I was one of the last people left that would take his call, and he knew it. A year had passed since he’d last exercised the option. Now tonight I was meeting my father for dinner.
New York City props you up like nothing else, especially when you’re 21. So, as I walked deftly down crowded streets, knowing my way around, I knew other things too. Even everything.
Swept along in the blur and the noise of that winter night, I was sated by the attractive textures of my current life, but (and you saw this coming) I simply did not know what I thought I did. I didn’t know the black hole my father was swimming up from to meet me was deep and real. Or that he was treading water, hard, trying not to sink back down. And that terms ‘mental illness’ and ‘poor choices’ were not synonymous.
All I knew was that I didn’t have a lot of time for this anymore. Just a quick dinner, then the #5 express train was taking me back to the upper east side.
When you’re a kid, you always are. So when you feel like you’ve got it more together than your parent, you resent the flip. And you’re a little hard. No soft edges for a broken down man with a broken down life who reads from the same script, “I’m sorry, I’ll try harder, I’ll be in your life, I will.” Then, my turn: “It’s all in your head! Don’t give up! You can do it! Just try harder than harder!”
I didn’t know how those encouraging words were like melting snow, or how it felt to watch the darkness roll in and stay. Until I did.
Years later, that brisk New York night was far in my rear view mirror when I crashed my car in sunny Florida. The police agreed the guy on the bike came out of nowhere, and escaped safely as I rear ended the car in front of me. After the mess was cleared, I squinted through the billowing smoke lifting up from my smashed car to find my way to the appointment I’d made a month ago. There was only one thing left that I knew - I couldn’t miss it. Because the waters of that black hole were lapping at my toes and though I was too tired to even take a step back on my own, I could make it one inch forward.
The doctor, unfazed by my electrifying lack of personality, firmly told me no, I was not in a very long, very bad mood, but was severely clinically depressed. Since he said it with a prescription pad in his hand and my questionnaire was a mass of ‘yes’ check marks to every red flag question except for the generic “do you plan to jump off a very tall bridge anytime soon?” question - I believed him.
When I finally recovered several months later, I was grateful and knowing. The “simple” depression diagnosis didn’t stick around to define me - and was sent packing with the help of the little purple pill. My brain recalibrated and was back in action.
I understood two things: mental illness existed (for real) and medicine helped. I was a smug survivor. “You’re sick, you take medicine, you get better. There.”
How tidy. How easy. How vastly I underestimated the layers and nuances of the many diseases that fall under the umbrella of mental illness.
My brief and relatively quickly cured brush with depression gave me only a tiny glimpse at the deep soul of this crippling, complicated disease with it's multi-pronged treatment options. Try this, then that, than this plus that. The side effects puff you up, weigh you down, change the face you see in the mirror of your mind. And the most breathtakingly ironic side effect, particularly in manic depression, is that patients often stop taking medication because they feel healed, most alive, most like themselves during the manic state. That is often the cyclical choice that can drive away loved ones. Because like a cancer patient who undergoes chemo, one must believe that the medicine sustains their life - despite how it delivers the lowered quality of life. Despite the very life it steals while saving.
You know the old story of a drowning man praying for God to save him, and God sends boat after boat. When we watch people in distress constantly refuse the help that’s offered to them, we get angry, we get self-righteous, we tell them to get in the damn boat. We say, "I've been there too (or had a friend that did, or read a great book about it, or watched Dr. Phil). Look at me, do it just like this."
But what we can’t see is what they see. What it looks like from the water. We might think they’re drowning, and they think “It’s a good day! I’m floating.” And they let us pass them by. And we do, so often we keep going. "Not this time, not on my time! I’ve done enough."
Sometimes that’s true, sometimes we have done enough. Just exactly enough.
Someone once told me that the secondary problem for a person with severe mental illness is that they are often hard to love. When the illness manifests - it looks personal. It looks like rage, or sounds like crazy, or smells like danger. And so we duck. We avert our eyes just before making contact. We say, “you are scary. you are crazy.” Not “can I sit with you while you go to chemo treatment?” Not “I’m dropping off dinner for the family.”
People with depression and the vast spectrum of mental illnesses are the modern day lepers, the untouchables, the left behinds. We are so frightened of proximity - not so much that they they are contagious - but that they will mar our perfect story with their complicated one. And it’s easier, cleaner to cast off that heritage, and run from the legacy of a life in chaos, a life interrupted at every turn while things that didn’t matter that splintered the things that did.
But then one day, you realize you don’t know much. Even nothing.
So that’s where you start. You start learning, and remembering the heart that loved you always, and you keep a promise you made. And you see clearly that the best bits of life are not made up of the running away, but of the staying.
If you ever have the chance to be the boat passing by, turn off the engine. Drop the anchor, even if for you it needs to be further offshore. Just wait there a little longer than 'enough'. You may be surprised how things turn out.