In the room but not really in the room

My mother always said it was the curse of the Cephalonian people, my Greek ancestors, known for their existential brilliance, mental illness and eternal fatalistic despair. My father said it’s just plain old narcissism and the cure is to go help someone else. 

It’s just a feeling I have had since I can remember being alive. 

No psychiatrist or therapist has been able to diagnosis it, at best they medicated me for 2 years in high school so I wouldn’t kill myself. In the rooms of alcoholics anonymous they refer to it as a spiritual malady, the reason many of us relieved ourselves through the bottle. The Christian mystics coined it as Acedia, “a state of listlessness or torpor, of not caring or not being concerned with one’s position or condition in the world. Often leading to a state of being unable to perform one’s duties in life.” Jeff Foster an astrophysicist explains “depressed” spoken phonetically as “deep rest”. He goes on to challenge the stigma of depression as mental illness, with the idea that on a deeper level depression is a profound, and very misunderstood, state of deep rest entered into when we are completely exhausted by the weight of our own identity. 

Some of the semantics are fun to play with, I could go on, but you get it. Like a black hole or parts of our world unknown, many have attempted to explore depression with futile research, self-help programs, and psychological trickery. The recent suicides of beloved actors, musicians and wander lusting celebrity chefs don’t help either. Add on a postmodern revolution of positive thinking, overly prescribed pharmaceuticals, forced self-esteem, social apps that work like slot machines and the endless pursuit of happiness and you can see where this epidemic gets a lot more complicated.  

Somewhere along the way I just stopped working against it and accepted it as my baseline, or as a passing cloud formation. I accepted my inability to find joy in the mundane drudgery of human life. High-school homework, making the bed, any routine, or anything without a clear dopamine reward in site and my gears would always shift down, my mind aching for that eternal sleep. Distraction, over-intellectualization, over-working, therapy, physical exercise, and multitasking, often got me outside of myself and worked for a small window, but eventually, I had to enter back into the despair and face life on life’s terms. 

My wife who is wonderfully pragmatic and lives deeply into the moment always challenges me that I am ‘future tripping’ or ‘living in the past’ but ‘shitting on the present’. The school’s socio psychologist came over recently to evaluate our son’s misbehavior and stated something similar. Watching our son act out, she affirmed the same thing our dog trainer said years ago when that little monster was biting everyone. A missile to my fragile masculine ego. She stated, “You are simply lacking an Alpha leader in the house. You’re in the room but not really in the room and that creates anxiety for your children and wife.” I almost clapped back with cunning sacrcasm to avoid what was coming next, but instead I ran through the internal Rolodex of denial. “I am sole financial provider, I stay sober, I am brutally honest under God, I work harder than any workaholic I know, what else do you fucking want from me…” I remember her watching my nonverbals, my arms crossing, my slouching in the chair, suddenly I was in my body feeling the cognitive dissonance, aware of my own shame and pain. I faintly remember her saying something like “there you are!” as if to state I hadn’t been in the room before. She went on, “Next time your son is playing with his toys, go over and watch him, really watch his breathing, his eye to hand coordination, get into his world, being Alpha simply means being fully present, it is not barking orders or putting your foot down, it is about being fully with him.” I was still hunched over a bit, too shameful and afraid to speak up and mention how hard it has been to live in the moment with my looming despair. Too embarrassed to admit how hard it is to change diapers, watch Toy story again and again and again and remain a forever Disneyland seasonal pass holder. There was so much shame and I didn’t want to appear as any less of a father, a man without a sense of duty to his family. My wife grabbed my hand, I was drifting again, I took a deep breath, I hadn’t been breathing, just biting the skin on the inside of my mouth, I think I blacked out a little, then suddenly the socio psychologist finished…”for both of you, this is what it means to be adult, where feelings are not facts and you get the choice to face life fully present, head on, it will be the best thing you can give your children, your presence.” 

It has been a year since that meeting and I often find myself drifting in and out of the solution. There are moments where I am selfless enough or brave enough to go there but it does not come naturally, to just simply be. Reading a book on aplha leadership, acedia, depression or listening to a podcast on parenting styles seems to be the easier way, but I now know that it is just another form of escapism, a coping mechanism for my despair. I know I must be with my son now.

It has been my prayer recently, with or without depression, with or without that looming dread, that if God can not relieve me from the bondage of it that he would at least help me find a bare-able presence with myself and my loved ones. That I might have enough courage and grace to live responsibly moment to moment. 

Picture / Joshua Olley