There were times in 2018 when I was quite okay. It wasn’t as intense as the first surprise attack of normalcy back in December 2017, but it felt pretty awesome all the same. On especially cheerful days I was even thinking my mental afflictions were gone. Which was yet another delusion my brain contrived for itself, of course.
The way I see it now, the power duo of depression and anxiety was only slumbering in the blackest depths of my subconscious, dreaming up new ways how to get at my self. And once they felt ready, they came with a particularly low blow. Having scored no big success with me as its primary target, my wildly imaginative obsession with death turned towards my family.
The first probing strike came one summer day of 2018 when I thought my wife was dying in labour. I shook it off pretty much as it came, but it got worse later on. Much worse.
My son was around four at that time, a perfectly healthy boy whose curiosity was matched only by the seemingly bottomless well of his enthusiasm and physical energy. The problem was that I came to think all those things were just illusions. I was happy when I was with him. Sometimes even thinking of him moved me to tears of joy. Yet I couldn’t believe such happiness can possibly exist without a prize. And to my sick mind, that prize was the looming death of my little boy.
I readily manufactured portents of his inevitable doom from subtle signs I cherry-picked from the objective reality. For instance, he has a very mild case of palatine uvula. It gave us hard time feeding him when he was younger as he used to be prone to gag on pretty much anything except plain bread. But he’d grown out of that, and anyway, no medical professional ever suggested we should be worried about anything serious in that respect.
To me, however, that little thing at the back of my son’s mouth suddenly became a clear sign of the Loeys-Dietz syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that may result in unpredictable explosive ruptures of the largest artery humans have in them.
That was it. I often spent the better part of my days and nights picturing a mad drive to the hospital, jumping the curbs and pushing other cars out of my way. And in each of the thousand imagined skidding arrivals at the ER gate, it was too late. My boy had bled to death already, deep within his traitorous body, and the only thing I could do was to watch his ashen body on the backseat before they wrapped him up in one of those clichéd black bags.
Whenever I temporarily recovered from the Loeys-Dietz fixation there was something else to take its place, until lymphoma took over completely. The basis for that vicious circle of catastrophic thinking were my son’s frequently palpable lymph nodes. Given the season and his age, those were much more likely associated with his developing immune system that was fighting off minor colds and stuff. Yet I ignored the holy rule of Occam’s razor once again and indulged in agonising images of me stroking my son’s emaciated sleeping face after I was told the last round of chemo has failed.
This situation was rather hard to process while pretending to function normally, but I somehow managed. Still, it was a close call. For the first time in the long history of what I half-jokingly call “my madness,” I was skirting realms of actual insanity.
The main reason why I think so is the the New Year’s Eve of 2018. We went for a party at our friends’ big house. They generously freed one of their kids’ rooms for our boy and girl. And once we all put the blabbering crowd of youngsters to sleep, the party proper started.
A couple of hours later, I was getting rather merry when the wails of our daughter penetrated the clinking of glasses and murmur of drunken chit-chat. My wife went upstairs to console the baby. But she wasn’t returning for an unusually long time, so I went to see if she needed help with anything.
She didn’t. It was just a night scare kids may have when waking up for a bit in a new environment. Nothing to be worried about. Yet I kept standing in the middle of the room, swaying in the near-darkness under fluorescent sticker-stars on the ceiling. Lego bricks crunched under my wobbly feet, keys in my pocket were ringing softly, but I barely heard any of that behind the grinding wheels of madness in my head.
My wife hissed at me to get out before I wake the girl she’d just put to sleep again. I tried to move, only to realise my legs wouldn’t obey. The struggle to reconcile two ideas wrestling in my not completely sober mind made me all but paralysed.
On the one hand, I knew I was imagining things due to my disease gorging on all the funny stuff I’d let my body ingest that evening. On the other hand, I had a dreadful feeling that the lymph nodes on the neck of my son got cancerously swollen over the last couple of days. I only needed to make sure right now and then we’d rush him to the hospital right away.
In the end I didn’t fall on my knees, and I didn’t scare the crap out of my sleeping son by drunken groping for his throat under those gravely green stars stuck on the ceiling. The vanishing bits of sanity still had strength enough to overpower my sickly imagination fueled by depression and booze.
Like I said before, though, it was a close call. The memory of that night probably won’t ever become something I’d return to gladly. Then again, passing that wicked test was the first step on a path towards many rather wholesome changes in my life.
I’d been toying with the idea of limiting my alcohol intake for quite some time, and this experience was the final push. I embarked on a grand quest, striving to discover a broad range of tasty non-alcoholic malted beverages to sate the voracious beer appetite I’d nurtured for good two decades (a long and dubious process, that one, but not entirely unsuccessful I must say).
The touch of genuine madness had, however, another curious outcome besides the final resolution of the booze or not-to-booze dilemma. And it was an infinitely more important one. I may have learned what it really means to love someone, convoluted as my way to that surprisingly non-obvious revelation was.
I’d used that overloaded word for strong affection before, make no mistake. But I think I hadn’t thought very deeply about love until these mad times. Yes, like nearly everyone, I went through a period of romantic teenage ravings. Those feelings and my attempts at capturing them are still with me as silly-sweet memories. But whatever I thought and felt and wrote back then was also pretty shallow and repetitive in that embarrassingly semen-slick way, something only exceptional male specimen like Rimbaud or Gellner could hope to avoid at that boisterous age.
Later on, there were few deeper attachments that might have become serious, only I seldom seemed to be able to put myself fully into them. And when I did, it tended to be for completely delusional reasons.
Then the family somehow happened, and for a long time I assumed love simply comes with that by default. I was happy when my wife, then kids were around. I missed them when they were not. And productive as my imagination can get, it was hard and not entirely pleasant to picture my life without them (which I considered a big success on its own, as I’m a pretty solitary person by nature).
Still, love was just an abstract mental concept to me. It was a label you put on those inherently good things, something that kind of goes without saying. And I supposed that lazy vagueness associated with love in my mind was just as well. Until quite recently, I considered myself an inborn emotional mute, and I thought that was one of my greatest assets.
Only I was wrong. Yes, I’ll always be a selfish little prick of humanity with rather unrealistic and ruthless ambitions. And I’ll probably forever retain that annoying habit of coldly dissecting and analysing everything with a childish grin on my face, even matters most people consider exquisitely tender and serious. But that doesn’t seem to be mutually exclusive with feeling something, surprising as that realisation was to me.
And thus, after some non-trivial mental effort, I concluded that I may have emotions after all. Perhaps quite a lot of them, actually, an intricate web weaved of countless threads of irrationality that are deeply anchored to my very soul. And for all I know, that perfect storm of feelings has been raging at the core of my mind for decades. I just didn’t care to admit that shocking fact, which may easily have been one of the chunkier frogs on the smothered spring of my sanity.
This hypothesis gave rise to a new element in my coping strategy, the most powerful weapon by far. I decided to stop cowering under the sheer weight of the gloom. I welcomed each and every bout of depression and anxiety. I dove into the endless waves of gnawing dread, and I laughed at the visions of me and my family dying in hundreds of vividly imagined ways. And I could do all that because I finally put a name on those terrible things.
The fears that had been trying to eat my soul in so many ways for so long were torturously deep expressions of my love. The love of myself, and the love of my wife and children. It was nothing more. And it was nothing less.
The feature image is an artistic depiction of the Cancer constellation, as used in a Lisa Erin’s blog post (no original copyright holder appears to be known; this is the closest I could get to the source of the hopefully rather fairly used image).