Baby steps

When I finally went to my doctor to get help for my depression, I wasn’t exactly in a good state. For the past three years I had been suicidal and a generally miserable person to be around. The visit to the doctor wasn’t even a turning point, it was just another bump on a journey that didn’t have a marked end. I’d tried all the “natural” methods of dealing with my depression. I’d broken up with my four-year girlfriend. I’d begun working out and going to the gym. I’d finally chosen a major so that my coursework was relevant and interesting. I’d begun seeing a therapist. I’d begun writing about my mental illness and was even getting poems published in journals with actual copyrights.

But I was still suicidal, so I made an appointment to see Dr. Miller after three years of constant near-death lethargy. Dr. Miller’s office was in my home-town and I was nervous that word would get out that I was having mental health problems even though I was beginning to come to grips with the fact that being mentally ill wasn’t anything to be ashamed of. Because of this, the whole visit to his office was uncomfortable. The walls were this really dirty white, and the copies of ESPN sitting on the table didn’t have any articles on the only sport I was actually interested in (football).

By all accounts, I probably should have seen a psychiatrist instead of an M.D., but I was young and thought that seeking help could only be a positive step. Dr. Miller led me to a patient room, where I sat on one of those too-uncomfortable beds that are wrapped in paper towels. Dr. Miller was a round, short man who looked like he forgot to shave a few months ago and thought it made him look cool. He was nice, I guess, but the niceness felt practiced, like when somebody invites you over for dinner only when they know you can’t show up, the kind of nice that small Midwest towns have to practice because you’re going to be stuck interacting with the same people for the next thirty years of life, so you might as well not make any enemies.

I explained my problems to Dr. Miller: inability to focus, insomnia, fluctuating appetite, constant headaches, sensitivity to light, sensitivity to volume, loss of interest in past joys (reading, music, playing cards), lack of desire to socialize, suicidal thoughts, and declining motivation. Dr. Miller listened to the list, quiet, but measured. He asked me to explain how the suicidal thoughts felt. I explained that I felt like I was in a balloon. Sometimes, the rubber would stretch and I would have good days, days with enough space. Other days, the thoughts were suffocating. Dr. Miller listened to this, and then calmly explained that it didn’t sound like I had depression, but that I had anxiety problems, and that he would be happy to prescribe me Paxil, or paroxetine.

I was pissed. At the time, I almost never felt any emotion other than “blah,” so feeling genuine anger was a surprise. For the past three years I had wanted to kill myself, and somehow Dr. Miller had the audacity to conclude that I was suffering from anxiety problems after hearing me list some symptoms and try to awkwardly explain a series of complex emotions with one quickly-manufactured metaphor. But he was a doctor, and he was offering me something to help, and I really didn’t want to die. So I accepted the prescription and picked it up at Walgreens the next day.



I waited to take my first dose of Paxil until my then-girlfriend, Lilly, came back from the Bible camp she was working at for the summer. There was no rationale to this decision other than the fact I didn’t want to take the second step by myself and I knew Lilly would support me, having lots of experience with mental illness. A few days later, Lilly called and asked me if I would pick her up from camp—she was going through some personal difficulties, and decided it would be best if she left camp for the few weeks that were remaining and come back home.

Lilly’s parents wrote down the directions to the camp on a piece of paper. The camp unfortunately didn’t have an address, and so I had to rely on a recollection of directions which were pieced together over ten years of annual family excursions. Most of the instructions were pretty simple, “turn left at the meat-packers in Canton,” or “turn right on 1100 east,” but there were stranger directions, like “take a left at the big pile of rocks (the rocks might not be there).”

When I finally got to the camp it was dark. It took Lilly over an hour to pack her things and say goodbye to all her kids. On the way home I was pretty quiet. I hadn’t told Lilly that I had seen the doctor, and the weight of seeing him was still pressing on me. In a society where strong men are celebrated, I felt small and weak. It didn’t help that rural Illinois roads are treacherous at night—the roads are unmarked and just barely wide enough for two cars to pass untouched, not to mention the set of bizarre instructions I had to read to navigate my way back home.

Halfway home, I pulled to the side of the road and pulled the bottle of Paxil out of my backpack. “Are you okay?” Lilly asked me, which of course was a dumb question, but I suppose it looked more dramatic than I meant it to. In the dark, under the moonlight, the orange of the bottle was dulled, looking more like vomit than plastic. The pills were bright and white, even in the darkness. The bottle contained 30 pills—exactly one month’s worth of happiness.

Me and Lilly sat in that car for over an hour. On one hand, I knew I needed the help. On the other, taking the pill was admitting defeat—it was admitting that I had been born with an improper balance of hormones and chemicals in my brain, that the very chemistry of my being was somehow wrong, that there was a fundamental flaw in my genetics which was so egregious that I felt prompted, daily, to take my own life. There was no decision to make—I needed the help, and if I didn’t get it, I wasn’t safe. But the step itself was heavy, and the consequences felt real. Now I would have to wake up and take a pill, a daily reminder that my biology was inferior to everyone else’s, that I was a failure of a man, that I hadn’t risen to the occasion, that I couldn’t survive on my own.

I uncapped the bottle. My fingers were thick and couldn’t pull a pill out. I proceeded to drop the pill right over my dash-board, where it bounced off the steering wheel and rolled into a crack behind my turn-signal lever. All at once I could feel nothing but three years of condensed frustration at what this battle had come to. I’d completely rearranged my life. I’d fought tooth-and-nail every step of the way. I’d suffered through ruined friendships, gone days at a time without sleep, ballooned to 300 pounds, plummeted back down to 200, nearly failed out of college, broken up with my girlfriend, moved out of my mother’s, and avoided going to the doctor for three years just for the damn pill to jam right behind my steering wheel, right where I could see it, just out of reach.

Lilly put her hand on my knee. I took another pill out of the bottle and swallowed it without water.


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