Friday, December 23, 2005

The Enemy Within

I came back from the American Embassy in Manila two days earlier than scheduled after finishing Service Officer training. Completing it so soon wasn’t much of a surprise, considering I’ve already been doing the work for three years. During my stay in the capital, however, something happened at the embassy that reminds me that I have a serious problem.

My problem is Depression. Not everyone reacts the same way to this disease, or mental condition, or state of mind, or whatever it is. I think it must be more disease than anything else though, because over the past three years I’ve been prescribed a host of medications to control it, although so far with little or fleeting success. My primary symptomology includes sleeplessness, agitation, and moodiness. Moodiness is another way of saying I snap at people. And after I snap, I feel regret about having lost control, although not to the point that I feel compelled to apologize. Actually, the regret causes more anger—at myself, and then at everyone else, and I do mean EVERYONE else. Ultimately, the anger feeds on itself. Once the angry button is pushed, that’s it. Its slippery slope time—there’s no turning back, and truthfully, I don’t want to. The “mad monster” inside me takes completely over, and wants to feed. This monster sees a potential adversary in the face of every person he encounters. It’s ugly.

I admit that the incident at the embassy resulted mostly from my own doing—as usual. The ease at which I become agitated causes me to over-react, and that is what I did. There is no separate entrance for Americans, and there are several security checkpoints and doors that have to be passed through. Each door and checkpoint can and usually does involve standing in line. In two of the lines, Americans are usually allowed to pass through ahead of the locals by showing their American ID. This means going ahead of long lines of Filipinos. Having to do that makes me feel like a huge jerk to begin with, but my stress level really starts to rise when I have to state my business before being allowed to pass into the embassy grounds. At that point I begin to revolt against authority, against “The Man,” and that sets up my “bad” attitude as I continue the process of getting into the building.
Next, comes the wait to go through a door into an anteroom that contains metal detectors and xray machines. Only five people are allowed in at a time, so you have to wait outside the door while the long queue of locals stare at you as you cut in front of them. A Filipino guard stands there and manages this entrance. Sometimes he tells Americans to get in line with everyone else, but usually the US Citizens just cut in line and wait to enter as the next group of five. On the third day of class, the guard outside the door to the metal detector decided that ALL Americans had to wait in the line with the multitude of Filipinos. Since I work in the embassy, I went directly to the door like I always have, although I have no permanent badge yet.

The guard was on me immediately, demanding, “Sir, please get in line.”

I looked at the line and saw that it snaked under a pavilion with at least 60 people already waiting in it. I refused, telling him, “Look, I WORK in the VA. I’m NOT getting into that line.”

Distracted, he turned from me to order around another group of newcomers, so I went back to wait outside the door. He came at me again looking determined and annoyed. “GET in line!” he demanded.

I snapped. Surging with adrenaline, I gritted my teeth to keep from shouting, “I’m not getting into THAT line. Call the director of the Veterans Administration and tell him I’m out here waiting to get in. Do it now and stop messing with me! …To hell with this! Where’s your supervisor?”

He pointed toward another guard behind an information window, and I got into THAT line. By the time I got to the front of THAT line I was furious beyond all reason. I yelled at the guard through the glass window while showing my ID, “CALL CARLOS PEBENITO IN THE VA. TELL HIM I’M OUTSIDE. TELL HIM I’M LATE BECAUSE YOU WON’T LET ME IN!”

He looked at me like I was crazy, and he wasn’t wrong. Then he told me to go ahead on in. The first guard was watching all this and he glared at me as I glared at him. From about 10 yards away I said to him with my eyes wide with rage, “Dumb ASS!” He clenched his jaw and puffed up on me. I envisioned him putting a hand on me, and me getting in one good shot to his face before I got bum rushed by him and all the other guards. Clearly, that is NOT the thinking of a rational man, and so I make my point.

One final exchange took place as I stood just inside the door to the metal detector room. I was unable to close it because a very old woman stood unsteadily just inside. The guard used this as an opportunity to exert his authority one last time. He ordered gruffly, “Get inside and close the door!”

I shrugged him off. “Back off! There’s an old woman standing RIGHT here. Why don’t you come in and rough her up!” I said, dripping sarcasm.

Regret and anger consumed me from that point on as I realized how poorly I had just conducted myself. The last four or five years of my life have consisted of a series of incidents such as that—one after another. Whenever I have to leave the refuge of my home, I start to feel my stress level rise because I start to worry about what stupid thing I will do or say as I have to mingle in society.

Something stupid thing such as this:

A couple weeks ago, I was rolling along on my scooter in a line of traffic at a normal distance behind the car in front of me. A little van pulled up just behind me urgently honking his horn. He wanted to go ahead of me. I shook him off, but he came up alongside and started to move in on me trying to get me to relent and give up my position. I sped up and got even closer to the car ahead of me as a car approached from the opposite direction. This caused the van to move out of the oncoming lane and right into me, at which point I cracked his passenger window with my left elbow. THAT caused him to slow down and get behind me.

I became adrenalized and ready to fight—to the death—literally! I started to swoop back and forth in wide S turns, looking over my shoulder to see if this jerk wanted some more. Before I came to my turn, I put my signal on well in advance and even pointed enthusiastically hoping he’d follow. I sagged when he kept going. I wanted to eat his guts. I didn’t think about if he had a gun, or if he had friends; I didn’t think about anything. My hands trembled for an hour after I got into the office. Why didn’t I just let him pass? Why do I turn every situation into an ugly altercation? The obvious answer is Depression.

When my depressive condition was first diagnosed just after I retired from the military, I became aware of other people’s depressive behavior. I began to recognize my symptoms in other people. A large number of the veterans I assist are depressed. Actually, it seems to attack quite a few servicemen upon their departure from the service. Some of them receive treatment, but others don’t even realize they suffer from it. The adage that “misery loves company” does NOT apply in my case. It doesn’t help me one bit to be around others like me. I don’t like to be reminded of my own wretched condition by seeing it in on display in others, although I don’t mind helping them in my capacity as a Benefits Advisor.

In my case, extreme Depression was triggered by Hyperthyroidism; but thinking back, I believe I was prone to it even from an early age. Aside from the thyroid problem, another reason I fell victim to it was my inability to run long distances due to a host of orthopedic problems that beset me in my 40s. Beginning in my teenage years, I have used physically-punishing distance runs to combat sadness and anxiety. When I had to skip even one day on the road I felt physically and emotionally terrible. I needed to run to maintain my well being, and once I lost that ability, Depression had full access to me. When I lost my distance running, that’s when I began to feel the awful emotion that I fight off my every waking moment; it’s the feeling of abject despair.

Despair is what kills depressives--literally. It’s a black shroud of sadness that envelops and emotionally drowns a person, to the point that the pain it causes brings on “suicidal ideations.” That’s psych talk for wanting to kill oneself. I’m convinced that my anger is how I stave off despair. To me, it feels like I have two choices: to be angry, or to be sad. Unfortunately, happiness is NOT one of the available
options. It appears that happiness is but a temporary state that exists only between bouts of anger, sadness, or feeling nothing at all.

Getting back to the choice between the two options of either sadness or anger--being sad seems unmanly and pathetic; so I usually go the route of the more acceptable "manly feeling" of anger. Instinctively, I know that if I lose the battle against the deadly feelings of despair resulting from Depression, that I will simply stay in bed, curl up, and never get up again. Thus, my anger is my protective wall; a bulwark keeping back a dark sea of pitiful despair.

Ironically, even as I strive to control my destructive anger, as I inferred above, I cannot let it go completely out of fear that it will be replaced by something far worse--sadness. Even now, I feel it pushing up against my throat, trying to well up and take over. I liken it to the movie ALIEN, when the baby alien explodes bloodily from the guy's chest. Keeping the darkness of despair and sadness at bay is a constant struggle. One which I don’t dare stop, for despair is a relentless force to a depressive.

It's no wonder so many depressives have self-destructed to some degree. In fact, many sufferers of Depression have not been able to win over it. Depression ruins relationships and careers; it brings on alcoholism and drug usage. Depressives have made decisions that have led to horrible endings. Truly great people in history are those that have been able to succeed in the face of their Depression. Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln were both prone to bouts of the “sadness disease,” and yet both were men of huge accomplishment. Churchill used alcohol to cope, while Lincoln just seemed to “gut it out.” The great English explorer, Ship’s Captain James Cook, seemed to lapse into depression in his later years as his physical health abated (sound familiar?), and his bad temper and angry decisions ultimately led to his horrific death and dismemberment at the hands of the Hawaiians in 1779.

I’m convinced my career in the military might well have lasted a full 30 years if not for Depression. Now, I’m not sure my marriage can survive it. At times, I become insufferable and unlivable, so everyday I keep my family I consider it a major success. The idea that my emotional impulsiveness could cause me to lose everything I hold dear brings on more anxiety and worsens the Depression. It's a vicious cycle, and I try to use my knowledge of it in my strategy of continual defense against it. It’s an implacable enemy, always waiting to pounce when it sees a chink in the emotional armor.

When I told my brother Kevin of my plans to write about my personal battle with Depression, he remarked that it would probably be good for me to do so, and so I have.

I have met the enemy and I am he!


Davoh said...

Not sure what to say about this one Phil. My depression tends to be the 'withdrawal' sort. Took me a long time to recognise/admit but was eventually shunted off to a Doc. The pills work for me.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hey Davo. I've tried several different types of psychotropics, some did SOME good, some caused other problems, and some were worse than the illness. I'm on some new ones now that I hope will do the trick. If not, Hey, what can I say, I'm complicated!

Anonymous said...

hi phil. i can totally relate to your problem. like you, i got stressed out by the beginnings of my marriage (e.g., financial expectations). and on top of that, my husband's job forces us to travel a lot which makes financial resources and unstable issue for me. i have fears like what will happen to me in case we separate, etc.

like you, i also ran as an outlet. it helped me 'reset' my brain, makes me also feel in control. like you also, i felt bad when i would miss an opportunity to run.

my depression was manifested through an overcritical attitude, self-destructive thoughts, bouts of hyperventilating.

this has become lately though for various i myself cannot fully explain. but part of the reason i think is the recognition that i was not getting the 'connectedness' that i sought. now i make a conscious decision to relax and remind myself that i'm not the only one in this kind of situation.