Friday, October 26, 2012

Depression and (time permitting) recovery: a post about my non-zombie life

This is me shortly after my time in the hospital. Smile, darn ya, smile!

This will be a very different kind of post on the Dead 2 Rights blog. Depending on my whims, it might be the first in a series of very different posts. I don't know right now. I've just been through an experience and wanted to write about it, and I figured this place was as good as any.

First, some introductions are in order. My name is Joe Blevins. Although I've lived in Illinois for the past 11 years, I was born in Flint, Michigan in 1975 and lived in that area until 2001. I am 37 years old, live alone in a one-bedroom apartment,  and currently make my living at a market research firm in Chicago. Single. Never married. No kids. Since 2008, I've been contributing regularly to the Mail Order Zombie podcast as a character called "Wayne Kotke," and I've been writing this blog under his name since October 2009. In fact, we are just about coming up to the third anniversary of this blog. If you'd like to wish me a happy anniversary, please feel free.

I also suffer from anxiety and depression, and this week I was hospitalized for those conditions.

Let me explain. Depression is something I've had in my life since I was a child. It's always been a part of who I am. If I have a sense of humor, that humor is informed by my depression. As silly as they are, my posts on this blog and my segments for MOZ are manifestations of my feelings of inadequacy and sadness. They're my attempts to channel those emotions into something positive. I'm not sure how well it has succeeded, but if you have derived any pleasure whatsoever from my work, that is deeply satisfying to me. Thank you.

I'm not exactly sure where the depression comes from. I was raised in a stable and loving middle class home, and I have no major illnesses, handicaps, or chemical addictions. I was bullied and ostracized frequently as a child in school, though, and I think this is where a lot of my fear originates. I have a deep, stubborn distrust of others and a formidable fear of rejection, so it is difficult for me to make connections with other people. It's fortunate that, either thanks to geographical convenience or participation in extracurricular activities, I always had a support system of friends through those troubling school days. 

Your blogger in high school
However, all of my problems intensified in 1993 when my mother died of cancer. I was in my last year of high school at the time, and I was closer to her than to anyone else in my family. My only sibling, an older sister, left home a year or so later and wound up getting married and starting a family in Indiana. I was left alone with my father, who was shattered by my mother's death and still to this day has not totally recovered.

Post high school, I spent a very dark decade living with my father. During that time, while my friends went away to school and started their lives, I lived at home, commuted to college by car, and wound up working at a nearby call center as a customer service rep, a job for which I was especially unsuited. After high school, I lost touch with most of my old friends and never bothered (or risked) making new ones. This was the beginning of my still-ongoing reclusive stage.

In February 2001, I attempted suicide by taking every pill I could find in the medicine cabinet. After two harrowing days in the ICU and one very scary night in the psych ward, a locale that haunted me for years, I returned to working at the call center and living with my father. But this arrangement would not last long.

In August 2001, despite a lot of guilt-tripping from my father, I moved to Illinois in order to take a teaching job. Even though I was happy to be out on my own and living independently for the first time in my life, I soon realized that a person's problems travel with him when he moves to a new location. My old issues of fear, anxiety, and depression prevented me from being a good teacher, and I failed miserably at the profession for two grueling, discouraging years. By that time, I was so overwhelmed by fear and sadness that I didn't feel I could accomplish anything.

After a few miserable months of unemployment and inertia, I managed to land a low-paying temp job in an office environment in November 2003. All I wanted at that point was a place to hide away from the world, and a cubicle at this company would provide that. So I stayed with that temp job until it turned permanent, and that's where I've been for the last nine years. Although it was extremely boring and repetitive, it was also quiet and stable. Best of all, I could do the job with very little human interaction.

I have not exactly "thrived" in this job, but I have survived for nearly a decade. Meanwhile, though, my social life was nonexistent apart from my participation in a local community band. Even there, I tended to be shy, sullen, and withdrawn. Still to this day, any public performance fills me with fear. Don't get me wrong. The band has brought me a lot of happiness, and I have met some genuinely nice people there, but I don't know if I'll ever be 100% comfortable with it.

In the last few years, my workplace environment has been changing rapidly and frighteningly. The financial crisis has meant rounds and rounds of brutal layoffs, all of which I have (thus far) survived. A few months back, our company was bought out by a rival. Not only has this meant more layoffs, but existing jobs have been consolidated. One person will now be doing the work of two or three. This is how my most recent crisis occurred. 

This Monday (October 22), my supervisor was taking a vacation, and I was attempting to fill in for her while simultaneously doing my own job. I genuinely felt I could handle this, but the day was plagued by technical errors and computer setbacks that I could not solve. I found myself talking in endless, circular arguments with coworkers, and eventually my brain just stopped processing information. 

After 11 hours without a break and with many problems left unresolved, I simply left the office and took a commuter train home. I could not sleep that night and began having unspeakably dark thoughts. Remembering my horrifying experience from 2001, I decided to call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at around 2 in the morning on Tuesday, just a few hours before I was supposed to wake up for work. I spoke with an operator there for about an hour, and she advised me to go to my regular doctor and get a referral to a therapist or counselor. 

I called in sick on Tuesday and was attempting to make my way to my doctor that morning. I don't have a "family doctor" per se, but there is an immediate care facility that I have used for colds, earaches, etc. I must not have been thinking very clearly at the time, because I literally did not get beyond the first block before having a minor fender bender. Even though neither car appeared damaged, the other driver was apoplectic and immediately called the police. 

When the officer arrived, I desperately told him my story. He summoned the paramedics, and they took me to the nearest hospital, where an ER doctor made the decision to hospitalize me. This particular place was out-of-network for my insurance, so I was transferred by ambulance to a behavioral health center in another town. (Does it help my story at all if I tell you that the ambulance drivers were two extremely dim-witted guys who initially drove me to the wrong hospital and bickered back and forth about which streets they "should have tooken?" Sad but true.)

Don't worry. The stamp washes right off.
From Tuesday afternoon to Friday morning, I was a patient at the behavioral health center, which seemed to be part of a much larger hospital. If you're thinking it was like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or Shutter Island, you've got the wrong idea. It was more like being held captive at a combination of a summer camp and a Motel 6.

Yes, it was humiliating to have to surrender my belt, shoes, and wallet. And yes, the food was terrible. (It is the tilapia that will haunt me from this experience.) Most of the people were quite nice, though, and there were only one or two people with obvious mental illness. The majority of the patients were like me -- average-looking sad sacks who just seemed burned out and overwhelmed. We had group meetings several times a day, and I was an active and cheerful participant in nearly every one of them.

The comment I heard the most from my fellow patients was: "You seem so positive! Why are you here?" Honestly, I didn't know. I mean, I could retrace my steps and understand how I had gotten there, but somehow it didn't quite feel "real" to me. I used the opportunity of the program to work on my social skills and made a point to introduce myself to as many staff members and patients as possible. The patients, especially, were generally bright, funny, and friendly individuals. Perhaps some of us will stay in touch.

In any event, I "graduated" the program with flying colors. My doctor was very impressed by my progress and moved up my release from Monday (October 29) to today (October 26). Having no relatives or friends in the area, I took a $40 cab ride back to my apartment this morning. I am now supposed to be taking Xanax, Celexa, and drugs for sleeping and for lowering blood pressure. My blood pressure shot up about 30-40 points while I was in the program even though I was outwardly very calm, upbeat, and composed. Maybe it was my body's way of protesting.

I am home now, back in my little apartment, and I am quite comfortable. It's nice to be able to write on this blog again, since patients were not allowed to use computers while they were on "the unit." My hospitalization is behind me now, but this problem is not merely part of my past. I still have to conquer my depression and anxiety, and this time I really want to do it right so that I can finally start living my life to the fullest. (I know that's an odd thing for a fictional zombie to say, but there you go.)

Phew! This was a tough post to write, but I'm glad I got it out there. I'm trying not to be embarrassed  about my condition, and I want to be able to talk about it openly and honestly. I'm sorry if this was a little heavier or more depressing than you wanted, but here's a song that might make up for it. I think this song is going to be my personal recovery anthem.

P.S. - Here's a Zomby from before my hospitalization. Enjoy it before the happy pills cure me of my creativity.


  1. Wayne/Joe/My friend,

    I am in utter awe of you. I can't imagine going through what you have and coming out as the intelligent, creative, talented, and painfully funny man that you are. I still wonder why you're not in Hollywood running sitcoms that make Community and Parks & Rec feel inadequate about themselves.

    I can't in any way put myself in your shoes, so I won't pretend to understand what the past few decades or so have been like or how to keep shining through it. I can only say that you are an incredible person, and I know that without ever having shaken your hand or given you a hug. I consider you a true friend, and please do the same for me. If there is ever anything that a crazy New York cat lady can do for you, never hesitate to ask.

    Also, I can't say enough how inspiring this post is. You shared something so personal and yet still, there's the Wayne Kotke wit that I've already come to love.

    And hospital tilapia? Why does that make me think about the ill-fated meals in Airplane!? I'm shocked that this could happen! The U.S. healthcare system is STILL effed!

  2. Hi, Emily. Thanks for the kind, funny words. You've been a positive influence in my life since I've known you. I don't know what this experience has taught me about the U.S. health care system, even though I had plenty of time to think about it. I did learn that, once you are ill, your insurance card suddenly becomes the most valuable piece of property. One weird aspect of this experience is that, unlike many of the others in my little group, I had not planned in any way on being hospitalized on Tuesday. Therefore, I had nothing to bring with me on this trip, other than what I was wearing and what I happened to have in my car at the time of the accident. So I ended up wearing the same outfit for four days straight, and my one worldly possession which I was allowed to have with me was a copy of Rolling Stone's annual "Hot Issue" with Taylor Swift on the cover. I ended up studying that magazine the way a repentant sinner in a sleazy motel might pore over the Gideon Bible. That's the kind of absurd detail you just can't make up.

  3. I like to think your origami skills are now officially out of control.

  4. Regular listener of MOZ here, just wanted to say thank you for sharing. I too have severe depression (taking Celexa) and can relate to your experiences to an extent. It's not easy to write it all out like that. Also wanted to say that your bits on MOZ are my second-favorite part about the show (first being the movie reviews). You always surprise me with your very, truly funny sense of humor, creativity and intelligence. That stuff has to take a lot of time to make but it always comes out so well!

  5. Thanks, liquidpig. I'm honored to be your second-favorite part of the show. The "Wayne Kotke" segments do take a lot of time and effort, but they are a good creative outlet for me. I have a lot of odd and (hopefully) comedic ideas jostling for space in my head, and MOZ has been a good place to test them in front of a sympathetic audience. Just to put things in perspective, a three-to-five-minute segment for MOZ generally takes about two or three hours of writing, recording, and editing, not to mention the time needed to think them up. (That part I generally do while showering, riding the train to work, having lunch, etc.)

  6. Wayne/Joe,

    As someone who's loved and shared your work with my family, friends and co-workers, and the odd, occasional innocent passer-by (77% of whom could not begin to give a shit about zombies in the first place), allow me to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the joie de vivre that your performances have brought into our lives.

    That said, your writing and explaining your situation is very brave. I know several people who've experienced similar circumstances, but none of them had tried to steadfastly self-manage such a heavy load. I really hope that you can find some peace and comfort. You deserve a shit ton more from life than to simply manage your existence. You are one of the most clever and talented people I can think of, and you really should be enjoying the net return of warmth and human contact that you so clearly merit.

    *Disclaimer* Please understand that something as simple as my commute to work can have me wishing for an apocalyptic scenario, so I do not say the preceding words lightly

  7. - I understand a lot of what you've been through and think it was a great idea to write this. You are helping anyone facing something like you've been through.

  8. Thank you. It's been gratifying and educational to hear from people who have experienced similar issues.