In the Shadows of Flatirons, On the Shoulders of A Giant

After a 3-month, 14,000-mile road trip in which I figure-eighted the country during the summer of 2008, I arrived back in Colorado to start grad school for journalism. I was enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder, nestled at the foothills of the Flatirons. The same Flatirons where, 8 months later, I would go hiking on a first date with a quiet, enchanting, whip-smart woman I met on eHarmony named Dani. A woman who would, 8 years later, give birth to the first of our two beautiful children.

But I already digress. Memory lane has that effect on me.

After several years wandering around North America and Europe, and then a few years working as a concierge in a ski town, I was thrilled to go back to school. I envisioned a budding career in print journalism, which in 2008 was a bit like if I had invested in telephone books or card catalogues in 1998. But I’ve never been known for my impeccable timing.

Nonetheless, I savored my first semester as a grad student. While my classmates paid a pretty penny for apartments in Boulder, I spent the first few weeks commuting from a small tent. A humble canvas abode that had sheltered me on many hiking and road-tripping nights. I staked out my own little spot at a campground that was tucked away in Boulder Canyon.

I loved crossing back and forth between two worlds: The academia I missed from my college days, and the drifter-laden fringes of society where I had spent much of my 20s.

I eventually found a small room in Longmont (where fewer pretty pennies were required to pay rent than in Boulder). This lodging arrangement made certain activities a bit easier. Not cooking so much, since I never got around to learning that skill, but definitely showering. An activity that comes in handy when you’re attending classes where other human beings are close enough to, um, smell what you’ve got cooking.

I adored most everything about being a student again, and I met an array of fascinating people. Fellow 25-to-30-something people with big dreams of changing the world.

I also loved living in a hub of cultural liberalism like Boulder, where I could hear a Thomas Friedman lecture one month, watch Christopher Hitchens debate Dinesh D’Souza about whether God exists the next month, and witness an entire town be overtaken by frenzied euphoria when Barack Obama was elected president the month after that.

My brain was fully stimulated, and my progressive heart felt at home.

In January 2009, the month when Obama was inaugurated, I started my second semester at CU-Boulder. One of the courses I enrolled in was Feature Writing with Jim Sheeler, who had just been installed as their Scholar in Residence. Remember that name, if you haven’t been fortunate enough to hear of it already.

Jim. Sheeler.

A few years earlier, Jim (or Professor Sheeler to us) had won the highly coveted Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in honor of “Final Salute.” It was a 12,000-word piece that was, to quote the Pulitzer body, “a poignant story on a Marine major who helps the families of comrades killed in Iraq cope with their loss and honor their sacrifice.”

Sheeler had been a feature writer from 2002 to 2008 for Rocky Mountain News, and before that he freelanced and wrote for Boulder Planet and Boulder Daily Camera.

In addition to writing features, Sheeler was also a deeply empathetic, Colorado-renowned obituary writer who had recently compiled his work into a book called Obit: Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People Who Led Extraordinary Lives.

You might think it would be a distinct honor to take a feature writing class with a Pulitzer-winning feature writer.

And you would be absolutely right.

Sheeler was a small-G god to all of us journalism students. He was who we wanted to be, and his career was what we aspired toward. We were each, in our own way, literary enthusiasts — and he was our very own Mr. Keating. How could we not carpe diem and take any class he taught? Heck, I would have gladly taken The History of the Stock Market from a man of his wisdom and intellectual caliber.

But I didn’t just admire Jim Sheeler for vocational reasons. It didn’t take long for me to realize that not only was he brilliant and impeccable as a writer; he was also one of the most clear-eyed and warm-hearted human beings I had ever encountered. A bona fide mensch. Someone I would be honored to have a chance to know on a personal level.

An obituary writer whose obituary, theoretically, I would be honored to write if I had the chance to get to know him on a personal level.

But here’s the thing. I dropped out of Jim’s class halfway through, that March. Or to be more accurate, I just stopped showing up — to his class, or any other. I fell off the map. I didn’t tell anyone why, out of shame. And because of how hard it would have been to explain why.

There were a handful of reasons that I dropped out of grad school, some pragmatic and some psychological. The pragmatic ones included not wanting to be sunk with tens of thousands of dollars of student-loan debt, and not being convinced (after talking to a few reliable sources) that a degree in journalism is absolutely vital for procuring a career in that field. Those two reasons worked in tandem to pump the brakes on my best-laid plans.

But the psychological reasons why I dropped out had to do with my tormented headspace that March. I’ll withhold the gory emotional details of what led to this, which is its own saga, but the gist of what resulted from that dizzying episode centered around my involvement in Jim Sheeler’s class.

I simply couldn’t bring myself to write the feature piece that was Professor Sheeler’s central assignment. Because in the space of a month, I had lost my confidence. My killer instinct. My feature-writing mojo.

I had submitted at least one assignment already, an interview piece about Andy Schneidkraut, a local legend who owned an iconic music store called Albums on the Hill. I remember that piece being reasonably solid B (maybe B+ if I’m generous) material.

But for the life of me, I could not seem to get past a towering mental block regarding the flagship assignment for the class.

I wanted to do a piece on the sizable homeless population that lived near the creek running through central Boulder. This seemed not only interesting to me, but also something that would resonate with Professor Sheeler, a compassionate man who cared deeply about those who were traumatized or forgotten.

So I would walk along Boulder Creek day after day, trying to will myself into talking to a homeless person. Late in an icy-crisp Colorado winter (although those sometimes don’t end until May), I, an extroverted person, simply needed to break the ice with a stranger so I could start building my story.

But I just couldn’t do it. Because I couldn’t break the ice in my own frozen mind. And I hated myself for that fact.

I had never experienced that kind of mind-obliterating mental block before. A recent embarrassing setback in my personal life, combined with a newfound uncertainty about my grad-school dream in general, had sapped me of all my previously ironclad confidence.

Every last bit of it.

In hindsight, I wonder if that was one of my first episodes of depression. It certainly bears some similarity with the anxiety-laced depression I experienced this spring and summer, which wiped out my willpower and made meaningful action nearly impossible.

But whatever it was, my confidence dropped out beneath me. So I dropped out of grad school. And I gave up the chance to learn from one of the finest minds (holding one of the sharpest pens) of the 21st century.

In the weeks to come, I was especially racked with guilt about that aspect of my unceremonious exit from grad school. Being so deep in my head that I had squandered the rare opportunity to submit a feature story to a man who had won a Pulitzer for that very type of writing.

It was a death of sorts. The temporary death of my belief in myself. And the death of an idealistic career dream. All of it cast a pall over my suddenly-halted journey.

But as so often happens, and like Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park as only Jeff Goldblum could have said it:

“Life, uh… finds a way.”

Two months after I dropped out of CU-Boulder, I met Dani St. John on eHarmony. On a pristine May afternoon we hiked the Flatirons Vista Trail, in the shadows of jagged rock fins that shot diagonally out of the earth. The titular Flatirons.

While we nervously broke our own ice, we were a stone’s (very long) throw from the campus where Jim Sheeler was, perhaps even on that very day, wrapping up his Feature Writing course, and where my former classmates were submitting their carefully crafted feature stories.

That first date led to a bare-bones but blissed-out wedding in the mountains, an equally blissed-out honeymoon to Austria, a cross-country migration, and the two most beautiful children who have ever walked on the face of God’s earth.

Out of all the possible lives we could live, each of us only lives one of them. I am genuinely curious what the alternate life looks like in which I had stayed in Jim Sheeler’s class, submitted a paper about Boulder’s homeless contingent, earned my graduate degree, and tracked down a career during the twilight years of print journalism.

But I wouldn’t trade this life — my actual, lived life — for any possible life I could have lived. Because this is the life where I tracked down my happiness.

Let’s get back to Jim Sheeler, who deserves as much spotlight as I can give him (given the brief overlap in our respective journeys).

Despite only being in his class for two months, Jim Sheeler was one of the 3 or 4 best teachers I have ever known. As I said before, to all of us in “J-school” he was our very own Mr. Keating. I think we fancied ourselves members of a Dead Journalists Society, a ragtag club of misfits who still believed in the power of the written word. Journalism was arguably almost dead in 2008, or perhaps on life support, but we were bound and determined to keep it alive.

I abruptly opted out of my membership in that club and in doing so, I lost the chance to sit at the feet of a Pulitzer-winning legend.

And last week, I learned to my sad shock that Jim Sheeler died at the painfully young age of 53. Jim left behind a wife, Annick, and a son, James. I can’t begin to imagine their devastation.

I will leave it to those who knew him well and admired him deeply to craft a true obituary for him, hopefully as lovingly as he crafted the obituaries of so many Iraq War veterans and other fallen souls.

Do a simple internet search and you’ll see that there is no shortage of people who have already jumped at the chance. Because there is no shortage of people who loved, and liked, Jim Sheeler. He was known and admired for keeping in touch with all the Iraq War veteran families he interviewed for “Final Salute,” well after his piece (and the subsequent book) were published.

To each of those families, Jim was not just a hero but an ally. And a friend. He left a mark that was truly boulder-sized, and of similar weight.

I wish that I could call Jim Sheeler a friend or a colleague, but I missed that chance.

For my small part, though, I will climb up on the desk that is this blog, a tiny island in the vast sea of the internet. I will stand tall, I will look west, and I will invoke the words of Walt Whitman to pay one final salute to a man whom I knew all too briefly:

“Oh captain, my captain.”

EPILOGUE: Thank you, so much, for reading. If you would like to learn more about the late, great Jim Sheeler, and see some of the most glowing eulogies I’ve ever seen, just click here or here. It will be well worth your time, and it might restore some of your faith in humanity.

That’s the Jim Sheeler effect. And maybe his greatest legacy of all.

The Worst Summer of My Life, Chapter 10: Darkness & [Gas]light

Doctor #1 was a bit of a dud. But I still had an appointment on the books with Doctor #2, the one I had called first who required a longer wait. Hopefully the 2nd time would be the charm, because I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth for a 3rd doctor. And I was all out of lucky charms.

I had met with this doctor about my psoriasis a while back, shortly after we moved to Pennsylvania, and I had a positive impression of both her bedside manner and her holistic-leaning approach. But as with Doctor #1, I drove to my appointment with an uneasy mix of a little hope and a lot of apprehension. (Mixed with a thundercloud of depression that periodically spit out lightning bolts of anxiety.)

When I checked in for my appointment on that June afternoon, I mentioned in passing to the receptionist that I had seen this doctor once in the past, in 2014. But here’s what’s strange: She said there was no record of that appointment. None at all. Only a 2018 physical I had gotten with a different doctor from the same practice. Nothing before that. As if it had never happened.

So that was odd. But it must have been a glitch in their electronic system. I tried not to worry about it.

I was called in to meet with the doctor and, after getting weighed by the assistant, I was directed to the correct room. After waiting nervously for a minute, Doctor #2 walked through the door, looked at me, and said “It’s nice to meet you.” I was a little disappointed that she didn’t remember me, but I figured it must be hard to keep track of thousands of patients over the better part of a decade. And of course, masks make it hard to visually recognize people we don’t see regularly. So I told the doctor that I’d actually had an appointment with her 7 years ago.

I’ll never forget how she looked at me. Like I was a mental patient. (Which I suppose I was, technically.) Like I was the bug-eyed guy in the movie who was hallucinating and needed to be sedated.

She said with a warm but clinical condescension, “Noooo, we have never met before.” My hackles immediately went up, because my already-tenuous grip on my emotional reality was being called into question. I was unsure of many things at that moment in time, but I knew one thing for sure: I had absolutely met with this doctor in 2014. I would have gladly gambled my entire life savings on that ironclad premise. I still would, in fact.

I dug in my heels and told her as much (well, not the gambling bit – that would have been overkill) and that I’d had a great impression of her and had told my wife as much. The doctor again looked at me with a kind of patronizing pity, which to my bruised and vulnerable mind felt almost contemptuous in that moment. She even said something like, “You’re not thinking clearly.” I wish I could remember the exact words. But she truly believed, presumably based on the pre-appointment notes where I indicated I was dealing with anxiety and depression, that I was somehow fabricating the memory of this previous appointment. That I had perhaps even lost my grip on reality.

In desperation, I dug in my heels and said “You can call my wife if you want. She knows that I met with you because I told her about our appointment.” But it made no difference. The doctor hadn’t seen me in the computer system, because of whatever glitch had erased my 2014 visit from the record, and she assumed the computer must be correct.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of someone gaslighting you — either intentionally or, as in this case, unintentionally — at a moment in time when you’re already struggling to keep your head above water. To be told that I was fabricating an entire memory out of whole cloth, while already under intense mental duress, was deeply destabilizing.

So I’m 45 seconds into my appointment with Doctor #2, after being totally underwhelmed with Doctor #1, and already I’m defensive and panicking because this highly trained medical professional doesn’t trust my ability to ascertain (and/or retain memories of) basic reality.

I’m not sure there are many less constructive ways that a doctor’s visit can start. Maybe if you argue about politics right off the bat? I suppose that might be even less constructive.

But to this doctor’s credit, she did prove to be a more deliberate and thoughtful advocate than Doctor #1 was. She gave me time to explain the specifics of my anxiety-laced depression, and she assured me that she could tell I was indeed dealing with some intense anxiety. (Although the tension of how our appointment began was certainly exacerbating that.) I told her, as I had told the other doctor, that I was resistant to taking antidepressants. She explained that she tries to use those as a backup option, and I was grateful to hear her say that.

The other thing that rubbed me the wrong way from my visit with Doctor #2, besides the unfortunate gaslighting prelude, was that she cut me off at one point and said a little brusquely, “Can I talk now?” She also later pointed out that she had multiple patients waiting for her and that we were running long.

I understand that the logistics of doctor/patient scheduling are tricky. But I believe it’s imperative that a doctor not make a patient feel like he’s putting them out by explaining his mental turmoil in some detail. So that was another black mark against the impersonal side of American health care (and perhaps modern industrialized health care in general).

In the end, Doctor #2 prescribed me an anti-anxiety medication. She agreed with my theory that anxiety (and sleeplessness) might be helping to cause, or heighten, my depression. She assured me the medication was fairly mild, was non-habit-forming, and is even given to kids as young as 13 — like when they’re dealing with anxiety from their parents getting divorced. She also recommended that I get some over-the-counter melatonin to help me sleep at night.

She also recommended that I consider getting psychotherapy. I, being the frugal Wingert guy that I am, and also aware of skyrocketing health care costs in general, cringed at the thought of how much of a dent it might put in my wallet to go the mental-health-specialist route.

As with Doctor #1, I walked away from my appointment with Doctor #2 feeling both underwhelmed and overwhelmed. Although at least I now had two medication options.

Perhaps, I told myself, if I could beat back the anxiety and the insomnia, my depression would fade on its own.

Perhaps, despite feeling bulldozed by Doctor #1 and gaslit by Doctor #2, all I really needed was a mild anti-anxiety medication.

Perhaps that would get me over the hump and allow me to sleep again (and to breathe again).

A guy can hope, right?

The Worst Summer of My Life, Chapter 9: Depression Is a Cry for Help

I’ll tell you the tale of the most telltale sign that my mentally unhealthy May was more than just a funk. More than just a blip. More than just an off-month (that turned into 3 straight).

Here it is: A few weeks into my depressive malaise, I walked outside and called the doctor because I couldn’t physically bear the thought of waiting a moment longer to do so.

I’ve experienced plenty of funks in the past. In fact, I’ve been up and down roughly twice a year for the last half decade. More ups than downs, to be fair. And my down moments haven’t been debilitating at all. Some of them I’ve attributed to current events (the Trump era was not my jam), some of them I’ve attributed to low-level seasonal affective disorder (diminishing daylight is not my jam), and some of them I’ve attributed to situational tension (infertility struggles are not my jam).

But this was much more. And my ability to function was much less.

So in May, as insomnia, anxiety, and eventually depression swirled around in my mind like a billowing grey thundercloud, I started to panic. And I decided, for the first time in my life, to call my primary care provider about my mental health.

I’d like to tell you that this led to a wonderful experience that restored some of my faith in the American health care industry. I’d like to tell you that my primary care provider provided care in a way that made me feel like my individual mental health was his primary concern.

I’d like to tell you that. But the truth is a bit more convoluted.

I decided to call the last PCP that I had utilized. It was recently bought out by Penn State Health, but I was glad to learn that the doctor I had seen years ago (for psoriasis) was still working there. I remembered liking her vibe. However, neither she nor any other doctor was available for a full 3½ weeks. Twenty-five long days.

My heart sank when I heard this. I couldn’t wait almost a month to talk to a doctor. The level of dread I was already battling in early May was enough to make that kind of delay feel deeply daunting. But I took the appointment just so that I would have something in the books.

Then I called the small family doctor we’ve used for our kids since Greyson was born 5 years ago, hoping against hope that they would have an opening within a week. The news was not great, but not (quite as) terrible. They could get me an appointment in 2½ weeks with the newest doctor at their practice. I grabbed that thing like a man dying of thirst in the desert would lunge for a half-sip of water at the bottom of an old Dasani bottle. But I also left my other appointment intact. Just to cover my bases.

For the next 17 days, I split the difference between believing this doctor would give me the magic elixir I needed, and fearing that my appointment would be a total dead-end. A mirage. A bait-and-switch that might make things even worse by dangling the prospect of wellness and then snatching it away. Because maybe what ailed me wasn’t something that could be easily diagnosed.

Fast forward a few weeks. I drove to my family doctor that morning in early June with a potent cocktail of hope and fear coursing through my veins (which were oxygen-deprived from not breathing deeply for weeks). I simultaneously wanted a silver bullet, and I was deeply skeptical of any option that would involve an antidepressant. I wanted the solution to be quick and easy, and I also wanted the solution to be holistic and to not involve pills.

That’s a tough needle to thread.

The family doctor I was able to get an appointment with was not the woman who has met with our kids for years, but a man who just joined the practice from Tennessee. His bio indicated that he has extensive experience with mental health, which made me hopeful.

But hope is sometimes deceptive.

After my first meeting with this doctor, I would describe his bedside manner as a bombastic door-to-door salesman combined with a youth pastor who thinks he’s funnier and more charming than he really is. As you can imagine, bombast and faux-charm weren’t what I was looking for at that moment in time. Nor was I looking for someone to crack jokes or talk without carefully listening. But this doctor seemed enamored of the sound of his loud, booming voice. (On a side note, as a result of that loudness I’m pretty sure that everyone within 50 feet of the room could hear all the sordid details of my mental health crisis.)

All of this added up to a deeply unsatisfying — and frankly unsettling — mental health appointment. My apprehension, in this case, was confirmed. Doctors aren’t always the empathetic advocates we want and need them to be.

One odd detail proved to be the most unnerving aspect of this meeting. On my pre-appointment paperwork, I wrote something like: “I’m incredibly tired all the time, but I can’t sleep.” And the doctor pointed at that sentence incredulously and asked how it could be accurate. He thought I had written it incorrectly because it didn’t seem to make sense. To which I thought (but didn’t say), “Yeah, man, it doesn’t make sense to me either! That’s why I’m seeking medical help! You insensitive clod.”

Here’s a little tip for medical providers: Don’t do that.

I then told the doctor that there are a handful of people on one side of my family who have struggled with depression. As soon as I mentioned a specific antidepressant that one relative takes, he latched right onto the idea. “Oh yeah, that’s a good one!” He seemed immediately willing to prescribe it, or any other one that I might want. The problem is, we had barely even discussed my specific struggles yet. (And he also didn’t seem to have carefully read the extensive pre-appointment notes I had submitted.)

So I didn’t like either his bedside manner or his clinical methodology. But to his partial credit, he didn’t insist on giving me an antidepressant when he saw the Grand Canyon that was my furrowed brow when we discussed that option. I simply wasn’t ready to go that route.

So as a fallback, he suggested that I could try to get back into a running habit and see if the endorphins would help. I (very faintly) brightened at this idea since it made logical sense to me — endorphins increase serotonin! serotonin increases happiness! — as a natural remedy. But in the next moment, I remembered that I had already tried and failed to use running as an antidepressant. And it simply had not worked. At all. But I was desperate, and I was relieved to be offered a holistic, non-pharmaceutical path forward. I thought to myself: “Maybe I just need to push myself harder, run a bit faster. Maybe I can outrun my depression. I have to find out.”

I drove home that day feeling a few mixed things:

(1) I did not connect with this doctor. He did not seem to care deeply about my plight.

(2) I had succeeded in sticking to my anti-antidepressant guns. This gave me a marginal sense of control, which is something I hadn’t felt in the slightest in weeks.

(3) I felt panic at the prospect of restarting my running habit and not seeing any improvement. If that happened, I would be back at square one. With weeks to wait before I could get another appointment with this doctor. A doctor I didn’t particularly want to see again anyway.

So it was a mixed bag at best, and a sharp disappointment at worst. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I thought trying the same remedy I had already tried would have any different outcome or prove to be the cure I needed. But my clarity had been obliterated for weeks, and I simply couldn’t see past my entrenched views about holistic vs. pharmaceutical solutions.

In the weeks to come, as the walls closed in around me, I would be forced to un-entrench myself from those views.

And once I climbed out of that trench, the view would — eventually — become a panoramic one again.

But dang it if that trench wasn’t a deep one.

Deep. And Wide.

And dark.

Thank you, as always, for reading. I am deeply grateful for your time and your interest! Feel free to respond directly on Facebook if I know you there. Or right here if I don’t yet have the pleasure of your acquaintance.

The Worst Summer of My Life, Chapter 3: Depression Is A Body Snatcher

Click here to read Chapters 1 and 2.

Beware of pod people.

But also be aware that, beyond your control, you can become one yourself.

I recently watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers, both the 1956 original and the 1978 remake. Body-snatching is one of my favorite horror templates, going back to when I watched The Stepford Wives in college, not to mention Pet Sematary and certain episodes of The Twilight Zone.

The idea of a person looking exactly like himself, sounding exactly like himself, but being something other than himself is nightmare fuel for me. The prospect of waking up next to your wife, or your child, and having the blood-chilling realization that their eyes are cold and lifeless. That their emotions have somehow been removed. That their soul seems to have been replaced. For me, nothing is more shudder-inducing.

Well, my own body was recently snatched for a few months. Not by an invasion of malevolent aliens, but by something more invasive and more malevolent (not to mention more real).


In the body-snatcher movies, ordinary people (oh hey, Donald Sutherland was in that one too!) are replaced in their sleep by carbon copies of themselves that are incubated and grow, at warp speed, in large pods. Entire towns are then overtaken by these icy, monotone “pod people” who lack any discernible emotion, including the ability to love. Those who have not yet been “pod-ified” are awash in terror as they simultaneously try to keep from falling asleep, and also do their best to process the knowledge that their dearest loved ones have been permanently replaced by soulless replicants.

I suspect that my wife, and possibly even my kids, can relate to that feeling. Because depression recently turned me into a (mostly) externally emotionless, seemingly soulless, glazed-eyed replicant. A flat, cheap imitation of my true self. I might as well have been a cardboard cut-out for the depth of emotion I was able to muster. But a cardboard cut-out that was filled with repressed panic and flat, visceral dread over what was happening to me.

The only thing worse than being a pod person is being a pod person who realizes that you’re a pod person — and that if you can’t un-pod-ify yourself, every meaningful relationship and goal in your life will be doomed.

Here’s a taste of what it felt like for me while I was depressed.

Hiking by myself, which I finally resumed doing early this year, is one of my favorite pastimes. It is rejuvenating and gives me a chance to clear my mind. Thus, I often find a great degree of pristine clarity in the woods.

But this summer, every time I hiked by myself felt more like a waking nightmare. Because instead of finding clarity, all I found was that I was even more depressed than I realized. While hiking on a peaceful trail on a beautiful day, with birds chirping overhead, I felt nothing but a dull, simmering sense of panic. Somewhere between sedated numbness and a full-on anxiety attack.

That guy named Jeremy, who has a specific personality that people who know me would be able to recognize and (hopefully) appreciate?

No trace of it.

I can vividly remember hiking White Rocks Trail near Boiling Springs in June and just floundering for mental oxygen for 3 straight hours. Feeling asphyxiated by a heavy, ominous, almost indescribable angst. I eventually just wanted to get back home as fast as possible, even though being there with my wife and kids was its own different kind of unnerving experience.

But then as I speed-hiked back down the mountain, I suddenly realized I had left Greyson’s stuffed animal all the way back at my turn-around spot — where I had snapped a picture of it sitting on a tree branch. And I remember the agonized feeling of dread as I begrudgingly turned around, knowing that my absent-mindedness had added a full 45 minutes onto my hike and that every one of those 45 minutes would be spent mired in numbness, depression, and (because I was mad at myself for being forgetful) self-loathing too.

That was not a fun morning.

Despite the fact that I was doing my favorite fun thing.

But whether I was alone or outside with the kids during those 3 months of oblivion, depression obscured my vision and made the experience of being in the woods, which is usually my happy place, deeply unsatisfying and even a bit claustrophobic. Every time I went to the park or took the kids on the Appalachian Trail, I felt awful knowing that I was not myself. That I was unable to convey a sense of wonder to them. Or to be silly with them. That they were standing next to someone who looked and sounded like their papa, but was a listless carbon copy of the man they knew. A humorless husk. A dead-eyed dud of a dad.

I was racked with guilt that my depression was not only fully visible to them (even though they never verbally pointed it out or asked me what was wrong, God bless their innocent little souls) but could perhaps even infect them somehow. A spiritual contagion of sorts. I imagined them being gradually traumatized by being around this pod person version of their pops.

Guilt is never a good thing to add to any mix. For me, it added an additional element of self-hatred into a headspace that is already decimated by muddled clarity and paralyzing anxiety. It exacerbated the death spiral of depression.

As a general rule (and I could write a whole book about this one), hating yourself makes everything worse. No matter who you are or what emotions you’re struggling with, you do not deserve an ounce of hatred. Not from anyone else, and not from yourself.

But exposing my mental illness — and I’ve now come to understand that’s what it was — to my innocent, wide-eyed children made me loathe myself. And self-loathing is a tranquilizer dart full of poison.

That poison ran through my veins for 3 months. May, June, and July. Which is a long time to have arsenic in your arteries. So how did I manage to turn the corner by August?

I’ll save that one for another day (and another chapter).

But I thank the good Lord that the poison is out of my veins.

And that I eventually snatched my body back.

School, But At Home

Greyson started kindergarten and Violet started preschool this week.

But neither of them left the house (except for mid-day walks in the countryside).

Or even put on shoes, for that matter (except for evening walks to the park).

They are now enrolled — without any arduous paperwork — in what we’ll call South Mountain Kinder-preschool-garten, conveniently located in the nexus between our dining room and living room. Their teacher is a warmly nurturing, hyperintelligent woman who was born in Washington, grew up in Colorado, studied English and history in college, reads nonfiction World War II missives for pleasure, and has an uncanny ability to remember… everything.

And I can already tell, just 3 days into their formal education, that this teacher simply adores both of the kids. So they’re clearly in good hands.

It’s a wonderful feeling to know that your kids are learning from someone who is deeply invested in their intellectual and emotional well-being, while also being deeply smart and intuitive. So I leave for work each day with a spring in my step, because I have that (and Greyson and Violet have that) in spades.

Danielle has known for a few years that she wanted to homeschool the kids, at least for the first year or two. And I, who savored my 2 years of being homeschooled in the late ‘80s, am fully on board. The Covid situation made this plan even more appealing to us, especially in our rural school district where masking has been politicized (despite the alarming Delta transmission rates) and is already creating bad blood between mask-averse parents, already-exhausted school admins, and Wolfishly vigilant governors.

So we’re very grateful to not have to worry about any of that this year. We’ll reassess next summer based on how things go at home, and how Delta (or Mu, or some other variant) has changed the landscape.

But I’m thrilled to report that our newly created school is running smoothly! It’s a work in progress, but Greyson and Violet are — each in their own unique way — natural students. They’re sponges for new information, and they both read voraciously without coercion. I’ll give a more detailed synopsis of what a day at SMKPSG looks like in a future installment.

For now, let me just say (by way of those cute signs kids hold up on their first day of school) that Greyson’s favorite things are animals, birds, and books. While Violet’s favorite things are sticker books, playing at the park, and her big brother. When they grow up, Greyson wants to be a zoologist and Violet wants to be… wait for it… a sea otter! Which I guess means that he can study his baby sister closely.

I’m awash in gratitude that our little zoologist and our little sea otter are in school, at home, learning from one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. And enjoying an enviable 2:1 student-to-teacher ratio.Much remains to be seen about our long-term education plan. But for the time being, what I know is this:

Home(school) is where our heart is.

The Worst Summer of My Life, Chapter 2: Depression Is A Desert Island

(Click here to read Chapter 1.)


John Donne, unwavering, in 1624: “No man is an island.”

Simon & Garfunkel, undeterred, in 1965: “I am an island.”


Before my ship ran aground last spring, wrecked on the rocks of depression, I would have said that I ardently supported John Donne’s non-islander ethos (although I would have wrongly attributed it to Thomas Merton, who wrote a book of the same name 350 years later).

I’m no rugged individualist. I have always been an ardent believer in being vulnerable, seeking help, and relying on the people in one’s circle of trust for emotional support. I reveal things about myself instinctively, sometimes even to people I don’t know well enough to justify it. I’m a chronic oversharer. I usually err on the side of opening up, because I consider its downside (emotional risk!) to be far outweighed by its upside (making connections!).

But depression, as it turns out, can turn a person inside out.

During the 3 months that I spent in a depressed and deflated oblivion, confiding in anyone (besides Danielle) about my experience was the very last thing I wanted to do. This despite the fact that I am fortunate enough to have a plethora of people in my life who would have listened with love. Trusted friends. Tender-hearted brothers. A spectacularly empathetic mom. I even have next-door neighbors and a few work acquaintances who would have let me unburden myself. Not to mention lots of thoughtful folks in my Facebook peanut gallery.

I am not lacking for warm, willing co-burden-bearers.

But instead of opening up, while my body was shutting down from lack of sleep and lack of exercise, I let my heart shut down too. I buried my inner voice. I burrowed deep into a hole within myself. I burned my emotional edifice to the ground. And the charred remains that remained of its foundation were barely inhabitable.

Here’s one aspect of what that looked like. When I did my 40-minute commute (only once a week since I was mostly working from home), I would often not think a single lucid thought during those 40 minutes. I had no inner monologue. I would sit there in the car, on emotional auto-pilot, thinking and feeling nothing. Feeling nothing but flat, pulverizing dread, that is. At any point during those 40 minutes, I could have called my mom, either of my brothers, my buddy Tony, my oldest friend in the world Dave… pretty much anyone who remotely cares about my well-being. And I could have bent their ear and asked for help.

Instead, I listened to 40 minutes of dire news on the radio and felt numb. A kind of nothingness. I was already sedated by my depression, and I used the news as a further sedative. A tranquilizer that made me feel anything but tranquil.

So why didn’t I seek solace from any of the people (outside my home) who would have been willing and even eager to listen and console me? The answer to that question is complicated. But one part of it has to do with burdening.

I didn’t want to burden anyone else with my trouble. During a good portion of my 3-month funk, my parents were visiting my middle brother in California, an annual trip that everyone involved greatly looks forward to. And I didn’t want to be a downer either for my mom or my brother while they were enjoying each other’s company. But both of them now say (unsurprisingly) that they wish I had confided in them during my mental turmoil.

And of course I should have. Of course they would have been grateful if I had opened up to them about the deep, dark hole I was in. But when you’re depressed, you don’t think logically or act intuitively. You don’t feel an ounce of clarity, which impairs your emotional judgment.

Additionally, I repeatedly convinced myself that maybe I could snap myself out of my funk in another week or two, so I kept putting off revealing that funk to anyone besides Danielle. Months dragged by, and each week felt a little worse than the one before it.

Human beings were not designed to live in physical or emotional isolation. We would not have been given the deep capacity to connect if it wasn’t a vital component of our survival, and our ability to flourish.

It takes a village to raise a child.

It takes a village to end a pandemic.

And it takes a village (at least a small one) to help preserve one’s mental health.

But it only works if each of us is willing to go to someone in our village who cares about us and tell them we are struggling. It only works if we have confidence that we can confide in a confidant. It only works if we choose to trust that our trusted friends are indeed trustworthy.

My friends and family are that, in spades.

They would not desert me.

And I am anything but an island.

So I must never again render myself a castaway.


This is the second in a series of posts about my recent mental health struggles. Thank you so much for reading. Facebook is my primary platform for sharing this blog, so feel free to give me feedback there. (Unless you somehow found my blog independently, in which case… welcome!) I am deeply grateful for your interest, and I hope you find some solidarity in my struggles. It feels good to share them publicly after months of repressing it all. Catharsis is potent medicine, and connection is the cure. May I never again forget that.