Dirty Little Secret
So this afternoon I took a brief break from writing to check out blogs I follow, and I happened upon a post from Dan Pierce (Single Dad Laughing) called That’s Just Depressing. And it hit me that I needed to post a response. Why? Because even though I’ve danced around the issue in some of my essays about the war, it’s really not something I’ve ever written about. Because it’s extremely difficult for me to discuss honestly. And because it is something that has occasionally sabotaged my life.
The subject? Depression.
Dan makes a good point — it’s not something we talk about much. Depression is often a dirty little secret. For me, at least, it’s not something I want to discuss. After all, I’ve got a public image to maintain. I’ve got employees who really don’t need to know much about my personal life. I have to stay strong, like a Dad should. I’m supposed to the be the person who provides support to my family—not the other way around.
But sometimes it can be just too much.
These days, because of my 70 hour work week, family commitments and writing, I don’t get much time for a real life. Especially for a social life. Bottom line is, I’m pretty isolated socially. I don’t go out to have beers with friends. I don’t go to church, I’m no longer deeply involved in nonprofit work, so I rarely have an opportunity to get outside of my own head. So guess what? Today you get to be my best friend. Because I’m going to write a little bit about my own history with depression, in an effort to create a bit of dialogue.
First I want to say thanks to Dan for starting the discussion over on his own blog. I started to post a short response there, but let’s be honest—I’ve got way too much of a history with this stuff to keep it to one paragraph.
My most recent, and by far longest, episode of depression started in 2007. And never really ended.
It was like this:
From roughly 1996 to 2007, I lived my dreams come true. In some ways it was a magic decade for me. I published my first two books, and responses to Republic stunned me. In that time I co-founded and was executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, which worked to assist veterans of the first Gulf War who were dealing with Gulf War Illness. In 2002 a bunch of us founded Veterans for Common Sense, and aggressively took on the Bush administration on issues very important to me: the Iraq War, civil liberties, torture. During that decade, I met the President of the United States twice. I testified before Congressional committees. I travelled all over the United States speaking about war, conflict, post-traumatic stress. It was like being at the absolute top of my game, and it was amazing.
In 2006, we decided to merge VCS with the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. In some ways, it was like building the dream team. Some of the best and brightest activists of the Gulf War joined the team, long time friends. With this merger, for the first time ever, we were going to have the resources, money, and access to policy makers to make a bigger difference than we ever had before.
But something went wrong. I won’t get into the politics of it, but the bottom line was, the new organization squandered its opportunity and promise. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were wasted on polling and consultants and other Washington, DC based crap while the real subject matter experts (the war veterans) were shunted to the side in favor of trust-fund babies and career beltway bandits. I went from running to one of the most effective and active veterans groups working on Iraq issues to running a website for a crappy organization that was accomplishing nothing. And then, of course, late in 2008 the organization imploded (which it richly deserved) and I found myself unemployed.
The contrast was stark. In November of 2009 I was dodging creditors, screening my phone calls, desperately trying to get my house sold before it was foreclosed on, getting turned down for dozens of jobs; even the same week I was invited to an event at the White House to attend a bill signing with President Obama. It was crazy.
Basically, my life fell apart.
I don’t think I even realized how depressed I was. Not for a very long time. But the clues were there. From 2008 until 2011, I wrote absolutely nothing. The first four chapters of Insurgent sat there, untouched, unrealized, even as I was getting emails every day asking when it would be coming. It was all I could do to go to work in my new career, come home, and sleep. Then sleep some more. Then read. And read more. And sleep. Then go back to work.
Depression sucks out your life. It’s a soul killer. And it’s insidious, silent. It’s about looking in the mirror and not seeing a person you believe in. Or refusing to look in the mirror at all. It’s about wondering who you’ve become. It’s about growing distant from the people you love. It’s about having to start over from scratch with a whole new career at forty years old. It’s about not believing in yourself.
I started to come out of it last summer, I think. A little. Read some books about dealing with depression. Started keeping a journal again, for the first time since the early nineties. I started to feel competent in my new career, then more than competent. I started to feel like myself again.
In Dan’s blog, he makes the point that depression is insanely common, even though its not something we really talk about. Do you ever struggle with depression? How has it impacted your life? I’d love to hear your thoughts.