Guest Blogs

Running On Empty, Part 1

I know I’m not to blame for depression or attention deficit, but when I’m struggling with insomnia and seized with self-loathing, I can’t make myself believe it.

In last month’s ADHD Dad post I dug a hole and put a tree in it. This month, I woke up to a much wider and deeper hole in the floor beside my bed.

It’s Saturday, the morning I get to sleep in, but I ruined that by staying up most of the night reading, so even though it’s 10 AM, I’ve only gotten my normal four hours of sleep. I sit on the edge of the bed looking over at the dark, yawning hole and feel its gentle pull. I know depression; I’ve lost too much time, terrified and numb, curled up inside depression’s poison comfort not to know what I’m looking at.

This isn’t the cute little hole of depression with googly eyes that follows that woman around in the anti-depressant cartoon commercial. This is a real depression hole. It is not little or cute, and it’s not a metaphor. It’s as real as dead birds, burnt dinner, and migraines. It has no edge; it’s a growing shadow across the floor, an ever darkening smudge on the wall and bedroom closet door, which carries a familiar old sick-sweet smell. It tugs at the sleeve of my T-shirt like a childhood friend. Come look, it whispers, you like this. My own tired voice comes out of the dark center of the widening hole, “Be honest for once, you know you’re already here,” it sighs. “You don’t have the strength to push back anymore, so accept it.” So even though I know I shouldn’t, that’s exactly what I do. And once I’m there I tell myself that it’s no wonder I’m depressed; I’ve got a lot to be depressed about.

But that, of course, is complete crap. No matter what the voice in the black hole says, I’m not depressed about my life, my weight, or six more months of election year coverage. Yes, our family is facing emotionally tough stuff these days. But my wife and I have a solid, deep marriage. We’re good partners. We talk and listen to one another. We’ve weathered challenging times before, and we’ve always come out the better for it. There is no “about” or “why” for depression – it’s just screwy wiring and mixed-up brain chemicals. I know that’s true, but the problem is, when I’m in the hole, I don’t believe it. Down there I don’t look for ways to get out. I look for all the reasons I deserve to feel like the worthless toad I clearly see I am.

It takes a whole lot of time and energy to keep my mind constantly ticking off the countless times I’ve failed others and myself, and what each failure illustrates about my lack of human decency or worth. Luckily, I don’t sleep much.

My therapist told me that my insomnia and bouts of depression were linked. If I concentrated on strategies to get more sleep, he thought, I could break the cycle and my outlook would improve. Now, I could have given him a lot of crap for pointing out the obvious, or I could have been honest with him.

But I rarely do either with therapists. In my experience, most of them prefer short, entertaining stories with simply solved problems attached. So do I. It saves a lot of frustration and confusion on both sides. So I accept the advice and my monthly ADHD and anxiety scrips with a smile, load my dark heart into my old Dodge Caravan and head over to the Walgreens drive-thru on my way to pick up my daughter from high school.

The frustrating truth I didn’t mention to my therapist is that when I’m in this depression hole, I treat the sandman like he’s a suicide bomber. I do the sleep strategies: I exercise during the day; I do my breathing, take my pill, and read quietly in bed at night – all to calm myself so I can fall asleep. But when I start to doze, I rebel. I know this is when I should turn off the light and lay down my weary head, but I don’t. I jerk the book off my chest, and flip back a page to catch what I’ve missed, and push my attention back to the story. In this latest bout of depression I was reading a series of novels set in the misery of WWII Europe, which fit well with my ongoing self-loathing.

If necessary, I’ll go down to the kitchen, get some granola bars and a diet soda, and sit up reading in the living room while everybody else in the house sleeps. If that doesn’t keep me up, I’ll go hard core into sandwiches and Haagen-Dazs. (Added plus: the fat fits the toad image.) To fight off sleep, I’ve gone as far as rolling up my sleeves at one in the morning and doing the laundry, mopping the kitchen floor, cleaning and waxing the kitchen table, and setting it for breakfast, all the time reliving shameful scenes of weakness and dishonesty from my past. Hey, I’m an alcoholic. I know how to have a good time.

What’s become obvious to me is that this willful battle against the sleep I want and need isn’t your run of the mill depression-insomnia. This is depression-insomnia with ADHD.

Next in Running On Empty, Part 2: There’s no listless staring out the window with this depression. Depression with ADHD is depression with a purpose. You’ve got to get out there and spread that misery everywhere you can. Since I don’t do well on anti-depressant medication this could be a long slide down. Or maybe this time I can finally find the way to pull out of it.