or comment. But I think that the main thing that changed was my internal view of the world and how I perceived it. I guess my behaviors, good and bad, are ingrained, but I feel better.

After a little while, the blues came back, and when I went in for a prescription refill I increased my dosage. Things evened out again, but the drugs have a niggling side effect for me; they make it difficult for me to have an orgasm and in fact make sex much less pleasurable. I've been feeling so good that recently I tried cutting the dosage back. Sex returned to being great, but I slowly drifted back down into a deep depression. All of a sudden things that had receded into the background emerged front and center and once again took on a significance that they had ceased to have for while. I still felt normal and my feelings seemed legitimate and I found myself wondering if the anti-depressants weren't masking legitimate issues that were the real source of my unhappiness. But I resumed my normal dosage and the feelings receded. Maybe those feelings weren't so objective as they seemed.

This is so weird and part of what I struggle with. Part of me feels weak for needing anti-depressants. Shouldn't I just be able to control my emotional balance on my own? With all I've accomplished, mastering my own emotional climate shouldn't be beyond me, should it? But then, I also realize that I have to wear glasses to see clearly. If what the medical community claims is true, and depression is a manifestation of an imbalance in my brain chemistry, then I'd be a fool to not use the drugs. It would be like not wearing glasses when I need them or for a diabetic to not take required insulin. Feelings seem real. Are they? It seems strange that this since of "I" can be so influenced by a little white pill.

So, that is where I'm at right now. I'm resigned to taking a little pill each night to prevent a state of mind that I'd grown accustomed to for my whole life and trying to learn a new normal. And I'm thinking that the second half of my life seems much more hopeful than the first half did. I just wish that I'd taken that step 20+ years ago.

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