It's a terrible question, isn't it? It's such a painful thing to ask, mostly because you are absolutely terrified of what the answer might be. If you're a good person, you're terrified because you know the answer could break your heart. If you're a not-so-good person, you're terrified because the answer may lead to a very long, very sad conversation. But, you're probably wondering why anyone in the world would ask this of someone. Well, anyone that has ever sought out treatment for depression will be able to tell you that this question has been directed at them nearly every time they see a doctor.
Having been prescribed three different anti-depressants in my lifetime, I have had to answer this question, or some form of it, no less than a few dozen times. Every time I've been to the doctor's office about my depression, I've been given a survey with roughly eight questions on it. They want to know how often X has happened in the last two weeks. X is usually things like losing interest in things you normally enjoy, a loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, and other things that depressed people usually experience. You answer on a scale from zero to three, with zero being “never” and three being “every day.” The first seven questions are essentially a “how ya doin?” The eighth question is more of a “exactly how worried should we be?”
I've seen it phrased a few different ways, but it's always something like “how often do you have suicidal thoughts?” I've been tempted in the past to mark it as a “3,” then when the doctor asks me about it I'd tell him that I'm more worried about my loss of enthusiasm for Oreos.
“Suicidal thoughts come and go, but I've never said no to cookies and milk before. Something is wrong, doc.”
I've never done this, because I've found most doctors don't take potential suicide to be a laughing matter. I come from a perspective of everything being a laughing matter, which includes my unending emotional distress. “Unending” is an exaggeration, but considering the headline I'm using, dramatic is the name of the game around here.
Here's what brought on this morbid line of thinking.
Today has been uneventful, and lonely. If suicidal thoughts were a cocktail, those two would be the main ingredients. It was in my somber wallowing that I received a phone call from an unknown number.
As a single freelance writer working at the same desk, in the same room, as the one I used to update my AOL Instant Messenger profile on in 8th grade, an unknown number has limitless potential. It could be an employer. I've been sending out applications, maybe someone has finally noticed this “talent” I apparently have. Maybe it's just someone who's phone number I lost, and now they're calling to catch me up on all the interesting things going on in their lives, breaking up the monotony of my day and validating that someone felt like talking to me today.
I answer the phone using the least desperate voice I could manage, being certain that the person on the other end is sure to either have a job for me, or at the very least they want to talk to me.
“Hello?” the sad person said with audible desperation.
“Hi, this is Something Something from Clinic Thing, I'm calling on behalf of Dr. Person and we just wanted to know what was going on with your prescription.”
What is “going on with my prescription” is I have stopped using it. After my last breakup, I was feeling pretty terrible and got prescribed with Prozac. Now I'm fresh out of another breakup, and I've stopped taking it after convincing myself that it wasn't working. Stupid, maybe, especially since I did so without telling my doctor. This is probably the sentence I'm supposed to have some clever justification for my decision, but, no, it was stupid. Moving on.
I don't mention my real reason for going off of the medication, instead I brush by a couple secondary excuses, namely the fact that I've recently moved away from that clinic and that it would be impractical for me to make appointments there to re-up my prescription.
She then asks me if it was okay if I took a quick survey. At the time, I was thinking this was going to be a survey asking about the quality of the care at the clinic, or how I was treated by the staff there, things of that nature. I said yes, thinking all I had to do was give them a verbal thumbs up for the next 90 seconds and then be done with it.
If that were the case, I wouldn't be writing this.
It turned out to be that strangely routine series of eight questions that I am now answering over the telephone. The woman on the other end sounds sweet, with a heavy Minnesotan accent that has probably delivered more bad news than I've ever received in my life.
By question #2, I'm already thinking about #8. I go through the motions of telling her that I haven't had any trouble eating or sleeping, but that I am occasionally feeling abnormally down. Par for the course.
“How often in the last two weeks have you felt like a failure, or that you've let everyone down?”
(scale of 0-3, remember)
“Well, I just moved back in with my parents. So that's gotta be at least a two, right?”
She let out a nervous laugh. She was probably already looking down at question #8 like I was in my head. After saying something about how “it's really tough out there for you guys,” I realized that she was probably looking at a document that told her I was 24 years old, and therefore I get a pass on being a fuck-up for at least another three years.
Finally, we get to the doozy, #8. The periods in the upcoming dialogue represent stiff jolts of discomfort shooting up Mrs. Minnesota's spine.
“How often. In the last two weeks. Have. You felt like. You'd. Be. Better. Off. Dead?”
I gave her my honest answer, “one,” representing several days in the last two weeks where I had these feelings.
I followed that answer with a laugh-like snort, and by saying “I'm so sorry, this has to be absolutely terrible for you. I can't believe they make you ask people that.”
I think my levity took her off guard, and she responded with an apology for having to do this on the phone. She told me that the survey showed “mild” depression, which I guess is an improvement over the “extra spicy” depression I had last time I took the test.
She advised that I go to a doctor that is closer to me so that I could talk about renewing my prescription with somebody, and I lied right into my iPhone and told her that I would.
I hung up the phone standing on the brick patio in my parent's back yard. I put the phone in my pocket I started to cry-laugh. I laughed the loud, howling, crazy laugh that you don't let out for funny jokes or people getting hit in the balls. It was the kind of laugh that is just for you. If anyone else heard it they would have you committed, and rightfully so. I don't know what it was about the whole conversation that I found so profoundly mortifying and hilarious at the same time.
Here I've been moping around all day, examining the decisions I've made that have put me back at a place that feels a lot like square one, and I get a phone call asking me to describe exactly how depressed I am. That's like a soldier getting sent on another tour in Iraq (or where ever we're killing people now), and when he gets there, the president calls asking him to detail how much he hates getting shot at.
There are so many ways that my depression is like being deployed for military service. So many.
This one got a little long, so I appreciate all three of you that stuck around till the end to see that I have indeed not killed myself yet. If I ever do, I'll make sure to blog about it after to let you know how it goes.
And just in case this post isn't long enough, I would like to leave you with an obnoxiously long quote from a Stephen King novel I've been reading, The Stand. This is one characters description of a main protagonist in the story, Larry Underwood.
“Men who find themselves late are never sure. They are all the things the civics books tell us the good citizen should be; partisans but never zealots, respectors of the facts which attend each situation but never benders of those facts, uncomfortable in positions of leadership but rarely unable to turn down a responsibility once it has been offered... or thrust upon them. They make the best leaders in a democracy because they are unlikely to fall in love with power. Quite the opposite. And when things go wrong... a man like Larry blames himself.”
Well, Internet, things have gone wrong. And, yes, I blame myself.
This account hit close to home, as anyone that knows me will tell you that I am rather uncomfortably stuck in the “finding myself” phase that you always hear snoody people coming back from studying abroad talk about. And even though I have no plans on being a leader in a democracy, certainly not this one anyway, I take a small amount of solace knowing that Stephen King thinks I'm going to turn out okay.
In the meantime I will be writing about video games for almost no money, and writing about my depression for none at all. All while drinking my dad's beer. Whether I like it or not, this is where I'm going to have to find myself.