Monthly Archives: March 2015

Daddy issues

Digging into the depths of your psyche sometimes brings up things you’d long since forgotten, long since tossed aside as no longer meaningful, no longer relevant, no longer affecting your life. I’ve been doing a lot digging lately. With a backhoe. It was bound that I’d dig up some forgotten parts of my psyche eventually.

As my friend Travis noted, treating a mental illness is an all-encompassing process. Treatment has to be holistic, and I don’t mean in a woo-y, new age-y kind of way. Rather I mean that you have to treat yourself from multiple angles. In my case, those angles are chemical (bupropion), physical (good exercise and diet), and psychological. The first two parts are easy, relatively speaking. The third is really fucking hard. You have to examine yourself with such intensity and so deeply that the ugly parts are bound to rear their ugly heads. Only by confronting the ugly parts can I really proceed further in my continual journey of self-actualization. And that journey of self-actualization recently took me down the “you have repressed issues about your father” road.

My father, Dan, has never been a significant part of my life. Or really any part of my life, for that matter. He was simply … not there. You’ll notice that I refer to him primarily as Dan. I don’t really consider him a father in anything other than the genetic sense because, quite frankly, he wasn’t my father. That role, to the degree that anyone did it, was filled by my mother and grandfather. I’m a little unclear on the timing, but my father started using cocaine either slightly before or while my mom was pregnant. It changed him, she said. He was not the man with whom she had fallen in love. Initially when I was born, a tiny thing, under six pounds, with a mop of strawberry blonde hair, he claimed that I couldn’t be his. “Red hair doesn’t run in my family” he said. Later, he admitted that I was indeed his; my mom thought that his denial was the result of a crazy girlfriend he had at the time. The courts ordered him to pay child support. He was in arrears by tens of thousands of dollars by the time I went to college. He may still be, for all I know.

So Dan was never really in my life. My mother didn’t prevent him from seeing me or vice versa. He just never really seemed to want to be a part of my life. Years passed. I never met him, even though he lived in the same tiny town of 300 people where I grew up. I saw him a couple of times growing up; my mother would point him out when we were in a store or something. Still, I never actually met him in person until I was 18, shortly after I graduated from high school. He came to the library where I worked and asked if he could speak with me. I barely recognized him, as I’d only seen the man a handful of times, and only in passing at that. He spoke to me a bit in his car, something about meeting my grandparents and how I should read Zorba The Greek. Honestly, I had a hard time understanding what he was saying. The conversation was disjointed, as if there were leaps of logic happening in his head that I just couldn’t follow. I suppose the conversation was as one might expect from a mind addled by years of cocaine use.

I spoke with Dan a few other times in my life. For a few years after college, I worked in my hometown library. There were a couple of times when he’d come in, chat a bit. Talking with him was similarly difficult to follow, kind of like trying to follow the logic of a 9-11 truther or a birther: “logic” really didn’t apply. When I finished graduate school and got my first professional job near my hometown, he visited me there a couple of times, too. It was awkward, to say the least. By that time, he had moved to a community about fifty miles south of my hometown and worked with the local animal shelter.

Perhaps I should tell you a bit about Dan, the pre-cocaine Dan, that is. Much like Dan’s conversations with me, my description will sound disjointed. All that I have are snippets that I’ve heard, mostly from my mother, but from other people sometimes as well. Dan was a gifted man, a chiropractor of amazing talent. In fact, aside from when she described what he was like while snorting coke, my mother had nothing but good things to say about him; even in my youth, I could sense the love she had for the man my father was. He was fiendishly smart, funny, a free spirit who enjoyed animals, surfing, and Chinese checkers. He was the only person who could beat my mother at Chinese checkers, so she said. Others who found out Dan was my father had similar praise to heap upon him. I often heard, “He was the best chiropractor I’ve ever had”. What a nice guy he was. How fun he was. And always an emphasis on how intelligent he was, how sharp his mind was. I was often told that I inherited that mind, most often by my mom. That was why I seemed so different from the rest of my small family, she said.

For most of my adult life, I denied how much Dan’s absence affected me. After all, I was successful. Valedictorian of my high school class. Graduated summa cum laude from college. Received two masters degrees at the top of my classes. Built a strong track record and earned respect in my chosen field. I achieved these things despite his absence, I told myself and others. I would brush off suggestions that my lack of a father affected me. When my ex-wife and I went to counseling and we each spoke separately with a psychiatrist, I dodged the issue by saying it wasn’t relevant. I said the same thing to the therapist I went to shortly after I was diagnosed with dysthymia. And I once again professed my father’s irrelevance to my current therapist fewer than three months ago.

But I was just being obstinate, as you’ve no doubt surmised. It took yet another amazing conversation with my partner, whom I’ll refer to as “S”, and a lot of soul-searching to realize that. The truth is that Dan’s absence loomed large in my youth, adolescence, and into the rest of my life, although I told no one this. In my last post I mentioned that the first “adult” album I bought was Paul Simon’s Graceland. The second was Genesis’s We Can’t Dance. I bought it initially for the delightful “I Can’t Dance”, but it ultimately was this song that spoke to me the most, despite not being an exact match to my own situation:

How could I not feel like my father was saying I was no son of his, after all? I mean, he actually explicitly said it shortly after I was born. And even after he admitted that he fathered me, his absence spoke volumes. Even though we lived in the same tiny town, he never tried to contact me before I graduated high school, and my mom made no attempt to stop him. As a young child and adolescent, I mainly just heard about how friendly, smart, and generally awesome Dan was. It didn’t take much for my young mind to put two and two together: that seemingly cool person I envisioned wanted nothing to do with me. That thought was primary on my mind during my first suicidal episode, laying in that bathtub as a fifteen-year-old, contemplating grabbing that temptingly-close razor blade.

Thoughts like that drill themselves deep into your subconscious. They poison the well. They develop into shame. And eventually, those thoughts get buried so deep that you don’t even remember they’re a source of your shame and insecurities in the first place, hence my deflection. “My lack of a father didn’t adversely affect me”, I insisted. <snort> Right, of course it didn’t. How ever could it negatively impact your life to think that you’re so terrible that your own father didn’t want to be around you? But there I go being uncharitable to myself again. I had to think that it didn’t affect me, really, to protect myself. Otherwise I would have collapsed from its weight years ago.

But back to that conversation with S I mentioned. I don’t recall now how he came up, but I was speaking about Dan with her, telling her all of these things I knew about him, the small snippets. I told her a few more, too, ones I haven’t yet mentioned in this post. The time shortly after I graduated when a high school acquaintance told me that Dan was at my graduation but left before it ended. When the same acquaintance told me that Dan maintained a scrapbook of newspaper clippings mentioning me. His efforts to reach out to me. The last time I spoke with him when he said he was proud of me, and I pushed it aside as if I’d just been told that by a complete stranger. He basically was at that point. While telling S this, I hadn’t really acknowledged Dan at that point as a source of my shame.

Partway through the conversation, S started crying, and I didn’t know why. I tried to get her to tell me, but she refused, instead encouraging me to continue talking. Finally, after another few minutes, she said, “Don’t you see, Buzzy? He stayed away because he loved you so much.”

Cliché though it may be, I felt like I’d been hit by a ton of bricks. Three monumental things hit my brain all at once. First, the ultimate source of many of my thoughts of inadequacy came racing back up from the deep pits where I’d buried them. Second, I finally understood why I held so much shame in my heart. And third, I was just given a completely different, and far more plausible, explanation of a critical part of my life. S really should be billing me hourly.

Those details I hadn’t mentioned earlier in this post, about the scrapbook, his profession of being proud, his presence at my graduation? Those didn’t fit the hypothesis in my head, so I’d essentially relegated them to the “irrelevant data” part of my brain. Now those data points fit together into a different, stronger hypothesis. Perhaps Dan thought that he’d simply have made my life worse by being a part of it. He’d ruined his own life, after all. How could he allow himself potentially to do the same thing to his son? Or maybe he was just so ashamed of how he’d abandoned me early in my life that he simply never could muster the courage to see me until he knew I was heading off to a successful life. My mind raced with possibilities. What if Dan had chosen otherwise? How different would my life be?

After gnawing on these revelations for days with no progress, I finally decided that I would give myself dedicated quiet time to think about this and only this. It was during my drive home and then back to work. I removed all distractions to my brain, aside from driving itself. Yeah, yeah, maybe a ton of metal hurtling down the freeway at 65 miles per hour isn’t the safest place to dig into the depths of your soul, but I’m a busy man!

While running through these what-ifs, I came to a realization: none of it mattered. Now that I was on the road to recovery, I understood that I liked my life. I have great friends, a nice house, a dream job, live in a beautiful area, and have the bestest partner one could ever hope to have. More than that, though, I like who I am. I turned out okay. And the reason I turned out okay is at least in part because of Dan. As my mother often said, I inherited his agile mind. My mind is one of the few things in which I (mostly) retain confidence even in my worst moments (and despite the fact that it sometimes leads me astray). I’m able to make connections quickly, to assess and create complex arguments, and generally to understand the world around me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no genius, but I can hold my own in the world, for the most part. That mental acuity comes from Dan.

However, there’s more to it than that. Dan’s absence, and my feelings of inadequacy resulting from it, gave me a reason to strive. Maybe I could prove myself  worthy  of attention, of love, of respect, if I worked hard enough. Got good enough grades. Accomplished great things. Left a mark on the world. That six- or seven-year-old is still in me, that child who saw all of those other kids’ fathers and wondered why mine wasn’t around. That part of me strove to prove myself a worthy son. But I don’t need to prove myself a worthy to a man who was never a father to me in the first place. He had his own reasons for not being a part of my life, and those are his own battle. And in realizing that, now I can proceed to confront the shame deep within me and thereby prove myself worthy to myself, despite all my imperfections and despite my disease. I’m the person now who needs to accept me for who I am. And so my healing proceeds.


Lately, there’s an interesting synergy between a few of the cultural items I’ve been consuming. I just finished reading Allie Brosh’s great book Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That happened. If you’ve never read Brosh’s blog Hyperbole and a Half, you’re in for a treat. She is both brilliant and hilarious, and the simple artwork accompanying her posts just enhances her brilliance and hilarity further. She’s written two posts that are some of the best writing about depression I’ve ever read: Adventures in Depression (aka Depression Part One) and Depression Part Two. If you’re instead up for a laugh, try The Year Kenny Loggins Ruined Christmas, pretty much any post about her dogs, or numerous of her other posts.

Anyway, Brosh’s book is a collection of some of her greatest work combined into one handy volume, <shameless self-promotion>which is probably is conveniently available at your local public library</shameless self-promotion>. Depression Parts One and Two are both included. I’d read them before, but reading them with my new perspective helped me see and identify with far more things. Brosh talks about how her own battle with depression began with a bombardment of emotion but later developed into feeling nothing at all. This seemed awesome at first, she noted, and I totally concur; it does seem pretty great, being supposedly immune to the emotional slings and arrows life directs at you. However, she makes a brilliant observation about the problem with that thought. She says it far better than I do, so here you go (emphasis added):

The beginning of my depression had been nothing but feelings, so the emotional deadening that followed was a welcome relief. I had always wanted to not give a fuck about anything. I viewed feelings as a weakness — annoying obstacles on my quest for total power over myself. And I finally didn’t have to feel them anymore.

But my experiences slowly flattened and blended together until it became obvious that there’s a huge difference between not giving a fuck and not being able to give a fuck. Cognitively, you might know that different things are happening to you, but they don’t feel very different. (Source)

Seriously. I cannot express how true that statement is for me. But before I start trying …

Today, as I was driving home, I was listening to an album I haven’t heard in a long time: Paul Simon’s Concert in the Park, August 15, 1991Simon’s Graceland was the first “adult” music album I ever bought, you know, after I graduated from the California Raisins and The Little Mermaid soundtrack (Sebastian is boss). I still think that’s probably the pinnacle of what little good musical taste I have; I’m not alone in considering Simon to be one of the most brilliant lyricists in recent history.

But enough with my fawning. On my ride home, I heard Simon’s Kodachrome.

I was listening to the song just before I stopped to get my mail, staring up at the beautiful tree-lined mountains visible from everywhere in the town where I live. Now that I’m in a better place, I truly appreciate their majesty, just as I can now better enjoy the stunning range of colors and patterns in a sunset and the magic when the river shimmers in just the right way. Staring up at those mountains, the song’s chorus came back to me.

They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s
A sunny day, oh yeah
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take photographs
So mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away (Source)

And as I was driving back from the post office, a line from the second verse similarly struck me:

Everything looks worse
In black and white (Source)

In my first post, I described how my dysthymia manifests as an almost complete lack of feeling, an emotional deadness. I felt almost no excitement when I got the call saying I got my current job, despite my yearning for it. Watching my nephews at Christmas, I had no joy. I could muster no sadness when a good friend told me she was raped. As Brosh says, it wasn’t that I chose not to give a fuck; I was incapable of offering up any fucks at all. I lived in that black and white world that Paul Simon feared; everything did indeed look worse because it all felt the same: like nothing.

Feeling nothing all the time is excruciating, just as feeling sad all the time is. You look at the people around you and see them laughing, crying, being joyful, being angry, being something. But you’re stuck with nothing. You know that you should be able to feel these things, although you’re not just “shoulding” yourself. Really and truly, you want to feel something. The world was meant to be experienced in the fullness of its colors, with Kodachrome film, where you’re able to give a fuck what happens.

And those months, those years of not being able to feel, they make you ashamed. You’re have no excitement, no joy, no sadness, no anger, but you know you should. With every fiber of your being, you know. Then comes the shame death spiral: the less you feel, the more shame you feel. The more shame you feel, the more you really don’t see much point to life at all. You feel nothing; wouldn’t it be easier just to not go through all the rigmarole and truly embrace the nothingness?

A couple of weeks ago, I mustered up the courage to talk to a friend and former partner who experienced me at quite possibly the worst parts of my life. That person who I was then – no, who I am – that person is someone I hope no one other than me ever has to experience again (I’m not really thrilled by the idea of experiencing him, either). He was taciturn. Dickish. Mean. Uncaring. That person was so awful, and the thought that someone else had to experience him was so terrible, that I pushed my memories of that time into a deep recess of my mind. He was still there, and still is. But even I didn’t want to face him, so he got shunted off into a corner.

My friend told me what I was like then. I was monotone, pale, clammy, full of contempt, emotionless, unwelcoming of beauty in my life. My worst personality flaws were enhanced to the Nth degree. I was judgmental, dismissive, and close-minded. I was black and white because that’s the world I saw. And it took the amazing support of my friend, and me hitting rock bottom, when I was about to grab the razor blade and crawl to the bathtub, to make me realize that I needed professional help.

That person who I was then is still in me, is still a part of me, but now that I’m in treatment and had a few epiphanies, he’s become someone I’m willing to face. He’s my Dark Link, but I can’t really fight him. He’s me. How am I going to fight myself? Instead, I have to accept him, because, as my friend sagely pointed out, he’s just me with the worst parts of myself front-and-center. I am judgmental. I am dimissive. I am close-minded. I am callous. I try not to be those things, and usually I’m not, but those qualities are always lurking below the surface even in my best moments.

And I am having good moments. More than moments. My life is great, and now I can see that it’s great. I give fucks, Many, many fucks. Sometimes it’s hard to give fucks. I was intensely sad when I discovered that my feelings of inadequacy are from deep inside me, for instance. Since beginning treatment, I’ve been angry, guilty, and frustrated. I’ve also been joyful, excited, loving, playful, and empathetic. Those are colors. I’m seeing them. And I’d never trade them to go back to that black and white world. So mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away.

Perfect the way I am

So I’ve been telling myself that the first post I would write after making this blog public would be about how that decision affects my career prospects. I still plan to write that post, but a lot has happened since the blog became public last week. First off, thank you to all of you amazing people who reached out to me, thanked me, and told me your own stories. Your support is heartening, and admittedly a bit overwhelming for reasons you’ll hopefully see later in this post. Your stories were heartfelt and vulnerable. I plan to respond to each of you when I can. However, the “a lot that happened” to which I referred actually only peripherally has to do with making this blog public.

The treatment for my illness is multi-faceted, involving pharmaceuticals, decent sleep habits, good nutrition and exercise, and therapy. I see a fantastic therapist based here in the Gorge. Initially, when I started seeing him, I wasn’t sure why I was there. I didn’t really have any goals for therapy, as I was feeling pretty damn good when I decided to start seeing him. Really, I was just going to a therapist because I thought that I “should”, given my condition. I was pretty close to deciding not to see him, actually. But as I started opening up, I saw how truly insightful he is and how helpful his perspective can be. He gave me some great advice recently that I’d like to share, though it requires a bit of backstory first.

I’ve referenced my assholish observer several times, that somewhat removed part of myself that constantly criticizes what I do and who I am. He feels a little like he’s the personification of my disease, belittling me so as to make me weak to dysthymia’s ravages. But I had an extremely difficult revelation last week: that part of myself isn’t really a separate “diseased” part of myself that I thought he was. He’s me. The actual me. You know, that person I’ve been trying to discover now that I’m healing.

This revelation came as a result of some things in my personal life that sapped my confidence. I constantly feel inadequate. My colleagues in my community and the library profession seem to have a fairly high opinion of me and what I do. I do not. I’m always thinking that I’m not getting enough done, that I’m doing substandard work, that I don’t keep up enough, that I’m letting people down. There’s a fear that lives with me continually that people will find out these things and realize me for the fraud that I am.

Last week, those feelings of inadequacy were brought to the fore of my personal life in a way that I’m not sure they ever had before. I’ve pretty much always felt inadequate socially. But I’ve never really confronted those feelings head on and stared at them so directly in the face as I did last week. This confrontation made me feel like there was no way that I could be a decent human being, a loving romantic partner, a good role model or parental figure in a child’s life, or even a halfway decent friend. That was the “real” me thinking those thoughts, not my companion asshole.

The culmination of this came when my partner and I were talking through some things. We decided to stop at a restaurant and sat in a quiet corner to chat. In the course of our discussion, when I realized just how inadequate I truly felt, I broke down crying in her arms. I’m not sure I can adequately express how shocking this event is for me. In my adult life, I cry very rarely. I cry around other people even less than that. And I literally had never cried in a public place before during my adult life. Ever. And there were people at the restaurant aside from my partner whom I knew, and who likely could see me. I probably could have stopped the tears, but I didn’t care. For some reason, I didn’t feel ashamed about it. I needed to cry at the feeling of my own inadequacy.

So that was part of my realization: that I had a deep-seated feeling of inadequacy. The rest of it came one night while laying with my partner. We were discussing some of what had happened and what we’d been thinking. Because she’s truly the most caring person in the universe, she said that I was “perfect the way you are”, which caused yet another breakdown. But hey, at least it wasn’t in a public restaurant this time, right? That was the moment when it donned on me that that person who hated me so much, who constantly criticized me, wasn’t some removed, diseased part of myself. It was me.

Which brings me back to therapy. I talked through all of these things with my therapist. He said several amazing things. When I told him about my breakdown in the restaurant, his first word after I told him was “congratulations!” That affirmation meant so much to me. But after he heard everything, he told me the issue: a deep underlying shame that I let control me. And once he said it, I instantly recognized its truth. He recommended that I look into a research professor in social work named Brené Brown. He suggested that I read her latest book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. He also suggested that I check out her two TED talks, in particular her first talk from 2010 called “The Power of Vulnerability”.

This talk was a revelation. I have done so many things over the last several months that have made me extremely vulnerable: admitting the extent of my illness, tackling planning a large work-related conference that I have no experience doing, entering a new relationship with an intense emotional connection and acceptance the likes of which I’ve never experienced before, potentially becoming a larger part of a child’s life in a way that’s foreign to me, writing this blog, seeing a therapist, making the blog public. All that vulnerability digs up my shame, and it’s overwhelming, though in a good way, I think. Brown’s talk, together with all of these recent life events, made me see just how weak I thought vulnerability was.

I don’t know from whence this shame comes. Perhaps it’s from my childhood. Perhaps it relates to my failed relationships. Perhaps it’s me internalizing all of the self-hatred that dysthymia levels at me, because that assholish observer is still there (even if I now know that he’s not really my harshest critic). More likely, it’s some combination of all of these things and more. As Brown mentions in her second TED talk, I have plenty of well-deserved guilt for my actions, guilt meaning that “I did something bad”, according to Brown. But for years I’ve considered those actions as meaning “I’m bad”. That’s shame. It’s going to take me a while to accept that my mistakes don’t make me a terrible human being, but I’m going to try. I may not be perfect, but as a very dear woman told me recently, maybe, just maybe, I’m perfect the way I am.