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Voice Male - Summer 2005

Men Overcoming Depression

Backslide: My Ongoing Struggle
with Depression and Suicide

By Paul Ehmann

Depression sinks in on a cloud of distraction. Suddenly Im under the dull throb of a personal suicide watch. Never saw it coming. The doctor, my GP, fidgets on the metal stool in the exam room.

"Do you have a plan?" he asks, looking not at me, but at the chart.

With a laugh, I reply, "Of course not. Just a thought." I know my practiced, pat answer will keep me off the flight deck. I play with this disease like a kid with a yo-yo, sometimes wrapped tight around the axle, sometimes spinning lazily at the end of a walk-the-dog. Always going around the world. On March 29 of this year the backslide toward my childhood is complete: I'm 12 again, and Coach, that foul bastard, has got my dick in his mouth.

History has dictated my emotionality and the absence of it. Never able to relieve myself of my past, I've tried therapy, group counseling, even a week away at an intensive program. Memory is persistent. Silence is deadly. Abuse lasts.

Ten years ago, on the sixth anniversary of my sobriety, I sat across the desk from my newest therapist. The four-hour intake included a physical and mental observation. He could have, but didn't, caress my spirit, which lay gray and wilted on my sleeve. I leaned back in my chair and thought I aced the exam. Again. Honesty is a precious concealed commodity on the personal suicide watch. You can't give up too much.

He was writing. Then he passed the note over the cluttered mahogany desk. It was written on a prescription pad.

"Whats this?" I asked.

"A script for Buspar (antianxiety) and Serzone (antidepressant)."

"What for?" I said.

"You have major depression, Paul, and I fear for your life. This will help."

No one ever feared for my life. Even in the darkest days, the days I made light with alcohol and cocaine, the days that swept into nights and binges a week long. The constant refrain, "You'd better slow down, you're killing yourself," from my brother, my parents and my wives, did not register as concern. More like nagging.

Suicide thoughts are a constant with me, a thread in my spiritual tapestry since the first time I was sexually abused at age six or seven. The notion returned the other day without fanfare on my son's 26th birthday. That's a long time. Ill be 50 soon. Notice the hope? That's the confusing thing. Makes me believe I'd never actually do it. Off myself, that is. There have been attempts, I'm told. Unconscious efforts to overdose or to wreck the car. A progressive march toward death by alcohol and drugs. A death wish. I minimize the ticker tape thoughts of running into bridge abutments or off the cliffs or into the trees. Normal thinking for me. What's the harm?

I was in my mid-20s when I made the decision to die. A weeklong drunk full of promises to stop drinking crept up on me while I slept. She was gone. Work, I supposed, or anywhere but next to me. I was asleep on the floor next to our bed. The car, full of scratches from an off-road excursion, was hidden from view in the garage. The loneliness and despair of a remorseful drunk can sometimes be overwhelming. This morning or afternoon, I couldn't be sure, was particularly bad. This is it, I thought. Don't make it messy.

I was glad we didn't have guns in the house. An intoxicated person really stands less of a chance in a logical world. Pulling the trigger could be an inexcusable mistake. An act of drunken despondence and no one would know you really weren't ready. You were just weary. Momentarily empty of hope. So my weapon was a pile of coke. I made the embarrassing phone calls to my sister-in-law and my wife. "I don't know what's going to happen," I cried. There was no overt threat. The implication lost on the ears of the knowing. I paced the house like a father waiting for the delivery of a stillborn. I don't want to die, I thought, and the pacing grew more frantic, but I've already made the phone calls...

In an instant I emptied the bag on the table. Maybe half an ounce. I just sat there looking at it. All that life ahead and no way to live it. I put on my clothes and my sneakers. I took a pull of vodka and rolled up a bill and snorted the pile as fast as I could. Gagging dry heaves were no deterrent. Then I went for a run. I was not a jogger. My intention was to fulfill the prophecy of a drug overdose, have a simple heart attack and make it neat. The suicide hat trick. A wake filled with "it's so sad," "what was he thinking," and "I told ya so."

Surviving a suicide attempt is about as embarrassing a predicament as has been invented. A thundering failure. And if you're fortunate enough, the ultimate grace.

So the doctor, convinced that I don't have a plan, suggests I go back to therapy again. I know that the absence of alcohol and drugs in my life is the reason I still have one. The therapist will want me to rehash my past, and then put me on antidepressants. I will resist, insisting on toughing it out. The death wish will whirl and eventually cease. Thought and deed are now rarely contiguous, and I'll pull out of this depression wondering, What was I thinking?

Mostly I'll keep it to myself. Secrets are still warm and comfortable. I am triggered to relive the crime of sexual abuse with the abruptness of the evening news. Lately it's been the 24/7 of the Michael Jackson case--and more insidiously, more damaging, the unapologetic, pedophile-shuffling Catholic cardinal from Boston being given the honor of saying high mass for his pope. The lack of compassion glows red, like a grade-school backhand across the face.

The memory of my abuse will move quickly out of the physical and lodge deep in the emotional. It's a crime of time and it lasts a lifetime. Some lifetimes are shorter than others. I'm one of the lucky ones. I just live with the thoughts. The gnawing. Maybe this time I'll take the meds. Or not.

Paul Ehmann is an essayist and a realtor. He lives in Loudonville, N.Y., with his wife, Diane.

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