It’s two days after Christmas. I can’t get out of bed.
There’s a crushing pressure on my body, holding me prisoner here. It’s made up of a debilitating mixture of grief, anxiety, survivor’s remorse, and depression. It feels like a physical being with a corporeal form. Some huge, hulking monster sitting on my chest, its paws on my shoulders, pressing me down. All of my hours in the gym are worthless to me now. As hard as I struggle, I don’t have the strength to push it off of me.
I haven’t had an episode like this in months. The setback is infuriating, which only compounds the other negative emotions I’m experiencing. I’d been doing so much better lately, but then Christmas happened.
The day itself was fine. I was too busy to think too much, anticipating a hangout with Ella, cooking, talking to family and friends throughout. It kept me plugged in, connected.
Then Ella left the next morning and the house suddenly seemed too big. Too quiet. Without the diversion of her and the dogs, my thoughts wandered to Zach. To the last holiday we spent together with the whole family in Hawaii. To Micah racing around my parents’ living room, holding Buzz Lightyear high over his head as he made “zooooom” noises. He had asked me to read him a bedtime story that night. Not his parents. Not his grandparents. Me. I’d felt like the most special person in the whole world.
Watching his eyes flutter shut while I read to him awoke all of the paternal instincts everyone warned me that I would one day have. Reading him to sleep made me want to settle down and have a couple of kids of my own.
I’d walked downstairs afterward to find the rest of the family in the dining room, seated around my parents’ large rectangular table, howling with laughter. Zach’s wife, Molly, a.k.a. Two-Can Sam, a.k.a. Lightest of the Lightweights, a.k.a. Gigglefits McGee, sat at the head of it, her blonde curls frazzled, her brown eyes a little glazed over.
She had gotten into the champagne while I’d been upstairs and the bubbles had gone straight to her head. Everything was suddenly rendered hilarious by her buzz. I still have video of “the incident” – as she’d taken to calling it afterward – on my phone. I watched it earlier, rewinding several times at the part where my dad leaned toward her and muttered, “ham sandwich.” Molly slid to the floor snort-laughing in response, the rest of us joining along because it was just so stupid and her laughter was just that infectious. Chewbacca mask lady had nothing on Molly when she really got going.
I watched the video right to the end, when Zach scooped his tipsy wife up off of the ground and carried her out of the room, followed by a chorus of hoots and catcalls. When it was over, I curled into the fetal position in the middle of my bed and sobbed until my tears ran out.
Six months after I shot that video, they were dead.
My eyes feel scratchy now, my face puffy, my throat sore. I cried so hard that I’m dehydrated. Thanks to the litany of other physical symptoms that manifest whenever a bout of depression hits me this hard, I feel like I have the flu. My head is throbbing. I don’t trust my stomach enough to put anything other than bread in it. I’ve already sweat straight through one set of sheets.
At least I haven’t had the shortness of breath and racing pulse that proceeds a full-blown panic attack. Shut up all alone in the house like this, with no one to help me through it, I’d probably end up hyperventilating myself into unconsciousness.
My phone goes off, emitting a shrill tone that reminds me it’s time to take my medication. I dig through the rumpled covers around me until I find it, then hit ‘end’ on the alarm. I roll over, pop the caps off of several prescription bottles stacked on the nightstand, and swallow the pills with the help of a large swig of water.
I flop down onto my back afterward, throwing an arm over my eyes.
“This is very common, Ben,” Brian, my therapist, told me earlier. “Remember, having setbacks as we lower your dosages is completely normal. Your body needs time to adjust. If these overwhelming feelings persist, we might need to talk about raising your SSRI back up a bit, but we can cross that bridge if and when we get there.”
SSRI stands for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. It acts by freeing up serotonin – commonly called the ‘happy chemical’ – for use in the brain. They’re a much safer antidepressant for someone like me, who might have CTE, than tricyclic ones which come with strong anticholinergic side effects. Anyone with a brain injury or a degenerative brain disorder doesn’t need help inhibiting parasympathetic nerve impulses – which is what anticholinergic agents do.
“Have you been ingesting caffeine or alcohol lately?” Brian had gone on to ask.
Yes, to both. He advised me to stop. Immediately. I will, because so far, the man has never led me astray, and in the past, I noticed that both had an effect on my symptoms. But goddamn, sometimes I just want to be able to sit back and drink a beer after a long day of working on the house.
I growl in frustration and roll over onto my stomach, clinging to my pillow like it’s a life raft. The underlying feeling that makes this all so unbearable is the guilt. It always goes something like this: I want to drink beer – Zach can no longer drink beer; I want to get over my crushing sadness – Molly can no longer feel crushing sadness; I worry that I’m no longer capable of having a healthy romantic relationship – Micah died long before he could develop romantic feelings for another person.
For every selfish thought I have, there’s my brother, telling me to stop being an asshole. At least I’m alive to feel depressed. My fear of CTE symptoms wouldn’t be possible if I were dead. I should be thankful that I don’t have any obvious signs of the disease yet.
I dig down deep and try to muster some joy at that thought.
Which makes the guilt even worse.
You’d think their sudden death would remind me that I only have one life to live. That I shouldn’t waste this life on negativity and regret. If only I had a choice in the matter. My depression and anxiety have stolen it away from me.
The symptoms started not long after the car crash. As soon as Zach’s autopsy was released, I broke contract and quit the league. And then I started actively speaking out against it. I got political on Twitter. I voiced my opinions. About race. About rape culture. About toxic masculinity.
In what has come to be known as The Kaepernick Effect, I was almost immediately ostracized. Hung out to dry by former teammates and coaches who disagreed with me, or didn’t want to weigh in on my ‘drama’. It left me cut off from the community I had belonged to almost my entire life.
That’s fine, I told myself. They’ve made their decisions, and they’ll have to live with them.
Their unwillingness to stand up and do something only served to spur me on. Someone had to act. How many other parents were out there, thinking about putting their kids into children’s football leagues without knowing the risk? How much safer would professional players be if only the league enforced tougher rules, higher fines?
Mom and Dad entered the fight alongside me after clawing their way out of their own grief. Together, we formed a non-profit organization. We shot Public Service Announcements. We funded research. There were web-sites to be set up, doctors to approach, and studies to retweet. When the league’s misrepresentation of the TBI risk to its players first came to light, I found myself joined by more and more men who realized the money they were being paid wasn’t worth the cost. Our lawsuit soon followed.
For those first two years, I kept myself so busy that it was easy to miss the early warning signs of my depression. The apathy I felt toward other humans, the mood swings, the insomnia, they could all be chalked up to an agitated state brought on by Twitter trolls and ignorant assholes.
A year ago, the symptoms got worse. They became unavoidable. Inexcusable.
Eight months ago, I almost had a mental break.
Seven and a half months ago, I had my first therapy session with Brian.
“Are you experiencing any severe mood swings? Thoughts of suicide?” he asked me earlier.
A little bit. And no. Even when my depression was at its worst, I didn’t think about killing myself. Because how could I do that to my parents? How could I do that to Zach? As much as I resent this never-ending guilt, it probably saved my fucking life.
My phone goes off again. It’s a text from Ella.
Okay, so I have a brilliant idea. *Dumbledore voice* And between you and me, that is saying something.
I grin. For the first time all day. It’s fleeting, but it serves to remind me that I can still feel positive emotions like amusement.
Hit me with it, I text back.
You know how you were saying the other night that you’re going a little stir-crazy shut up in the house?
If she only knew.
Yeah, I respond.
Well, my cabin sits on about 30 acres, and I have a couple miles of trails winding through them. Did you want to embarrass the shit out of yourself by coming over and learning how to cross-country ski? In a controlled, quasi-safe (see previous comment about embarrassment) environment without the threat of being seen by anyone but me and the dogs?
I’m in. But I don’t have skiis. I’ll have to order some first.
Don’t bother. I don’t want you to waste the money if you end up hating it and never use them again. I can just borrow a pair from someone close-ish to your height. What are you, like 7’5”?
Ha. I’m only 6’4”.
Only 6’4”, he says. This is followed by a rolling eye emoji. When did you want to plan on coming by? Tomorrow looks nice, weather-wise.
Tomorrow. I can’t commit to that. Or the next day. Or the one after that. The last bout I had like this kept me in bed for three days straight. The earliest date I’m willing to risk making plans for happens to fall on the last day of the year.
Can’t escape the house until New Year’s Eve. I’m sure you already have plans, though.
Yeah, sorry. I’m going to be super busy that day. You know, prepping with the girls. Selecting the perfect dress. Trying to pick which club is throwing the best party. And then I need to have a long, hard think about which of the many, MANY eligible bachelors I’m going to deign to smooch at midnight.
Clubs? Is there some secret underground rave culture here that I’m not aware of? Or is she going out of town? Also, why am I suddenly fixated on who she’s thinking about kissing?
Another text comes through.
/sarcasm. What time did you want to come over?
Oh, she was kidding.
Can we set a time closer to the day of? I can’t make a decision right now. Just trying to act normal in this conversation is taking every ounce of my willpower, and I’m almost drained.
Absolutely! I’ll text you the night before.
I go to set the phone down and catch sight of my Twitter app before I do so. The bubble in the top right-hand corner of it says that I have over a thousand notifications.
“I think it’s time to take another social media break,” Brian had suggested. “At least until this blowup with the commissioner dies down or you feel like you’re in a better place to interact with others online.”
I tap the Twitter icon and hold. When the little (x) pops up to delete it, I hit it without hesitation. Next is Instagram. Facebook. Snapchat. I remove each and every social media app from my phone. And then I move on to my news apps. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a positive notification from one of them. It’s always headlines like “North Korea Threatens to Annihilate South Korea”, or “Twenty Killed in Latest Mass Shooting”.
Normally, I think it’s important to keep up with the news. To look, eyes wide open, at this world we live in. But right now, my mental health needs to be my priority.
When I’m done mass-deleting, I toss my phone away, roll onto my side, and fall back asleep.
The next day is a little easier. I get out of bed for a few hours. I don’t drink coffee or beer. I’m able to put down a decent lunch. My morning session with Brian goes well – we always switch to two-a-days when I have these episodes. Enough of the haze has cleared that I’m able to hear his logic. He’s right. Two week ago, when we first discussed it, he was very upfront about the pros and cons of cutting back on my dosages. I knew something like this might happen when we changed them. At the time of that discussion, I thought the benefits outweighed the costs. I’m not sure if I still think so, but hopefully in the coming days I’ll feel better, and it will seem…well, not worth it, exactly, but maybe it won’t seem so bad when I’m on the other side of this.
Around lunch I crawl back into bed, exhausted.
“Don’t let yourself dwell on the negativity or ruminate on Zach’s death. No more videos of him and his family,” Brian advises during our afternoon session. “Employ distraction techniques. Watch funny animal videos on YouTube.”
“My mom thinks I should get a dog,” I tell him.
“It’s not a terrible idea. Pets have been known to help combat depression.”
After we hang up, I take his advice. I wonder what Fred and Sam were like as puppies, Google “husky puppies”, and then fall down the rabbit hole of baby animal videos. When I’m done, I turn on the TV, pull up my Netflix account, and binge-watch one of their latest shows.
The day after that is even better. I get out of bed in the morning. I eat a huge breakfast, ravenously hungry. I work out. The endorphins do wonders to help my mindset. Later, during our afternoon session, I tell Brian about Ella. I haven’t been keeping her from him exactly; I just didn’t want to bring her up until I was sure that she might be someone I saw with frequency. Brian heartily approves of our budding friendship, especially when I tell him about the conversations we’ve had and how much she makes me laugh.
“As long as you don’t use that humor as a crutch when you’re feeling anxious or depressed,” he says.
I assure him that I’ll be careful to avoid doing that.
New Years Eve day, I’m up before the sun is. I feel good this morning. Not great, but that’s okay. Good is a big step forward from where I was a few days ago.
Soon, I’ll leave for Ella’s. We planned for an early start because a squall is building just across the Canadian border and it might roll east over the mountains later. I’m not even halfway through my first winter here and I’m already wary of snowfall forecasts. The weather patterns are so unpredictable. Storms have a way of settling into our valley and lingering, hemmed in by the mountains, dumping inches more on us than the weatherpeople say they will.
I know we’ll be outside most of the morning, and that the fresh air and skiing – and Ella’s goofiness – will function as natural mood boosters, but I’m still going to work out before I leave. I’ll take all the help I can get at this point.
Like yesterday, I eat a huge breakfast. A frame as large as mine needs constant fuel, and after so many days in a row with a limited caloric intake, there’s a risk my body might start cannibalizing my muscles to burn as energy.
Once I’m finished with breakfast, I head upstairs and strip my bed. I’ve gone through all of my spare sheets over the last few days. I dump them in the washing machine, turn it on, and then throw open the windows in my bedroom to air it out. It smells like an animal den in here. Musky. Slightly ripe. I wish I had something to burn – a candle, or incense, or hell, even sage. I make a mental note to order some later, and in the interim I douse the room in cologne and then close the windows.
I’m sure skiing will trash my legs, so I focus on an upper body routine when I head into the basement for my workout. I tire out faster than I would have a week ago, and instead of pushing myself like I normally would, I listen to my body and stop before I pull something.
I’m stepping into the shower, my muscles already a little sore and overinflated from lifting, when I remember Ella’s hamstring. Hopefully she’s feeling better by now. I tore my right one in high school, and it took months to fully heal. I’d hate for her to push herself too early and do more damage.
An image of her wrapping that heating pad around her thigh flashes through my mind, quickly followed by her head thrown back in bliss.
My dick decides that now is the perfect time to stir back to life.
“Is your relationship with Ella entirely platonic?” Brian asked me yesterday.
“Yeah,” I told him. “Why do you ask? Do you think I’m not ready for anything romantic?”
“I think you think you’re not ready for that. Which is important. And we should talk about that sometime soon. But the main reason I’m asking is that with this new lower dosage regiment, you might start feeling and experiencing things more intensely. Your sex drive will start to return to normal, for example.”
That had been welcome news. I’d had a pretty respectable sex drive since puberty. Chalk it up to the elevated hormone levels thanks to my workout routines and involvement in competitive sports. When the depression set in, it had plummeted. Another symptom I’d overlooked.
No wonder the sight of Ella’s bliss had stirred something in me. I’m less concerned about it now than I was at the time. She’s beautiful, and she made a noise that could be interpreted as sexual. My libido, just waking up after a prolonged slumber, heard it and overreacted.
I reach down, thinking back to a particularly memorable sexual partner I had a few years ago, and brush my fingers up my length. My dick immediately becomes rock-hard, straining against my abdomen.
I drop my hand by my side, lean back against the shower wall, and let the water run over me, reveling in the sensation of being turned on. The sheer novelty of it. The glorious, borderline painful need to ejaculate.
Jesus. This is worth dropping the dosage for. Hopefully I don’t have any more regressions; I don’t want to up the meds again and lose this feeling.
For a while, I linger in the shower, my fingers wrapped around my girth, giving myself over to the way this feels. All too soon, it’s over, my release spilling out of me in a rush that, while it feels good, seems muted compared to my memories.
Half an hour later, my mood slightly better than “good” now, I’m sitting in the Jeep, waiting for it to warm up. Ella texted me a detailed list of instructions in case I lose signal on the way to her house, taking me up the hill instead of down it, out of what she said was an abundance of caution.
I check her route on my phone before I leave, comparing it against what my GPS wants me to do. It’s a full seven minutes longer, but that’s because she has me sticking to back roads, avoiding town completely. You know, on the off chance that someone somehow recognizes me through these blackout-tinted windows.
Jack was right. That woman is good people.
I decide to forgo my phone’s map and simply follow her instructions. She went through all that trouble putting them together for me, after all.
Several of the roads they take me on are new to me. There’s almost no one else on them – not a surprise in an area this sparsely populated – and so I slow-roll down them, taking in the surroundings and the distant views of the mountains.
It’s beautiful up here. Stark. Still pristine.
I think I’m on the wrong street when I get toward the end of Ella’s directions. I haven’t seen a single house yet. Does anyone live out here? Then I notice a mailbox peeking out of a snowbank. I slow the Jeep. It has her house number on it.
I jerk the steering wheel and turn to follow the narrow lane that leads away into the trees. Pines line the driveway. Their trunks are massive. This looks like old growth forest.
I count telephone poles as I pass them. One, two, five, seven. Impressive driveway length. Up ahead, sunlight streams through the trees. I pass out of their shadows and into a wide clearing with a squat log cabin nestled in the middle of it. Snow still clings to its roof. Smoke wafts from its chimney. It looks like it belongs on one of Ella’s greeting cards.
I know I have the right house when the front door opens and she emerges from it to stride down the steps, her dogs right on her heels. She lifts a hand and waves at me when I roll to a stop, a huge smile spread over her face.
Seeing that smile, I decide I don’t feel so good after all.
No, I feel fucking phenomenal.
Copyright © 2018 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.