Laughing at a Dump Truck Full of Dead Babies
“What’s worse than a dump truck full of dead babies?” my teenage niece asks me suddenly. I shake my head without a clue how to respond. “Unloading them with a pitchfork,” she answers with perfect deadpan timing.
I laugh. I laugh so hard tears fill my eyes. My sides feel like they’re being squeezed by a gigantic hand. I haven’t laughed like this in four, maybe five months. I don’t know. It’s been so long I can’t remember. I’ve been in a fog. A daze. A darkness that smothers me.
The longest depressive state I’ve ever crawled through. Still is. I don’t know yet. That’s how it works—just creeps in without any sign of ever leaving. My on-going struggle with depression is a topic I’m reluctant to talk about.
Explaining such illogical despair to someone who has never experienced it requires too much energy only to be asked why I can’t just force myself to snap out of it. Worse are fellow Christians who fervently diagnose my condition as merely the devil controlling my mind before then recommending I replace the bad thoughts with good ones. The first good thought that pops into my head is to punch them in the throat. I wait for the anger to come, but it never does. Depression bleeds out my feelings—all of them.
Officially I am Bipolar—Bipolar II to be exact. The diagnoses didn’t thrill me once my psychiatrist said it. When people hear the word, they often think of erratic behavior, extreme mood swings, drug and alcohol abuse, the go-to characteristics of being manic-depressive. Basically, you’re crazy. But as with most mental illnesses, it’s difficult for people to see Bipolar disorder in terms of an actual medical illness that in this case causes unusual shifts in energy, activity levels, and the ability to accomplish what you want to.
Besides, why would I ever want to bring any of this up in a conversation? Depression is, well, depressing. Who wants to hang out with Ron, that guy who’s constantly talking about his sadness? I don’t even like hanging out with me, but I do so anyway by default and because it’s easier to keep isolated. I’ve become good at it even in public. Aside from those mornings when I am left too paralyzed to get up, I go to work; I do my job, and I am left alone.
All this and I haven’t yet mentioned the biggest reason I keep quiet—I’m a guy. Guys aren’t supposed to be depressed. We’re men, damn it! Men know how to throw a perfect punch, never miss a tee time with friends, drive their families around in eight-passenger SUV’s, and possess the chiseled jawline and self-assuredness of Don Draper. Well, it’s either that or we’re supposed to be so slovenly stupid that our lone hope for survival is exclusively dependent on the female of our species.
Honestly, both extremes frustrate me. The expectation to channel Draper-esque confidence is as demoralizing to me as being pegged an idiot. Either way, there is no middle ground, no spectrum of reality where it’s normal for a guy to say, “Hey, I’m so depressed, I’d rather shovel dead babies from the rusty bed of a 25-ton Caterpillar Super Truck than get up and deal with one more day.” Try using that line without assuming you won’t get some strange looks after somebody asks you how’s it going.
As I’ve thought about it, I’m of the opinion that it’s easier for a man to announce he’s gay than it is to admit he’s depressed. For one, the very term gay (to be happy) has depressed (wallowing in a pit of dead babies) beat by a long shot. Truth is when opening up about being gay, most people (the non-judgey ones at least), pat the guy on back and applaud his courage (and rightfully so). “Good for you!” they say. Confess, however, to your struggles with depression and the best you can hope for is an empathetic response followed by, “Are you taking any medication?” The underlying irony in all this is that chronic depression is just as much a part of a person as being gay is for someone else.
But to answer the question, yes, I do require medication. I’ve gorged myself at the buffet on the dining car of the pharmaceutical crazy train. Sometimes it helps just long enough to get a few hours of work done, or to write part of an essay, or to listen to my kids for a change, or to sound completely sane to others, or perhaps not. Assuming you’re on the right meds (because the wrong ones can be another ring in hell) it’s never the same, and the effects never last.
Eventually I find myself lost again in the strange, twisted version of OZ, on my seemingly hopeless quest for courage, heart, and a chemically balanced brain.
I realize how bleak everything I’ve described must sound. It has its moments, but depression can be overcome. The meds help, but this option alone isn’t enough. There’s more involved, starting with a decision to be well, to do things I don’t want like seeing a therapist regularly and opening up to other guys in spite of my natural reluctance. Talking about it. I hate it. I hate fighting to ignore the feelings of weakness that hold me back, but I force myself to do it anyway.
Today I do something new. Today I go for a run. It kills me. My lungs are blazing after only a minute and thirty-seven seconds. People walking their dogs are passing me. I might be having a heart attack. How can this be good for me? I try to forget this as my feet shuffle against the pavement, and from somewhere above the music blaring through my headphones I hear my niece’s voice. “Hey Uncle Ron, what do your friends and a tree have in common?” She pauses then delivers the punchline. “If you hit them with an ax enough times they’ll eventually fall down.”
I laugh. I laugh out loud.
Ron Mattocks is a father of three boys, a blogger at Clark Kent’s Lunchbox and author of the book, Sugar Milk: What One Dad Drinks When He Can’t Afford Vodka. His writing about topics such as modern fatherhood and male depression can be found in a number of publications to include The Huffington Post and the TODAY Show. He lives in Indiana where he leads the secret life of a history nerd and is often made fun of for his love of Coldplay.