In my vague recollection of life, the only time I’ve seen the media address men with mental illnesses has been in the wake of yet another mass shooting or after the suicide of a celebrity. Neither of these situations has any positives to attribute to them yet they are what show up on the evening news. In 2013 I was depressed, I just didn’t acknowledge it.
I was living in the middle of downtown Des Moines, Iowa, spending the last half of my junior year working as an editorial assistant for Better Homes and Gardens as part of my required journalism residency. And, like every other burgeoning young journalist, I jumped straight into my work without any thoughts about myself. We’re taught from the first day of school that this is an industry full of fierce competition and you must push yourself to the limit in order to have the edge upon graduation. As an intern, you aren’t expected to have opinions or offer critique. You move what they tell you to move, and write what they tell you to write. (This is a whole other problem, but I won’t get into that here.) I was there to be their bitch and earn my class credit. While my school does a great job of getting students to these “prized” internships that some other journalism schools might not have, they are rather uninformed of what goes on in the life of their students while they are away.
Now not everyone has the same residency experience. I know plenty of my classmates who were lucky enough to be placed in a city with their friends or even better get placed in Chicago where they were still connected to the daily life at Northwestern. I, however, was placed in the capital city of Iowa without a single friendly face in sight. I wanted to take it as a learning experience. Could I prove to myself that I can navigate office politics as well as I thought in my mind? Could I make friends and make my stay here bearable? I think I actually excelled in both, however, the problem occurred where the crop of co-workers I could befriend were old enough to be my parents and all lived in the suburbs, so even though I had a pleasant working environment, for the most part, my social life was non-existent. My days became a rather unpleasant routine of wake up, work, eat dinner, go to sleep, and repeat. Des Moines, for the most part, is a driving city. Luckily I lived downtown, so I was able to go to a few concerts (alone, of course). I had a few dining options that didn’t close at 5, and I was only a twenty-minute walk from most of the cultural and art fairs. I was also lucky enough to live just a trolley stop away from work. But anything fun or useful was out of reach. This was a pre-Uber era believe it or not and at the ripe age of 20, I didn’t even have the option of meeting people at bars.
Poor, pitiful, Professor Quirrell is what you’re thinking right now. It is what I would think if I was reading this. Look at this privileged kid who had the opportunity to work for one of the largest magazine corporations in the world and all he can talk about is how he had no one to hang out with. Yeah, whatever right? Some people can thrive under those conditions. They have the inner strength to look past it and just keep moving forward. I, unfortunately, proved otherwise. I wanted to take it as a time of reflection. But most of the time I could only reflect on how I wasn’t having a good time there. I learned that I was almost dependent on friendships. I wasn’t fully me when I didn’t have anyone to be with. Luckily I set up a very intense schedule of skype sessions, but an hour of talking a week isn’t quite the same as being able to go meet up for dinner or hang out and watch Netflix all night. This is the part of the story that I’m supposed to say how in order to make up for the free time I threw myself into my work and came out with an amazing job offer upon graduation. Unfortunately for some reason, I still had it in my head that I was going to be a photographer upon graduation and asked for a residency to be set up for me in the photography department. What I didn’t know is that I would hate it so much. The production of it all and the stringent work schedules for a picture of some pasta on a pretty plate didn’t quite live up to expectations, so in that light, the residency was a success because it showed me what I didn’t want to do with my life. The other thing I found out rather quickly was that the magazine wasn’t ready for me. I learned rather quickly that I wasn’t going to take any photographs while I worked there. My only job was to assist the photographers with whatever they needed. I was to set up lights and cameras and then step away and sit quietly while they did their thing. It didn’t take me too long to do these tasks and I found myself bored very easily at work. My boss hated me and would assign me mundane tasks for me to spend my time doing instead of actually assigning me any real work. So while my peers were out reporting and collecting clips for their resume’s I was sweeping the photo studio or cleaning out the prop room. I left BH&G without a single thing to add to my resume. The few articles I did get to write didn’t get used which I found out later when I saw the articles that were supposed to have my byline in publication later.
All of this together caused me to crash mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. Physically I was in the best shape of my life thanks to there being no grocery store in walking distance combined with the office gym that I spent my free time in because I had nothing better to do. My passion for photography became poisoned with the viewpoints of my boss who ruined the profession for me. The one church I was able to go to didn’t feel like the home I had on campus and knowing that I wasn’t accomplishing anything just led me to a breakdown. I remember sitting on the Capitol yard finishing The Fault in Our Stars and just crying. Yes, the book is sad, but the tears were a culmination of everything in my life. My advisor stopped responding to my weekly checkup reports, friends got too busy to skype because of finals, and my work environment grew very passive-aggressive. I remember the day I woke up to an email from my boss about how it was inappropriate for me to be on my phone at work. If I had so much free time he could find me tasks to do. Generally, those tasks involved janitorial duties of some kind. The photographers I worked with had never been so angry. They saw no reason for me to be sweeping and taking out the garbage when I was there to learn. They started hiding me essentially and helping me get through my days without encounters of the higher authority kind. It was nice but I still look back and realize I really didn’t get the internship I deserved.
I felt like one of the lost boys, sent away to this other world leaving my whole life behind except here I didn’t have Peter to guide me and bring any fulfillment to my story. I wonder if they were ever depressed. In some iterations, they are described as crying themselves to sleep at night, constantly in search of something that they don’t quite remember, which is the before of it all I imagine. I know I wasn’t just sad. Sadness doesn’t linger on you like Abercrombie cologne at the mall. Sadness for me always comes in fits. I get a trigger, I feel sad, I lie down, and come out again feeling better. Depression is far worse than sadness. It sits on you like a weight you just can’t lift. You can smile, you can converse, you can do everything you normally do, except for feel. You don’t feel happiness. You can’t. Interactions are fake, even if they might appear genuine. You practice your expressions to make them more genuine. You can’t let anyone know or else they think you’re a freak. Mental disorders have always been so stigmatized in my life that I didn’t dare think to tell anyone. What good would it do for me to share that weight with someone else? It isn’t fair to them make them share that burden. No, instead you learn to slow down everything else and concentrate on just making it to the next day with the weight intact.
There are many bridges in Des Moines, Iowa. Walk around downtown and you’ll see you can’t get anywhere without crossing a bridge. I know it’s cliché of me, but I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that at a certain point every day I contemplated jumping off the main bridge into the dam. I would create these scenarios in my head to try to figure out how many days it would take for people to find out. I remember thinking that my phone would have so many emails from my employer because that was the only mode of communication they knew how to use. If you were late; email. Acting up; email. Good news; email. If I hadn’t shown up to work I’m sure I would have had at least fifteen emails letting me know my position at the company had been compromised and to not report anymore. Hopefully one of those would have cc’d my faculty advisor at school. Considering her zero responses to my emails, who knows how long it would’ve taken her to notify my parents let alone anyone else. I’m sure my body would’ve washed up to shore long before any of that could take place. I obviously never followed through with these visualizations as I still sit here typing this all out. I didn’t want to let Iowa win. It really isn’t fair for me to paint Iowa as this evil entity who made my life miserable, it just happened to be the location where my life went to hell. But suicide was something that I didn’t have the strength to go through with. In much the same way as mental illnesses are not discussed, suicide is even further removed from the equation. People who commit suicide are painted as weak of will, not worthy, or suffering from drug addiction. How could I leave the Earth with that as my legacy? I also didn’t feel like my story was finished yet. I may not be doing much professionally at the moment but the goal is to do something worthwhile with my life. The only person I can blame for falling as low as I did was myself. I was initially given the option to be a photojournalism intern for Sports Illustrated in New York City but was paralyzed at the thought of my parents paying my regular tuition as well as the living fee for me to relocate to one of the more expensive cities in the country. I didn’t give my parents the option. I chose for them and thus took away what could’ve been a promising internship in a city with loads of my friends. I don’t like thinking about the what if for this situation because it makes me terribly grumpy. I made an important decision in my life without consulting those who mattered and screwed myself out something that could have been amazing or terrible. I guess I’ll never know but anyway I digress.
When I returned to Northwestern for my Senior Year, everyone could tell I was distant and moody. I would tell them various excuses to explain my unusual behavior. You see, the six months I was in Iowa I lived in a studio apartment. It was a nice enough space, but I began to rely on it as a safe space. There were some weekends when I didn’t leave my apartment. I would lie in bed and listen to music or read or watch t.v. or cry. Any and all of those things could happen on any given day. But it was MY space. Everything in that room, I controlled. I also wasn’t used to social interactions anymore. Summer band camp started and I suddenly couldn’t cope with the reality of a dorm with the other close to 200 students in the program. It was hard. I didn’t want to go out to the bars with my friends. It felt abnormal. The one thing that I had craved for months I began to object to. I was choosing these actions. Or more precisely my brain was making me choose these. My roommates would go to the various parties and I would lay in my bed with the light off and just think. My mind became a prison of emotions telling me that no one wanted me there. You’ve been gone for too long, it would tell me. I look back at this time and my actions don’t make sense. No logical person rejects friendship and fun for no concrete reason. I wasn’t doing anything better with my time, I was just on a quest to make my life as bad as I could make it. Suddenly I couldn’t blame Iowa because now it was me who was doing it all. It got really, really bad and I was in a dark place until one of my best friends sat me down to talk with me. I had told people some small tidbits of what the last six months had been like but I had never really articulated to anyone what was going on in my life or why I was being distant. It had seemed like no one cared and so when the first time I was confronted and made to talk it spilled out, a torrential flood of hate and sadness. I sat there on her couch crying as she sat there hugging me and asking why I had never told her any of this. When she suggested that I go talk about all of this with our school counseling services I was offended at first. (Sheltered mind with no idea that it was normal to seek help.) I didn’t want to be THAT person, the one who was weak, who needed help. It wasn’t until she told me that she had been going to them for years now, and as I asked more and more of my friends I heard similar stories from them as well. This thing that I’d only ever seen as for troubled minds was actually a normal part of life. I didn’t have to be part of this “other” culture that needed professional help. It was okay. I could be okay too.
Counseling helped me sort through my myriad of issues that I’d grown up with and those of the more recent troubling times and I would leave sessions feeling refreshed and renewed. I was never in a state where I needed medication to help regulate my mood, luckily I had a kick-ass support system in my friends for that. I did have to promise that I wasn’t a suicide threat anymore. But eventually, the weeks went by and my free sessions expired and something that I had looked down upon for so much of my life had helped me. I don’t have any elegant prose to wrap this up with, instead, I urge anyone who may be going through tough times and struggling with depression or any other disorder to seek help. You’re not a leper to society and even if it feels like the whole world is against you, there are people in your life that care about you, and if not then I do. I hated myself for way too long and I don’t recommend it at all. Talking it through with someone can really make the difference between renewing your life and sinking deeper into the pits of Tartarus. The cool thing about not knowing what happens in the future is that we can make what we do with our lives, what we want. Please seek help.
Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255 or www.suicidepreventionhotline.org
American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/understanding-depression.aspx