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.

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