This is month is a wedding anniversary for me, it’s true. But it’s also my mental health anniversary.
A picture that Anice put up recently shows me having some fun in a park. That photograph does not show the feeling of needing to withdraw from everyone, my anxiety over a new job that felt strange and cold, and the creeping dark sadness that began to eat the joy I felt in everyday silliness. I fought hard but couldn’t quite overcome it by myself. For a long time, I stayed there.
Ultimately it took two things that most people who are depressed, bipolar, or in some other mental health distress don’t usually have in the United States: time and money. My gracious wife, who was right there with me struggling through as I wandered around a lightless room looking for the way out, gave me space and the ability to not work while I managed my mental health the best I knew how.
On this vacation, we spent some time in an underground city in Kapydokya (Cappadocia.) Our amazing guide, Ali, lead us down and showed us the life of people under siege by invading forces. He told us that because of the ingenuity of the people there, the residents could live their lives underground for months. Their grit and determination was so feared that it was said that if a snake bit residents of that city, the snake would be the one that died.
At one point the tunnel system narrowed and, being a large person, I had a hard time getting through. Some passages were so small that I had to crawl on my hands and knees to keep from getting stuck. On our way out, I was headed through one tunnel that narrowed in a way that left part of the passage dark. But I could see that there was a bit of light at the end with others waiting. I could hear voices saying “he’s coming, let’s wait” on the other end. Knowing that there were other people waiting for me, I adjusted and determined that if I was coming out I was going to emerge as myself and not shriveled. I ducked out of the other end with a smile, saying “Hey! How you doin'” to Anice and Ali but also a very surprised Chinese couple who laughed at the image of me, Afro first, coming out of the rock doorway.
Later, Anice and I were talking over our end-of-leg shisha (now a tradition on this trip) and she commented briefly about this anniversary. I recalled this recent event, my emerging from the cave, and I mentioned how it felt connected to my experience in a different dark place years ago.
It took a long time (nearly a year in crisis and the deep passion of recovery) but I made it out of my metaphorical underground city. But I am always aware of the still open question of why our bodies create the city to begin with. What is the evolutionary necessity of the darkness? Why do some people have it and some people do not? Why is depression (and all the rest) such an intimate part of our system? Is it a warning? Does it come to bring another gift? I’ll never know for sure.
I am constantly infuriated by people who insist that I/we/people “snap out of it.” I know, just like so many of you do, that if depressed people could they’d walk right through that door into “happy/sad/driven/whatever” and not look back. The only thing that seems clearer with each year is that the problem is never ways out. In that tunnel system underneath Kapydokya there were multiple ways in and out. What you really needed, invader or resident, was the will to go through one even if you can’t see the way out of the other side. That will is expensive to obtain, and not available to everyone, but is the real issue.
On this anniversary, I want to thank everyone that waited for me on the other side of the tunnel with patience and grace. I want to thank all the people that communicate with me about this weird thing that feels human and real one minute, alien and foreign the next. I want to send a special shout out to my folks still alive in their cave system, struggling to understand what is happening. I hear you and remember. I’m waiting on the other side for you, cheering you on (with patience!) Do what you need to do and love yourself. May no snakes bite you, but if those bastards do, may they be the ones that die. We’re tougher than they think.
I’ll have more to say later but I’m out of pistachios.

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