Tales from the Dark Wood
In the middle of the journey of life, I was plunged into a dark wood, for I had lost the right path.
Part VII: Interview #3 "Sören"
by Douglas S Johnson
As part of an eight-installment series on living with clinical depression, three interviews were conducted in order to form portraits of people who have suffered from and coped with the disorder, in hopes that in understanding there is also something in the way of help and healing. This is the third and final story.
"Sören" is a 32-year-old male. He first began suffering from symptoms of depression during early childhood in conjunction with severe physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. Though never actively suicidal, "Sören" has at times been the victim of extreme depression and anxiety. He has in the past taken the way of physical violence to vent his confusing feelings of inner turmoil, and like "Wendy" (interview #2, February 1999), he has at times used alcohol to self-medicate and cover his depression. Sören no longer abuses alcohol and has curbed his aggressive behavior, though he still has mild to moderate bouts of depression.
As you look at a carbonated drink, you can see the bubbles coming up, steadily rising until things come to a head. That's what it's like when I feel the depression, when I feel the anxiety. I can feel my blood boiling and bubbling and things coming to a head. I always think it must look something like those bubbles in a carbonated drink. It's how I felt just as I was walking into the house when I was a child. I hated to go home.
How did it all start? I can remember it distinctly. I wrote about it once in an article called "Dirtied Angels." In this essay, I wrote about how innocent children play in the snow and make snow angels, and how those angels remain pure and white until somebody comes along and walks all over them with his dirty feet. That's pretty much what happened to me in the fourth grade. I ended up with this dirty old man stepfather who walked all over me and took my innocence.
Because of the abuse, I was extremely depressed and self-conscious. I was perpetually guilt-ridden about what was happening. It was awful. I felt just enormous amounts of guilt and anxiety, mainly because I had this horrible secret, and because I felt it was my job to keep it a secret so that it didn't hurt anybody else. Growing up, I was always led to believe that my mom didn't know about what was happening to me, but as I have gotten older, I have come to realize that she had to know, that there's simply no way that she didn't see, and I think that's what hurts the worst.
I remember that I wanted to be invisible. My bedroom was in the basement, and I never wanted to go upstairs, because I never wanted "Dan" to think of me. I knew what would happen if he started thinking of me. A lot of times, I didn't even go up to go to the bathroom. My bedpost was hollowed out and had a plastic cap on the top, and when I needed to go, I would piss in the plastic cap and pour it in the bedpost. Of course, after a while, this begins to smell. I always wondered why my mother never noticed that. Also, my grades spiraled downward when I was in the fourth grade. It wasn't necessarily because I was upset. It was mainly because I didn't want to be noticed, not even liked. I didn't want people to like me the way "Dan" liked me. My report cards mark the change in my life.
All of this obviously wore on my self-esteem. How could I ignore the fact that I was constantly told that I was a nobody and that I was a horrible person? On top of that, I was always told that I would end up in jail, or in hell. I tried not to buy into it, but then there was the guilt to tell me how wrong I was. I had a horrible problem with my self-image, and still do sometimes. I still wrestle with feelings of inadequacy. I see myself as ugly, or not worthy to be in public or in society, and I fight with those emotions quite a bit.
Unfortunately, my stepfather was my one male role model. At one time, I was a really mean person, physically mean. I bullied people. I looked for guys who looked at me wrong, and then I got into fights. I got a reputation, and so I was always fighting. This was one way that I covered the bad feelings that I had inside. Still, it didn't help much. I never smiled. I never had any joy in my life.
I also drank to mask my feelings of depression. When I was in the military, I did a lot of drinking. I remember how my buddies in the service would go out and binge and come home so loaded that by the morning they had pissed the bed. I always thought that was really disgusting. Funny that I didn't see my drinking as destructive, just so long as I could keep enough control not to be disgusting.
After I got out of the Marine Corps, I was staying with a friend, and I, still emotionally ten years old, was trying to please, so I went out drinking with him, because that's what he wanted to do. I liked this guy a lot, and so I guess I wanted to be a heavyweight in front of him, you know, a big-time drinker. What do you think happened? That morning, I woke up and found that I had pissed the bed. That was my wake-up call. I knew I had to get out of the lifestyle I was in. I knew I had to face things the way they were.
Though I'm sure it's good for a lot of people, I have never had any therapy. I have never spoken to a therapist. God is my first, best therapy. Reconnecting with God was my first big step back to health. God is my power to transcend the problems that I have. People sometimes portray the Christian God as an evil man who's going to hit you with a stick if you do something wrong. Somehow, despite my background, I was able to circumvent this and find a loving God who accepted me, even with what I saw as my own inadequacies. Even when I hated myself, I knew that God loved me.
There were a couple of major things that happened in my life that were also very therapeutic, the first one negative, the second one positive. I have always said that the home is supposed to be a child's sanctum. The world is serious enough, and dangerous enough. The home should be a safe place. You should be able to go there and laugh and relax and let your guard down. I never could when "Dan" was there. Maybe that's why one of the most therapeutic moments in my life was when I found out that my stepfather had died. I was 24 at the time, and I got a call from a friend who told me that he was gone. This person knew how evil he was, and she knew that it was significant that I know. In fact, she told me weeks before I heard anything from my family. I always felt really thankful because it was important to her that I have the closure as soon as I could. From then on, I felt like I had a new life, because he had haunted me even until that point.
The other thing that was really helpful to me was getting together with my wife, "Kari." I fell in love with her and asked her to marry me, but I felt it would be wrong to have her go through life with me without my putting all of my cards on the table. I knew that I had the potential to be an emotional mess and that there was the possibility for future trouble in our marriage due to my childhood abuse. I loved her too much not to let her know and not to allow her the choice of whether or not she wanted to deal with my past.
When I told her, I seriously thought she would say, "Take me home; I don't want to deal with this; this is too much." She didn't do any of that. She started to cry. She hugged me. She got angry with my stepfather. She let me know that she was really, really sorry that such things had happened to me. Then she told me that when she was little she used to pray to God to be with her future husband, whoever he might be; and, you know, now I think that helped me get through it all. I believe in the prayers of children.
This turn of events with "Kari" was amazing to me. I was the horrible person, the dirty boy, the disfigured angel, and my innocence was gone; I had no innocence to give my wife, and yet she saw me as being clean and innocent and good. I had always lived in fear that someone would find out that I was dirty. She saw me as clean and "Dan" as being dirty. For once in my life, I had some affirmation that I was right, that I was good. I could finally talk openly with someone who would listen and acknowledge the fact that I had been wronged and that this was the source of my bad feelings, not the fact that I was bad. After all is said and done, I honestly believe that being accepted by somebody, no matter what is wrong, is the biggest key to getting better.
I've been better for a while now. I guess that these days, in order to more or less stay out of the bad emotional places, I try to exercise and keep a healthy balance there as much as possible; I try to maintain a good relationship with my God; and I try to be open, at least with my wife, when I feel bad. I also write; this is extremely therapeutic.
I don't have any big, grand goals like some people. I guess my purpose is to treat people like they deserve to be treated, to go through life and not mirror the source of my pain. If there's one thing I've learned for certain, it's that it's up to every single one of us to decide what we are. For myself, I am determined to be a productive member of society. I will love and serve my God. I will love and serve my wife. I will bring up my children in a house that will be their sanctum. If I can do that, I will be a success.
This is the seventh in an eight-part series on depression written by Douglas S Johnson exclusively for The New Times. Please send SASE for any reprints desired.