The third in a series of five essays about Mental Health to celebrate the dog days of August.
Mental Health II: Suicide is Painless
When you have a substitute school bus driver, it doesn’t much affect your life. When you have a substitute teacher, you know you’re in for an easy day. But when you walk into a room to encounter a substitute therapist, you think: this will be useless.
That actually happened to me in 1990. I was still pushing the Sisyphusian rock uphill against my nature, juggling my own firm with a toddler at home and second on the way. My usual therapist, a mousy woman who was neither effective nor harmful in the futile struggle to be happily straight, was absent. In her place sat a man in his early thirties with thick black hair and chiseled features. If he smiled he might have been handsome, though I intuited immediately I would get no smile out of him.
I figured the next forty-five minutes would be a waste, but I’d already forked over my co-pay, so I rattled off my mental health history. By this time, I could hit the high points in eleven minutes, twelve tops.
“You’ve been telling yourself this story for, how long?” His opening gambit was different. “You are gay. There is no doubt about it. Until you acknowledge that, and accept that, you can come to therapy forever, but your situation is not going to change. The only way to get your life on a path that makes sense, is to come out.”
“Who do you think you are? I’ve spent fifteen years, with too many therapists, trying to find balance. My whole life is structured around this.”
“And you’re still miserable.”
Thus we volleyed through the remainder of the session. I left, angry. Angry at having a substitute. Angry at his insistence. Angry at him even questioning the construct all the other therapists had drilled into me. I had a child, another arriving soon. I was dug very deep; I could see no option but to keep burying.
Truth is an invasive species:
once it finds fertile ground it spreads.
Yet even in my anger, I realized solace in finally hearing the truth. He challenged me, yes. But he did not condemn me. And though it took several more years, that single interchange with that abrasive therapist was the turning point in my understanding. I might well suffer mental anguish and depression my entire life, but if there were any chance of easing it, I would have to true to that aspect of my nature that lay contrary to the rest of me.
Truth is an invasive species: once it finds fertile ground it spreads. The storyline of my life became increasingly tenuous. I finally decided to tell my wife, which I did in a therapy session (we were also in couple’s therapy). I recommitted my love for our family, I reinforced there had been no affair, nor even dalliance. It had not occurred to me that this would be the end of our marriage (the forever part of Catholicism obscures the reality of actual living). Yet by the end of the session, I knew we were through. My wife was not entirely surprised. But in stating the verboten aloud, I had broken the spell. We were through. She would set the terms.
Within the year I was living alone in a half-furnished house, working out of the attic, spending too much time with myself and two toddlers, more depressed than ever. Suicide was no longer an option: I was responsible for two children. Beyond that, my will to live was zilch.
Talk therapy was unthinkable: all those years of misguided talk soured me on psychotherapy. I’ve always been sensitive to medication: two aspirin will squelch a splitting headache. However, I finally agreed to the lowest dose of Zoloft. My doctor cautioned me to side effects that could flower in three to four weeks. On cue, three weeks from kicking off my daily dose I found myself sitting on the carpet mid-afternoon, watching a TV game show. Laconic…subdued…alien. I skipped my pill the next day, and the next. Called my doc, told him thanks but no thanks.
Thus, I had no faith in religion, talk therapy, or meds. Yet depression continued to cyclone through me. The only thing that was ever going to help me feel better: was me.
Over time—a lot of time—the fact of I was the only one who could truly help myself became clear. And with that realization came a sharper perspective. I was not mentally ill. I had never been sick. There was never anything wrong with Paul Fallon aside from not fitting the expectations of family and church and community. Expectations that I absorbed as inviolable truths, even as they labelled me faulty.
Long ago a therapist asked, “When are you going to get angry at your parents?” I laughed and replied, “Never. I was the last of four kids in four years. They had no idea what they were doing. They were clueless and probably harmful, but they weren’t malicious.” Unsatisfied with my detached perspective, he counselled me to get angry, to embrace catharsis.
Perhaps he, and all my other therapists, would be relieved to know that I bear none of them any ill. Like my parents, they operated within the spectrum of their own constraints. Once I realized that I was not ill, had never been ill, I had no need for therapists or drugs to cure me.
But even as the major identity confusion of my life got resolved, depression continued to strike, erratic yet deep. And anxiety started coming at me with greater velocity.