Ill Humor and Medication
Updated: Feb 11
It comes from the Greek for “Ill Humor,” which I can imagine some dude in a toga coining after running into a grumpy asshole and grasping for ways to articulate “dick-ish and sad.” It’s not depression. Not major and not minor. And oddly enough not medium depression either. It shares symptoms, for sure, but it endures—stretches beyond the two week threshold for Major Depression all the way to two years minimum for diagnosis. Dysthymia is a sticky bastard and is sometimes called Persistent Depressive Disorder or even Depressive Personality Disorder.
That is, it becomes part of your person. It lasts long enough for you to identify with it. It’s not happening to you. You’re not infected with it. You are it. It’s a disease that gives you Stockholm Syndrome. There is an attractiveness to the broken and brooding types in society, and at times, my friends have been as attached to my dysthymic identity as I was.
Dysthymia lends itself well to social justice work. What did I have to be jolly about? When I looked around, every outcome was unacceptable, my own included. Honestly it was an entire cluster hug by any measure you chose: Student Achievement or Attendance. Teacher Seniority. School Discipline Data. District Budgetary Allocation. Number of minutes I wasted trying to decide if “Shart” is a cuss word (the jury is still out).
Elizabeth was a friend and coworker who I had confided in during my early months as a teacher in Baltimore. She was a mentor and a bad-ass teacher. We saw the injustice around us and addressed it with a shared urgency. Over time, she had done the work to crack my depressed facade. That is, she cared. Consistently and through my shitty behavior. She listened to me vent, commiserated, helped me reframe the challenges in productive ways. It was a real gift, and not one without sacrifices for her. Her planning periods often became therapy sessions and professional development. I sometimes felt like another of her students, just lucky to learn from this creative and kind teacher.
About six months into my first year of teaching, I had a major depressive episode. When a person with dysthymia has a bout of major depression, they call it double depression. For the record, I don’t have any single depression to compare it to. At work, I improv-ed whole lessons. I told my boss whatever I thought they needed to hear. I would get home from work, drop my dirty clothes on the floor and sleep. I made poor nutrition and financial choices. Poor romantic choices. My alarm clocked had ceased to have meaning. Rather than doing laundry, I bought new clothes. My hygiene was sketchy at best, and there was a foot of mold growing around the base of my shower. I skipped work regularly to sleep and watch Woody Allen movies (I know, and I agree, but that’s what I did). I had long ago expended my sick leave.
With Elizabeth’s help, I found a counselor and for the first time in my life, I took medication for my mental health issues. I took the minimum effective dose and felt entirely different. It is difficult to describe the feeling of not caring about things, but here’s an example. I laughed more, but mostly because I had stopped thinking about the joke so much—was it a quality joke? How exactly did it work? What contexts would it not work in? I didn’t care about that. I just laughed. I talked more, but only because I didn’t think about the answers to the questions before asking them.
And I didn’t mind people talking so much. Before meds, this was my reaction to a stranger speaking: 1) What was said? 2) What does it mean? 3) Is it worthwhile? 4) Is it more important than my thought-filled silence? Impossible. How inconsiderate *fills with a smoldering rage*. That cycle was broken. Things surprised me, which was in itself surprising, but I never chased down what I ought to think about that. And suddenly, I started regularly getting the phone numbers of waitresses along with the bill. I wasn’t really trying to. I guess I was just way more pleasant. Elizabeth often witnessed this from across the table. She seemed displeased, but I didn’t think too much about it.
Eventually she shared that she missed the old me. I would talk to her about how I felt, how different it all felt, and she would listen and agree, but not neutrally. She agreed like someone who was mourning a loss. I get it. Understanding someone who is all scrambled up must feel like an intimate accomplishment. One that we shared because I knew the old me and I missed that self, too. There was a sharpness to my thought that I felt I had lost, and, at that time, I didn’t think those waitresses numbers were worth it. Looking back, I can only call that sharpness “hyper-vigilance.” I stopped taking my meds.
In the decade since, I have gone on and off half a dozen different drugs, trying to find a me I can live with. I've been taking a stable combination of a couple now for almost 2 years. I still wish I could dig up an authentic, unmedicated self that is functional without walking around in a rage fog critiquing any and everything. Despite avoiding alcohol and drugs entirely, my coping strategies are simple escape, and grown men with daughters and wives and jobs and mortgages don't get the same kind of leeway to sleep the day away and play video games or read with no concern for time whatsoever.
Recently, I’ve been able to separate my sense of self from that constant scanning for disgust. And amazingly, I can do so without needing a break from reality twice a day. I am not my dysthymia, or if I am, I choose to adopt a new me.
With meds, I can sometimes feel joy. Things that might make someone smile sometimes make me smile. I told a coworker that this past weekend, I almost felt happy. I am not constantly on alert to snap at a misplaced noise. I am a better father and husband. I choose that as my identity, rather than some self-sabotaging sense of authenticity. Without meds, I would likely have killed myself long ago. So I take them. Because my mind lies to me, and sometimes you just have to set a healthy default. When someone invites me out, I go. Even though I don't want to. Ever. It's my healthy default. I answer the phone. I write back. I don’t buy Nutella. I take the stairs—and my pills.