Dirty Little Secret

Depressed man sitting on lake

Depression

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.

16 Comments on “Dirty Little Secret

  1. Harley Davidson cured my depression. Wait, no… I’m never depressed. Hmmm, I guess it’s the simple joys of life that keep me going. I’ve been in a similar situation, financially, but my take is you can’t get blood from a stone. Pay for what you need to survive and let the rest go. I’d say some of the best times were when I had nothing, because then I also had nothing to be worried about. I always worry about my children but who doesn’t?

  2. For me it was never a question of money … it was about going from being what I considered the top of my career to the bottom, practically overnight. But that’s not really the point anyway… it’s about mental states, not the specifics of a particular situation

  3. I’ve struggled with depression virtually my whole life. One of my worst episodes was three years ago when I got laid off the day I returned to work from a one month medical leave for depression. That was depression on top of depression. I struggle daily with depression still, although I’m far more functional now than in that dark period. I think one of the things that frustrates me the most is that there is episodic depression due to outside events (which I’ve had) but there is also chronic depression that is ongoing no matter if external events are going great or not. It is hard to explain to people that the depression is not “due to” some event but is a chronic life condition that has to be monitored and managed so that one can stay functional and even have short glimpses of normalcy. I honor those who are brave enough to talk about it in their own lives. Many still label us – and judgements are still made – at least in the professional world.

  4. Erika… yep. Same here… while what I wrote about here was due to a specific chain of events, it’s something that has come and gone all my life, at least since I was a teenager.

  5. Ahh, it’s a struggle, isn’t it. On the outside, I’m competent and achieving great things. People look up to me. On the inside I just want to go back to bed and cuddle my pillow. My family don’t believe in depression, or counsellors… so they don’t know. Very isolating illness, it is. I wish you all the best in your journey Charles.

  6. The language of the body and psyche is symptoms. Depression is a symptom – a call to inner work. It is often a deep grieving, unacknowledged and sourced in rage, behind which is always fear.
    I spent most of my childhood, teenage years and life up until my forties traversing the depths of the pit at various times and ultimately came to an understanding that depression will last longer and grip more powerfully if we fear it and do not honour it. Too often modern medicine seeks only to remove symptoms which is a denial of their truth and reality and which only drives the pain deeper and worsens the wound.
    When I decided that feeling depressed was a message and one which needed to be embraced and honoured I found that depression lasted sometimes hours, on occasion a day or so, but never again for weeks or months.
    There is a reason for everything including feeling depressed. You may never know the reason because sometimes the psyche cannot handle bringing everything into the light and sometimes it may take years for it to even allow you to shine the light of consciousness closely, but, from the moment you welcome depression (like fear) as a companion and guide, you open the way to greater understanding of Self and Soul and healing of body and mind.
    Having watched my mother through all of her life battle with and often fall into the worst of depression I am even more convinced that the only way to deal with depression is to embrace it, even welcome it, and surrender to its guiding light. That is not to say that discipline is not required to maintain function, but that rejection of depression and fear of its power are both unnecessary and destructive.

  7. The language of the body and psyche is symptoms. Depression is a symptom – a call to inner work. It is often a deep grieving, unacknowledged and sourced in rage, behind which is always fear.
    I spent most of my childhood, teenage years and life up until my forties traversing the depths of the pit at various times and ultimately came to an understanding that depression will last longer and grip more powerfully if we fear it and do not honour it. Too often modern medicine seeks only to remove symptoms which is a denial of their truth and reality and which only drives the pain deeper and worsens the wound.
    When I decided that feeling depressed was a message and one which needed to be embraced and honoured I found that depression lasted sometimes hours, on occasion a day or so, but never again for weeks or months.
    There is a reason for everything including feeling depressed. You may never know the reason because sometimes the psyche cannot handle bringing everything into the light and sometimes it may take years for it to even allow you to shine the light of consciousness closely, but, from the moment you welcome depression (like fear) as a companion and guide, you open the way to greater understanding of Self and Soul and healing of body and mind.
    Having watched my mother through all of her life battle with and often fall into the worst of depression I am even more convinced that the only way to deal with depression is to embrace it, even welcome it, and surrender to its guiding light. That is not to say that discipline is not required to maintain function, but that rejection of depression and fear of its power are both unnecessary and destructive.

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  10. Charles,

    Just wanted to write to say THANK YOU so much for sharing your thoughts and some insight into your experience with depression. You have no idea how helpful and encouraging I found this.

    As a writer I’ve recently found myself unable to focus or get in touch with my characters. Deadlines keep passing me by and still the inertia I’m gripped with shows no signs of abating. It has been frustrating and a little frightening.
    The reason for the fear is because I’ve got a really fun autoimmune disease (multiple sclerosis) that has all sorts of (usually transient) effects on my cognitive abilities. I don’t focus too much of my attention on them but when they interfere with my daily life I have a tendency to fixate and mentally curl up in the fetal position.

    Anyway, long story short, instead of silently freaking out over my inability to focus on my writing I’ll be making an appointment to see my neurologist for some advice and possibly a consult with a neuropsychologist.
    I’ve been on antidepressants once before but that time I knew I was depressed. This time has been more of a slow decline and therefore more difficult to distinguish. Had I not looked up this blog after reading ‘Don’t Forget to Breathe’ (great book by the way) I’d probably still be wondering why the hell I can’t get the creative juices flowing.

    I know that, in this instance, my problem might be something other than depression but thanks to the words you wrote I’ll be doing something proactive to figure out what’s happening in my head. So thanks again.

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