Genie In A Bottle

In my first post I commented that when depression and anxiety took over my life it seemed very sudden. Like a car wreck where you never see the other car until you have smashed together I felt completely blindsided. After some time had passed and I had myself on a reasonably even keel again I was able to look into my past and see that in fact the depression had always been there lurking below the surface. The anxiety I am not so sure about, but the depression had always been there.

I was a very serious kid. I am an only child and people often told me that the maturity of my actions were a result of being raised in the company of adults. There may be something to that, but mature people smile. I didn’t. I know people noticed, but if anybody was worried they never said anything. To be fair I never thought anything of it either. It was just who I was. I never had a lot of friends, but I also had very strict parents that kept my ability to socialize outside of school or organized activities to a minimum. Even when it was happening I blamed their rules more than anything else for my social situation. The truth was I had little in common with most of my peers so I didn’t really care. It was in college when I realized that I was unapproachable. I had a small group of very good friends in college. By the time we were juniors they would tell me that other students would ask them about me. They all assumed because I was so serious all the time and never smiled that I was an asshole.

I was also a deep thinker. Not so much is terms of philosophy, but empathy. I could always put myself in the shoes of another. I was aware of how my actions impacted others. Like any other kid I didn’t always care, but I was aware, and I took things very much to heart. My father was a strict disciplinarian and I grew up in a world of black and whites. There was little room for gray. This belief system was deeply instilled and even today I have a very strong sense of right and wrong, but age and experience has taught me much, and I no longer look at the world in such a narrow way. Of course as a kid being unable to see any gray put every action, particularly my own, squarely in one category or the other, this can be dangerous in terms of developing a person’s self worth.

I remember being ten or eleven years old and being in a local book store with a friend. We stole a couple little plastic toys from a bin near the front of the store. This would have been the late eighties and these cheap little toys probably cost ten cents apiece. Maybe a quarter but I doubt it. Now you’re probably reading this thinking this guy just spent a whole paragraph talking about empathy, and right vs. wrong, and how he was different than most of his peers, then tells us he is a thief. Exactly. Three days passed. I couldn’t sleep. I was consumed by guilt and before bed one night I told my mother what I had done. I was terrified of my father, but the guilt was worse so I ratted on myself. My father was perceptive enough to see that I had punished myself more than he ever could so the punishment was simple. We would take the toys back. Simple… right. Except I was in Scouting and the night I took them back we had a meeting so I returned the items while wearing my scout uniform. That juxtaposition pretty much tells the story of my childhood.

By the time I hit college internal conflict was in full swing. I had set a goal very early, sixth grade I think, to attend the Naval Academy. Nothing else was more important than that, and nearly everything I did from that time was calculated towards achieving this goal. Long story short I didn’t get in. I was lost after and took a year off before going to college. During that year I fell in love with sailboats, and by the time I hit college I wasn’t sure that working in the traditional sense was what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to be near the boats, but my family was used to my goal oriented approach. I was the first in my family to go to college and everybody expected big things. Or at least I felt they did. As if that pressure wasn’t enough I wanted to be a pilot, but aviation college is obscenely expensive, and even with loans I simply couldn’t afford it. My uncle worked for a very wealthy man who was made aware of my circumstances. I was invited to accompany him on his yacht one afternoon; my uncle was the captain, where after a short conversation I was told not to worry about the money. I had never been handed anything like this before. I wasn’t stupid and I took the money, but the sense of responsibility that came with it was suffocating. I was driven during those four years of school to prove I was worth the money he was investing in me. I finished at the top of my class. Gave a graduation day speech and everything, and I cried. The relief was enormous, but within a matter of hours my world, which I had been holding onto so tightly for so long, began to crumble around me.

The question that this has always left me with is what changed? On one hand the answer is obvious. graduating from college is the last big rite of passage leading towards adulthood, but can it really be that simple? Retrospection has shown me that the depression was there from an early age, but it was under control. It didn’t run my life. For years I wondered what it was that let the genie out of the bottle. I thought that if I could answer that question maybe I could find a way to stuff it back in. As the years have passed it has become clear that the genie is going nowhere, but I still wonder what the trigger was. Anybody who has suffered depression that comes on like this, that is depression that seems to have no particular source, knows that the forces that cause it are complex, but if I had chosen some other path would it have stayed put? Stayed manageable? Would it not become the force that has controlled the direction of my life all these years?

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16 thoughts on “Genie In A Bottle

  1. We have a lot in common. I, too, am an only child. I, too, was a driven, ambitious kid tormented by Jiminy Cricket only I stole a pen that looked like a lollipop. That’s the only thing I’ve ever stolen. My father was strict, too. Very strict, and I was also terrified of him. Ironically, he’s a Christian Sci-fi author which makes no sense to me because I don’t think he’d know Christ if he walked up and kissed him on the cheek. It’s all nonsense. So, going along the lines that I can relate to everything that you posted…when you were younger, in high school, and your goal was the Academy, could you see beyond that? I don’t mean in a fuzzy sort of way, but when I was in high school, a motivational speaker would be foisted upon us, and I would have to endure his “What’s your dream” speech. I hated them because *my* goal was college. I, too, was the first person in my family to go to college, and *that* was the goal. College. Get there. Do it. Graduate. Med school after. Period. I thought those motivational speeches were crap. So, what about you? Were you able to see your life play out? Make long-term goals, see your life play out post-Academy? Make a map? I ask because, in retrospect, I could not. I could only see that one goal. When I did graduate from college after really milking it–attending three colleges, one in a foreign country, I found that upon graduation day, I, too, was near the edge of falling apart. The only difference is that I was pregnant. I got married near the end of undergrad, and five months into marriage I got pregnant very unexpectedly. Plan B….If my daughter had not been born, giving me a a new sense of purpose, then I know I would have fallen apart, too. Darkness would have descended upon me. It’s taken me years to understand why, but I’m just curious to know if you shared my sense of “foreshortened future”.

    • I don’t think I have ever been asked that question before. Thinking about it now I don’t think I could. The goal beyond the Academy was to be a Navy pilot. My eventual choice to go to an aviation centered college was supposed to be a step in the direction after the Academy turned me down. Beyond school and flying for the Navy I had no other vision of what life would be. I just had The Goal. I was so focused on The Goal that when I graduated from high school I honestly didn’t care. It was just one more box checked off on the journey. I have no idea why it was that way. I have never given it any thought, but the idea that I had no plan beyond graduating from college, by then my military dreams had been dashed by an old high school football injury, may have something to do with the onset of the depression. On the other hand none of my peers had any plans that I was aware of, and by then I was well aware that making one was pretty pointless. I had focused my entire life on a single plan and I had zero control over its success or failure. I had had faith that hard work and focus was all it would take, my previous experience had told me this was so.
      I am beginning to ramble here as I think aloud onto the computer screen. To the point I would say yes I shared your sense of a foreshortened future, though I am not sure why, and I am not sure of its significance. Something to ponder.

      • A sense of a foreshortened future is incredibly significant if you consider your own background. A sense of a foreshortened future is a symptom of (don’t get alarmed here) PTSD which is an anxiety disorder. I’m not diagnosing *you*. I’m just making an observation. One doesn’t have to go through something horrible like a plane crash to experience a sense of foreshortened future. Living in a home where there is an experience of longterm fear of a parent would produce it. Basically, one develops “tunnel vision”–find the goal, get there, achieve it. It’s a coping strategy developed to survive the present, whatever that present might look like. I was an only child. Perform perform perform. No one said that my worth was based on performance, but it was. Work hard, never fail, “give it your best”, and accomplish it. Did it matter that I was up for a Rhodes Scholarship? No. Somehow it never mattered. Did it matter that I got a partial scholarship? “Why didn’t you get a full one?” I got an A! “Why didn’t you get an A+?” Pile on the enormous religious shame, my immense nervousness at being anywhere near my father…I was the quiet serious kid, too. I was terrified all the time when I had to see him. I was so glad that my parents were divorced. He scared the shit out of me. All this is to say, when the Goal is reached, what does the mind do after that? Enormous anxiety sets in because the Goal was the anchor, and now you’re adrift. You have no future. The sense of foreshortened future is one of the least discussed symptoms of this particular anxiety disorder. I don’t know why. I believe it’s because few therapists know how to treat it. Ironically, I am seeing my therapist tomorrow, and I’m actually going to discuss this very thing. But, I have struggled with it for almost 20 years, and this very thing has been the single reason for most of my own self-destructive behavior. What’s more, now that I’m aware of it, most of that behavior has stopped. And, a lot of my melancholy which I thought I was cursed with–you know, “You’re just a deep person. Some people are just melancholy.” That melancholy has started to go. I’ll probably blog about it because there is so little out there. Funnily, I asked a friend of mine about it. She’s so brilliant and lovely, and she grew up in an oppressive environment. I asked her what i asked you. She answered the same. When I named it–foreshortened future. She cried. She said, ‘You mean I’m not the only one? Other people feel this way, too?” And, she struggles with depression, too.

      • I find your comment intriguing. I have never considered any of this. Much of what you say I can relate too. I will say that my parents were very proud of everything I accomplished as a child and young adult. I believe they are still proud of me today. The pressure to perform, academically or otherwise, came from me. The problem with discussing depression is that there are too many threads. You pull on one and it unravels another. This makes it difficult to write about. I can say X happened and had Y effect, but the truth is A, B, and C all figure in as well.

        Anxiety disorders are something I am familiar with. I have gotten there in my writing yet, but in many ways the anxiety is worse than the depression. I know the anxiety has cost me more personally, and it scares me more than the depression. Being terrified for no reason is hard to explain. It is also hard to live through. PTSD has been part of my discussion with various therapists, not as a diagnosis but as a way of framing the conversation around anxiety in general. Where my parents fit into this I don’t know. I know that they are both hard working people who tried their very best to put me first and sacrificed personally and financially for my benefit. We were poor and the financial sacrifices they made were no small think. I have had limited conversations about this and always feel guilty as hell when I bring them into it. My mother suffers from much the same problems as myself. There are similar problems on both sides of the family. I prefer to chalk it all up to genetics. My father was not physically abusive in any way. Verbal abuse gets a little grayer. In the black and white world I grew up in he was not. I was not called names, I was not belittled, devalued, or blamed for his problems. He was a yeller, and had an unpredictable hair trigger on his temper. This is where the gray fits in and some conversations around PTSD have come into therapy. He would yell at me and my mother over the littlest shit. I was terrified of his temper, and lived with the yelling and its unpredictable nature until I was about sixteen. At that point I fought back and when I stood up to it it mostly stopped being directed towards me. My mom continued to take it, and I found myself mediating my parent’s marriage, something that still happens though my Dad has mellowed considerably with age.

        So could all of this have contributed to the sense of a foreshortened future? Probably. But the sense of being lost and aimless still continues. I have found a new direction only to have it snatched out from under me repeatedly. I tend to think the continual feeling of loss has more to do with my current predicament, but of course this conversation started by talking about what got all this going in the first place. I am not sure where it fits in the larger scheme, and am still not sure what to do with the idea, but you have given me something to think about.

      • Thanks for the dialogue and for your willingness to share. I hope that I didn’t come off as imposing my own opinions on you. It’s easier for me to “talk” with others over coffee/wine and in person. I absolutely love authentic conversations with others even if it’s about painful things. This sort of setting is rather odd albeit quite 21st. century. I read your reply, and I found myself saying, “Yes, and…” and “Oh, I hear that, and what about…”, but I don’t think you need some woman/stranger continuing to carry on and on. With that, I’ll just say that I look forward to seeing where you take your blog as well as where your blog takes you.

      • I appreciate your responses and insights. Nothing has been imposing. I have never had an “in person” conversation about any of this with somebody that wasn’t being paid to listen. I would love to, but it is just not possible in my world so this is the next best thing I suppose. Feel free to comment whenever something strikes you. It helps to motivate the writing when people are reading it.

      • LOL…don’t I know it! About the reading part….Oh, C, I hope one day you *will* have the privilege of having those conversations. I suppose it’s one of my favorite parts about being a girl. But, my husband doesn’t have that either….he only has that with me. Would that it were different….

  2. Hi there. Thank you for visiting my blog and for commenting. I hope that it helps to know that you are not alone. I, like you, have always been a “deep thinker” and I have done a lot of research that states that deep thinkers like creatives / writers / artists have that higher instance of depression and anxiety because they are constantly reflecting, considering, looking at things from another perspective than most non-depressed people. I wish you all the best in your journey through this. I know all to well how hard it can be. Hang in there and keep writing… if only for yourself. Who cares what others think. But I am sure you’re find that your posts will be helpful for many people who are also struggling and would like to know they are not alone but who don’t necessarily have the ability, courage or desire to write about it.

  3. I can relate to a lot of what you’re saying even if my situation is a bit different.

    I believe that the depression wouldn’t have stayed put; it would’ve come out sooner or later. That was my experience. I’d dealt with depression since I was ten at least. Nevertheless, I did well in school and generally functioned. It seemed that it was manageable.

    Then one day everything crumbled. I found it spiraling out of control. I kept a lid on it for about two years before the explosion blew the cap off of the bottle.

    I was also a very serious kid. I never smiled until I was in high school. I’d offer pretend smiles all the time because I knew I was expected to smile, but that was about it. The conscience thing also sounds like me. Some of my background has taught me to see things in grays, but I’ve been used to the idea that I have to hold myself to a higher stand. I could tell a similar story about theft and guilt I felt for years even though it was accidental.

    Perhaps there’s something about certain personality characteristics that make us susceptible?

  4. Wow, I never asked myself that before, about what made my depression unleash itself so powerfully and quickly. Of course I can attribute a large part of it to having a miscarriage, but I don’t know if that was the main thing. It has taken over my life in a matter of 2 months.
    Where you & I are different though is that on the days when I’m “up”, I smile and laugh and act like a totally “normal” person; a person people would want to be around. When I’m down I don’t even want to be around myself.

    • A lot of my current problems stem from a constant feeling of loss so I can easily see how a miscarriage could trigger depression. Between the obvious feelings of loss and the hormone flucuations it seems like it would be a common trigger. I know people who have had experiences or been in situations that caused depression. They used meds to allow themselves to reset so to speak then were able to come off the drugs and never had problems again.

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