A while ago when I was on disability for “debilitating” depression, I was called by my Case Manager from Manulife Financial. The reason why “debilitating” is in quotations is because I was made to feel like there was nothing wrong by the insurance company and subsequently by everyone around me as well including family and friends. Maybe they were correct: I wasn’t on any medication at the time, lingering in the Self-Help section of Chapters/Indigo or lying against my bathtub with a rusty razorblade in one hand. Okay, maybe I was lying against my bedroom wall with a bottle of scotch but I didn’t need Manulife Financial involved in my daily routine.
But there she was on the other line, Alison my Case Manager, calling me to get an update on how I was doing. I had just peeled myself off the floor and was about to make lunch. Pasta? No, that’s too complicated and I’d have to go to the store to get parmesan. Maybe a sandwich but that’s such a cliche white person lunch. She caught me off guard so I went outside to sit on my steps. For some reason, the noise of my busy street always calms me and I seem to have better phone conversations. I’m not even sure why I was trying to impress her, it’s not like she was my shrink. She was just Alison, my Case Manager.
She asked me all the routine questions about my physical and mental health which I later found out was none of her fucking business. She asked me about my return-to-work plan and what progress I had made with Dr. Mesaros. I answered her questions like I was performing a job interview. I used my perky phone voice, the one I use when I have to call clients or when a homeless man storms into my office to yell at me and I have to calm him down.
Alison seemed like a nice enough woman. She was verbally quick and incredibly perky herself with just the right amount of condescension mixed in. I imagined her with pointy tits in a cotton blend blouse, sitting cross-legged at her cubicle, playing with a Manulife ballpoint and going over my personnel details. I gave her a brief and concise rundown of the issues I had been experiencing at work, the safety hazard that resulted in my back spasm, the lack of support I was feeling from any of my managers and the hostility I was experiencing from Human Resources. After confirming that I had not started a pharmaceutical regimen due to my lack of knowledge about SSRIs, she paused and I heard a piece of paper being flipped. I asked her what the next step was but she avoided my question. “Sunny, I’m a little concerned. You sound cheerful.” I didn’t know how to respond. I eventually said “thank you” as if there wasn’t any other type of response that seemed appropriate.
“Do you feel like you need to cry?” she asked. I imagined her with that contrived concerned look on her face like when you tell a coworker that a family member had died over the weekend but you know that all they’re thinking about is what they’re having for lunch.
“Not at this point, no. Is there a problem?”
“Well, most of my clients tend to cry when we have this conversation.”
“I’m not most clients. And if I were to cry, it certainly wouldn’t be on the phone with you. No offense.”
“Well, we have a concern about your refusal to take medication.”
“I haven’t refused, I just feel like I haven’t been given enough information.”
“Did you speak to your doctor about it?”
“Yes, she wants me to go on anti-depressants but I’d like to continue with my the therapist before I make any decisions. They’re two different people and I don’t see the psychiatrist for any kind of therapy.”
“Well, unless you go on medication, we really can’t continue to validate your disability claim.”
I was in shock. “Do you want me to cry now? Because I can easily pretend now to appease you.”
I hung up feeling like someone had just thrown a pot of boiling water on me. How dare this fucking bitch who I have never met question my diagnosis. In fact, how dare this fucking bitch who I have never met question the one all-encompassing thing in my life that has been the barrier of all barriers to happiness.
Happiness is a strange concept for me. And let’s get past the art school, teenage angst bullshit years when depression was as addictive as cigarettes or alcohol. The Surgeon General should put a warning label on Six Feet Under and Joni Mitchell. Most hormonally-charged youth crave that chip on their shoulder and I’m sure as an artist, I’ve indulged in some, if not copious amounts of self-loathing through bad decision-making and sexual misadventures. But I’m a fully functioning adult now with a career, or at least a semi-functioning adult with what used to be a career. My point is, this isn’t me lashing out or dressing goth. This is real. This is depression. The kind that makes you question what happiness is because the feeling of joy is so unfamiliar. It’s like I have to put out a personal ad just to find it again:
“Single Asian gay male seeks laughter, ease, energy and the ability to wake up without wanting to pull the covers over my head to make life go away. Non-smokers a plus.”
Does Alison think I need to be sobbing uncontrollably on the phone or pumped on Xanax to be suffering from depression? Do friends have to be there to hear my dark thoughts about jumping off a bridge or to witness even something as seemingly innocuous as staring blankly at a wall for a few hours? Most people have misconceptions about depression and expect to find me at home wearing the same clothes over and over, splayed out face down in bed at 1 PM, unable to peel my cheek off my tear-soaked 600 thread-count Egyptian cotton pillow shams. Do people validate someone else’s depression with direct proof? Possibly. Did I experience any of the things I just mentioned? Sure, all the time. I’ve lost countless hours crying in bed, unable to get up and face the outside world. Are people going to have access to this visually? No way in fucking hell. Do I want people to see this side of me? God, no.
The most appropriate metaphor I can think of is my fear of water. When I was a small child, our school made us take swimming lessons. Not only had my family members threatened to punish me by drowning me in the dark waters of Lake Ontario if I misbehaved, I was thrown into a pool by my very first swimming instructor. From that day forward, I was afraid of water and boats. Things like oceans, beach trips, pool parties and lakes became negative symbols in my life.
But I had to swim anyway metaphorically speaking. Being depressed is like having a fear of water and not knowing how to swim. And life is one giant fucking pool. Because I’m so deathly afraid of drowning, I thrash and tread water to try to stay above the surface, gasping for air. Life feels like it’s a constant battle to stay alive and to breathe. Sometimes I feel like my head is completely above surface. Heck, sometimes I even feel like I almost made it to dry land. But most of the time, it feels like I’m in a perpetual state of almost drowning, being sucked into the depths of the brooding waters. And when it’s at its worst, I sometimes feel like I should stop treading, put my arms to my side and just let the current take me under. Quietly and peaceful, dying in the arms of the sea. Letting the water take every breath out from me so that I can close my eyes and accept the darkness of death and experience how peaceful it must be to just let go of trying.
But through every meal I force myself to make, every frantic call to my mother to interrupt her watching her stupid Korean shows, every new pill I try and through every exercise website I peruse but ultimately lie back down in bed with disdain for my own body, I’m actively treading water and trying to reach dry land. I don’t actually want to drown. Who would want that? What sane person wouldn’t fight for their livelihood?
Sometimes I feel like I should get a t-shirt printed that says “I REALLY AM DEPRESSED” in giant letters but I feel like that would be too attention-seeking or self-centered. I mean, what font would I even choose? Black Comics Sans or Helvetica on white cotton? Helvetica doesn’t seem sad enough.
My former psychiatrist who was a total shithead and a complete loon herself couldn’t remember who I was even after 5 regular sessions. I’d walk her door, put my bag on top of the cardboard box of Paxil she had on the ground and sit and stare at her. She’d ask what my problem was and then funnily enough she’d ask for my name again. Write it down, lady, you’re a doctor for God’s sake. I’d tell her that I was depressed and I had some crippling anxiety, trying to recap it as fast as possible. By the 8th session, I had it down to a 30-second opening monologue summarizing everything we spoke about. By the 15th session, I had it down to 20 seconds. She’d adjust her blazer, check her voicemail and then ask me “why are you depressed?” Doc, if I have to tell you why I’m depressed then why the fuck am I here? Does an oncologist ask a patient “why are your ovaries being attacked by cancer?” If I wanted to be questioned like this, I’d pay my mother to counsel me. I can’t believe I had to justify my affliction to my own doctor every single time. I shouldn’t have to justify what I’m going through to anyone. Not the medical professionals that are supposedly there to help, not my friends, not my parents, not even myself. And certainly not to Alison.
Well, it’s time to put on some swim trunks today and head outside. I have a full physical with a brand new gay doctor who seems to know what he’s doing. I have a few errands to run, some Joni Mitchell to listen to, some wall staring is scheduled after dinner and a few episodes of Six Feet Under to lose myself in. Let’s hope I see land today.