On depression, and empathy.

Matthew: What are you working on?

Cory: Actually, I’m working on a book about the depression.

Matthew: So, you have an interest in historical material?

Cory: My depression. I’m writing a book about my depression.

Matthew: I see.

Cory: It’s an epic.

From the play, Private Eyes, by Steven Dietz

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I have an embarrassing admission to make. For most of my life, I didn’t believe that depression was a real, legitimate thing. Don’t get me wrong, I have always known that it exists, but as someone, who, for the most part, always found it pretty easy to be happy, I took it for granted that other people could do the same. I dismissed those who were frequently sad – including my own mother – as negative, or simply not trying hard enough. Like most people, I would get an occasional case of the blues – the result of a tough day or receiving some bad news – but I found that if I just went for a run, or watched a funny movie, or played some upbeat music, I could chase away the doldrums pretty easily. This too shall pass.  Because it always did.

And then, in an instant, everything changed. My dad got sick. My mom went crazy. They both died. On the heels of my mother’s death, my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Suddenly, she too, was gone. And in the midst of it all, a close friend from college dropped dead in the gym of his apartment building, less than two weeks after his 31st birthday. A life full of promise cut abruptly short. Just like that.

All of this happened in the space of less than a year. For a while, I was in shock, moving from one tragedy to the next. But eventually, I was forced to confront the person left standing: me. A series of impossible events held a mirror up to my own life and what it reflected back was soul-searing. I was lost, unfulfilled, unhappy, but it was worse than that: I had given up. Given up on my dreams, given up on the idea that I deserved to be happy, given up on the person I had always wanted to be. I didn’t recognize myself anymore, and it was terrifying. Confronted with the choice of change or die, I chose to change. And that’s when things got really scary.

I suddenly found myself alone, trying to build a new life from scratch, with no idea what to do or how to start. I was 33, feeling utterly adrift while everyone around me seemed to have their lives figured out – relationships, kids, fulfilling careers.

And that’s when the sadness shifted into something more: the big D. Depression. For the first time in my life, it was no longer easy to get out of bed. I found social events with even the closest of friends exhausting, and anything that involved meeting strangers nearly unthinkable. My everyday worries and anxieties became worse; an above average fear of heights turned crippling. My motivation to tackle even the most basic of tasks was utterly nonexistent. I (once again) took up smoking, and continued to smoke even though it made me feel sick, taking some sort of perverse pleasure in how destructive it was. I hated myself.

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But I also found something else in my spiral into sadness, something that I didn’t expect: empathy. As a former ‘ happy girl,’ I never understood the monumental effort it could take someone with depression just to get dressed, to leave the house, to plaster on a smile, to make the requisite small talk that fills life’s daily interactions. But now I did. I understood all too well.

I’m pretty sure that depressed people – or at least this depressed person – don’t want to be depressed. If given the chance, they’d prefer to be joyful rather than sorrowful, prefer to find it easy to be with people rather than difficult, prefer to be up, rather than down. Who wouldn’t?

But the thing I never understood until I started wrestling with my own depression was that in the face of all of my friends’ well-meaning advice about focusing on the positive, about choosing to be happy, about the fact that our thoughts make our worlds, for some people, the pursuit of happiness is a constant, ongoing battle. I am tough, and relentlessly stubborn. I don’t give up easily, and throughout this dark period I’ve fought. I’ve worked really damn hard: forcing myself to be social when I didn’t feel like it, exercising regularly, practicing gratitude, joining organizations, going on trips, getting involved in my community, and doing all the things you’re supposed to do to shift your outlook. But the key words here are hard and work. I never could have imagined that a simple quest to feel lighter could be so damn heavy. That the most basic tasks could spend me as though I’d just run miles through beach sand. That sometimes in spite of my best efforts, there wouldn’t be one single solitary thing that would make any of it better.

But here’s the flip side of sitting with this darkness, of living in it, of trying to learn from it: gratitude. I’m grateful for what my struggle has taught me. Being incapable of walking through this phase of my life as anything other than a broken person has stripped away all pretense and artifice. It has attracted people into my life that the old me never would have met, and it has caused me to chase new, different experiences, things the old me never would have done. In my battle to get better, I’ve met some truly beautiful souls – both in person and online through writing this blog – that have known profound pain, pain deeper than anything I’ve experienced. And like me, they too, are doing the best they can.

We all have our particular prejudices, our long-held beliefs, our wealth of experiences that form the framework through which we view the world. Sometimes – as in my case – they can cause us to be too judgmental toward other people, to feel self righteous about their choices. Human beings are naturally curious and though we want to understand each other, sometimes we don’t, we can’t. What the last couple of years have taught me is that there is always more to the story than meets the eye, that no one has it easy, and that, while some of us are better at dealing with hardship, none of us are left unscathed by the joys and sorrows that make up this beautiful, difficult, complicated life.

As a former happy girl currently engaged in the battle to get better, I have learned patience, gained self-awareness, and discovered the true value of gratitude. But empathy, above all, is the gift that my depression has given me.

Until next time, friends.

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Rory.

Today would have been your thirty-third birthday.

My favorite memory of celebrating your birthday has to be your twenty-first– when Vim drove our small group to Las Vegas on a Tuesday night. Kate (my roommate) thought we were crazy for making the trip. We had no hotel, no plan, other than to arrive at midnight, to celebrate as long as we could stay up, and then drive back to L.A. in the morning. “You’re going to die,” Kate warned. But we didn’t die. We drove into Vegas just before 12 a.m., the sight of neon casino lights beckoning, causing us to chant, “Vegas. Vegas. Vegas!”

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I don’t remember which casino we hit first, but I do remember the bartender. She checked your ID, looked at her watch and chuckled. You were just twenty-one. Shots for everyone. What a great night (morning). One of those crazy adventures that you never forget.

I’ve wanted to write something about you for some time now, to dedicate something on this blog that was just for you, something more than just a brief mention, a blip on the radar screen during a bad couple of years. I’ve struggled to find the words. Not because I didn’t know what to say. I’ve no doubt I could fill up many pages with stories – stories of the USC days, of that infamous apartment, the Inglewood Palace, of everything that came after.

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There are two reasons it took me so long to write about you. The first is anger. I’m angry that you’re gone because it seems so damned unfair, because you were so young, so full of promise, such a gift to this world. The second reason is guilt. I feel guilty because – sandwiched as it was in between losing my mom and dad – your loss was sort of lost to me, just one more impossible thing in a series of impossible things that I didn’t know how to deal with. I don’t think I ever fully processed or absorbed your death, almost – in a way – pretending like it didn’t happen. And you deserved better than that.

Rory, as long as I knew you, you carried a certain darkness with you. The funniest and most charming people often do. But the thing that I’m not sure you’re aware of is how happy you made people. How much fun you were. How many lives you made better by being a part of them. Some of the best memories of my twenties have you in them. Like the time you helped me move out of my apartment driving a rented U-Haul with a cracked roof through the streets of L.A. Or attending one of your band with the ever-changing name’s many shows, Natalie and I playing groupie. Or the time I hosted an Easter egg hunt for grown-ups and you competed fiercely for (and won) the ridiculous prize: a purple fuzzy stuffed bunny purse (sent to me in an Easter-themed care package from my mother) that you named Vim.

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But out of all the good memories I have of you, it’s one of the more recent ones that stands out. It was at my rehearsal dinner and you, ever the good sport, interpreted the Halloween costume dress-up theme in your own special way, and showed up as an Irish St. Pauli Girl, complete with short skirt, stockings and padded boobs. Though you didn’t know many of the guests, your outfit broke the ice and you charmed everyone with your humor and wit. Especially my mom. After she went to bed, you told me how much my mother reminded you of your own, how both of our moms were so proud of us, how they “loved the hell out of us.” I never could have known what a generous gift you gave me with those words, how often I’d return to them and hold on to them like a life raft just a short time later, after she died.

The funny thing about death is that it teaches you how you want to live. So, here are some specific ways I want to live, as inspired by you: I want to live without fear of being ridiculous, to embrace my wacky side and have fun, to hell with what other people think. I want to thumb my nose at the “rules,” when the rules are dumb or silly or a waste of time (a story you told about scheduling fake meetings with a friend so that you could reserve time away from the monotony of your corporate job comes to mind.) And I want to live without being ashamed of my (sometimes) crappy taste in music, because every time I blast some terrible pop song on the radio and sing at the top of my lungs, I imagine you, my heavy metal-loving friend, rolling your eyes in mock disgust, because you can’t believe I actually like that song. This, coming from the guy who once (secretly, sssh!) recorded a rap song called ‘Ginga Ninja.’

Oh Rory. You were such a bright light. You were so damned funny. You were the smartest guy in the room. And you were a really, really good friend.

Happy Birthday, buddy. I miss you.

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Identity theft.

“Hopefully, this will be the last time I ever talk to you,” he said.  “Because that will mean that you’re not the victim of a crime again.  Good luck, and have a great life, Sarah.”

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Have a great life.  The finality of those words sure stick, don’t they?

For the last couple of days, I’d been playing phone tag with a prosecutor in the San Diego District Attorney’s office.  Nearly two years after she’d stolen my identity, made a fake I.D. with my name, address and date of birth on it, and impersonated me all over San Diego County, the woman who’d opened up a slew of fraudulent credit cards in my name had been caught and was going to jail.  Justice was being done. I couldn’t believe it.

However, when it came time to make the final call to the Assistant D.A. to confirm the information that he needed – that I had successfully disputed all the fraudulent charges and that the banks, not me, had absorbed the financial burden of this woman’s theft – I was strangely reticent.  I wasn’t sure why I was dragging my feet, why I was delaying calling him back.  I was busy (of course, I’m always busy), but it was more than that.  There was something about closing this chapter in my life that I didn’t feel quite ready for.

I first learned that my identity was hijacked on February 4, 2013, when I received a call from a fraud investigator at Neiman Marcus.  A woman had visited their San Diego location to fill out an application for a store credit card, and Neiman’s flagged her right away as suspicious.  She was nervous, and appeared to be taking instructions from a man (surveillance cameras picked him up in another area of the store) via cell phone.  Neiman’s did a quick Google search to try to locate the real me (good luck  – there are about a million Sarah Kellys in this world), but were unable to find definitive evidence in a short span of time that this woman was an impostor.  Unable to act without proof, they accepted her application, flagged it as potential fraud, and sent her on her way.

Almost immediately after my conversation with Neiman Marcus’s fraud department, they started arriving:  the avalanche of both credit cards and rejection letters.  I would spend countless hours over the coming days, weeks and months undoing the damage that had been wrought in the space of one weekend-long credit card application joyride in San Diego.  Time spent canceling cards, filing fraud alerts, getting documents notarized, faxing, sorting, calling – sometimes pleading – with the powers that be that it was me, that I was who I said I was.  Nobody has time for this garbage.  It is a full time job to reclaim your identity when it has been taken away from you.  And in my case, the timing could not have been worse.

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When I received the call from Neiman Marcus, my father was in the hospital, gravely ill with stage four pancreatic and liver cancer, and awaiting a transfer – arranged by my half-sister Deirdre – to at-home hospice care.  Ten days later, on Valentine’s Day, dad passed away, quietly, at home.  His death was a mere four and a half months after the sudden death of my mother, a death which sent shockwaves through my life that I still haven’t recovered from.  I can see now, with perspective, that I didn’t even begin to process my mom’s death until well after my dad died.  He was too sick, there was too much to worry about, too many fires to put out.  Not the least of which was my maternal grandmother’s rapid decline into advanced Alzheimer’s disease.  One day she knew who I was, the next day, I became a person of no consequence.

My identity theft was a relentless pain in the ass that I didn’t need, that I didn’t have time for and that I certainly didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to deal with.  When it happened, I couldn’t believe it.  I made jokes about it, laughed at the unfairness of it all.  But really, it felt like a sucker punch, like the universe kicking me in the gut when I was already about as low as I could go.

But here’s the awkward truth; a truth that I’m literally coming to terms with in this moment as I write this blog.  It’s a truth that reveals my hesitancy to wrap up that unfortunate chapter once and for all.  In the midst of the biggest crisis of my life, there was something incredibly powerful about having to fight for who I was.  What I lamented as some sort of karmic curse was actually, in all likelihood, a gift.  Not only did it offer a distraction from all the impossible, emotionally loaded jobs that had to be done in the wake of my father’s death, but at a time when I felt like I was drowning, when I felt like I was disappearing into nothingness, my identity theft fight required me to state clearly, emphatically, over and over again:  I am who I say I am.  I am Sarah. I am still here. I exist, dammit.

So when it came time to call the Assistant D.A., I procrastinated.  I put it off.  And at first, it didn’t make sense to me.  After all, I’m happy to have this case resolved.  I’m happy the person who stole something so precious from me is being punished.  It’s a win, but strangely, it also feels like a loss.  Because though I won this battle, the war rages on.  Twenty-one months later, I’m still fighting to find my way back to me.  A wild, fearless, big-dreaming me from my youth that I lost long ago, or a me that I always wanted to be but that I never quite became.  I don’t really know.  What I do know is that in the case of my identity theft, there was a path to follow.  A long, arduous, tedious, frustrating paper trail of a path, but a path nonetheless.  But with everything else, there is no path.  Just an ongoing struggle to heal, to rediscover, to fall in love with life again, and to try to figure out who I’m supposed to be.

And so, with one chapter now closed, the fight goes on.

Until next time, friends.

Photo on 5-15-13 at 6.31 PM

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