The summer of 1981 should have been so much better for me than it was. But it could have been so much worse than it was, too.
As Tony, who has his own take on it, describes, he and I were sharing an apartment in Chapel Hill, trying to hold down jobs while also raising as much hell as humanly possible. At least that was the plan. Go read his post; it’s worth it, and I’ll wait.
You back? Good.
As he says, I only lasted about a month. He’s correct that being a day laborer didn’t agree with me, but I’ll add something to that: With the exception of 1980, when I got to be a full-time disc jockey in air-conditioned comfort, I’d spent every summer for the previous decade doing manual labor in the hot sun or slaving over deep fryers in fast-food joints at Carowinds that either weren’t air-conditioned or may as well not have been. Hard physical work wasn’t the issue.
Another thing he’s not telling you, because he’s such a good friend: I bailed on him. In the middle of the night, while he was at work, leaving him in the lurch rent-wise. Without, as I recall, even leaving a note. It was a dick move, no question. But I did it because at that point, I saw that as one of only two options, the other being suicide.
Depression runs in my father’s family. In hindsight I had had symptoms as early as age 12, and I’d already thought a great deal about suicide, including exactly how to go about it so as to minimize the mess I’d leave behind for whoever found me, well before graduating from high school.
Many years later, I was talking with my mother about that, and said, “Well, son, it was the ’70s, everybody was crazy, and frankly, you just didn’t stick out all that much.” She was joking, but there was more than a kernel of truth to that. Even in my fairly well-off, fairly well-adjusted neighborhood, I saw and heard things.
And in 1981, the summer before our senior year of college, I was still 15 years from being formally diagnosed (and farther still from getting on the medications that have kept me alive). And there you have it: the context in which I experienced my worst depressive episode yet, without even the words to say what was going on.
Sure, some events in my life contributed. That spring I broke up with a woman, regretted it immediately, then couldn’t walk it back. The woman I started dating after that dumped me unceremoniously within weeks. I ran for three different positions in my fraternity and lost all three. I drew dead last in the frat-house room lottery, leaving me with no place to live for my senior year. My full-time deejaying hours, which I had been counting on to allow me to graduate from college with merely manageable student-loan debt instead of the bankrupting kind, got cut back by half. I’d have been having a tough time even without chronic depression. With it, I was lucky I lived.
So, yeah, I took off in the middle of the night, leaving what was supposed to have been an idyllic summer in Chapel Hill with my best bud to try to figure out which disastrous aspect of my life I was going to try to fix first IF I didn’t kill myself. And I left Chapel Hill because I figured the closer I was to home, the less likely I was to kill myself. I can’t explain that logic, but it made sense at the time.
Long story short, I didn’t kill myself — not because I got help, but because, by luck or fluctuations in brain chemistry or the grace of God or a combination of all three, the pit I was in got a little shallower. Not a lot, but enough for me at least to climb a little farther from the darkness.
Tony also was kind enough not to mention that we didn’t speak for months after that. I think I finally called him that fall because another friend of mine nagged me into it; God knows I was too ashamed to do it on my own. Let’s just say he was way more gracious about it than I deserved.
And, slowly, bit by bit, piece by piece — and, again, with luck, fluctuations of brain chemistry, and/or the grace of God — I started pulling things back together. A couple of my frat brothers who had won a room in the house ahead of me bailed, and the alumni board offered me the double room as a single to cut their losses. The chapter treasurer bailed, and the alumni board offered me that gig, too — an executive for what’s now Bank of America made the pitch in New Orleans later that summer at my frat’s national convention; I remember I was drinking tequila when he made the offer and I about snorted it out my nose. My social life, well, it took more time and more work, but long story short, I ended up having an uneven but pretty sociable senior year. And I got enough work hours back that by the time I graduated, my student-loan debt was still manageable even for a kid with an English degree.
I tell you all of this not to justify my behavior at the time, but as a kind of public-service announcement. Behavioral disorders — things like bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and so on — often manifest in really severe ways for the first time in people who are of college age. (I noted that my depression wasn’t formally diagnosed for another 15 years. Well, my generalized anxiety disorder, which in hindsight was manifesting quite nicely even in my teens, thank you very much, wasn’t diagnosed for another 32.) If you’re a college student, you need to know that. If you’re the parent of a college student, you really need to know that. I don’t recall that this was common knowledge in 1981; certainly, I didn’t know it, and I don’t think my well-educated parents did, either. But people need to know it. They need to be aware. And, particularly if such disorders run in the family, they should be on the watch for signs and get help, or see that a loved one gets help, when those signs become evident.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). And there are a lot of other resources on the Internet for people with these problems, or who think they might have these problems, that didn’t exist when I was 21. If you’re in the pit or think someone you care for might be, say something, do something, anything. I never believed that college is the best years of your life, but it shouldn’t be the worst, either, and God knows it shouldn’t be the end.
As for the idyllic summer month in Chapel Hill that Tony advocates, I long for it, too, and I’m fortunate to have a job now where, if he and I can get all the moving parts lined up, we might even be able to make it happen next year or the year after — to do 1981 over again and do it right this time. Or maybe that’s a pipe dream. The point is, we’re both here and in a position at least to see if it’s doable. As it is, this weekend or soon thereafter, we’ll be toasting 40 years of friendship, our wives with us and the shadows, at least for now, at bay.
Filed under: In which Lex, uncharacteristically, tries to be helpful, Odds ‘n’ ends, Tar Heels, There but for the grace of God …, Y’all go read this Tagged: anxiety, bipolar, Chapel Hill, depression, mental health, mental illness, schizophrenia, summer