Digging Out of a Bad Place
This essay is the third entry into Issue 2 of Omakase Magazine: “Place,” which will be running during January and February. To learn more about this issue, check out our Letter from the Editor.
I'm in a bad place right now.
Not physically; I have a nice apartment in a reasonably affordable city, and I'm not in imminent danger of ending up on the street. I'm happily married, I have a dog I love and a job I can mostly tolerate, and I'm lucky to have a loving, supportive family in my corner.
But I can't escape this feeling of rage, bitterness and depression that's suffocating me.
Part of it is the general state of the world. At the risk of stating the seemingly obvious, 2016 has been a real downer of a year, from the deaths of beloved figures like Prince, David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Leonard Cohen to the recent presidential election and the ongoing carnage throughout much of the Middle East. Working in journalism, as I do, tends to expose you to more bad news than the average person, which can be a challenge. John Oliver probably summed it up best in his final episode of "Last Week Tonight" for the year, but "Fuck 2016" was a common refrain months ago, and it's only gained traction since.
But it's also been a trying year for me personally. Even keeping track of everything that's happened is a struggle; often there were multiple, overlapping challenges, and every brief respite seemed to be followed by an even bigger stumble. Here's a brief chronology of all of the bad breaks in my life so far this year (and I'm praying that this is the end of the list):
My dog, who at this point I'd had for all of three months, fractures her spine in a freak accident. Only we didn't know that at first because it seems like a minor case of whiplash. Figuring out what was wrong took weeks and lots of expensive tests, to say nothing of the cost of the surgery to fix the fracture once we discovered the real problem. In the end we get our happy, bouncing puppy back, but we'll be paying off those veterinary bills for years.
My wife, having reached the point where continuing to go to her job was making her physically and mentally ill, quits. This is right around when we figure out that my dog has suffered a major injury. Not a good time to lose a source of income.
March through May
Suspiciously calm in my memory. I'm almost positive I'm missing something, but nothing sticks out. Does the release of "Batman v. Superman" count as trauma? Because it certainly caused me emotional distress. A bit of good news: In early May my wife found a new job as a contractor working in developer support for a big software company.
My aunt dies after struggling for years with early onset Alzheimer's disease. She was a joy to all of those who knew her: kind, smart, funny, a great cook and incredibly generous of spirit. She lived long enough to see two of her three daughters get married, but her slow slide into oblivion took a toll on our family, my cousins and uncle especially.
The coolant hose in the car I've had for 13 years develops a leak. In the dead heat of the day. During rush hour. About a week after I get the leak fixed, I get hit by another car while pulling out of a parking lot. I'm fine, and so is the other driver, but my car's totaled. I loved that car; it was my first car, and it had taken me on innumerable trips to the mountains of Colorado, across the country from Colorado to Florida when I got my first real job after college, and from Florida to Texas when I was laid off and got a new job in Austin. Bidding goodbye to that car was like saying farewell to an old friend.
Time to buy a new car, after going through the hassle of getting my insurance claim taken care of. But my wife's car is also falling apart; there's nothing wrong with anything major, but it's an old Buick, and all of the little components are failing in rapid succession. So we buy two cars in the space of a week, taking out $40,000 in loans. Hooray for credit. To add insult to financial injury, my wife gets pulled over and ticketed for a broken taillight the night before we're supposed to take her car into the dealer and trade it in.
Again, nothing specific sticks out, though I know work was generally hellacious. Friday night high school football makes for stressful deadlines in the newspaper business. First car payments are due; only six more years of this.
A couple of anxiety filled days as Hurricane Matthew brushes dangerously close to where my in-laws and several friends live in Florida, along with my cousins in North Carolina. No injuries and no damage to their homes, but there's nothing like sitting thousands of miles away watching nature's fury to remind you how truly powerless we are in the grand scheme of things. Meanwhile, my wife is up for a promotion that would make her a staff employee instead of a contractor. Her bosses love her, she nails her interview, and following a routine background check she should be getting a big raise along with actual benefits and paid time off. This would be a huge break for us; extra money coming in will make those car payments a lot less painful and help us build up our depleted savings.
The events of Nov. 8 are a black hole of despair. It's a miserable night in the newsroom; blown deadlines, stressed out editors and designers, the horror of the final result. But there's more. Later in the month the dog stops eating; turns out she has intestinal parasites and needs a course of medication. Several hundred dollars later, she's fine, though it takes her a few days to start eating again even after she's finished with her meds. The background check on my wife for her promotion is dragging on; the company bureaucrats ask her for documentation on her college degree. She sends them her diploma and an official transcript. After that: silence.
For the first two weeks, nothing. Christmas is coming, and that will be a bit of a strain on our finances, but we can make it work. I'm cautiously optimistic; there's no reason my wife shouldn't get her promotion, and after that things should get a lot easier, barring a catastrophe. On Dec. 16, catastrophe strikes. For reasons not even her supervisors seem to fully understand, my wife is fired from her job with no warning or recourse; apparently there's some discrepancy in her background information the company doesn't like, though they're light on specifics and neither my wife nor I have any idea what the issue could be. But it doesn't matter; nine days before Christmas, my wife is out of a job.
So here I sit, angry, bitter, beaten down, despondent. I vacillate between nihilistic despair ("This is just what happens in an uncaring universe; nothing you can do about it") and raging at the unfairness of it all ("What did we do to deserve this? Why us?"). I've struggled with depression since adolescence, but this is one of the few times I've felt it threaten to swallow me whole.
The analytical part of my brain knows things could be worse. I still have my job, and I'm fortunate to have a family that can support me while my wife looks for a new job. And there have been good moments throughout the year as well: Visits with friends and family, fun trips, playing with the dog, the daily joys of a happy marriage. But the thing about depression is that it overwhelms your analytical brain, and the relentless tide of bad luck has drained my emotional reserves.
Being in a bad place emotionally is a big hole to climb out of. It's a challenge you can't physically escape from or combat directly. Trying to ignore or run from emotional demons often makes it worse, because you're battling your owns fears, anxieties and insecurities; they're always there, nagging you in the back of your mind, telling you to give up, that you won't make it, that it's too hard. You feel the weight on your psyche, dragging you down, making even routine activities into herculean feats of willpower. It’s not something you can fully treat with physical remedies, either, though things like exercise and medication can help.
I've had moments like this before; halfway through my junior year of college I had a minor nervous breakdown when I couldn't handle the combined stress of school, my job as news editor of my college paper and bad decisions involving close friends (sorry for being deliberately vague; it's a touchy subject). To this day I don't really know how I pulled out of that negative emotional spiral. It just sort of...happened.
The best path forward is likely inward. I can't do anything if I can't get out of my head and the tangled knot of anger and anxiety that's emerged there. I need to right myself emotionally and get back to some semblance of normalcy. Once my wife and I have a plan in place for our immediate future, I'll try to establish some good routines and hopefully make slow, steady progress. I may even try medication or therapy; I've managed my depression on my own for years, but it may be time to get some help.
Will any of this work? Hard to say, though at the risk of tempting fate it's hard to see how things could get worse. In the meantime, all I can do is try to stay in place and hope for, if not a brighter future, then at least some stability after a turbulent year.
Postscript: Just a few days after I wrote the initial draft of this piece, my wife found a new job. This is obviously good news, and it has certainly impacted my day-to-day state of mind, but I'd hardly say I'm back at 100 percent. I stand by what I wrote as genuine in the moment, but in the interest of transparency I wanted to include this brief note.