Helena, Montana – June 16–17, 2019
Note: This one’s written solely by Derek.
Other than going through a decent-size thunderstorm a few miles north of Yellowstone, the drive from Jackson, WY to Helena, MT was largely uneventful, although we all had a good time.
Once we arrived, however, the situation quickly devolved.
From Calm to Chaos
Nestled between Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, Helena is a beautiful capital city with outdoor activities galore, including skiing and snowmobiling during the winter and biking, hiking, and floating on one of the area’s many lakes during the summer.
It was this access to the outdoors—specifically, the highly-rated mountain bike trails—that made us choose the area in the first place.
What we didn’t realize, however, is that Helena isn’t great for RVers. One might even call it abysmal. Why?
The Situation Goes South
In contrast to the Jackson Hole region, most RV parks in Helena accommodate long-term mobile home tenants. And while I’m certainly not worthy of judgment, there’s no denying that these rough-around-the-edges areas are often associated with higher petty crime rates.
As an example of this, while backing our RV into a spot, we temporarily blocked the road and inadvertently stopped four teenagers from escaping after they stole a tank of gas.
Apparently, the owner previously experienced problems with the kids and quickly voiced his displeasure, all while the group inside the car flipped the middle finger at him, smoked joints, and blew smoke in his face.
“We temporarily blocked the road while backing our RV into a spot and inadvertently stopped four teenagers from escaping after they stole a tank of gas.”
After witnessing this, we swiftly said “Oh, hell no!” to one another, proceeded to request a refund (the owners were very understanding), and left the premises.
This presented a problem, though: All of the “good” RV parks were booked, the sun was getting low on the horizon, and our only other option was to drive another hour and a half north to an area better suited to our short-term, out-of-town RVing needs. Not only would this put us at the site well after dark, but it’d also have meant we’d miss all the great local trail riding.
So, we pulled onto the side of a nearby gravel road to assess our options.
There’s no reason to go through the nitty-gritty details, but suffice it to say that the next couple of hours were simultaneously tense, frightening, sad, and eye-opening.
They were so impactful, in fact, that instead of following our original route and heading north into Canada, we decided to head west to Bend, Oregon, where close friends own acreage. There, we thought we could hang out, regroup, and decide what our immediate future held.
Let me explain what happened and why.
Opening Up About My Illness
I suffer from moderate to severe depression. And as is typical for others with the illness, its presence waxes and wanes in my life like the rising and setting sun.
At first, like trying to watch the sun pass through the sky, it’s largely unnoticeable. But, as my mind moves toward the horizon, small changes accumulate, and before I realize it, only bleakness exists. I’ve explained to Jamie many times that it feels like a heavy curtain has descended and brought darkness to everything.
For me, this bleakness is terrifying, crushing, suffocating, and utterly inescapable. And when it’s in full effect, whatever protective walls I’ve managed to erect during my “lighter” times crumble under the relentless pressure, and it takes absolutely everything I can muster to exist.
There is no Derek. When I look in the mirror, I see a reflection that resembles my body and my face. But, it’s not me.
Instead, it’s some automaton—a thing that exists only to perform the essential tasks necessary to appear “normal,” but which is otherwise a hollow shell.
During these episodes, which can last anywhere from a couple of days to weeks, I could lay in bed for hours and do nothing but stare at the ceiling, wondering of what use I am to the world. It’s impossible for me to make basic decisions, and even the smallest interactions with others are awkward and uncomfortable for everyone involved.
Time is inconsistent; one hour it’ll drag by, and the next will pass almost unnoticed. I’m quick to anger and slow to simmer.
I feel worthless; that I’m a terrible person, a bad father, and an even worse spouse who can’t do anything right. I’m a failure and a fraud, both personally and professionally.
I’ve never attempted suicide, but every time I pass through one of these waves, I’m frightened by my recognition of how easy it would be. If there is a hell, I don’t fear it—I’ve already lived through it.
Eventually, the curtain slowly lifts and allows the light to peek through, which once again turns me from the ethereal fog into flesh and blood.
Upon re-emerging, I’m physically drained. It can take days for me to experience normal energy levels again, and I’ve noticed that this process takes increasingly longer the older I get.
“If there is a hell, I don’t fear it—I’ve already lived through it.”
There Is Help!
I started taking Prozac (fluoxetine) in November 2016. And by the time my third dose rolled around, I could tell—as could my family—that it was working.
It didn’t just help a little bit, mind you. Almost immediately, it made the valleys shallower and the peaks longer. It’s difficult to explain, but it allowed me to “catch” myself before the spiraling began.
I even remarked to Jamie, “Is this how people normally feel?”
For the most part, things remained the same for the next couple of years. However, I started drinking more and more beer in 2018 until I reached 207 pounds in March of this year. Just writing that blows my mind.
Whether due to this drinking or changes in my brain chemistry (or a combination of both), I could tell that the medication was increasingly losing its ability to help me “catch” myself. So, through a lens of frustration and anger, I would often verbally lash out at those I love most.
Not only was this 180 degrees opposite of my normal personality, but Jamie and the girls compassionately emphasized they simply weren’t having it.
So in March, I quit drinking altogether and nearly doubled my cycling mileage. Combined with eating much better now that we’re on the road full time, I’ve managed to lose most of this excess weight. Which is awesome!
Naively, though, I read from several online resources that many patients can taper their antidepressant dosage six months to a year after their symptoms have stopped. So, I decided to give it a try. But, instead of enlisting the help of my doctor, I simply took my usual dosage every other day.
This eventually led to the return of the “dark curtain” described above, along with devastating consequences for my family.
Fortunately, we were able to connect with a local physician here in Bend who agreed to increase my fluoxetine dosage (I’ll talk some other time about insurance hassles!).
Now, even after just a few days, it’s already delivered life-changing results on par with what I experienced after I started taking it years ago.
My Time to Speak Up
According to the National Institutes of Health, depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States, which 7.1% of adults experience at least once annually.
However, this study also reports that “approximately 35% of adults with a major depressive episode [in the past year] did not receive treatment.” Psychology Today tells us that many of the top reasons relate to patients’ fear that others (family, friends, coworkers, etc.) will look down on them.
Other than with my immediate family, this is mostly why I’ve never talked about my depression publically, or written about it online.
But, based on my recent experiences, I’ve come to understand that just like a disease of the body, I am not defined by my depression. I’m not broken, it’s not a personal weakness, and I have no reason to be ashamed or feel “less than” when scrutinized by others.
Instead, I now feel empowered to speak up and help end the stigma of mental illness. As the Mayo Clinic emphasizes:
“Others’ judgments almost always stem from a lack of understanding rather than information based on facts. Learning to accept your condition and recognize what you need to do to treat it, seeking support, and helping educate others can make a big difference.”
Moving Forward: We Keep Rolling
I’m fortunate that Prozac worked as well—and as quickly—as it did. For many others with depression, though, it takes a lengthy trial-and-error process of experimenting with different medication combinations and dosages before finding a mix that delivers meaningful relief.
As with others, I’ve also learned that keeping my depression at bay involves a multifaceted approach where I completely avoid alcohol, make sure that I take my medication at the same time each day, get lots of physical activity, and—quite frankly—incorporate strategic marijuana consumption.
Right now, I feel fantastic. So, I’m hopeful this approach will allow our family to continue enjoying #RVlife, pushing our limits, learning more about ourselves, and growing as individuals. Stay tuned!
Do you have experience with depression? If so, and if you feel comfortable, please leave a comment below.
You never know how your insight could help someone else!