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.