Tag Archives: depression

The day Muhammad Ali made me smile

AliOnce, when I was 10 years old, I met Muhammad Ali.

I remember he was making an appearance at Burdines department store in Miami, and he was signing autographs. My mother encouraged me to go up to him. I did — but not without lots of trepidation.

When I was a kid, I was painfully shy. I barely talked to people I knew, let alone people I didn’t. I’m pretty sure I had some form of depression or anxiety even then, but when I was little, they didn’t call it that. They just called it being very, very shy.

So I went up to Muhammad Ali — and said absolutely nothing. I just handed him a piece of paper to sign. I wouldn’t even tell him my name when he asked me what it was. So he looked and me and said, “Okay kid. You’re the quiet type. I get it. But if I’m going to sign this for you, you can AT LEAST give me a smile. I KNOW you can smile, kid.”

As he said this, he looked me square in the eyes. He was calm, but there was a hint of the bravado that made him such an icon. To me, one of Ali’s great gifts was that his bravado was not off-putting. In fact, it was infectious — at least to me. 

All I know is that when Ali told me to smile, I literally felt my face light up. The Greatest smiled right back at me. The store might have been filled with people wanting his autograph. But at that moment, it was as if I was the only one in the room with him.

I don’t remember if I at least thanked Ali. I hope I did. But I kept that autograph for many years. And I’ll remember my brief moment with the Greatest for as long as I live.

A new home for my meds, thanks to Shakespeare

Shakespeare pill boxLike just about everyone I know with a mental illness, I have a love/hate relationship with my meds. But now I have something that helps ease some of the hate — this Shakespeare pillbox.

Recently, I went with some good friends to the Yale Center for British Art. While browsing in the gift shop, I found this. I had to have it.

I’ve loved Shakespeare for as long as I can remember, and I’ve loved him even more since being diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Now, I can relate to characters like Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth on an even deeper level than I could before. I know what it’s like to feel melancholy and despair.

On the flip side, just the site of this pillbox makes me smile. I look forward to opening it, and I’ve become much less likely to forget taking my meds. So, thank you, Will. You are helping me “to thine own self be true.”


How to start running, according to the New York Times

I’m getting back into running after years on the sidelines. Running produces natural endorphins and when I ran years ago, it helped me manage my depression.

So why did I stop? That’s something I’m still trying to figure out. But the point is, I’m starting again. I plan to blog more about this, but for now, I was happy to see this running guide for beginners in today’s New York Times. I’m a beginner all over again — not for the first time in my life.

Check the guide out here.

Today’s one of my favorite days of the year

I love this day — even though I got an hour’s less sleep last night. Today is the first day of that weird twice-a-year ritual called Daylight Savings Time. This time, with turning the clocks forward, we get more daylight at the end of the day. And as someone with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), I sure do appreciate that.

daylight savings photo

Starting today, there will be more daylight in the late afternoon. The geese in my neighborhood are happy about that, and so am I. 

When my SAD gets to be too much, it often hastens my depression (I’m diagnosed with that, too.) But even though I did have a few episodes this winter, I have to say that I survived the reduced daylight better this winter than I have in past winters.

That could be because I’ve purchased more light-related products (like winter caps with LED lights) to get me through. Also, this winter in Boston has been milder than past winters.

But I’m sure glad that “the dark season” is over. Here’s to more light — today and for the next six months!

For Philip, whose battle with life is over

Dear Philip,

I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it to your memorial service. I really did consider going. But last-minute airfares to Atlanta are ridiculously high (like more than a thousand bucks high) and that just wasn’t in the cards for me.

I’m glad, though, that your friends held the service in a book store. That was so appropriate. So you. The Facebook invite promised “lots of laughs and crazy Philip stories.” I hope there were lots of both.

Speaking of Facebook, I know you’d find it more than a little ironic that Facebook is where I found out you died. I mean, all those times you lamented how social media and technology were robbing us of human connection. But, true to 21st Century grief, your Atlanta friends took to your Facebook page and turned it into a cyber memorial.

The first messages were kind of cryptic. One said “I’ll miss your stories about books and movies. Stay mellow.” What did that mean? I thought maybe you got fired.

But it was something I’d never even heard of — an aortic dissection — that killed you. Even after Googling it, I’m still not sure what an aortic dissection is. But I guess it’s like your aorta just thought “fuck this shit. I’m out.” One of your close friends said you were in pain, but not for very long. I was at least glad to know that.


Philip and I both hated having our pictures taken, so this is the only photo I have with the two of us. It’s from his 30th birthday party. He’s the guy at the far left. I’m in the tan shirt by the presents.


I was also glad to know that your death was not a suicide. After the shock, that was the first thing that popped into my head. It was one of the things you and I had in common — membership in the Failed Attempts Club. I was often worried that you would kill yourself. After all, in the past few years, life sure gave you a lot of reasons. You lost your home to foreclosure, and since your temporary housing was small and didn’t allow pets, you also lost your beloved book collection and your beloved cats, Simon and Schuster. So many times, you told me that if it wasn’t for Simon and Schuster and the books, you would have committed suicide a long time ago. My response was always the same: you had reasons to live, and you knew it.

When I told you about my own suicidal ideations, you didn’t flinch. You related. You were not surprised. I honestly wasn’t shocked when you talked about your past attempts, too.

I guess when you grow up together, there’s a bond that’s always there. Remember how we used to laugh at the name of our apartment complex? It was the Edgewater Terrace Apartments, only it wasn’t at the edge of any water. You used to say that the name was so ironic. I think I learned about the word ironic from you. I’m an only child, but when we were little, I sort of thought of you as a crazy older brother. I mean crazy in a good way. Even when I was little, I knew there was something different about you. While the rest of us kids were Crocodile Rocking to Elton John, you were fiercely loyal to Ethel Merman and Judy Garland.

You were always singing show tunes, but I knew you weren’t happy. I couldn’t blame you. Your mother weighed something like 400 pounds. She and your father always argued. Your sister became rebellious, then became a drug addict. And your home was always filthy. I remember balls of papers strewn all over your living room, and your mother seemed oblivious to it all.

That was a big difference between your mom and my mom. My mom was a neat freak. When we had company, everything was spotless. Still, our moms were best friends. I saw a lot of you. You saw a lot of me.

In fact, you saw much more of me than I realized. You saw through me. Remember your last trip up here to Boston, and that long conversation we had about everything over pastrami sandwiches at the S and S Deli? I told you how abusive my home life was. How I was molested at age 11, and how no one did anything about it because Alex was the grandson of mom’s friend Betty, and mom didn’t want to lose her friend. When I told you all of this, again you didn’t flinch. In fact, you told me how you just knew things were wrong. You heard my mother’s yelling. I don’t remember crying, but you remembered seeing me cry.

At first, I was relieved when you responded this way. Family and friends who lived nowhere near my home told me I was over-reacting. Being dramatic. Making things up. But you — who didn’t live in my home but lived pretty damn close — you knew.

For this, I loved you and hated you. I loved you because you believed me. But I hated you because there were times when even I would tell myself that maybe it wasn’t all that bad and maybe I have a vivid imagination. Your confirmation robbed me of that. Damn you!

I didn’t say this to you, but when you visited me in Boston, I couldn’t wait for you to leave. You were too real for me. Oh, and also, you complained a lot. About the world. About the human race. About the Chinese restaurant that didn’t have a bowl of crispy noodles right there at the table when you sat down. (“How could they not have that! I thought all Chinese restaurants had that!”)

After a few days, I just got tired of all your bitching. But then, when you got back to Atlanta, you called me and thanked me, and you even said this was one of the best trips you’d ever had. I laughed. I realized then that complaining was just your way of dealing with the world. I understood how you’d rather spend time re-reading your favorite classic books than spend time with people. Ruth Rendell, Margaret Mitchell, James Michener, and Harold Robbins (for those times when you just wanted something stylishly trashy.) They were the ones you turned to most. .

Of course, now I miss your complaints. My Facebook feed just isn’t the same without your carping that they don’t make good movies anymore, and that people have become so rude, and that there just aren’t any modern-day authors who know how to tell good stories nowadays. Some people try to hide their depression. You wore yours for everyone to see.

I remember a phone conversation when we both talked about our mothers. We were sure that our mothers both had some form of mental illness. You wondered why they didn’t talk about it. “They couldn’t,” I said. “If they talked about it, they could have been locked up. At least we can talk about it.”

Only now, we can’t. When your sister died a few years ago, you didn’t say that she died. You said she “lost her battle with life.” Those words were just so sad and powerful and raw and honest. You didn’t sugarcoat anything — even in death.

I wouldn’t say that you lost your battle. The last time I talked to you, you seemed pretty content. Well, content for you, anyway. But your battle with life is over.

An aortic dissection. Did you even know what that was? I guess it’s fitting that you died of something unusual. A good old-fashioned heart attack would have been too common for you.

But you don’t have to fight the world anymore. Rest in peace, my friend. If anyone deserves peace, it’s you.

Love, Alan












Choice: a tricky word for people with mental illness

Last night, I visited one of my best friends. If I told you he was fighting colon cancer, he’d be the first to correct me about that.

As he was reclining on his lounger, watching MSNBC, and doing his best to look comfortable despite two catheters, a deep incision in his abdomen, and his now having to wear Depends, John, almost out of nowhere, says “I don’t see myself as fighting cancer. I see myself as someone with a choice. I can look toward the sun, or I can look away from the sun. I’m looking toward the sun.”

With that, my eyes watered. I couldn’t get what John said out of my mind–especially the word “choice.”

As someone managing chronic depression and anxiety, “choice” is a tricky word, one which can easily cause me to become defensive. That’s because there are still too many people who believe that my illnesses are my “choice,” and that they’d be gone “if I really put my mind to it.”

No, my illnesses are not my choice. But what I do about them, and how I handle them? Well, those are choices.

John also has depression and anxiety. Maybe that’s why, when he saw my eyes water, he continued. “I came so close to ending my life on my own. Maybe that’s why I think about choices the way that I do.”

In an odd way, John’s cancer is giving his mental illness a run for its money. If his mental illness has told him that he wants to die, he now very much wants to live. John still doesn’t know if his cancer is incurable. If he has two more years on this earth, he will be very lucky.

Maybe that’s what makes what he said all the more meaningful to me. I know damn well that there will be days ahead where he’ll find it difficult, if not impossible, to look toward the sun. I know he knows it, too. But, just by being his honest self, John has really inspired me.


Songs I love: April 5th, by Elvis Costello, Roseanne Cash, and Kris Kristofferson

This is a gorgeous new song that I can’t get out of my head. Only, it’s not really a new song. Elvis Costello, Roseanne Cash, and Kris Kristofferson recorded it several years ago, but it was never officially released. Elvis recently included it on his new CD, and now the song is finally getting attention.

It’s a song about having fears and wanting things, but not having what it takes to get those things. Yet it’s also about human connection and understanding. As someone managing depression and anxiety, I can relate to every word of this, especially the bridge of the song:

I’m not afraid
And I refuse to be
I can’t fall
There’s nothing to stop me

Take a listen.

My night fun, fabulous night with hundreds of depressed and bi-polar people

What do you get when you put hundreds of depressed and bi-polar people into one room?

Believe it or not, it can be a party!

That’s what the Boston chapter of the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) had in mind when they celebrated their 30th anniversary the other night at McLean Hospital. Two things you need to know about McLean: it’s one of America’s most respected psychiatric care facilities, and it’s famously hard to get to. Though it’s near Boston, it was deliberately built out in the hinterlands. Legend has it that this was largely because patients preferred a psychiatric hospital away from the “big city.” There was much less of a chance of being “found out” that way. But even if it did take me about two hours to get there, I couldn’t wait to go. And I’m sure glad I did go.

There we were, hundreds of us with a wide range of diagnoses: depression, bi-polar disorder, PTSD, you name it. Some dedicated family and friends were there, too. For the most part, we did what anyone does at a milestone celebration. We laughed, we ate, we enjoyed live music, and we caught up with friends we hadn’t seen in a while.

When I got there, I first made a beeline for the food. I happened to be very hungry at that time, but I would have done this even if I wasn’t. I’m very shy in social settings like this, and I often use food as a crutch. After I filled my plate full of Chinese food (I must say that the spare ribs were especially delicious), I stood alone near a railing, scoping the big room for people I knew. (The doctor who treats my anxiety wants me to start walking up to strangers and initiating conversations. I hope he’s not reading this, because I’m really not up to that yet.) Once I found some friends, I bolted to their table.

From there, I had a great vantage point of the whole room. As I looked around, I couldn’t help but think that, here we are, not only celebrating, but SURVIVING!

There we several speakers, and they shared their personal stories. They told of how difficult it was to find help; of how painful it was to have family and friends turn away from them; of overcoming society’s low expectations of the mentally ill and going on to schools like Harvard and MIT.

So often, I feel as though I’m in an overwhelming minority when it comes to my depression and anxiety. Here, I was very much part of the majority. Pride swelled throughout my body.

Still, our celebration was distinctive in some ways. Parties normally don’t include support groups for people who really want to talk about what’s bothering them. Ours did. (Come to think of it, though, wouldn’t be great if every party had a support group? Think about it. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just excuse yourself for a minute, go into a room, close the door, and vent about the drunk asshole you just met, or the boring jerk who went on and on, and wouldn’t let you get a word in?)

There was also some truly dark, decidedly un-PC humor among us, like the guy who said “I think a theme of this party could be: We tried to kill ourselves. We couldn’t. Let’s eat!” Or the woman who thought: “If we had a dollar for all the suicide attempts and anxiety attacks between us, we could end the national dept.”

There was also one big thing that was mostly missing from our party: cameras. Though I think DBSA had a staff photographer to take photos of the event speakers and organizers, the ubiquitous sea of cell phone cameras was nowhere to be found. I have a cell phone camera, but i didn’t dare take it out.

I would like to think that the reason for this is that we all wanted to be “in the moment” and truly take in what was going on. But I suspect this was more out of caution.

Even those among us who do speak openly about our illness feel the need to be very careful at times. Jobs could be lost. Housing could be lost. Entire lives could be lost. 

Organizations like DBSA have done so much to end the stigma faced by the mentally ill, but there’s so much more that needs to be done. I guess that’s a good thing in the long run, but I will say this. I hope that, for DBSA’s 60th anniversary, there will be LOTS of cameras and photos. By then, all the fear and stigma will be gone.

And then people will see that, among other things, we can indeed throw a really great party!

I wish I could cry more

Occasionally on Facebook, I’ll see a post from someone who says “I’m writing this with tears streaming down my face.”

First, I think “yeah, right.” But in short order, I become a little envious of this person. Why? Because the only times in my adult life when I’ve had tears streaming down my face was when I’ve been suicidal. So many times, I’ve wished that I could cry more easily. Today’s an example: I had a bit of a rough day today. A good friend who promised he would come through for me didn’t do what he said he would. In no particular order, I was mad, hurt and upset.

I didn’t even consider crying in front of him. As hard as it is for me to shed tears, it’s even harder to let the dam burst in public. When I got home, I tried to cry. I really did. But all I could manage was a slight watering of my eyes.

Maybe this comes with being a man in America. When I tried to pick a photo for this very post, I went to my photo sharing site. Even when I typed man crying in the search field, there were very few photos showing men crying. In most, the men were yelling, slouching over at their desks with their faces hidden, or raising their clenched fists in the air.

But I don’t want to use this as an excuse. It may sound strange, but I believe that if I cried more, it would help my depression. It’s a very healthy release. And lets face it, hurt and pain have to get out of your system some way. The last thing I want is to store it all up. I’ve been suicidal before. I don’t want to be that way again.

If anyone has tips for learning to cry more, I’d love to hear about them in the comment section below.