Seeking professional counseling for depression, while scary and upsetting, brings with it a small sense of hope and relief. It sounds cliché, but it’s true: people desperate for help don’t want to die—they want to live. I started seeing a psychologist for lifelong clinical depression in November, 2020. It had nothing to do with beer-virus, lockdown job-loss, or any of the other things people associate with the “year voted most likely to be suckiest year.” This was about wanting to shed that which the fictional virtuous sociopath Dexter Morgan called his “dark passenger.” Only instead of hurting others, mine only wanted to destroy me.
I managed to keep a growing depression suppressed for the last few years while working on my first published pieces, the Cascadia Fallen Trilogy. I’d work on my books (and the business support structure) as my low-paying, second full-time job when I got home every evening and every weekend. Looking back, it had become the latest form of escapism from what I thought was the source of my unhappiness—my marriage. You see, it’s hard enough for one depressed and angry person to participate in a relationship in a healthy way. But put two of them together? Well…it’s a miracle we’d stayed married for 27 years.
There is a TON of dirty laundry, and I’ve actually drafted this more times than I can count, airing it all. But maybe you all don’t want to hear all of that. And my family may not want to see all of it in a blog post. There is a challenge in making this porridge not too hot or too cold, but just right…
What it comes down to is this: in the last couple of years, I finally came to terms with a lot of my past and how badly it affected my current behaviors. I grew up in a volatile home, watching my middle brother and parents fight all the time. That brother and my mom were both suffering from severe depression and other mental issues, mostly the end-product of a tragedy from before I was born. I had a sister who drowned at the age of twenty-two months. The fights usually culminated in things being thrown, screaming, shoving, peeling car tires as they roared down the street in a plume of speeding smoke… When I was about 14 or 15, I held a hatchet to my own throat to try to get them to stop a brawl-in-progress. I walked on eggshells around that brother after his first suicide attempt. Years later I was home on leave from the Navy. In a fit of rage, he tried to choke me from behind while we were riding in a car. My mom refused to stop, which is a good thing. If she’d let us out of the car at that moment, one of us would’ve been killed.
I stayed in Washington State after I got out of the Navy because of my dysfunctional family. What I never realized was just how much anger and anxiety I’ve been living with ever since. I look back at my short temper as a father. Never violent, I just didn’t have patience with my kids. I wasn’t the kind of dad who took his kids fishing or taught them how to work on the car… The last few years of realizing things like that about myself only compounded the depression. I see my children’s own insecurities and issues and wonder how much of that is because I wasn’t a good father. They say regret is a prison in the past. But the door is wide open, and you have to choose to walk out of it on your own. Easier said than done.
Regarding fear and anxiety, that surfaces in the form of my ego. I’m sharper than the average tool, and my pride and arrogance in that is one of my greatest character flaws. So, if I’m in a situation where I can be embarrassed by someone else or look stupid, or someone tries to help me when I need it but don’t want it, I get angry. I was never one of the cool kids, so I’ve grown into a man with an innate fear of not being accepted—not liked as a cool dude or as a good friend, not loved as a father or husband. I felt….worthless.
Oh sure, I can fake it. Actually, I’m one of the funniest guys you’ll ever meet (he said arrogantly). I’m that guy at work everyone tasks to write the retirement roasts. I can be social and likeable when it is a crowd I already know. Comedy is pain. Don’t believe me? Talk to any comic, and they’ll confirm it. Professional jokes are born out of an “if we aint laughing, we’re crying” mindset. When Robin Williams killed himself, I thought, “Good for you for having the courage to end it.” I got it—or so I thought. (It turns out he had a debilitating neurological condition that was making his life a painful hell.) But know this: depressed people aren’t faking being depressed—they’re faking when they appear happy.
One last major factor in my depression thrived in the form of guilt and insecurity of abandoning my Christian faith. I had rejected the Christianity that I learned and lived in high school. I spent many years trying an eastern religion before finally settling on agnosticism. In 2004, I was down in Texas for my oldest brother’s funeral. The day I was supposed to fly back to Washington I found my mom dead in bed. My dad was in the hospital, his dementia being aggravated by a series of mini-strokes and lung cancer. (He died later that year). The day my mom died was the beginning of a long, slow loss of faith in all of those other belief systems. Over the course of time, I came to the conclusion that I’d abandoned God as a reaction to being angry with hypocrites and a greedy pastor at my church from my youth years.
Fast forward to the last few years: I felt trapped in my marriage. I was going to take the steps needed to fix myself, knowing I would dredge up regrets, fears… What I couldn’t do was force the other angry person in my marriage to fix herself. I had built up in my mind that the only possible path to being happy meant going through what would be a devastating divorce and living as a pauper—possibly broke and alone for the rest of my life. And I’d developed a crush on an Instagram friend in another state. I was sure that even if we weren’t meant to be together, that it was at least a sign I was ready to move on from my wife. I’d been discussing a lot of this with my therapist from mid-November until late December when the “big ugly conversation” finally happened.
On December 20th I’d announced to Facebook that I was dealing with depression and changing my profile name from my pen name to my real one. The next night, I pre-recorded my podcast session for an appearance on the Prepping 2.0 podcast (set for the 30th). We discussed this revelation and the importance of getting help. What people hearing that episode on the 30th did NOT know was this: three days earlier I called a suicide hotline. I had come clean on everything to my wife and family on the night after Christmas, thoroughly hurting everyone to what I thought was beyond repair.
On the 27th I was moving out, convinced I’d ruined everyone’s life with the revelation I wanted a divorce and had developed feelings for someone online. (In the months since, I’ve come to realize that crush mentality is a direct reflection of my insecurity about being unlovable. It was actually the second time I’d mentally strayed from my wife.) I felt completely and utterly worthless. There was nowhere else to go. I sank to that level of despair once more, on the 31st, a result of hearing some scary things come from my wife’s mouth. I thought I had driven her to take desperate actions, too. They say when you’re on the bottom, the only other way to go is up. Not true. You can go sideways forever. Or sit still. But taking no action or continuing to stew in your misery WILL keep you on the bottom indefinitely.
Fortunately for me, my son told my wife the same things I was saying: “It’s not all Dad. You have issues, too. You’re angry and mean and controlling.” His courage to tell his mother those things has saved her from herself and probably our marriage, too. She began to get her own counseling. Our conversations have revealed to me some of the mean things I’ve done and said in the past. One of the most painful of those was an admission in marital counseling in 2008 that I had married her for the wrong reasons, not because I was in love with her. She has also shared some real and horrible childhood trauma that explains her anger and mood.
We both continue to work on our fears and anxieties, trying to become happier people. As a result, we are now getting along better than ever, improving the marriage as a side benefit to working on ourselves. This woman has stuck with me through all of my anxieties, anger, fear, guilt and insecurities. She has consistently claimed that I am her “one and only”. I see her changes. She smiles. We talk and have laughs. She is learning to let go of being too angry and controlling and micro-managing of everything in her environment. And she is willing to go along with a bold career change I’m considering, because she knows how much it would help my own mental health. We are living together again, continuing to prioritize our own individual happiness and good communication as the method of learning to have a truly happy “rest-of-our-lives.”
Here is my biggest takeaway from getting regular counseling: almost all of our negative emotions can be summed up as fear or anger, which are direct reflections of fight or flight. Having had several dangerous jobs, I doubted I lived in fear and anxiety. I finally realized it was the danger to my ego… to my psyche…that causes me to live that way. Take any descriptive word that you would use daily to describe how you react to others negatively, whether bad drivers or coworkers you can’t stand, or whatever. Annoyed, irritated, irked, miffed, upset, apprehensive, nervous, “wish that meeting would just come and go already”…. All of those are just various levels of fear or anger. It helped me to look at it like a gauge, where the needle moves depending on the level of the emotion. But they’re all versions of fear or anger. The breakthrough has allowed me to recognize when I’m becoming unnecessarily annoyed or anxious and start to work on building better reactions and relationships in each moment.
I’ll finish with this unprovable statement: most of you could benefit from at least taking a deep evaluation of your own fear and anger issues. No, not everyone needs therapy. But I’m willing to wager that a majority of people who need help will never seek it. And why? Because of pride and embarrassment. Pride is the Achilles’ heel to people’s mental health. And yet, my wife has told me that through all of this, she’s glad it happened. Her life improvements are freeing her to be happy when she never believed she was miserable to begin with. There are many metaphors for this growth: changing poison into medicine, silver linings, making lemonade… All of this explanation serves two purposes. One is to explain why I dropped off the radar. And more importantly, perhaps one of you will see there is hope in your own dark place if you just reach for it.