At the company that fired me last year I picked up the reputation of a serious coffee drinker — enough that at the holiday party, when they handed out silly awards I won Most Caffeinated. That really tickled me.
At that point I was drinking about a pot of coffee a day — half of that before I drove to the office.
I was also known as a whiskey drinker. That company had occasional happy hours where they provided wine and beer. I’d mingle, but seldom drink, until someone asked me why. When I told them I was more a whiskey man, a bottle of brown spirits appeared at future events.
I used to tell them, jokingly, that I drank coffee so they’d like me better, and whiskey so I’d like them better.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know that through the unbelievable series of unwelcome and unwanted life events my family has lived through the last three years, I was drinking shots of whiskey every night to come down off the day so I could sleep.
A few months ago I realized I was falling into a deep hole so I cut out alcohol entirely. Immediately, sleep came with difficulty and sometimes not at all. I had just started to find regular sleep again when I took my new job. It triggered three solid weeks of insomnia.
So I went to the doctor, who prescribed something short-term to take the edge off. It works great. I’ve also started seeing a therapist for support.
The doctor arched her eyebrow at how much coffee I drink, so I’m trying cutting way back on that, too. Instead of half a pot of coffee in the morning I now drink three cups of black tea. I like the experience of sipping a warm liquid as part of my morning ritual of breakfast and blogging, and I worried that if I went all the way to decaffeinated coffee the headaches would be debilitating.
At work I allow myself one cup of coffee. In the afternoon I try to cut out caffeine entirely, but if the craving is solid I’ll allow myself one more cup of tea.
That cuts my caffeine intake in half — and glory be, my body is less often edgy-anxious at bedtime. I need to pop the prescribed bedtime pill far less often now.
I have tentatively tried a little alcohol again over the last few weeks. Margaret and I drank a couple bottles of wine while we were in New Harmony and on our wedding anniversary here at home, and I’ve had a few cocktails while out with friends. What I’m not doing anymore is pouring a tall bourbon or scotch and sipping it in bed, and another and another or however many it took to put me to sleep. This is an experiment and we will see how it goes. As I said before, if booze won’t stay in the box I put it in, I’ll teetotal forever.
This isn’t a post about being a Christian, but I’m going to start with a story related to my Christian faith. Bear with me, it sets up my point.
Early after I started following Jesus a preacher talked to me about prayer, which is a foundation of the relationship we Christians build with Christ. He said, “People come to me all the time and say, ‘I’ve been praying, but I’ve lost the feeling. I feel like I’m just going through the motions. What do I do?’ I tell them to just keep on praying. If you keep praying, sooner or later you’ll find that connection with God again.”
It’s been good advice. But the underlying principle has also been good advice in my two main hobbies, writing and photography.
Sometimes the words don’t flow easily. Sometimes I just don’t feel like making photographs. The best thing to do at those times is, paradoxically, to write or to make photographs.
Doing these things primes the well’s pump. The well of creativity is never truly dry. When you keep trying, the good words and photographs eventually come back.
As you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, my family is living through some difficult challenges. I haven’t usually felt like writing or making photographs.
But I’ve been making myself do it. I just finished a roll in my Nikomat FTn and I have film in my Olympus XA now. I have pushed myself through a few photo walks of my usual subjects, things and places easily reached. I feel sure that there will be no portfolio-worthy shots on those rolls, one of Kodak Portra 400 and one of Ilford FP4 Plus. What matters is that I’m shooting.
And I’ve been making myself write. That’s where the recent post about my grandmother (read it here) came from. It was hard to write, not because of any emotional impact of the content, but because I strain to find the words.
Have you ever been “in the zone” with anything you do? Where you act with easy fluidity? Where good results materialize easily from your efforts?
I know that if I keep at it, soon enough I’ll be in the zone again.
All of the posts I’ve been sharing about the Michigan Road lately come from the trip Margaret and I made the day after Christmas. Margaret suggested that trip because she knew that I had become badly depressed after an incredibly hard year of loss and tragedy, and that road trips have always helped me find a little temporary joy.
There are two kinds of happiness, I think. One kind comes from short-lived pleasures, like eating a delicious meal, or sex, or watching a good movie. Or a road trip. Of course, shortly after the pleasure is over, so is the feeling of happiness that it brings.
The other kind comes from doing something valuable in the world. This kind of happiness has a better chance of lasting.
Kurt Garner and I started talking about the Michigan Road in May of 2008. We met through our blogs — both of us were writing about the road, and both of us were researching it online.
Kurt really is the mastermind. Getting the road named an Indiana historic byway was his idea, as was the way we went about doing it. He put together our organizational meeting of interested parties, up in Rochester, ten years ago on Jan. 31. I’m pretty sure it was also his idea to use the byway to drive heritage tourism into its counties, cities, and towns.
But we have been equal co-laborers, with plenty of help from many collaborators. Our work has included having wayfinding signs placed all along the route.
Seeing these signs on our trip was the best antidepressant I could have taken. Encountering them at every major crossroad and at every turn filled me with pleasure — and reminded me that I have indeed done something valuable in the world. Lots of people like following this byway. And we’ve honored this important piece of Indiana’s history. It is deeply satisfying to know we’ve done that.
Here are several of our signs doing their job.
Seeing our signs reminded me of the work it took to get them there. Several of us on our board collaborated to get it done. One board member arranged to have the signs designed and manufactured, and several other of us negotiated with various state and local authorities to have them installed.
I handled Indianapolis, meeting with the Department of Public Works. They were surprisingly happy to work with us. I also worked with a regional office of the Indiana Department of Transportation, where an official let me ride in his state-owned car through two counties so I could point out exactly where we wanted our signs to be placed.
I can’t believe that we have accomplished all of this. We’re just everyday Hoosiers who had some ideas and willingness to work toward them.
Most if not all of us is capable of doing something valuable in the world. It doesn’t have to be something as big as getting a road named a historic byway. It just has to be something that gives you some goals to go after and stretches you. Something that, if you look, you can see the results.
I think you can define “valuable in the world” pretty broadly. You just need to do something you find meaningful. Maybe you love your family well. Maybe you master a skill, such as cabinetmaking or photography. Maybe you give your nonworking time to your church or to a nonprofit. Maybe you rise in the ranks at work. Maybe you get fit or finish school while working full time. It’s up to you.
This kind of happiness lasts. It doesn’t mean you’ll never feel blue — but when you do, you can reflect on the good things you’ve done and be reminded that you have every reason to be happy. Maybe it’ll help you recover faster.
I forgot that as I headed into this road trip. I’m so glad the signs were there to remind me.
After two recent high-profile suicides in the news, I am reminded of this piece I wrote in 2011. If you ever stand on that edge, wait, because it always gets better.
I was away at my first year of engineering school working harder than ever before — or since, for that matter. My full class load delivered six to ten hours of homework every day. To keep up, I worked each night into the wee hours. My life consisted of meals, class, homework, and too little sleep.
As my fatigue mounted, my health began to suffer. Worse, I became isolated and I lost hope. I fell into a deep funk. I began thinking a lot about how I might be better off no longer walking around on the face of the Earth.
That’s when I came across this record.
This is Paul McCartney’s first solo album after the Beatles broke up. He released it in 1970, but I first heard it 15 years later in my dorm room at the center of my despair. The music sounded spare; many mixes were rough and some songs seemed unfinished. The songs gave a strong sense of a man shut away in a room, playing alone, trying to get his head together. Indeed, Paul produced and engineered the album himself. Except for an occasional backing vocal from his wife Linda, he played and sang every note.
McCartney’s signature musical move has always been to find a bright side even when the going is rough. This song, which closed side 1, is a perfect example. It led me to consider that after the Beatles ended, he released (at that time) more than a dozen albums and had given concerts all over the world. It had been impossible to listen to the radio and not hear his music! He’d done quite all right in the intervening years. I could see that perhaps so could I, and so perhaps I should push through.
As I remember my father, who died last month, I want to rerun this story I first published here in April, 2007.
My dad once told me that I was the most joyful little boy he had ever known. During my first few years, he said, I seemed to constantly have a big beaming smile on my face, and everything seemed to make me happy. The few memories I have of my first three years seem to support his perception. Here are all of them:
First, I watched on TV as Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I don’t remember the landing, but I do remember that it was sponsored by Gulf Oil with its big red-circle logo and its name within. Mom says that at every commercial break, I pointed at the screen and exclaimed, “Gulf!”
Next, I used to get up when Dad’s alarm went off at 5 a.m., go quietly into my parents’ room, and lie still on the corner of their bed in the dark. The radio played softly, always on the Hit Parade station, while Dad dressed for work. I heard Karen Carpenter sing and when I closed my eyes her voice made me see colors that flowed and shifted with her song. I hoped to hear her song every morning.
Finally, I woke up in the hospital after surgery groggy and angry, but very glad when Dad came to take me home. He picked me up and, as I moved through the air on my way to his chest, my anger faded. I felt secure way up there with my head on his shoulder, looking down at the recovery room. He says that I said to him, “They’re not doing that to me again!”
These memories suggest to me that I took life as it was and easily experienced the feelings that went with it. No wonder I found it easy to feel joy. I felt easily.
My next memories, much more vivid and detailed, are of Kindergarten. My school looked like a castle in red brick trimmed in white with a slate roof and copper gutters. Room 001 was just inside the east entrance, and although the room had two entrance doors, you had to go in the far door because the near door was always locked. The room had a dim cloakroom with cubbyholes for coats and rubbers, and I’m pretty sure there was a tiny restroom in there with just a sink and a toilet. There were five or six low rectangular tables that held six children each, and the teacher had placed a big wooden block on each one, each block a different color, to identify the groups. We did most things with our color groups.
At the other end of the room was a wide fireplace, and before it a red circle laid into the tile floor. The whole class sat on the circle when Mrs. Coles read to us or we showed our toys at show and tell. We also laid mats down there when we napped. The teacher’s desk was by the fireplace; behind it was a nook chock full of toys including a child-sized kitchen and a big gray wooden box with an old Ford steering wheel and column sticking out of it. Mrs. Coles was a stout, grandmotherly woman with sliver and white cat’s-eye glasses and white hair. She drove her gray 1968 Chevy Malibu coupe (which had a black vinyl top) one whole block from her home to school every morning, where she parked on the street across from the school’s east entrance. Curiously, she always sat in her car for five minutes fiddling with her purse before coming inside.
Clearly, my memory had switched on.
I often felt lonely in that room with 25 kids. I often drove the pretend Ford by myself, in part because I liked cars but also because it was safer not to risk playing with others. The boys pushed and shoved and chased each other and sometimes I got hurt. The girls never caused pain, but I didn’t enjoy always being the husband or the son in their endless games of House. Also, at a time when schools didn’t teach reading until the first grade, I started Kindergarten already able to read. I was proud to be able to read, but Mrs. Coles didn’t believe I could. When I read her a page from a book, she seemed annoyed rather than pleased. I was crushed that she wasn’t as happy with my reading as I was. I also have a couple vague memories of her forcing me to write with my right hand, which confused and upset me because I was just as good with my left hand and liked writing with whichever hand felt good.
I faced school as earnestly as I could, but I was lost. When my first report card came, the teacher had remarked in it, “Jimmy should smile more. He’s so serious.”
I’m not sure what changed in me. Maybe I wasn’t quite emotionally ready for school. Perhaps something about my upbringing squashed my natural joy. Perhaps I was just depressed. Who knows; I can’t reach those memories.
A clue came when I was 16. I spent a summer in Germany on an Indiana University exchange program where I would deepen my German language skills. Even though my family always lived on a tight budget, my father stunned me by making the funds appear to send me on this trip. It took me a couple weeks to let my hair down and find my groove, but once I did I had the time of my life. I made some friends, lived with a nice family, studied German language and culture intensively, and traveled around Germany. I walked 539 steps to the top of the Cologne Cathedral. I drank beer in a little pub in Düsseldorf with a crusty but amused barkeep who explained the secret of the beer coaster and why you never turn it over. I got lost in West Berlin with a friend and spent an evening wandering streets to find our way back to the hostel. I touched the Wall and heard the stories of many who died trying to cross from east to west. I toured a prison where Nazi political enemies were hanged.
I stood on the ground where Christian writer Thomas a Kempis lived. I took a slow boat down the Rhine River and saw the Lorelei. I swam at a pool where clothing was optional from the waist up for everybody. I drank beer with East German teenagers and found that our differing political ideologies mattered not at all compared to our common desires for girlfriends, cars, and beer. It was heady stuff that produced a natural high, but I also was given the freedom and trust to handle myself over there. It let more of the real me come out — and so joy returned. But when I came home, I experienced more than the natural letdown from such a wonderful trip — I found that the world to which I returned didn’t fit the joyful Jim; instead, it was shaped for the serious Jim. With sadness and resentment, I put joyful Jim away, and then the black curtain fell on my first major depression, which did not lift for months.
20 years or more ago popular psychology started talking about how everybody needs to get in touch with their inner child. Then as now, the idea makes me want to gag. But as I’ve worked over the years to improve myself, joyous Jimmy kept appearing and asking for an audience to air his grievances for being put away for more than a quarter century. As I have listened to him, he has slowly been returning to his place within me. My, um, inner child is back! But I also find that the serious Jim isn’t going anywhere. They are both parts of me. Maybe the inner-child crowd really means to say that without being all of who we are, which means bringing back all the parts of us we put away when we were little, we will always struggle to find wholeness, contentment, and peace.
Depression and I go way back. My first serious depression fell when I was 16 and lasted months. I spent a couple years of my early 20s depressed, and then again in my early 30s. That depression was so strong that I hoped my car would veer off course and hit a brick wall hard enough to end my suffering.
My last serious depression fell in my late 30s as my first marriage crumbled away. It was the worst one of my life, made so by the trauma of our ugly divorce. Were it not for a core, immutable desire to be there with and for my children, and were it not for some key people who encouraged and supported me, I would not have survived it.
I am not qualified to say what causes depression. Especially yours, if you suffer. I do think that for some it’s just part of how their brains are wired. I think I have a touch of that kind of baseline melancholy. My default setting on the happiness meter rides just below the midpoint.
But what I figured out during my last major depression is that, deep down, I believe that I can’t affect what’s wrong in my life. As a result, when wrong things pile up I drown in them.
I’ve come to see that, for me, this feeling is much more nurture than nature. I lived a childhood where I had little agency, even through my late teens. And so I entered adulthood with the false belief that I simply had to endure things that were not as I wanted them to be, even when they were harmful to me.
It’s largely not true, of course. Sure, some life problems really just have to run their course. But with effort and sometimes persistence I really can solve many of my own problems. And so when the blues start to descend, today I take action. This has kept me from serious depression for about a decade now. Maybe it will help you, too, if you suffer. The concept is simple enough:
Pick something that is wrong that you can fix, and fix it.
Obviously, it’s ideal when what you pick is among the most impactful things wrong in your life. But perhaps that’s beyond you right now. Fortunately, you really can choose anything that’s wrong. You can even use the word “wrong” loosely — you can “fix” anything that would be improved by your time and effort. Whatever you fix brings two benefits:
It shrinks your load of wrong things in your life, even if by only a little bit.
It fills your brain with all sorts of feel-better chemicals. I don’t know whether it’s the dopamine or the serotonin or the oxytocin, but I do know that it pushes the dark feelings away a little for a while.
This helps keep gray sadness from turning into black depression. If I’m full-on depressed, if I can do this it brings me back to gray sadness. I don’t enjoy gray sadness, but I function well enough there. And if I keep fixing what I find to be wrong, sometimes this even restores me to full vitality.
The difficult things life simply deals you can really pile up. They sure piled up on my wife and me in 2017. It’s been very hard. We’re not through all of it yet. I’ve had some deep sadness over the last many months.
But because I keep fixing wrong things I haven’t succumbed to that enveloping blackness. I can’t fix it all — some of what’s wrong in our lives is beyond our control. We just have to ride it out. But as I’ve written before, here, things always change; the difficulties you face now are never forever.
But whatever I can fix, I do. Some days my sadness has been intense enough that the biggest thing I could fix was to make the bed after I pushed myself out of it. You have to scale this to your ability on any given day. Give it the best you have, even if today’s best happens not to be very good.
Sometimes I’ve been able to fix small things, like tidying up a cluttered room or washing a mountain of dishes in the sink. Sometimes it’s been medium-sized, like when I spent most of a Saturday getting safety-related repairs made to Margaret’s car. Sometimes it’s been big, like working with Margaret last fall to move her parents into assisted living.
Sometimes the thing I’ve fixed has been my own negative attitude about something, when there were more accurate and positive ways to look at it.
If you’re suffering today, you may think I’m off my nut, that this is too much to ask. I understand. I’ve been that depressed. But can you find something to fix today and see if it helps? Can you try?
If you are unable to act on anything, you need help beyond anything my little blog can provide. I’m not a mental-health professional; I’m just telling you something that works for me.
If you suffer, I hope this helps you today.
When I write about depression directly like this, frequently your comments ask if I’m okay. The answer is yes: I’m all right. Life’s just been extremely challenging and occasionally deeply disappointing, and I’m very sad about it. But because I keep fixing the wrong things that I can, I’ll pull through the rest of it and be even better on the other side.