Chapter 04 – December

The depressive episodes seen in bipolar disorder, in contrast to those typically seen in a major depression, tend to come on fairly acutely, over perhaps a few weeks, and often occur without any significant precipitating factors. They tend to be characterized by psychomotor retardation, hyperphagia [eating more], and Hypersomnolence [sleeping more] and are not uncommonly accompanied by delusions or hallucinations. On the average, untreated, these bipolar depressions tend to last about a half year.

Mood is depressed and often irritable. The patients are discontented and fault-finding and may even come to loathe not only themselves but also everyone around them.

Energy is lacking; patients may feel apathetic or at times weighted down.

Thought becomes sluggish and slow. Patients cannot concentrate to read and cannot remember what they do read. Comprehending alternatives and bringing themselves to decisions may be impossible.

Patients may lose interest in life; things appear dull and heavy and have no attraction.

Many patients feel a greatly increased need for sleep. Some may succumb and sleep 10, 14, or 18 hours a day. Yet no matter how much sleep they get, they awake exhausted, as if they had not slept at all. Appetite may also be increased and weight gain may occur, occasionally to an amazing degree. Conversely, some patients may experience insomnia or loss of appetite.

Psychomotor retardation is the rule (meaning sitting or laying down all the time), although some patients may show agitation (a constant need to move). In psychomotor retardation the patient may lie in bed or sit in the chair for hours, perhaps all day, profoundly apathetic and scarcely moving at all. Speech is rare; if a sentence is begun, it may die in the speaking of it, as if the patient had not the energy to bring it to conclusion. At times the facial expression may become tense and pained, as if the patient were under some great inner constraint.

Pessimism and bleak despair permeate these patients’ outlooks. Guilt abounds, and on surveying their lives patients find themselves the worst of failures, the greatest of sinners. Effort appears futile, and enterprises begun in the past may be abandoned. They may have recurrent thoughts of suicide, and impulsive suicide attempts may occur.

Delusions of guilt and of well-deserved punishment and persecution are common. Patients may believe that they have let children starve, murdered their spouses, poisoned the wells. Unspeakable punishments are carried out: their eyes are gouged out; they are slowly hung from the gallows; they have contracted syphilis or AIDS, and these are a just punishment for their sins.

Hallucinations may also appear and may be quite fantastic. Heads float through the air; the soup boils black with blood. Auditory hallucinations are more common, and patients may hear the heavenly court pronounce judgment. Foul odors may be smelled (in my case sewage), and poison may be tasted in the food.

In general a depressive episode in bipolar disorder subsides gradually. Occasionally, however, it may come to an abrupt termination. A patient may arise one morning, after months of suffering, and announce a complete return to fitness and vitality. In such cases, a manic episode is likely to soon follow.

———

The DSM IV misses an important detail. My depression is vacuous, empty, and lacking, and what it tries to fill that void is poisonous to life. It is a hole in the soul that cannot be filled by anything but hate. Not hate in the murderous sense, hate in a purely destructive internal sense combined contradictorily with apathy. The world is shit. You are shit. Because there is nothing in it worthwhile to fill the aching hole where something meaningful should be so only self destruction makes sense. Philosophers who have never been depressed theorize about this, talking about suicide as though it’s part of a logical syllogism or that life is simply rolling a stone up a hill forever and that we should be content with an image of life that is content with meaningless struggle. Suicide is nothing like what they talk aobut, it’s not even emotional, it’s just the product of being worn down to nothing and whether you survive or you die is luck. In my case it was luck that I survived an overdose. In Rachel’s case it was luck that I was there. Luck defines who lives and who dies and while that may offend the sensibilities of the living, it is the truth of the nearly dead.

———

Cliff’s bedroom off of the kitchen had french doors with glass panels. Cliff never bought curtains for his room. After witnessing his morning ritual in the first month we returned upstairs for our morning breakfasts. Not sure why the only french doors in the house led to his room either.

Though I was finished writing a while ago, the final stamp of approval for my thesis from my advisor came just before my birthday in the first week of December — a nice present to myself to have the debacle of college behind me a semester earlier than I anticipated and a better present to Rachel with whom I could spend time taking care of her. It wasn’t a deep seated need to grow closer to her, it was a sense of duty that I inherited from Grace to help whoever needed help. But it felt good to help, to grow close to someone and bring some amount of meaning to what I went through instead of it lying there in the past as a wasteland. Grace was always a mom to people and she turned me into a dad, someone who was just there, unconditionally, to help and care and lend an ear and make food and pick up meds and watch TV with when everything just seemed too unbearable to do anything else. Rachel’s decision to exclude Harold was not surprising and was probably better for him (he was becoming a frenzy whose sole actions in the house were coffee drinking and collapsing). I had the sense that he would freak and crumble if he ever heard her say that she wished she could disappear from his life or he would become overbearing and unsympathetic not in a way where he didn’t want to understand but in a way that he desperately wanted to understand without understanding that he couldn’t understand without going through it himself. There’s pity that he could express, which is just a horrible emotion as it just looks down on someone in contrast to how great another life is, there’s sympathy where one feels bad for the person but without the experiential basis for understanding why one should feel bad, and then there’s empathy, which is not emotional, it’s just a sigh and a touch and strange glances but ultimately comfort in knowing that someone else survived. Harold couldn’t provide this last piece of the emotional puzzle, the one most important to people who are depressed since emotions don’t connect with the void. But feeling distant and depressed is not something unique to each person in that every case is truly different, not something insurmountable either because there is living proof that it can go away and can get better.

She was prescribed an antidepressant and had a positive reaction to it. By positive I mean it didn’t make her more suicidal as antidepressants sometimes can. She didn’t want Harold involved, every time he left the house and we talked she would reiterate the point as though she was trying to support her rationale through repetition instead of accepting that sometimes it’s better to keep things in a close circle rather than exposing it for all the world to see and feeling like a burden to everyone. It’s how a lot of depressed people see themselves, a burden. I half agreed with her decision. I took her pills and held them for her so Harold wouldn’t find out. Anyone looking in my room would never spot the pill bottle of antidepressants in my clusterfuck of medications. When I united her pills with mine she absently looked through the various prescriptions and supplements. She was measuring her abnormality against mine. She asked me if I ever gave my pills to someone, I had. She asked if I had felt as helpless as her, I had. I reminded her that I was once in a psych ward I was so suicidal that I couldn’t be trusted to be alone for more than an hour and couldn’t burden anyone with the kind of 24/7 care that I needed. She stopped playing with the bottles when she heard that again. She turned to me and hugged me with her arms reaching around mine pinning my elbows to my sides so that I flopped around for a second like a penguin and stayed like that longer than what would be normally socially acceptable but she needed the connect, she also needed to feel empathy for someone else. Then she started asked what each pill did, which I sadly knew because I religiously research what goes into my body and what to look out for because sometimes pills can kill in bizarre ways. She released me from her grip and wiped her eyes. I watched her play with the bottles feeling disconcerted at what she could turn into — no one but Grace saw what I went through to maintain my normal functioning self, much less what I took in an average day. Rather than scare her it made her feel better that someone as fucked up as I am, who had pissed away summers, falls, and winters, could still function in normal society. I was pretty far gone and had fucked up repeatedly to no end, her taking a semester off looked like nothing and appeared normal compared to my life. And then there was Harold. Harold was a driven individual who seemed like he could achieve anything and she respected it and came to like that about him. I was a survivor who knew how to tread water in dangerous seas if I couldn’t manage the strength to swim. If she was going to live, she too would have to become a survivor too. Drive could come later, but treading water is a special skill that doesn’t come naturally, it can only be learned when thrown overboard.

Part of our agreements with me holding the pills was her coming to join me for coffee in the morning. She did in fact want to get better and I held her pill so that she would have to emerge from her turtle shell. Even if it got her out of bed for all of thirty minutes that was better than her lying motionless all day. Whether she showered or did anything productive with her day was her own choice after drinking with me, she just had to join me for coffee and sit down at either the table or the couch and sip the drip. She didn’t have to say anything, just move from her warm cocoon into a new place. She didn’t always make it and I would go to her room after Harold left and leave the pill with a glass of water and cup of coffee and sit by her and sometimes she wouldn’t move and other times she would curl around me and then take her pill and retreat and the coffee would grow cold while I put on some television till she came back to life long enough to ask for a warm cup of coffee. I wondered if she stayed in her room just so I would stay with her in her cocoon. Then she emerged and adopted the couch displacing Grace from her corner and exiling her to the chair. For a week we were just sitting relatively silently on the couch in the downstairs living room drinking our coffee with Grace who sat absorbing the situation and accepting it. Grace talked a little, so did I, Rachel just listened and sipped. There was never anything deep and Rachel responded to that well. We just sat in the company of one another and read our daily things (Politico as always and philosophy from Grace) and relayed them to one another while Rachel watched. For the first few days Rachel would leave after she was finished with her first cup, but after a while she stuck around for a second. Grace caught on to what she was going through. When Rachel left for her room one day Grace asked to confirm her suspicions, I nodded since if there was anyone who should know it was her as I would lean on her if I ever fell short. Grace fell into the couch with a smile. Rachel bought a subscription to the NY Times to read in the mornings (she had a thing about digital media). Harold in all of his stress didn’t notice that she was spending time in the living room reading the newspaper later in the days as well rather than in bed when he arrived. He barely spent time in the house anymore much less tend to Rachel as he woke, left, bought coffee along the way, and then ate and sometimes slept in the north stacks of Memorial Library — easily the creepiest library I’ve ever been in.

After two weeks of drinking coffee together she started talking. The antidepressant, or boredom, was taking hold and it produced chit chat with the worst chit chatters she could find. She liked to relay articles in the politics section as well as headlines that I had already read on my tablet (but I switched to WaPo after she started reading from the Times). Politico was the biggest topic of interest after one day I compared David Frum to George Will as examples of sane conservatives and insane anti-denim crusaders. Grace broke her silence on the matter and brought up dropping classes or taking incompletes. I was afraid that Rachel would glare at me for betraying her but she accepted that Mom knew it. Grace set her laptop down and Rachel scheduled an appointment with a dean to drop and emailed professors to get incompletes in her classes. She also dropped out of the next semester completely. The latter was my suggestion. It took me a long time to figure out that mental problems don’t go away once you think that they do. They linger and infect and persist and in some cases never actually go away. For her it took two weeks to go from a spiraling descent into a flatline that she would eventually climb out of. That was pretty fast. That was really fast.

1

Grace, for all of her inability to talk began handing out readings from her philosophy classes so she wouldn’t be caught up in the tango of news that Rachel and I had going on that excluded her to simply listening. She was patient in her explanations and went through the entire series of lecture notes she had and edified Rachel and myself with her interpretations of the material. She had done this to me before but it was with undergraduate material that never really peaked my interest, but with graduate level work it seemed complete and fascinating and the influence of mathematics through Bertrand Russell in the analytic movement seemed like a breath of fresh air from the continental traditions like Sartre or Camus (though I did have a soft spot for Camus’ fiction). For Rachel it was stress free learning that involved no tests or homework or anything that could produce anxiety or failure just growth and interest. Grace only supplied affectionate knowledge and Rachel responded after a while with questions. She is surprisingly apt at philosophy.

Harold disappeared completely in the the last days before finals arrived. His frenetic energy that infected the house with anxiety as he came back and swooped out and I could tell that Rachel did not respond well to it was gone and she spent entire days sprawled out on the oversized couch reading the newspaper over and over. Later, when he would fly into the house in between finals to eat something other than Chipotle we were on the brown couch watching TV and he would rush over to her and peck her on the cheek, once rumpling her hair, and then dash out. She cringed every time. He only said ‘hey’ and never asked how she was doing or why she was constantly in pajamas. He focused on himself and I had a hard time ever forgiving him for that. Rachel’s parents also didn’t know, they would also be like Harold. They didn’t know what to do and her father was not exactly a fan of medication for anything except obvious physical ailments like pain. Antidepressants were “chemicals” not medicine for dangerous conditions. Christmas was coming and she didn’t have family in the state nor did she want to fly out to Tennessee to brave a week with her parents who would likely try to keep her home longer because they suspected something but didn’t know what as she hid the pills from her father to avoid the tired arguments against SSRIs and her mother would baby her. Thanksgiving was a bust that she never wanted to relive (casual racist remarks that weren’t directed against her but still there enough to drive her insane and almost erupting when they kept mentioning black mobs running amok like only black people mob or have gangs) so she was left in a bind and she lied. Harold broached the subject of her coming with him to his parents for Christmas. She said that her parents bought her a ticket back home to Tennessee. Her father was really a cover for the shame that she still felt for being depressed as though it was an STD that she could have prevented by making the guy wear a condom. Harold agreed and after his last final he spent a day with her that she found uncomfortable and as he leaned against her in exhaustion she sat upright and wide eyed not wanting to be near him, the one who rumpled her hair, then he packed, and said good bye without noticing anything. Grace noticed that he seemed hollowed out by the semester and wanted to return to family to recharge despite his passive hate for his parents. They were dirty hippies, but they were fun, they loved him, and deep down he loved them too. We felt bad for Rachel to be abandoned in an inadvertently callous way. I told Rachel that she could come with me and Grace, that she wouldn’t spend her Christmas alone in the house without anyone to talk to. It wasn’t an option for her to stay. She smiled. She needed someone to actively show affection even if it was an order to sit by a fire and eat. There she would be surrounded by people who knew what she was going through and what to do, just me, Grace, and my parents with no presents, just food and company and movies and television (I also brought David Sedaris).

We piled into my Neon with dirty laundry in tow to be washed at my parents. Even at my age it was tradition to bring as much dirty laundry up to be washed — this even with free laundry in the basement of our house. I shared the tradition each year with Grace and now Rachel. Grace always came with me ever since I met her. Her father was an asshole that she never wanted to return to and she didn’t know anything about her mother. She was emancipated at 16, got a GED instead of graduating from high school and enrolled at UW Madison after applying for late entrance. I learned this when finals were over my sophomore year and we were drinking together over the gap between finals and Christmas. When I asked her what she was doing for Christmas she started crying. Grace never cries unless it’s about her past, then once she starts she can’t stop — it’s heaving as her stomach expands and sharply contracts and she wheezes almost in pain from how fast it happens. It’s not self pity surrounding her past, it’s not pity or sadness, it’s just a time that she doesn’t want to return to and desperately never wants to relive for reasons that she’s only hinted at over the years but never able to really say. She poured out what had been bottled up for three years. Her mother left when she was young and her father was an abusive drunk. I’ve never learned how he was abusive but I’ve made some educated guesses that she’s tentatively supported without going into details. “Home” during Christmas was the apartment she got drunk nightly in. The first two years she was at UW she worked at restaurants as a waitress to pay for her apartment before landing a job in the library where she climbed the ladder, she also worked in a hotel as a room cleaner for a while. Each year she got exceptionally drunk for Christmas with whiskey or vodka her colleagues bought for her. They never drank with her so she spent the time alone with David Sederis’ Holidays On Ice (she was the one that got me hooked on his books) playing on repeat taking solace in another’s terrible experiences but wept that she didn’t have Sederis’ family to go home to. She was an actual alcoholic, not just the usual UW Madison kind of drinker, who drank more than average over Christmas. She drank in an effort to survive and needed a drink to get through the day and spent most of her nights drunk, like her father. She hated that but didn’t stop. When I met her I knew she drank a lot but discovered he alcoholism quick enough — she was partly responsible for turning me into an alcoholic. I think she still feels guilty about that. After she broke down, one of the few times I’ve ever seen her emotionally vulnerable, I invited her to Christmas at my parents. It’s been that way ever since and she was unofficially adopted. Rachel would join the family of the emotionally unstable though she would never find what brought Grace there in the first place.

Grace dried out when I did. She didn’t want to be a bad influence. She still drinks on occasion though. So do I. I couldn’t stay sober, but I wouldn’t need a drink to get through the day. By December I gave up the experiment of sobriety and enjoyed a beer here and there. I was looking forward to New Glarus’ Raspberry Tart. It’s okay to live a little, just not in excess.

2

That Rachel was mentally ill, like so many of our other friends, didn’t shock either me or Grace in terms of having another disfunctional friend to add to the fold. Disfunction attracts disfunction and we tend to find not similar stories but similar survival skills in one another. The mannerisms and the guarded superficialities in our dialog whenever things about the past are mentioned or brought up in a drunken conversation as we steer around the dark bits and offer up what acceptable things there are are pretty good indicators and we pick up on the subtleties and the lies to cover details that are abnormal. Maybe. Maybe we just traffic in the same circles — the mentally ill circles, maybe? Whatever the reason Grace and I are always around people who are not quite right. We’ve both agreed that unstable people are better for us. It’s not that normal people disgust us or anything negative, it’s just that we have an informal group therapy sessions over football. Rachel joined the herd and in her depressed state she seemed to accept herd status. She was one of us in our cult of the mad.

The drive was always excruciatingly long during the winter but breathtakingly beautiful when looking out at dead farmland coated in layers of snow that reflect the light in a blinding fashion to a driver such as myself. The searing light never distracted from the quiet beauty. The world seems soft and gentle in the winter despite being harsh and deadly, but seemingness is all that is needed for beauty. Taking 26 through Rosendale always slowed things down despite acting as a cheerful reminder that we were two-thirds of the way between Madison and my parents. Cops there are judicious about speed limits and would pull over anyone that went more than a single mile an hour over the speed limit. I shit you not. Just try it. Everyone knows about Rosendale and everyone gets pulled over at least once going through there — they even have a large sign on highway 41 advertising the proximal responsibility that one takes when taking the exit and acts as a subtle warning to people like myself that if they take that exit that they should prepare for the vehicular harassment from all of a few thousand people enforcing a law that is accepted everywhere as breakable. To hell with Rosendale, and 26 for that matter, I only take it because it saves $7 in gas that can go to food for the trip and I’m cheap like that.

For the whole trip we listened to WPR. It’s a rule of thumb that the driver gets to select what is listened to in the car, at least it’s my rule of thumb — it’s really just my rule (I’m not sure why I have rules surrounding driving). When driving solo I often listen to music of whatever stripe — metal, electronica, folk, it doesn’t matter so long as it cuts through the monotony of driving for two and a half hours through farmland and accidentally taking the wrong exit and driving through Waupun. There are two exits for 26, one that bypasses Waupun and another that doesn’t. I always take the first one going up to Appleton and drive 25 mph through Waupun cursing myself for being fooled yet again. I’ve only stopped in Waupun to stretch my legs after pulling into a side street. It’s the kind of town that advertises high school achievements in state competitions from half a decade ago but are still plastered on the sign that welcomes you to their little village. It seems nice enough though. But when other people are in the car and don’t care to listen to my estranged tastes in music. I always opt for WPR’s Ideas Network. It was a Friday and some of the best programming was on, I love Science Fridays. NPR is especially soothing, in my opinion, because of the engineering. The way that they equalize the voices and compress them makes them appear deeper and fuller than most radio shows. I’ve spent years as a sound engineer attempting to dissect the sound that they created and then replicate it in poetry readings — I still haven’t replicated it. The sound is that of a warm companion, like Garrison Keeler’s basso voice silkily seeping out of Prairie Home Companion. I never cared much for his show, but I always liked his voice. Ira Glass is another voice that I love. It’s not the deep voice that is pitched from the back of the throat adding a soft breathiness. It’s particularly nasal. But it’s sexy. Ira Flatow, which always sounds like Ira Plato over the reduced quality of radio, has a remarkably similar voice and is host of SciFri. His calm dissection of scientific topics and poignant questions always intrigued me and when I looked back at Rachel through the rear view mirror I could see that it intrigued her too. She talked a little during it like she did when reading the newspaper, she had never listened to the radio before and began to love the Ideas Network. I had grown up with it. WPR is one of the best public radio stations in the US, apparently Tennessee didn’t match it. Rachel fell in love with it. She was sitting forward with her chin on her hands rather than looking out of the window. After the program she retreated back into her cocoon and stared vacantly at the rolling farmland. She was off to a safer place filled with a fireplace and food.

Like I did once before, she stared out at the farmlands rolling along in a hypnotic fashion as the undulating waves of snow came and went and fog appeared here and there in the unusually warm December day that baked the light snow into a fog and occluded the trees and blended the overcast sky into the snow so there ceased to be a horizon. Staring deep into it felt like staring into an well lit abyss that was at once comforting and terrifying as the eye had nothing to latch onto to judge where things were. Only the occasional farmhouse provided the much needed benchmark for distance. Fences were too snowed under by massive drifts at this point to provide any reference beyond the black edge of the highway. I’ve fallen into that abyss multiple times and it felt good each time I let myself go though everyone will try to persuade you that it’s frightening like being scared, it’s terrifying in an existential way, one where everything seems to slip but you don’t scramble to hold on, you just don’t know where anything is anymore, it’s new, it’s new and existentially that is terrifying because a different world awaits but there is no adrenal reaction, no primitive limbic response that gets aroused by scary movies, it’s not frightening in that sense, but it is terrifying. Rachel was still letting go.

About half an hour away from the homestead we joined 41, a highway that in my entire life has always been under construction with delays and headaches. Since it was winter there were no slow downs do to immediate construction with a man braving speeding cars with a “slow down – construction” sign as his only weapon against mad drivers flooring the pedal to 15 over the limit. But the leftovers from unfinished projects lingered and what was supposed to be a six lane interstate was truncated to a four lane clusterfuck. A repeat of the Joy Cardin show had ended and All Things Considered came on. Rachel stopped leaning her head against the rear window and hunched over and rested her elbows once again on her knees. It might have been fatigue or a cold forehead, but movement is usually a positive sign that someone is responding to discomfort or boredom rather than passively accepting it as inevitable which usually comes with a depressed mind. Then she asked me to turn it up so she could hear it better. Then she laughed at a pun. She loved puns. I obliged and Grace leaned to look back at our depressed roommate to find a face that was not entirely apathetic to the journey. Baby steps, maybe she wasn’t as far gone as I had originally thought.

We pulled up to my childhood home. I had only lived in one other place growing up and that was across the street. My parents upgraded from 1200 sq ft to 2100 sq ft and bought a home that needed fixing up. My father was a rather handy engineer that never ceased to find things to do around the house, never able to not find things to do around the house for sitting for too long seemed like it was unbearable to him. Depressed people like me and Rachel sit for long stretches of time, then we lay down or curl into a ball, only people who have been depressed know how comforting this can feel. Mom ushered her in, she is an end of life nurse and was used to dealing with stressed and depressed people in her life. Often, it wasn’t the person who was dying that was the most stressed but the family members around them, but she helped them too, it’s part of the job. The fireplace, rather the pellet stove, was glowing red hot by this point down in the den and Rachel quickly took post next to it with her laptop to browse meaningless things. I asked her not to look at facebook to see what other people were doing because it would provide a benchmark for her that was not only unrealistic but in no way applicable to her life. Healthy people do X, unhealthy people do Y. It is the definition of being disabled that you cannot do the same things without extra effort and a little bit of luck — mental illness of any stripe is a disability. Only in time can one watch other people move forward with their life while stagnating yourself and not feel jealous or distraught. She took my advice and browsed ESPN as she lacked her NY Times to thumb through and laugh at politicians for being so narrow minded. I grabbed a cup of coffee from the drip, weak as always (I never understood how my parents could stomach weak coffee) and sat down on the reclining loveseat that faced Rachel. I asked her what she was doing and she said that she was reading about the Texans. I asked her what she thought of Jake Locker as a quarterback (I had my reservations about him). It was a rather instant bond that brought her back to life. Harold was not interested in sports while she religiously watched football. While depressed she would spend all of Saturday watching college football on her laptop as she laid in bed only to be followed by Sunday all day and then Monday nights followed by Thursday. With the season over she had nothing to watch as the Texans were toast but we agreed to watch the playoffs together. When depressed, the only reading that she did was of the NFL and the latest in player histories, biographies, coaching histories (she was a fan of learning more about the bizarre relationship the Packers had with Curly Lambeau and his possible act of arson to save the franchise), and the strange relationships that franchises had with their home cities before ultimately deserting them for a better broadcast population like what happened with the Oilers and the Titans (who did not immediately change their name which seems like a kick in the balls to the deserted home city who just lost their beloved team). Bill Belichick and the Ravens also had just this sort of history connecting them with one of the best franchises and leaving one of the worst in their place. The Browns.

3

Talking about her depression hobby/interest brought her back to the land of the living. A fan of football myself I was able to carry the conversation in more than the usual chit chat manner and we discussed possible Superbowl contenders and whether Peyton Manning would ever be as good as he was post neck surgery. He would be, maybe even better, but we didn’t really know at that time since one good season might just be a fluke. We were both glad that Tim Tebow was no longer in the news. We would be mistaken about that. Grace and my parents stayed back in the living room and Mom and Dad chatted with their adopted daughter about the new life she had as a grad student at UW and what she thought about staying in one place for nearly a decade when she always seemed like she was going to burst at the seams if she had to spend one more year in a city that never seemed to be able to shovel its sidewalks during winter which inevitably led to cold, wet, disgusting feet as her Columbia boots cracked from all the salt spread on the road and the sand was constantly tracked inside so walking around in socks near the front door meant stepping in gritty mud before slipping on boots. My parents loved Grace like a daughter but never understood why we never got together since we were so close. The problem is that we were too close. We were like divorcees that stayed together long after the bitter fighting had ceased and we knew all the little details of the other’s life that few people would ever know and that’s a recipe for never getting together. It seems like it would work until you’re in that position. Instead we would stay as fucked up siblings and ex-wife and ex-husband together. God that’s like incest, maybe that’s why we weren’t together. The three of them stayed away from the den since adding more people to the depressed mix can be overwhelming. I thought my conversation with Rachel would probably end and she would go back to being silent, but with them away, she stayed talkative, more so than most any other time at the house.

Rachel and I never strayed into anything in terms of feelings, or depression, or how to manage it at that point. Instead we just pretended like everything was manageable and good and normal. Pretending was always good for me, not fantasizing as such because that leads to feeling inadequate, just pretending like the past few months didn’t happen and the only thing that mattered for a few minutes was a game. She went to get another cup of coffee — coffee is something I always found extremely helpful when depressed, but that’s just me. I sighed lightly as she left. I didn’t feel weighed down by her, it was just the reflection of myself in her. I never had a good Christmas until this year (and she was not spoiling it by any means by being there). After my diagnosis I looked back on all the Christmases that I could remember, back to high school and saw the pattern of depression, anxiety, and withdrawal from society. It was mild at first, subclinical is the term, but it was still there. As my moods fully destabilized in college, Christmas became a blur. I would fake being social and happy and outgoing but the ersatz mood wore me down more than if I had just relaxed and told the truth — lying is sadly something I do too often when depressed. I often wanted to get out of my parents’ house just so I could breathe and feel like my normal self, rather, my depressed self. It always came in the excuse that I wanted to go back for New Years, which once I spent inside without anything to do but watch TV and drink UV vodka that someone bought for me since I didn’t have a fake or any idea what cheap vodka does to the brain the day after or even the day of. I just needed a break I told myself. One New Years I went out and went drinking, not knowing at the time what I was doing to myself. I broke down in a bathroom sobbing for no reason, and then it went away, just like that, I snapped into a normal drunk mood and wiped the tears away. Something that a normal person might say is that I should have seen the warning signs, but that’s asking a lot of a depressed individual who didn’t know what normal actually felt like as years of depression slowly grew and incubated an acceptance of non-normality. I thought those feelings happened to everyone. The world, Rachel’s world and my world during the dark of winter, amounts to just a hazy fog without a horizon. There’s nothing to latch onto to guide the mind back to realizing where it came from and where it is now. It just wanders around hoping to feel something again besides empty and lost. Too many winters went by where I felt just lost and not even treading water, just sinking and feeling warm waves wash over me as they called for an end.

I didn’t feel depressed this Christmas. That was a first for me.

Rachel returned with a fresh cup of coffee and asked if there were any movies she would like. Life of Brian was one she hadn’t seen but always wanted to. I thought she would like it a lot. When depressed I always like the cynical and the absurd. It’s not a wallowing in darkness and dark thoughts like some people think — an obsession with Edgar Allen Poe and things related to death in an effort to feel deep and disturbed or somehow connected to darkness — it’s a dark cynicism that everything is shit and given enough depressions it turns one into a nihilist. One of the few things I can laugh at is the absurd, somehow it brings me joy in a way that I don’t get when feeling normal or up. Rachel thought so as well. I saw myself in her and she saw herself in me. When the title scene came on and the classic music that only the Pythons would ever create, Grace came down and joined us. My parents stayed up in the living room reading and talking and drinking flavored coffee. Rachel curled into a ball and watched, smiling. Grace reclined in her seat and watched the movie for the fifth time, still enjoying it all the same. I kept an eye on both of them.

Grace’s emotions are betrayed in her subtle mannerisms. She never says “I’m sad” or “I’m happy” or even “I’m fine” (she just shrugs and utters utterances), most people don’t but if you press them enough they give up the goods — Grace never gives up the goods unless she’s drunk. It’s her breathing, her sighs, her engagement in things, all betraying various levels of stress and emotion. She was half napping, which is a rare sight for someone as energetic as she was. For once I felt like the normal one in the room. Grace would sort it out for herself though, she was stronger than I was and this wasn’t a depression so much as a decompression and she did recover with some food and relaxation. She was just exhausted by her first semester as a grad student. My parents were right, she should have moved. Toronto made her happy and thrilled and like she could pick up tomorrow and become a new person and leave Madison behind forever. She didn’t hate Madison, but she wanted to get away to some place new. But she came back. I told her to take a year off. She never listens to my advice until after my advice’s expiration date has passed. But here she had my parents — who can sometimes be overbearing now that we’re their only children who return since my siblings lived too far away — and moving to Toronto might remove her from her only family. Both of my parents, especially my mother, can be overwhelming in how much she wants to care for people. It’s why she’s an excellent nurse, but after a stressful semester sometimes it feels good to be over-loved. After detailing her life plan to my parents the best thing was to pop in a movie in a warm den and sit silently with others.

That was the 21st.

At this point I was managing all of Rachel’s medication along with mine and kept mine and hers locked away in my car along with her credit cards. My keys I kept in my bed. Though she plateaued in terms of depression, it could still swing one way or another and a bottle of pills is often seen as a quick exit and antidepressants are a shit way to got about it. Doing this is not as much of a hassle as people think it is. It really isn’t. I’m used to managing my prescriptions and taking them every day is engrained in me. Adding one more pill to the mix and withholding credit cards that she could use to buy rope or buy a bus ticket or buy anything that could hurt her is as simple as keeping track of them. If she needed anything, me or my parents could get it and most of what she needed was food and coffee and my parents were excellent in supplying those. People might make a big thing about this, but it’s a simple step to make sure that someone stays alive.

The next day Rachel was about the same as before if not a little worse. It’s easy to spot the ups and downs of her moods by how much she moved around. Most of her time was spent with me watching movies. Netflix wasn’t really doing that much for us in terms of good movies to watch instantly so I kept going to Family Video to rent more movies. She would come along with me and shuffle around unshowered and with her hair in disarray. It would be a while before hygiene came back, for the moment extra deodorant was all that was needed. She selected Bladerunner and Melancholia. Two of my favorites. Rachel and I shared tastes in movies and had seen most of the same ones, movies perceived as dark but we delighted in them. As for Melancholia, one I had seen and she had not, it is the only movie I’ve ever seen that comes even close to approximating what mental illness is like. It is a gorgeous movie in terms of cinematography and a powerful one with respect to characters. It should be good as it was written and directed by someone who struggled with depression and still managed to function in some degree or another while also failing. It’s a hard film to watch both emotionally and technically, but it’s worth it. Rachel agreed that it was a good movie. Justine was an empathetic release for her, which concerned me considering the depths of depression that Justine went through. Bladerunner fulfilled the dark and drab and cynicism that she craved. She had read do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep her freshman year in college but had never seen Ridley Scott’s interpretation of the book. It’s just as good as the book with its emotionally stunted characters trying to piece together their life choices surrounded by decay and violence. We both agreed that the movie was perfect. It was the first time I ever found someone who agreed on that point other than Grace.

4

The rest of the day we spent reading Bleacher Report and coming up with fantasy football teams that we both wish we had started way at the beginning of the season. I had high school friends that I was marginally interested in seeing, but leaving to see them felt like abandoning her — that and I didn’t want to leave her, I wanted to stay with her and talk and have her as company as she was more interesting in a depressed state than my old high school friends. Grace joined our conversation when she could break away from my parents. While in Toronto she developed a love of Canadian football. I will agree that it is faster, in many ways more exciting than the NFL because of it’s greater emphasis on passing and it’s unique take on touchbacks and kick offs, but it doesn’t deliver the brutality and precision that the NFL has because of its deep background in strategy and obsessive professionalism stemming from its depths of funding. Strategy wise, the CFL is a game to watch and have fun watching, the NFL is a chess match where the pieces move themselves. Though there were no games on to watch being Christmas but the NFL Network was playing NFL Films repeats of Superbowls and major games. A three hour game condensed into one and a half hours filled with dynamic cinematography rather than the fixed point camera work found on network television is a highlight of that channel and quickly became a highlight of our days. My parents joined us for this as well.

My mother is the biggest Packers fan you will ever meet. She has bandanas for our dog, sweatshirts, she screams and yells at the TV like bar room drunks attempting to influence the referees with their slurred bellows. Our dog is terrified of Sundays when the game is on, he hides in the living room far away from the den. She doesn’t know much about the strategy of football like I do and like my father who actually played football in college, but she does know when a foul is committed and what a touchdown is a touchdown and not a fumble that went inside the endzone resulting in a touchback and loss of possession. Rachel also know about strategy and Dom Caper’s unique use of the nickel defense. My mother just liked that it won the superbowl. Sports were her release from the grind of death and decay in her job. At dinner when I would come back for a few days she would read the obituaries and discover which one of her patients died and then proceed to eat as though it was a news story about a far distant land. You need a release valve for that. Sports seemed to be hers.

My father is less of a fan than a devotee to the franchise lacking the fanaticism that my mother has. He watches the game, sometimes with a Miller Genuine Draft, sometimes without (once in a while it’s a Spotted Cow), it depends on how early the game is, and then he often finds a project to work on in the house. I’ve learned an assortment of home repair tips from him over the years that I have found bizarrely useful in rentals despite not being a home owner. He’s someone who hasn’t been depressed. I think my mother has. From him I get my awkward speaking and strange mannerism for better or for worse but they enable me to interact with the engineer class of humanity that Cliff belongs to and responds to since there is a method to the madness of the engineer class of society. He always has useful tips, some of which are in fact useful and not just fatherly useful tips that you eventually brush aside and discover they are rarely applicable. He once gave me a pep talk about suicide, there is no advice concerning suicide, it’s arational.

Rachel was slowly absorbed into my family of disfunction. It’s always better to have disfunction surrounding you when you’re disfunctional yourself. There’s little need to talk about what’s actually happening since there is an immediate empathy that is established for whatever could be said. The need to talk is removed and comfort replaces it.

The 23rd was harsh on me. I take 8 pills in the morning and getting them down is sometimes difficult. That day was particularly bad. When I set the pills down in the kitchen to start sorting them I began dry heaving at the smell of the chemical perfume released from the bottles. First it was the lamotrigine which is faint but toxic smelling and then the B multivitamin that reeks of chemicals. Taking my meds at a specific time is important and I had to choke them down to maintain the schedule. Each one went down harder as my throat closed tighter and attempted to stop the onrush of potentially toxic chemicals from entering my body. It was too much in the end. I rushed to the first floor bathroom and spent half an hour heaving without result until my abdominal muscles strained and buckled under the persistent contractions while my nostrils flared painfully open from the smell of impending vomit that creeped up in my throat. Rachel brought me ice water and sat there with me. I’ve vomited from taking my pills in the morning, I’ve spent hours in the bathroom hoping that that the day would end. Empathy is a two way street, Rachel also had problems swallowing her pill. It didn’t matter that we had a different amount, it mattered only in so far as we both struggled.

The heaving stopped and I was shaking and pale. I collapsed on the couch with my head on the armrest without anything to look at but the wall where the TV sat. Rachel sat down beside me. She slowly fell over placing an arm behind my back and wrapped the other around my chest and leaned her head on my shoulder and stared at the Christmas tree. There were no presents beneath it, just ornaments dangling from the boughs and lights laced between the branches. Growing up in Tennessee she always found Christmas greeting her with mountains of boxes to be unwrapped. Her and her father would take turns unwrapping the presents while her mother, armed with her latest camera, would take pictures both candid and posed. She asked me if my parents still brought down presents on Christmas Eve like Santa still existed and I said no. I grew up without presents. Not because we couldn’t afford them, we could. But Christmas was more about spending time together and spending time off together. Food, drink, togetherness. It’s surprising that other families don’t do the same thing. Actions based on caring and love rather than dollar amounts. Rachel liked the idea and was happy to be a part of it.

I then realized that she had moved from her corner to having human contact, contact with me. When I’m depressed I bristle at contact with other humans like they’re scraping sandpaper over me and she did as well when Harold showed any amount of affection toward her. She always grimaced slightly when he pecked her on the lips. It’s not psychological in a repressed attitude way where I am so filled with self loathing that I can’t possibly imagine someone caring enough to touch me. It’s just that I don’t like it, it seems unnatural like a breach of the bubble that wraps around my skin protecting me from the outside. Rachel went from being curled up in a ball in the far corner of the room to sitting next to me and even touching me. Whether it was the medicine or the environment or both I can’t tell, but she seemed to be doing better. I liked it though, I was afraid that Grace would find out and disapprove. But for a few minutes I didn’t care. I laid there feeling her breathing and the warmth of her arms wrapped around me. Then we heard footsteps and Rachel retreated. We watched more movies, then some football, then she took a nap with her feet resting in my lap. I gave her a small foot massage and she smiled, she smiled like I hadn’t seen before at the house, one of comfort rather than happiness.

Christmas Eve saw a blip of normalcy in her emotions. At my normal 7am wakeup she was already down there drinking coffee. Her usual 13 hours of sleep seemed to have retreated. I was worried. Antidepressants bring people up, but they can sometimes bring them too far up. Radical changes are not good in the world of psychopharmacology. But my fears of a mania were unfounded since she woke up from a series of nightmares and couldn’t bring herself to go back to sleep. Instead she stayed awake and drank coffee while looking out at my mother’s snow covered garden a little too apathetic to do anything else except for enjoying the silent morning. It was the way she talked this time that seemed better. She spoke in longer sentences with more adjectives. She wasn’t the quiet girl hovering over a roast attentively watching it. Instead she was a morose poet drinking coffee after a bad night. And then she started talking all by herself in the quiet of the morning ritual.

She was glad she came here instead of going to her parents. They weren’t bad parents by any means, far from it. They were warm and loving and caring and she loved them back. But she could tell that she wouldn’t get better there. Her parents were like my parents before mine got used to disfunction. They would swoon over their sacred only child, pester her with questions and offer platitudes in a vain attempt at bringing her out of her funk with words. More importantly, they wouldn’t be patient. It is a common thing to overreact to a deadly situation like depression. It is deadly, as deadly as finding out that your loved one has meningitis or some other deadly disease. But with deadly physical diseases you want people watching over and asking questions and making sure that everything is alright and actively checking in on every last detail. Annoying as it is, it’s comforting. Depression needs the slight touch. One of patience, belief that the medication will work at some point, and simple company. Living in a stress free environment without too much stimulation does the mind good. It’s why psych wards are built the way they are, minimal stimulation that at first feels agonizing but is really the best way to go to calm people down. Her parents would have smothered her out of good intentions and then she would have to spend 3 hours in a plane filled with sweaty smelly people sometimes clamoring for company and asking her question after question that she didn’t want to answer about her fucking holiday. Then she looked at me and smiled, refilled her coffee mug, and went down to the den. I had to turn the pellet stove on for her.

5

That evening my parents went to church while Grace and I stayed behind with Rachel. Rachel joined us in playing monopoly. She lost, but she was okay with being the first one out. She sidled over to Grace and leaned against her and watch Grace pummel me with hotels. She reveled in the schadenfreud of a loser watching another lose. It only took two hours for the game to finish and my parents returned from talking to every last possible friend they could spot at church. The last time I went the service was just a half an hour and I spent the remaining hour and a half waiting for them to finish talking. I had nothing I wanted to talk about with anyone and I forgot to bring my own car. A mistake I will never make again. We watched old TV shows that night and Rachel fell asleep early while reclined in her chair by the fire. We left her there with a blanket over her.

Christmas came and Rachel was worse — progress is never linear and I got my hopes up for nothing. It wasn’t worse worse, where she had slipped even deeper down the hole, but she was clearly in a haze and just wanted to be left alone. Grace and I joined my parents for brunch where we stuffed ourselves to the brim with sausages, bacon, and sweet rolls. We brought some to Rachel and she ate it all. It was after she began to eat that I noticed how her clothes hanged on her. She had lost a significant amount of weight over the semester from simply not eating. Even while at my parents she moved food around and rarely finished a plate. I started to think she was malnourished and brought a multivitamin. Sometimes the less obvious things are as important as medication. I’ve had periods of my life where I barely ate at all and I started to suffer from severe malnutrition. Good food, good atmosphere, all these things are needed to recover in addition to effective meds. After taking a multivitamin, some of the negative side effects went away, not everything, but some things. Everything matters to mental illness, everything, especially depression.

After two more good days, Rachel wanted to go back to the house. It wasn’t a rejection of the warm atmosphere, she loved it, she repeatedly said that she loved it. But being 21 and still relatively new to independence leads anyone to want to go back to their new home base. We packed up our freshly cleaned laundry and piled into the Neon. I ran it earlier so it was steaming hot inside to act as a reprieve from the bitter cold Wisconsin winters so that I could move from icicles forming on my mustache to melting warmness inside — I hate snotcicles. Grace and Rachel were also pleased by my decision to run the engine long enough, it was toasty and a nice break from the fifteen steps in the bitter cold taken without a jacket because they would just take them off once inside the car.

Rachel talked the way back about how excited she was to be going back home. Harold wouldn’t be there, it would just be me and Grace and her. Harold was still off with his parents and wouldn’t be back until midway through January. They were taking him skiing out in Colorado. He called Rachel once or twice over the short break and they talked for a few minutes but nothing more than him relaying what he was doing and updating her on plans. She talked about it afterwards without much emotion, it was just something that happened and she tried to put it in the past as quickly as possible. Rachel did not miss him and she hated skiing and Harold knew it but still invited her to come with. After Rosendale she started to dim from her momentary high and took a nap in the back seat. Grace laughed at the entire affair and how I had now assumed her role in the life of another. I was now a shepherd in my own right and she could watch from the sidelines and offer advice — Grace liked being a mom even though she hated children, really, she just wanted adult children and wanted to skip the whole giving birth and childhood thing. Rachel lightly snored in the back. I turned WPR down to let her sleep. Grace decided to take a nap as well. Christmas had been good to the three of us and we all were rested and well fed.

At home we unloaded and I collapsed on the couch with my duffle bag of clothing resting beside it, placed my aging laptop on the coffee table and brought up Futurama to fall asleep to. Driving always tired me out with the eternal stress of possibly dying hanging over my head — I also have anxiety issues on top of mood issues. Grace retired to her room to sleep off the mammoth breakfast where she feasted on the remnants of Christmas brunch that colored her occasional belches in the car with cinnamon and sausage. Rachel disappeared into her room as well and I passed out to the chimes of the theme song. The sun had gone down and it was the 27th of December. I woke up at night to find Rachel curled up with me on the couch watching TV while I laid on my back and her resting her head on my chest.

I wasn’t sure what to do, she was half awake. Her warmth felt good and it had been my failure with April since I felt anyone against me. Her arms were curled around me and I felt the warmth of her breasts press against me. It wasn’t something that I had thought about, I had a rule against dating people who were as fucked up as I am, but I wanted it, I wanted her. She sensed that I was awake and pulled herself up closer and rested her head in the nook of my neck and shoulders and lightly kissed my neck. I didn’t miss April, but I missed being with someone, and I wanted someone who could understand a piece of me. I pulled my arms around her and I felt her breathe a relief as her tense body relaxed. She closed her eyes and fell asleep while I lay awake wondering what the hell I had done. Grace came out of her room to find us. It wasn’t a scold or even disapproving like I expected, it was a groan at the drama that this would bring to our relatively drama free house, but she winked at me. I can never tell what’s really going on inside her head.

Rachel’s birthday was the next day. Mine is in early December and it’s placement lands right at the beginning of me spiraling down. I’ve only had one good birthday since college. I cried during it when it felt good. Maybe I wasn’t okay even then.

Through New Years Eve we spent time with one another on the couch passively absorbing culture curling closer together and forgetting about Harold and what would happen or what could happen. As we laid there I noticed my mind slowing down. Thoughts were brute facts surrounded by haze and filled with simplicity. This was the most of what happened to me in terms of depression as I entered the depths that in the past sucked me down into the hole that became January and would continue to happen to me in winters instead of depression — just a malaise that would hang. Grace talked to me about the coupling in the mornings, not saying that I should end it, but only that I be careful with it. She was always like that, she never disapproved of anything that I did, she only cautioned against my very bad decisions sometimes very sternly, especially ones that I was doing for selfish reasons like company — she was very mom-like in her tone, but also very sibling-like in her support of me finding someone new and moving on.

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