UNDERSTANDING DENNIS by D.L. McHale


 

***TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains small mentions of self-harm and institutionalization.***

Today I want to talk about something that has been swimming around in my head for weeks. I guess you could say this post is an accumulation of high emotions, stress, and some really tactless things I have heard from people who meant well. There are a few in my life who actually understand where I’m coming from… thanks Jeri and Susan and Julie and my sweet Nikie. I’m not going to unleash 40+ years of preteen, wannabe rebellion drama on to you; please know that all of this is coming from the heart; an excerpt from my life.

Following this post, I share a poem I wrote that attempts to sum up my dysthemia (chronic depression) in an easier, entertaining format. Depression is hard to put into words for those who have never experienced it. Sometimes a poem helps. Maybe.

To start off, I have been struggling with depression for at least 45 years. In middle school I had some issues with my classmates. A lot of them thought I was strange because one day I wanted to talk to everyone, huge smile on my face – and then the next I would withdraw or lash out angrily at anyone who dared look at me the wrong way. It was a time when I was just starting to realize that I was different, that something akin to a sezure was going to assert itself at random moments in my brain and in my life.

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There was never relief at home for there was horror in that house visted continuously upon myself and my five siblings. I avoided going home at all costs. For a while, I had no way of coping besides throwing ridiculous tantrums to push people away; I stopped talking. Nobody knew what to do with me, so my mother started making me read and write to bring my grades up. When I actually became interested in reading, and especially writing, it became a coping mechanism. To this day, writing is my one place I can retreat to be heard and to find peace..

In high school my depression quickly escalated, especially during my sophomore and junior years. I was still reading and writing to cope, but I had absolutely no motivation in my education. I didn’t skip to be rebellious, I skipped because the anxiety of walking in to class was too much to bear. I can remember seeing the doorway to any of my classrooms, knowing there was a teacher and other students on the other end feeling like my lungs collapsed.

It took little to no thought, almost as if on instinct, for me to turn my feet in the other direction and skip my afternoon classes until the day was over. I was not bullied, I wasn’t hurt in any way by any of my teachers or students, there was no substance abuse when I skipped, but my parent’s couldn’t comprehend what was wrong. All they knew was that I was very quiet and withdrawn and nothing seemed to be helping.

Around this time, I started exhibiting self-harm behaviors: climbing rooftops and jumping, running away for a week or two at a time, taking full bottles of whatever was in the medicine cabinet. Once, I even took all of my mother’s birth control pills. But perhaps the most alarming was locking myself in my bedroom and choking myself with a belt until I passed out. I practiced hanging myself. Anything to escape the fear, the anxiety…the darkness.

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By junior year I was continually self-harmful and hiding it from my only friend and my family. When my best friend found out she told her mother and she contacted my parents. The result was several trips to a psychiatrist that I absolutely loathed, and a therapist who was so unbelievably optimistic she could have been in Legally Blonde, but wearing baby blue 24/7 instead of pink. I stopped hurting myself (for a few years) but I still skipped class daily, read books to the detriment of my social life. Naturally, I gravitated to dark writers…Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Sylvia Plath, etc….and continued to be either withdrawn or aggressive with my family. During this time I was on medication, under the guidance of my psychiatrist.

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I stuck to this uncertain way of life for a while, finding two friends struggling with the same situation I was. They were my support system, one of which I still talk to today. By the time I finished high school and started college, I had stopped taking my medication. I didn’t think there was a need for it anymore.

My first year was academically successful, but my mental state was getting increasingly worse and more unpredictable than usual. I was suffering. I managed to walk to my classes without freaking out about being watched until I sat down, and the dark fog would envelope me, but I was learning to function even in that darkness. It was a huge step forward. My academic advisor, however, was not happy with the lack of motivation in my education and prompted me to take on more classes. I’m not shoving the full blame of my ensuing emotional breakdown on him, however I do feel that my need to please him and avoid conflict was to take on 19 credits, an internship and an on campus job….all of which led to more depression.

I barely made it through my first semester before I was so emotionally and physically exhausted I could barely get out of bed. I was forgetting to eat and getting 3 hours of sleep on a daily basis.

During this time I talked to several different people to get help. I talked to the free on campus counseling, to which some of my friends went with me for support. It was great to have that outlet, but it wasn’t helping enough. I was so malnourished I lost nearly 25 pounds in the span of a month. Finally my roommate took one good look at me and told me if I didn’t get out of bed the next day by 12pm he was going to send me home with his mother if he had to. I ended up dropping out of college my sophomore year and coming back home.

I took the rest of the semester off, just focusing on eating, sleeping , and most importantly, not killing myself. This later thought was new…and I thought about it a lot. I spent most of my waking time trying to gather my courage to end it all.

By next semester I was re-enrolled in a college and went back on medication.

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Therapy appointments were twice a week until I was back at a healthy weight and attending school on a regular basis. But I discovered a way to participate in all the social mayhem that one encounters in college – alcohol.

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I had no way of knowing then what a devastating role alcohol (coupled with depression) would eventually have on my life, and in time, my marraige. But for the moment it worked. I experienced the false happiness of being under the influence. I could talk to people. I felt happy. And I had sex. A lot of sex. It numbed me. But the consequences of drinking began to assert itself: I was placed on academic probation for missing classes or going to classes under the influence. Two weeks later, I dropped out of college altogether.

This began a vicious and arduous cycle of failures that, unbeknownst to me, fed my depression: get a job, lose a job because of my drinking. Date a girl who could not keep up with my drinking. Lose a girl. Over and over and over. My self-esteem was shredded. And all along, like shoveling coal in a hungry furnace, I was stoking the flames of my disease. But as long as I kept drinking, I escaped the onslaught of a full blown depression collapse. The alcohol was killing me and saving me at the same time. I was committing social suicide by drinking as I did so that I did not commit actual suicide locked in my dysthemia.

Because of the alcohol, I was now somewhat liberated from my withdrawn state. I started noticing the strange reactions I was getting from people when I talked to them about my situation. Some of my friends were getting exasperated with my emotional outbursts and my depressive withdrawls, wondering why I couldn’t just “get over” what was bothering me. I tried to describe to them what was going on in my head but “It’s a chemical thing more than an emotional thing” didn’t seem to be getting me anywhere.

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I started noticing that people who have never experienced deep depression were rather tactless when talking to people who suffered from depression. There seems to be this really blasé attitude towards those who are struggling with living their lives as normal people. Having my struggle with depression spelled across my forehead was too much to ask from me in order to get a somewhat understanding reaction from someone else… sorry…it wasn’t worth the effort. I’ve been institutionalized once and ever since coming out and getting my life back together people have been expecting me to just “get over” everything that comes my way. I couldn’t comment on something that was a little frustrating to me without someone telling me I’m “making too much of a big deal” about it.

I could not understand why people felt the need to react this way to someone who has been more than blatantly open about his emotional problems: WHY on earth would they instigate MORE problems and demand answers because they don’t know what’s wrong with them? If I told someone I had cancer, no one in their right mind would even dream of saying “Oh, it’s just cancer, get over it”. They wouldn’t have to know anything about my past, my family, the struggles I’d faced or anything of the sort to act like a decent human being, so why is it okay to say something like that about depression?

Sometimes I’d really like to give people a piece of my mind. It’d go a little something like this:

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Things I’ve heard: “Oh honey, we all get a little sad sometimes.”

My reaction: “I’m pretty sure wanting to kill myself on a daily basis isn’t a little sad. But sure, I feel so much better now that my suicidal thoughts have been completely downgraded, I’m gonna go find a 7 story window to jump out of. Have a nice day.”

Things I’ve heard: “Why can’t you just tell me what’s going on? I’d be so much easier to deal with, I don’t have time to do this with you every day.”

My reaction: “I totally love living in emotional turmoil so I just keep it to myself. The chemical calibrations going off in my brain make total sense to to me but I don’t feel like sharing. I’m sorry I forgot to tell you I had an emotional breakdown scheduled this month and it’s set to go until the middle of December. I’ll put it on the calendar next time.”

Things I’ve heard: “You didn’t look or sound depressed at all! How was I supposed to know?”

My reaction: “I wasn’t trying to tell you. And if I could, there are no words to describe the darkness that envelopes me. Next time I want the world to know exactly how I feel on a daily basis I’ll tattoo it on my face so it’s impossible to miss. I love knowing my personal business is so blatantly obvious to everyone in the world.”

Things I’ve heard: “Why can’t you just stop feeling that way? I mean thinking about it won’t help so just move on.”

My reaction: “Ooooooooooooooooh! You’re so incredibly smart! Let me find my automated ‘off’ switches for my mind, my brain, my heart, my depression and anxiety and I’ll get back to you. Thanks sooooooooooo much for the suggestion. I’ll just add that to the growing list of things I have failed at, and get right on that thank you note for such a thoughtful piece of advice.

-insert loud sigh here-

The point is, my tolerance for people’s complete lack of understanding is getting smaller by the hour. No person who has ever felt the pain that depression brings should ever have to feel guilty for it, especially when the people around them don’t understand anything about what they are going through. We don’t share the same language when it comes to depression. Words to describe what it’s like simply don’t exist. We need to start by having an open and thoughtful national conversation on the topic. And that is not going to happen.

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I’m starting to realize I’m going to have to cut some really important people out of my life because of this. In one way, I cut the most important person in my life out forever, because of the behavioral side affects of my dysthemia and the attempts to quiet the nightmare through a series of alcohol relapses. I will never forgive myself for that. The repercussions of that will echo for years yet to come. I couldn’t save myself….how in hell was I evervgoing to save my marriage? And what in God’s name was I thinking ever letting someone get that close to me. It will never happen again.

Being alone with depression is going to hurt, but I’d rather go through a hurt alone that I can grow out in three days or a week than ever suffer again by havingin my love, my heart, and myself as a person discarded because of the fallout of this savage disease. I cannot long survive a life of having who I am as a person suffering from depression thrown back in my face every day by a world that is afraid to understand.

DYSTHYMIA (CHRONIC DEPRESSION)
by D..L. McHale

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It does not speak English, Spanish, French, or Italian, or any intelligible utterance known to this world.

It is a darkness devoid of spoken words;
a tongue savagely ripped from the mouth of the village idiot.

There are no pressed pages in braille
to sensate dull fingertips, to tap out the iniquity and the pain.

No painting of fingered words in the still air whispering into deafened ears.

It is the molten ashes of Vesuvius, cascading behind clenched eyelids; a scorching of the inner self. It is the babbling madness of Babylon chanting chattering confusion.

It is the silent scream that pierces the morning sky, the shrieking wind that rips the sparrow’s wings from its tender breast.

It is the desperate gasp for air from collapsed lungs, the tortured artery that bleeds the brain.

Beneath the ocean’s swell, the riptide that pulls one asunder to the blue-black abyss,  a dark star consuming itself, devouring light into the shadows of its belly.

A twisted comfort in the unfeeling, a slap in the face of the unsmiling.  Distant and cold eyes – unfocused, unseeing.

A banquet of burning bone and marrow before demons dancing to noteless music.

Love Fulfilled Beneath a Dying Light


When the sun sets, when its dying rays
filters through my bedroom window
I get the full brunt of this powerful star.
It is beautiful and blinding.
I feel its warming fingers softly caressing
my cheek; it dries the last traces of my tears.

Today, as the sun came into its latitude
to be shining directly on me,
I closed my eyes beneath its warmth
remembering brighter days.
Was this the same sun that kissed us
on our first walks upon the beach?
Was this the same sun that cast
its light on our wedding day?

Many people have expressed their love
to both of us throughout this process,
and many people have let us know
that it may be God’s will this, or God’s will that.
And it may well be.
But I know one thing.
We were both born of this organic, living universe.
Star matter is within us. We are forever connected
beneath the arch of its healing light.

I have never felt more in the presence of the supernatural
than today, with this mighty being shining on us,
me here, in my thoughts, you, there, wherever you are.
I can almost see the last breaths of our togetherness
in the stardust that once showered the idea of “us”
being pulled back towards that Sun.
It is as if the Sun had decided to choose this moment,
to envelop the two of us in divergent beams of light,
and take us back, separately, back to the stars.

In a way, it is beautiful.
This Sun, our Sun, reminds me
to live more fully, more appreciatively, and more happily.
I won’t think of a marriage that has died.
I’ll think of those moments we had to dance in its light.
With much love and sadness.

Genie, You’re Out! (Or Reflections on the Death of Robin Williams


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I am devastated about the loss of Robin Williams, as are the millions of his fans, and more so by the fact that he took his own life.  Despite all of his money and all of his available resources, depression reached its bony fingers into his life and dragged him to an untimely death (as it certainly has for millions of others!)  Drugs and alcohol are certainly a part of his story, but make no mistake…this is a story about the savage blow of depression.  The pills and booze were only a symptom of Robin William’s sad demise.  Depression was the death blow.

If you have never suffered from the savage effects of deep depression, you might find it hard to comprehend his decision to take his own life. Depressed people don’t kill themselves out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life isn’t worth living. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. Depression is an invisible agony that for many reaches a certain unendurable level where life and death are near equal terrors and death becomes a lesser terror than living.

For those who decide to take their life, they spend their final days and hours in much the same way a trapped person eventually chooses to jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames.  For the depressive suicidal, it’s not the desire of death, it’s the terror of living. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

In this same way, a person who doesn’t suffer the agony of depression will never be able to understand the torments and terrors suffered by those afflicted. Never. Just as depression is an invisible agony, so, too is the understanding of true depression invisible to those who do not suffer it.

We can, and should, have a conversation about depression, but unless you’ve ever stood on a ledge with flames coming closer and closer, you will never truly understand the agonizing decision to jump.

Rest in peace, Robin Williams..Genie, you’re out!

Lights


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You have always stood
beneath a dazzling array of bright colors
Brilliant, and brave, and blinding
Your light provided bright reflections
and lit the stage upon which you danced
careless, joyful, and exuberant

It was a separate light that bathed me
not quite so radiant
and full of shadows
It has never illuminated my way
nor has it warmed me in its beam
It was what it seemed
an insignificant blue glow, dim and misleading

In your light, you were found
In mine, everything was lost

 

The Visitation


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Gray shadows fall upon my face
Here within this sacred place;
The stone so cold, and roughly hewn
Beneath this waning winter moon

The air is thin and so am I
My heart is heavy, I start to cry
Each letter of her chiseled name
Is lit as though with golden flame

My fingers trace the shallow grooves
As though with touch I could disprove
She is no more, and I am less
Without her voice and soft caress

Bereft and full of memories
I rise up from on bended knee
I place a rose upon her grave
Each petal but a kiss I’ve saved

Now, slowly do I turn for home
Only now, I walk alone.

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I Am Ready


Old Man

The years have swept my face
carving time in deep crevices
thinning my skin with relentless cold
Like a child pushing milk teeth
my smile is likewise gapped
though my innocence lays broken
like this child’s backyard toys

These days, I pretend that I’m busy
that I’m working, that I’m writing
but I’m not doing anything
I just wanted not to look too artificial
in these my final fading days

I have known my moments of fame
where my words stroked the hearts of man
and my poems filled a woman’s soul
but all these things mean very little to me
I am so much into the finality of the now
the past is such a strange thing for me

Oh, loving her was an incredible journey
a wonderful everlasting treasure hunt
I found emeralds in her eyes
and sparkling diamonds in her smile
golden coins tinkling in her laughter
but like all treasure, she lies buried now
and I am castaway upon these lonely shores

My life is a dead space, a dead time
if you describe it in colors, a grayness
The seasons no longer cut by
snow and rain and sun and falling leaves
but rather, like clouds pushing darkly
against one another in a stormy sky
my days blend beneath a blotted sun

I know the number of my evenings are few
and my remaining mornings fewer by one
but I am tired, and I am alone,
and I am ready

The Insidiousness of Life


Sorrow

The insidiousness of life is that it constantly presses upon you;
it is unrelenting in its demands that you nurture and refine it.
It evolves, with or without your consent, so there is no rest,
no time to simply put it on cruise control enjoy the passing of time.

For me, every breath is a nuisance; every step is a cursed journey
saddled with failed expectations and societal derision.

I never belonged to this world, nor has it offered itself to me,
and the contempt with which I hold its false promises
eats at my guts like ravens nibbling away at my meaning.

Where others are guided by the soft-bent wings of angels,
I am weighed down by the relentless nagging of demons;
wicked little imps who mock my waking hours and torment my sleep.

There is not a grave dug deep enough to bury my sorrows,
nor do I seek any forgiveness for my sorry state.
I will wash away the stench of my miserable existence
with endless cups of liquid absolution, and in my drunken state,
I will stumble through somehow.

Tomorrow’s sunrise may warmly embrace the multitudes;
each with their cheerful dispositions and infernal optimism.
I, on the other hand, will wither beneath the heat,
thirsting constantly for the darkness beneath a waning moon,
for it is in darkness that my soul finds its true voice.

Crucified Beneath Her Touch


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In my darkest hour,
rolled up into a ball upon the divan
reading Plath and Poe,
fantasizing about the silent sweetness of death;
writing angry, diminished verse raging against
all things holy and full of light…
then, only then was I full of purpose and certainty.

From the falling of the sun until the break of dawn,
pouring ice-less cups of bourbon to free my tongue,
burning with each gulp as I exorcised my demons
on the back of half-torn slips of
empty bank statements and creditor threat letters.

My loving Kate stood sentinel outside the door,
occasionally sneaking in a tepid bowl of broth
or a grilled cheese sandwich;
she both hated me beyond all measure
and attended to my waking needs with a love that
stung me to my bitter core.
She stayed because she could see in me
what I could not, as I lay crucified beneath
her touch. I stayed with her so that someone
would be around to answer the angry phone.

In the daylight, awash in the cool grey light of morning,
I tucked away in the roll-topped desk
all evidence of my madness.
Beneath a shower of scalding water,
I made vain attempts to wash away my sins
of the previous night.
I stuffed my walking corpse into
a starched white linen shirt,
draped with a burgundy tie,
and stepped into my fresh-pressed suit
(dear, Kate!) I kissed her dry lips goodbye.

Each day, I drive into the city,
interviewing for jobs I would never accept,
stopping by Tommy’s Irish Pub for a shot of Johnny,
and napping the afternoon away on a
faded green park bench outside the county courthouse.
At 5pm I headed home to flee the light once more.

Dinner would rest un-touched
as I passed straight through toward oblivion.
Kate would be at her spinning class
as I dropped the suit and all pretense,
pulled on a pair of faded jeans,
and slowly drifted into my melancholy.
Each day, I would rummage through her dresser,
lightly tracing my fingers over her satin underthings,
remembering when.

I’d pull another freshly  bought bottle
of amber courage from the kitchen pantry
(dear, sweet Kate) and poured
myself another night.

 

The Skirt


 

You laid your plaited skirt
on the foot of my bed,
neatly folded as though
in doing so you could somehow
retain your virtue.  In the midst
of our fleshy thrashings, I kicked
it to the floor, and you began
to cry, deep sobs that rattled
the mattress springs.  I moved,
too reluctantly, to retrieve it
but you said, “Why bother?”
Making love doesn’t always
mean making sense, and so
I threw my feet to the floor,
pulled on my jeans, and looked
back, although I would never be
able to see.
“So that’s it?” you sobbed.
In affirmation, I buttoned my
shirt and turned toward the door,
…as an afterthought, picked up
your once plaited skirt, tossed it
carelessly over my shoulder,
and left.

The Void


A breaking dawn does not mean
a new day has begun;
my life is spun in hours that
never advance, and I do not
even bother to rise in the mornings
of the whippoorwill.
I am filled with an emptiness
that stretches into nothingness.
and when my name is called
I do not answer.
Yesterday, today, tomorrow…
they are all rolled into my despair,
and I have stopped fighting for a
meaning that never comes.
My brittle bones are ground into
the finest dust, and when the wind
kicks up, I am scattered
through empty streets.
I have surrendered to bouts
of liquid reasoning
for the grave will not dig itself.