Crowded around the living room at my 50th birthday party in San Francisco, my friends recounted some of my characteristically offbeat accomplishments in recent years. I’d smuggled six inch women’s pumps past security into a U2 concert to get a clear angle on Bono. I’d dumped the cheeky Catholic ex-girlfriend in Manhattan’s St. Patrick Cathedral. After a string of these anecdotes, they turned to me.
“What, you’re wondering if I’ll keep this up for my second half century?” I said, scanning the circle. I had no words to answer the question truthfully. There was too much love in the room. At that point I was considering killing myself before I reached 51, maybe with a vial of Phenobarbital.
Many of my friends knew I’d been suffering a torturous depression. They knew their levity at the party would hardly soften the pain. But what could they really know? To the mentally healthy, depression is impossible to conceive.
I’d been through intense episodes periodically since college. Teaching at a San Francisco high school in my 20s I faced a campus rumor that I had cancer because of my weight loss and slack face. In my 30s I hospitalized myself when I was so panicked friends had to maintain a 24 hour vigil in my apartment. In my 40s I left two teaching jobs and a UC Berkeley graduate program. But no depression had ever lasted longer than ten months. This current one had gone on for five years.
I’d grown to hate the word depression. People think by using it, they grasp the nightmare. Psychiatrists are satisfied they’ve captured the illness with the nine symptom list in the DSM-V diagnostic manual. But the affliction isn’t diabetes or the whooping cough.
My psychiatrist claimed I was atypical. I didn’t weep in the car. I didn’t waste in bed until 4 o’clock and not shower for a week. I scraped myself up daily at 6:45am and almost never missed a day of teaching.
I strove to live healthy. I drank chamomile tea on the porch, not vodka in the garage. I wore linen shirts, not torn sweats. I ate brain food like avocado smoothies and Omega 3-rich wild salmon. Fridays I lumbered like an old man through the four-mile run in Golden Gate Park to Ocean Beach. I wrote down three things each morning I was grateful for. I went to the jazz club even if it sounded like traffic noise. I mimed activities I’d once enjoyed.
It’s hard to say which symptom is the most horrendous. There’s the lacerating self-hating voice that yells “You flailing drone fuck, too stupid to even pretend to teach.” While some people in therapy cradle their inner child, my therapist said I harbored an inner sadist.
The most painful symptom might be the numbness. I used to sing Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” in the car. Now it sounded like a wooden spoon thudding against a bucket. At a party, the woman in a slim v-neck dress whose breasts I’d once coveted, was now a remote, neuter figure. I never got aroused, let alone orgasmic. I had emotional anorexia, didn’t cry, never felt more than a muffled joy, sadness or anger except at myself. I told certain people I loved them and somewhere buried I did, but love was just an abstraction.
My mind looped frenzied, uncontrollable suicide footage. I shot myself in the backyard with a black Walmart pistol, downed barbiturates in bed, drove off an embankment along the Pacific Coast Highway, my body so disfigured in the wreckage they had to identify it by my winged ankle tattoo. Oddly, the Golden Gate Bridge never beckoned. It seemed too conventional.
One night still on the near side of 50, I woke at 3am with an excruciating pain in my groin. At first I thought maybe I’d tried to stab myself while asleep. I realized quickly it was likely a kidney stone. In the hospital consulting room the doctor scanned the MRI and confirmed the diagnosis.
“But there’s something else,” he said. “You have a nodule on your lung.” Within seconds a calm flowed through my body. “I’m free,” I thought. “Now, I can die without having to do it myself and make everyone hate me.” I indulged the fantasy for weeks before getting the dreaded benign result.
Some months before the birthday party I’d come to realize I was untreatable despite the American Psychiatric Association’s official claim that “fortunately depression is very treatable.” All of the 30 some-odd methods I’d tried failed. Psychotherapy was about as effective as a weekly massage for leukemia. The menagerie of drugs I used provided only a small advance over sugar pills. I’d tried anti-depressants, mood stabilizers, stimulants, anti-anxiety agents, and the club drug ketamine. I’d done drama therapy and nutritional counseling. I intensified my 12 step recovery practice. I went Eastern, exploring acupuncture, yoga and a maroon-robed Tibetan lama who grabbed my head and recited incantations. I rubbed flower essence droplets on my chest in a cross pattern. I meditated in an expanse of golden reeds during a Mt. Tamalpais vision quest. I ultimately went to the extreme of electro-shock therapy. But it all amounted to a program of layering sand bags against a hurricane.
I checked in dutifully with my psychiatrist every month. You couldn’t call it treatment since he was as helpless as I was. In the first years I appreciated his confidence that the depression would eventually pass, but I’d come to dread the repetitious sessions. He’d begin with the requisite questions.
“How would you describe your general mood?”
“Living in an abyss.”
“Still suicidal ideation?”
“Probably eight ways since last session.”
“Isn’t there a clinical term for 17 months without an erection?”
He was understanding, but over his head, and his seemingly baseless optimism provoked me to rail at him. I took to addressing him by first name.
“Jon, why the fuck do you keep saying I’ll get through this? What’s the evidence after five fucking years?” He came back with reckless reassurance.
“You’re a fighter. You have the tools.” I didn’t know if he was trying to convince me more or himself.
Fed up, several months after the birthday I got a new psychiatrist, Girish. In our first session I put it on the table, declaring I was certain I would never recover.
His placid response arrested me. “You may be right,” he said. “You may need to move from the treatment model to the acceptance model.”
His quiet reality check provoked a sudden ripple of relief. A residue remained for days.
A week later I opened The San Francisco Chronicle and read about a sea lion found shivering off the coast of Sausalito blinded by a facial gunshot wound. The animal rescuers named him Silent Knight for his quiet bearing during rehabilitation. Looking at the photo of his whiskered, disfigured face, a small tear slid from my left eye, the first tear I’d cried since two years earlier when my mom left a voicemail saying she’d give her life to see me healed.
Slowly over the next few months, subtle undercurrents of emotion surfaced. I shared an apple with a friend overlooking the Marin Headlands and felt a fleeting connection. After years of imageless sleep I dreamed of kissing a Parisian woman in a maroon beret.
The change scared me. After five years buried in a black chasm, certain I would never escape, my core identity bound with daily self-hate, despair and death visions, I faced a fundamental and unnerving question: if I’m not going to die and if sometimes I hear a bird sing, who am I? The shift was so disorienting, at times I felt paradoxically suicidal.
Psychiatry had no explanation. Nothing had changed in my external life. Jon might have said it was the delayed cumulative effect of the striving I’d made over five years. I wanted to believe that, but I remained cynical and wary. I feared it was just the eddy of a capricious universe.
Emergence was slow, as learning to walk again must be for the Afghan War vet who steps on a mine, except I had the added fear that my mind, perhaps unlike his legs, might revert at any time. I began tentatively to consider the future. I began to imagine the world beyond my closed circle of streets inside San Francisco.
Two months after the conversation with Girish I was ready to visit the travel section of my neighborhood bookstore. Seattle, Copenhagen? I needed someplace more reliably bright. Perhaps the plazas of Italy. It would be peaceful there. Maybe the inner sadist would quiet down. Maybe he wouldn’t urge me to leap into the Grand Venetian Canal.
Another three months later on a June evening I wandered the narrow Venetian streets with a rudimentary Italian gained from daily YouTube videos. I noticed being aroused admiring the women in summer dresses cupping wine over the canals. I enjoyed an exhibit of ingenious Da Vinci contraptions modeled from his sketches. After years of rigid routines to control my inner chaos, I felt confusing spurts of spontaneity and animation.
I didn’t trust the energy. I waited for the first little stressor to send me back into Dante’s inferno. Heading south through the Apennine Mountains to Siena in a little rented Fiat, I felt anxiety surface despite the calming BBC voice of the GPS. When I arrived, walking the city’s narrow medieval streets I had periodic suicidal flashes. I imagined my psychiatrist pointing to atrophied neural pathways on a brain scan that indicated a permanent vulnerability to morbid ideation. I fought back the mildly desperate thought that I had to consume Italy’s sensations before the brief window shut.
Curiously, I discovered the Italian language I hardly spoke assisting me. I’d spent only three months doing YouTube lessons, but having lived five years with the voice of self-hatred and emotional deadness coded in English, Italian somehow freed me to connect in the streets of Siena.
I tried out phrases on street vendors and old men on park benches. In a trattoria I pointed to the server’s exposed shoulder tattoo.
“Eight or infinito?” I asked, making the double loop pattern with my finger. Inside her wrist I saw a little fairy. “You believe, yes?”
Along the Piazza del Campo, the central Siena gathering place ringed by stylish restaurants where people frequently drink midnight aperitifs, I walked into a shoe store. I asked the attractive owner how many styles were Italian. Did she have any suggestions? She asked where I was from. Supplemented by English fragments and improvised gestures we could say a lot. She told me her name.
“Giulia’s a nice name,” I responded. “Is that with a J or G?”
“G. We don’t have J in Italian. So what’s your favorite thing in Siena so far?”
“The churches is nice,” I said. My conjugations were pretty bad and I knew only the present tense. “But mostly I just like to talk to persons.”
“Like you, Giulia.”
After five years of emotional oblivion it felt curious, the pleasure of a light flirtation.
My last night in Siena I sipped a prosecco on the Piazza del Campo and looked up at the huge Mangia tower. It has an open-sided cupola on top. When I was 49 I would have considered throwing myself off, but sitting there that night noticing the little kids chase each other and the elderly couples stroll, I felt unfamiliarly comfortable in my body. The next morning I’d be driving the Fiat back to Venice and flying home to San Francisco. I was slightly sad already, but that was okay because I hadn’t felt soft in a long time.
“I feel good tonight Giulia,” I said.
I pointed to my feet on the plaza. “You help me find beautiful shoes.”
Erik Gleibermann is a San Francisco writer whose poetry and essays have appeared in The Florida Review, The New Haven Review, and Tikkun. His journalism stories on education, social justice, and travel have appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and The Guardian. He works in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education.