Say I'm Alright

by John Wenz

So this is the story of how, this year, my friends pushed me in a big direction with the advice to go back into therapy, get back on medication and stabilize my life.

First, a little background: I have struggled with periods of intense depression since high school. In college, I began to seek help. After a period of prescription missteps, the diagnosis began to shift. What at first appeared to be depression complicated by anxiety issues revealed itself to be something else entirely: Bipolar disorder, with all its peaks and crashes. High clarity and uncontrollable energy followed by a plummet into days or weeks of utter despondency. I was put on mood-stabilizers as a result, and stayed on them for roughly three years.

But then a couple years ago, I found that I’d quit a job with a salary and benefits in D.C. to return to Nebraska to… work at a race track for 15 hours a week. It was a strange decision, and it sprang partly from wanting to get out of the culture of D.C., partly from wondering if I was meant to be back at home near my family, and partly, let’s be honest, from being lost. The track wasn’t all bad — but as a sole source of work, handing tickets to bettors for $8 an hour wasn’t enough for me to get by. I couldn’t afford my mood stabilizers. And though assistance programs exist, I couldn’t find a public health clinic to help me get a prescription for said programs. So I cut up my remaining pills and tapered off as best I could.

As time went on, I feigned fineness, even as I withdrew from my friends, fearing some judgment (unspecific but damning) on the current condition of my life. A roommate urged me to get back on medication. “You are all right sometimes, but sometimes you really do need it.” Her voice trailed off as she waited to see how I would react. It might be with a burst of anger, or a bout of shame — who knew with me then? I would sometimes get incredibly paranoid and defensive and distrustful. But I shouldered it, saying, “I’m fine, and I’m better off without it.”

A change of scenery was what I needed, I decided, not help. I’d left the race track and joined a state health office in the communications department. But now I quit that job and joined an AmeriCorps program in Philadelphia, cutting my income by 2/3rds in the process. Surely if I felt that if what I was doing had some purpose, it would stabilize my emotions.

It didn’t. I spent the AmeriCorps year miserable. I made a failed attempt at retrying therapy. When the three free sessions provided by my health coverage ran out, I was kindly offered a reduced rate by the therapist. But instead I chose to run away from the sessions. Throw myself into the volunteer tax program tied to my AmeriCorps work. At this time, I was hardly seeing any friends — I’d alienated many of them. I was paranoid, uncommunicative, mopey, asocial. I was alone — and I felt I deserved it. And at the same time I also, oddly, thought I was getting along quite well. When a college friend asked me how I was managing, I claimed I was using coping mechanisms. But those coping mechanisms involved listening to sad music in my room with the door shut and the lights off trying hard to avoid confronting anything outside of it. Any attempt to concentrate on work was thwarted by my brain slipping into a frenzied inability to concentrate for a moment. It felt like I was staring into the grand abyss.

I was finding myself unable to cope with the day to day, often spending hours just staring off into space and doing nothing of value. It was getting bleak and hopeless feeling. I called every psychiatrist’s office I could, seeing if they accepted the health plan I was on. Most often, they didn’t. I was getting unhealthy and my friends were past wary. Most of my talk revolved around self-loathing. But eventually, I managed to find a psychiatrist who would take me and resumed a course of medication. And I gradually improved. But upon getting a job post-AmeriCorps and managing to lose it within three days due to a “lack of enthusiasm,” I crawled back into a deep depression. I would spend days, unshowered, staring at job listings or trying to beat decade-old video games, spending my nights listening to “We Are Fine” by Sharon Van Etten on repeat.

The medication wasn’t enough. And so a friend began to prod me to start talk therapy again. To find some solution. She was, by her own description, a pushy person — wanting to prod people to what they needed, being stubborn with any push-back. As my self-appointed Jewish Mother, she laid down stern instructions about me finding a job again. That I needed to leave the house to do it and not just apply online. My brain, still acclimating to the new intake of psychiatric drugs, couldn’t process it yet; still paranoid, I saw her advice less as a sign of care and more as an ultimatum.

I found a job as a short order cook, but still she prodded. I needed to do more than just make rent and bills, she said. I needed to do more than just survive from day to day. It wasn’t enough just to be medicated. What I needed was real help, real talk therapy, she kept repeating. And a second job to be able to afford that, which I found.

I returned to my old therapist, who was still willing to work with my uninsured self at a low rate — chump change, really. I was seeing him once every two weeks. In our sessions, we’d discuss what was happening currently as well as some troubling issues in my past, finding in the investigation a more concrete root for my insecurities, and how they informed either side of my brain — suspicious paranoia and racing elevated thoughts, or the slow torpor of crushing depression.

One of the friends who had pushed me back to therapy had recommended a book to me, Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. In it, Winterson reflects on the negative voice in her head. “It was worse than having a toddler. She was a toddler, except she was other ages too, because time doesn’t operate on the inside as it does on the outside.” Yes, I thought, when I read that. It’s like living that, with a brain full of tantrums and taunts and guilt. “Whatever she was, she wasn’t going to therapy. ‘It’s a wank, it’s a wank, it’s a wank!’”

But it was in therapy, I found ways to “other” the negative reflections handed to me by my brain, to ignore its toddler tantrums and fits. Also, it helped to talk about things the past, to have some root reason that anchored the passing fears and insecurities.

And recently, just a few weeks ago, my therapy session ended early. Instead of using the full time, the session came to a close early, serenely. No teariness, no yelling, no sitting in the park afterwards trying to decompress. I was on track, and I could see it. I’d found a job that fit the pace I needed in order to feel effective, and I’d found ways to at least work on fulfilling the needs of the rest of my life. As I spoke to my therapist, my problems seemed trivial — or in progress. I was working through them, without letting them defeat me.

It’s still not perfect. I’ll still be in therapy. But in being in it, I’ve managed to feel like I’m living again. I understand the nature of my illness, that I will still live with its symptoms and cycles, as well as the moments where a day feels like a loss. But I can write it off and go on to the next day.

And it’s a place I wouldn’t have been in had not my friends advised, cajoled, pleaded and demanded that I take care of what had weighed on me for so long, that I work on being what I can be.

If you’ve found yourself in a place like this, you are not alone. If you have friends telling you to get the help you need, it is because they’re your friends and they care about you. And by all means, do the best you can to seek out and find ways you can afford to do it. Because you may not realize it, but the world you live in inside your head isn’t always the way the world is — it’s affected by internal forces just as much as external ones. And if your brain is telling you that everything is shit, that’s not always the truth of the matter. Breaking yourself of the mindset can make that clearer. Sometimes it requires the footwork to find those magic words, “sliding scale,” but in the end, it’s worth it. So very worth it. That is the best advice I got this year — and the best I could turn around and share.

Previously in series: David Mamet, Fairy Godmother

Also by this author: My Attempt To Make The Perfect Nebraska Runza

John Wenz is a writer living in Philadelphia. He’s doing better now. Photo by Katy Warner.