It took a family crisis to pull me out of the hole of depression — and to remind me to look beyond my life and focus on helping others.
by Frank South
In last month's Part One post I was down in an insomnia-fueled, no-joke, no-metaphor, black hole of depression so deep, so wide, and so all-encompassing that there seemed no possible way out. As an ADHD guy who can sometimes make hyperactive look like standing still, I didn't stay holed up in my bed with my dark hopeless thoughts brooding by myself. Heck, no: I brought them downstairs with me when I made breakfast for the family. Like your oatmeal with a sprinkle of brown sugar and ground ash=grey despair? How about coffee brewed dark enough to roast that smile off your face forever? Welcome to Frank's happy morning kitchen.
Understand, I wasn't greeting my wife, mother-in-law, and daughter with frowns and bitter warnings of defeat facing them when they left for work, bridge club, and school. Though I was pretty sure that defeat and shame were all that was waiting for them outside our front door, I kept my brave smile on, and a strained cheerful optimism in my conversation. This only increased my personal desolation because it intensified my awareness that I could do nothing to protect my loved ones.
I over-bought groceries, stocking pantry, fridge, and freezer as if there were a war coming. I obsessed over my daughter's grades, checking every assignment and test on the school computer. I cleared dead trees from the forested area of our yard, ripped and rooted out predatory vines, planted day lilies and morning-glories. Then sometimes, exhausted, I'd stop everything and just sit, quietly freaking out — one time forgetting to pick my daughter up from school. "What happened to you, Mr. OCD?" she joked when I drove up to the high school, "You never forget this stuff."
"Nothing happened," I said, "I just, you know...forgot." And then I shrugged as I pulled into traffic. My daughter nodded, said okay, put her feet on the dashboard and looked out the window.
So now I was completely weirding out my family. My wife and daughter were finishing breakfast in record time and deciding they'd like to get to work/school earlier every day. When my mother-in-law didn't have church, bridge, or knitting club she stayed in her room with the door closed. Our dog followed me everywhere I went in the house or yard with an unchanging look of concern on his face. When I'd lie down, he'd put his head on the bed and stare at me, one eyebrow up, his dog brain-waves saying, "Just tell me what to do, I'll fix it. Dog's honor."
But by now, there wasn't anything he or anyone else could do. I told my therapist again that I couldn't tolerate anti-depressants. He said we'd talk about it again next time. I didn't answer. I was so deep in the hole of my ADHD depression that I'd lost sight of sunlight at the top.
Now, ADHD and depression don't always go hand in hand — they're not necessarily co-morbid conditions. They live in similar neighborhoods in your brain, but they don't live in the same house. I don't think so, anyway — but maybe they do, I don't know. I'm not an expert or a medical professional of any sort. Really I'm just laying out what I think based on what I understand from my own experience or from what my various therapists have told me, and I could have easily gotten that mixed up. That said, I think dealing with one's ADHD day in, day out, can be incredibly frustrating and can help bring on rampaging defeatism of the "Why try at all, I'll just mess it up anyway? Just wake me after the big one drops and we're all dead anyway" variety. And depression can make you forget what you're supposed to be doing, and distract you from appointments and other necessary life duties because all you can think about is whether there is anything anywhere in the universe that makes life worth the effort of living at all.
So I was in complete emotional darkness, feeling about as useful as laundry lint, when my brother called from Delaware saying he was following the ambulance that was taking our 90-year-old mother to the hospital again. She's been there before due to gastric problems brought on by the stress of being the primary caretaker for my father who struggles with dementia.
"Maybe this time will convince her to let us bring regular nursing care into their house," my brother said.
"We can hope," I said, not mentioning that I didn't put too much stock in that stuff lately.
Due to my obligations to family here in Georgia, I couldn't get up there to help until my wife and daughter were out of school in a couple of weeks. Then I'd come up and do what I could — though since I was seeing myself as some combination of Eeyore and the plague, I couldn't imagine me doing anything but making things worse. A day later my mother called from her bed in the hospital. Her voice was weak and breathy, but the steel determination of her personality came through the phone as clear as always. "I know you want to come and help, but I don't want you ignoring your family down there for us. I mean it — you do so much when you come, but this time I can get back to taking care of your father without you and your brother moving Heaven and Earth. I can handle this fine," she said, "It's my job."
When she said that, something profound snapped, and depression lost its hold on me. I don't know if it was her sense of duty or pride or just that steel determination in her voice, but a light showed down from the top again and I could see small footholds on the side of the hole, leading up toward the sun. They looked like they'd fit my mother's feet, and I remembered that she'd fought depression herself in her life. It seemed like a good idea to follow in my mother's footsteps.
And step by slow step, that's what I did; first, by not taking her advice. As soon as school was out, I went up to Delaware and spent time with my parents, getting mom back home and helping my brother with setting up home care for them.
But the slow steps up the side of the hole of depression were founded on something more fundamental than responding to a family emergency. What my mom said about the impossibly heartbreaking task of taking care of my dementia stricken father was, "That's my job."
As I've kept on making progress pulling myself out of depression and other holes I've dug for myself in this life, one step at a time, I've begun to understand why those words broke me free. At any moment, when you look outside yourself and focus on what someone else needs, you can begin to see what you can do to help. Fulfilling that need gets your mind off yourself, gives you a job, and not too far behind that comes some self-worth and maybe a little bit of meaning. For me, my job’s my family. But to whoever or wherever you extend outside yourself, bit by bit your strength builds, and instead of a hole, you've got yourself a mountain. And the view's a heck of a lot better from up there.
I'm taking a hiatus from writing ADHD Dad for a while to finish up on some other pressing projects and, as I said above, focus more on my family. Thanks to all my readers and commenters over the last three years. I look forward to continuing our conversations about the adventures of ADHD life in the future.