It was two days after Christmas. I couldn’t get out of bed.
There was a crushing pressure on my body, made up of a debilitating mixture of grief, anxiety, survivor’s remorse, and depression. It felt like a physical being with a corporeal form. Some huge, hulking monster that sat on my chest, its paws on my shoulders, pressing me down. All of my hours in the gym were worthless to me now. As hard as I struggled, I didn’t have the strength to push it off of me.
I hadn’t suffered a depressive bout like this in months. The setback was infuriating, which only compounded my other negative emotions. I’d been doing so much better lately. This step backward really illustrated that to me now.
But then Christmas happened.
The day itself was fine. Between my anticipation to hang out with Ella, cooking, and talking to family and friends, I had been plugged in, connected. Distracted.
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 had spent together with the whole family in Hawaii. To my nephew, 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 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’d 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 had video of “the incident” as she’d called it afterward. I watched it earlier, rewinding several times at the part where my dad leaned toward her and muttered, “Ham sandwich.” Molly had slid to the floor snort-laughing in response, the rest of us joining along because it was just so ridiculous 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’d curled into a 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 were scratchy now, my face puffy, throat sore. I had cried so much that I was dehydrated. Thanks to the litany of other physical symptoms that manifested whenever a bout of depression hit me this hard, I felt like I had the flu. My head throbbed. I didn’t trust my stomach enough to put anything other than bread in it. The sheets beneath me were soaked with sweat.
At least I didn’t have the shortness of breath and racing pulse that proceeded 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 went off, emitting a shrill tone that reminded me it was time to take my medication. I dug through the rumpled covers around me until I found the phone, then hit ‘end’ on the alarm. It took a monumental effort to 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 flopped down onto my back afterward, throwing an arm over my eyes.
“This is very common, Ben,” Brian, my therapist, had told me earlier. “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 stood for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. It acted by freeing up serotonin – commonly called the ‘happy chemical’ – for use in the brain. They were a much safer antidepressant for someone like me, who might have CTE, than tricyclic ones which came with strong anticholinergic side effects. Anyone with a potential brain injury or a degenerative brain disorder didn’t need help inhibiting parasympathetic nerve impulses – which is what anticholinergic agents did.
“Have you been ingesting caffeine or alcohol lately?” Brian had gone on to ask.
Yes, to both. He had advised me to stop. Immediately. Because they could further compound depression and anxiety. I promised him I would. So far, the man had never led me astray. But goddamn it, sometimes I just wanted to be able to sit back and drink a beer after a long day of working on the house.
I growled in frustration and rolled over onto my stomach, clinging to my pillow like it was a life raft. The underlying feeling that made this all so unbearable was the guilt. It always went 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 had, there was my brother, telling me to stop being an asshole. At least I was alive to feel depressed. My fear of CTE symptoms wouldn’t be possible if I were dead. I should have been thankful that I didn’t have any obvious signs of the disease yet.
I dug down deep and tried to muster some joy at that thought.
Which made the guilt even worse.
You’d think their sudden death would remind me that I only had 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 had stolen it away from me.
The symptoms started not long after the car crash. As soon as Zach’s autopsy was released, I broke my contract and quit the league. And then I began actively speaking out against it. No longer constrained by my old team’s strict social media policy, I got political on Twitter. I voiced my opinions. About race. About rape culture. About toxic masculinity.
I was 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”. The fans turned on me too. People who had followed my career since college filled my social media feeds, telling me how disappointed they were in what I had become. It left me cut off from the community I had belonged to almost my entire life.
That’s fine, I had told myself. They’d made their decisions, and they would have to live with them. Their unwillingness to stand up and do the right thing 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 were right there with me after clawing their way out of their own grief. Together, we formed the non-profit. 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 their lives were more important than fame or fortune or their love of the game. 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’d asked me earlier today.
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 resented this never-ending guilt, it had probably saved my fucking life.
My phone went off again, pulling me from my dark thoughts. I rolled over to see a text from Ella lighting up my screen.
Okay, so I have a brilliant idea. *Dumbledore voice* And between you and me, that is saying something.
I grinned. For the first time all day. It was fleeting, but it served to remind me that I could still feel positive emotions like amusement.
Hit me with it, I texted 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 responded.
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, I told her. But I don’t have skis. 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 was followed by a rolling eye emoji. When did you want to plan on coming by? Tomorrow looks nice, weather-wise.
Tomorrow. I couldn’t commit to that. Or the next day. Or the one after that. My last depressive bout like this had kept me in bed for three days straight. The earliest date I was willing to risk making plans for happened to fall on the last day of the year.
Can’t escape the house until New Year’s Eve, I told her. 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? Was there some secret underground rave culture up here that I wasn’t aware of? Or was she going out of town? And why was I suddenly fixated on who she was thinking about kissing?
Another text came through. #sarcasm. What time did you want to come over?
Oh, she’d been kidding. Relief flooded through me.
Can we set a time closer to the day of? I asked. I couldn’t make a decision yet. Just trying to act normal in this conversation was taking every ounce of my willpower, and I was almost drained.
Absolutely! I’ll text you the night before.
I went to set the phone down and caught sight of my Twitter app. The bubble in the top right-hand corner of it said that I had over a thousand notifications waiting for me.
“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 tapped the Twitter icon and held it. When the little (x) popped up to delete it, I hit it without hesitation. Next was Instagram. Facebook. Snapchat. I removed each and every social media app from my phone. And then I moved on to my news apps. I didn’t think I’d ever seen a positive notification from one of them. It was always headlines like “North Korea Threatens to Annihilate South Korea”, or “Twenty Killed in Latest School Shooting”.
Normally, I thought it was important to keep up with the news. To look, eyes wide open, at this world we lived in. But right now, my mental health needed to be my priority.
Finished with my mass deleting, I tossed my phone away, rolled onto my side, and fell back asleep.
The next day was a little easier. I got out of bed for a few hours. I didn’t drink coffee. I poured all of the alcohol in the house down the kitchen drain. I was able to eat a decent-sized lunch. My morning session with Brian went well – we always switched to two-a-days when I had these episodes.
Two weeks ago, when we had first discussed it, he had been very upfront about the pros and cons of cutting back on my dosages, so I had known that something like this might happen when we changed them. At the time of that discussion, I thought the benefits outweighed the costs. I wasn’t sure if I still believed that, but hopefully in the coming days I’d feel better, and it would seem…well, not worth it, exactly, but maybe it wouldn’t seem so bad when I was on the other side of this.
After lunch I crawled 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 advised during our afternoon session. “Employ distraction techniques. Watch funny animal videos on YouTube.”
“My mom thinks I should get a dog,” I told him.
“It’s not a terrible idea. Pets have been known to help combat depression.”
After we hung up, I took his advice. I wondered what Fred and Sam were like as puppies, googled “Husky puppies”, and then fell down the rabbit hole of baby animal videos. When I was done, I turned on the TV, pulled up my Netflix account, and binge-watched one of their latest shows.
The day after that was even better. I got out of bed in the morning and ate a huge breakfast, ravenously hungry. I worked out. The endorphins did wonders to help my mindset. Later, during our afternoon session, I told Brian about Ella. I hadn’t been keeping her from him exactly; I just hadn’t wanted to bring her up until I was sure that she might be someone I saw frequently. Brian heartily approved of our budding friendship, especially when I told him about the conversations we’d had and how much she made me laugh.
“As long as you don’t use that humor as a crutch when you’re feeling anxious or depressed,” he cautioned.
I assured him that I’d be careful to avoid doing that.
New Year’s Eve day, I was up before the sun. I felt good this morning. Not great, but that was okay. Good was a big step forward from where I had been a few days ago.
Soon, I’d leave for Ella’s. We planned for an early start because a squall was building just across the Canadian border and it might roll east over the mountains later. I wasn’t even halfway through my first winter here and I was already wary of snowfall forecasts. The weather patterns were so unpredictable. Storms had a way of settling into our valley and lingering, hemmed in by the mountains, dumping inches more than the weatherpeople said they would.
I knew we’d be outside most of the morning, and that the fresh air and skiing – and Ella’s goofiness – would function as natural mood boosters, but I still planned to work out before I left. I’d take all the help I could get at this point.
I ate another huge breakfast. A frame as large as mine needed constant fuel, and after so many days in a row with a limited caloric intake, there was a risk my body might start cannibalizing my muscles to burn as energy.
Once I was finished with breakfast, I went upstairs and stripped my bed. I’d gone through all of my spare sheets over the last few days. I dumped them in the washing machine, turned it on, and then threw open the windows in my bedroom to air it out. It smelled like an animal den in here. Musky. Slightly ripe. I wished I had something to burn – a candle, or incense, or hell, even sage. I made a mental note to order some later, and in the interim I doused the room in cologne and then closed the windows.
I worried that skiing would trash my legs, so I focused on an upper body routine for my workout. I tired out faster than I would have a week ago, and instead of pushing myself like I normally would, I listened to my body and stopped before I pulled something.
I was stepping into the shower, my muscles already a little sore and overinflated from lifting, when I remembered Ella’s hamstring. Hopefully she was 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 flashed through my mind, quickly followed by her head thrown back in bliss.
My dick decided that now was the perfect time to stir back to life.
“Is your relationship with Ella entirely platonic?” Brian had asked me yesterday.
“Yeah,” I’d told him. “Why do you ask? Do you think I’m not ready for anything romantic?”
“I think you think you’re not ready, which is important, and we should talk about that 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, for example.”
That was 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 my involvement in competitive sports. When the depression set in, it had plummeted, another symptom I’d overlooked. The meds had only further curbed it.
No wonder the sight of Ella’s bliss had stirred something in me. I was less concerned about it now than I had been at the time. She was beautiful, and she had arched her back and made a face that could have been construed as sexual. My libido, just waking up after a prolonged slumber, saw it and overreacted.
I reached down, thinking back to a particularly memorable sexual partner I’d had a few years ago, and brushed my fingers up the length of my cock. It swelled even further, straining against my abdomen.
I dropped my hand to my side and leaned back against the shower wall, letting 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 was worth dropping the dosage for. Hopefully I didn’t have any more regressions; I didn’t want to up the meds again and lose this feeling.
I cleaned myself off and then lingered in the shower, my fingers wrapped around my girth as I stroked myself. All too soon, it was over, my release spilling out of me in a rush that, while it felt damn good, still seemed muted compared to my memories.
I climbed into my Jeep an hour later. Ella had texted me a detailed list of instructions in case I lost signal on the way to her house, taking me up the hill I lived on instead of down it, out of what she said was an abundance of caution.
I checked her route on my phone before I left, comparing it against what my GPS wanted me to do. It was a full seven minutes longer, but that was because she had me taking back roads, avoiding town completely, most likely to keep someone from somehow recognizing me through these blackout-tinted windows.
I grinned. Jack was right. Ella was good people.
I decided to forgo my phone’s map and instead follow her instructions. She went through all that trouble putting them together, after all.
Several of the roads I took were new to me. There was no one else on them – not a surprise in an area this sparsely populated – and so I drove below the speed limit, taking in the surroundings and the distant views of the mountains. It was beautiful up here. Stark. Still pristine. How it must have looked everywhere hundreds of years ago.
Ella’s place was so out of the way that I thought I was on the wrong street when I got toward the end of the drive. I hadn’t seen a single house yet. Did anyone even live out here? I was just beginning to worry there was a typo in the directions and I was in the wrong place when I noticed a mailbox peeking out of a snowbank. I slowed the Jeep. It had her house number on it.
I turned the steering wheel and followed the narrow lane that led into the trees. Pines lined the driveway. Their trunks were massive. It looked like I was driving through an old growth forest.
Up ahead, sunlight streamed through the trees. I passed from the woods and into a wide clearing with a squat log cabin nestled in the middle of it. Snow clung to its roof. Smoke curled up from the chimney. The scene looked like something from one of Ella’s greeting cards, too quaint to be real.
I knew I had the right house when the front door opened and she emerged from it to stride down the porch steps, her dogs right on her heels. She lifted a hand and waved at me when I rolled to a stop, a huge smile spread over her face.
Seeing that smile lifted my mood from good to great.
Copyright © 2019 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
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.