A River Runs Through It, the 1992 film directed by Robert Redford, is based on the semi-autobiographical novella by Norman Maclean. This beautiful and haunting coming-of-age story about two brothers is set against the backdrop of early 20th-century Montana and the brothers’ love of fly fishing.
The younger brother, Paul Maclean (played by Brad Pitt), is your prototypical “dude.” To most, he is the life of the party—an outrageously handsome, slightly mysterious, and outwardly confident man of action. To others, often those closest to him, he is a guarded, talented though arrogant, impulsive, and self-destructive ticking time bomb.
In a pivotal scene, Paul’s older brother Norman talks to his future wife, Jessie Burns. Referring to her own troubled brother, she says to Norman, “Why is it the people who need the most help won’t take it?” Norman’s face conveys recognition as he considers his own brother’s self-destructive path.
As I read Christopher Scott Downing’s Van Gogh in Peppers, a memoir about his experience with Major Depressive Disorder, this is the question that I kept trying to answer. While we don’t know if Paul Maclean suffered from depression, he clearly had his demons and handled them horribly.
So did Christopher. This is the prevailing message of his story. Christopher makes a convincing case that he suffered from Major Depressive Disorder. He makes an even more convincing case that it was foolish to try to treat the condition on his own. He did not seek help and adamantly refused any that was offered to him. This was a mistake—one that Christopher hopes to help other men avoid.
At the end of A River Runs Through It, Norman and Paul’s father, a Presbyterian minister, gives a moving sermon not long before his death. He says, “For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give, or more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them. We can love completely, without complete understanding.”
If there is a man in your life who suffers from depression, love him completely. It may be the help he needs before the understanding comes. If you are that man, be kind to yourself. Take the compassionate and important first step of reaching out and letting others help you. You don’t have to do this alone.
from the forward by Steven J. Hanley, Ph.D.
Later that night. Soaking in my tub. Ticked off at those beers I shouldn’t have had while working. Ticked off at Barry Bonds and the Giants for coming back 5-3. Still air and the calm of midnight. And being ticked off.
What do they suggest? Deep breathing techniques. The trickling of water as you lie in the bathtub.
You’d think that lying in the bathtub would be decent mood therapy. Isn’t that what you’ve been told?
Lying in a lukewarm bathtub late at night, you’ll come to find out, in an empty and otherwise soundless house halfway torn up from interminable remodeling, lit by bare hanging bulbs, and smelling of musty plaster and rotten wood, is not good therapy. At all.
No. Someone lied to you and me, buddy. On the contrary, this is when heavy thoughts take us by the throat. And do their thing.
Inner soliloquies can wax poetic, but they’re hardly pretty. Even with all the weed. And I mean poetic only in the sense that some people find Hellraiser a poetic film. In an attempt to fend off the most terrible thoughts, I focus on the exposed framing of my bathroom walls.
Which is also a bad idea.
In the weeks between stepping down from my post as team leader and starting as second shift receiver, I ripped down the lath and plaster of my only bathroom. This exposed the century-old framing I have absolutely no idea what to do with despite repeated reads of Home Depot’s Home Improvement 1-2-3. The small floor is now covered shin-deep with a hundred pounds of crumbled gray plaster—think old cement—that needs shoveling out. Unable to shower because, well, there’s no goddamn walls, I’m reduced to lying in the tub, face up, entombed by yet another major project I’m powerless to resolve. I use a vice grip to control the water because the valve handles have been removed.
Instead of relaxing, my cardiovascular system steps it up, churning blood and breath like I’m two rounds into an MMA fight going bad. My dehydrated eyes fall open and cease blinking. My shoulders ooze further and further into the water. In this dismal repose, ruminations begin, the regurgitation and prolonged chewing up of wearied feelings.
Ruminations are also not good therapy.
Let me say that now and then a little brush with the blues is good for you. It can lead to some healthy, productive problem solving that wouldn’t happen if you were cheery. This happens to most people. If ever you enter into a good old healthy sadness, you lose yourself for a few days. You focus on the issues at hand. Your job, your lack of a job. Your distant parents, your clingy parents. Your girlfriends, your boyfriends. Your temperamental boss. Your weight, your parent’s weight, your temperamental boss’s weight. You’ll resolve our issues and come out better for it. On some evolutionary, species-perpetuating track, that’s what your sadness is for.
Between my own similar, minor depressive tremors (those that hardly score on the DSM IV’s Richter scale of maladies), I once romanticized my history of grumpiness, likening myself to poets and artists and moody boxers, incited here and there by artistic, poetic, and pugilistic thoughts. But that was the past.
Long after my poopy coffee shop phase, I finally have a use for the word ennui, only to discover that now it fails to do the trick. Back then, my idea of ennui—and melancholy for that matter—was a romantic getaway, a cute word for nihilism and laziness and not giving a shit enough to even look up the word nihilism. Back then, I’d have leaped to say how Kafkaesque my world became, how spiraling, unforgiving, and complex. Now in my thirties, wiser, and more well read, I’d never seriously use the words ennui, melancholy, or Kafkaesque. Frankly, they make people in their thirties sound like douchebags.
Because the reality of things now? My god, this has turned into something altogether incomparable. Problem solving doesn’t happen. This is obvious because not one of my recent life choices has resulted in any life gains. Even sadness fails to show up for a surprise cameo. There’s just a void. A suck in the gut and pain in the limbs.
Outwardly I’m all smiles. Even now. I’m loud and outspoken. But consider this takeaway statement: a depressed man will master faking it when he can’t master anything else. Although I crave isolation, I’m scared no one knows what’s happening. Maybe these pages of a black pocketbook written while the bathwater cools will one day be the only evidence of Major Depressive Disorder at the end of a life.
With Major Depressive Disorder, you end up a papier-mâché version of the old self, a discarded prop from a play whose run was cut too short. If someone were to find it backstage in the dark, alongside all the other trash and discarded rubbish, she could punch a soggy hole with a finger—and out of curiosity peek in on something putrid and sad lingering inside, a nauseating, mute decay.
Who wants to see something freaky and gross?
Lying still in the bath, hands tucked under my ass, I can’t even muster one of those arcs of bathwater that people spit in movies while wasting away.
Why so much rage and trembling in a thing called depression?
This isn’t life lacking flavor.
This isn’t malaise.
This sure as shit isn’t naive ennui or melancholy.
I write these notes down, drop the notebook on a mound of plaster, and sink to my eyelids. A fat clump of hundred-year-old dust drifts into the bathwater next to my head.
For twenty minutes, the only movement has been the flickering of my eyeballs, my body folded up in the lukewarm stillness of the too-small tub. Like the embalmed flesh of a jarred medical specimen. Dark blue veins of my thighs appear through a yellow, pulpy epidermis. Submerged body hair sways with my breath. A shriveled, limp penis hangs repulsively. Color has turned cadaverous.
Every movement exposes a strip of skin to the chilled air, and patches of goose bumps crawl all over. Even so, I can’t pull out of the bath. Instead, I push deeper and deeper.
Parasites begin coursing through my organs, eager to escape my body, to gnaw some hole in the insubstantial tissue, to squirm out and bubble to the surface. I imagine the multitude filling the tub in death throes, surrounded by the milky goo and blood that’s erupted with them from my skin.
Between waves of shivers, I am immobilized by the cold, dreadful display of my body. It’s another thirty minutes more before I nod off. The insects still boiling angrily within.
Outwardly I’m all smiles. Even now. I’m loud and outspoken. But consider this takeaway statement: a depressed man will master faking it when he can’t master anything else.
I show up at Jenna’s place with a copy of the new album How to Save a Life from that local band who’s just made it big.
“Your text said you were on your way a half hour ago.” Jenna flips the CD case back and forth. Sort of looking. “Thanks for this.” Sort of not. “Let’s go outside before I fall asleep.”
She sets us up in camping chairs on the dim balcony that’s a little too breezy and a little too cool. She throws her camouflage PINK hoodie over her work pants, wraps her arms around her knees, and stares straight at me.
I begin with a recap. How I’ve found ways to sabotage the love of other women. Really good women, actually. “And I’m sabotaging all over again. Each time, I make the biggest mistake of my life. And with you, I’m doing it all over again. Until now.” A long pause goes by, and I add, “I know that I’ve been hiding… things from you.” I put the tip of my finger on my forehead.
The shadows up here in the balcony, cast by treetops moving in the breeze, make it difficult to glimpse those glassy blue eyes. Even her hair has lost its entire luster in the hesitating, silent darkness. Who knows what I expect her to say?
“I don’t have much reason to keep the faith alive at this point,” she says.
“Oh yeah? Great. Tell me more, I can’t wait.”
“Jenna, you’ve been it all along. Maybe it takes a horrible night like last week for me to see how much you affect me. Maybe that’s the kind of thing that freaks me out and makes me act so… shady.”
“Twice.” Her voice tightens. “You’ve gotten physical twice now. Shady doesn’t cut it.”
“Jenna, I would climb mountains to give you your myth or fairy tale or whatever it is. Fuck it, I would climb this balcony if that was in the script.”
She leans toward the railing and looks down through the posts. After a moment, she clicks her tongue. “Please don’t climb my balcony.”
“Stick with me through this.”
She opens her eyes real wide and slowly shakes her head.
“Whatever I figure out about me or work or my money or whatever…” I reach for the pruning shears atop one of the up-ended floral crates she uses for patio furniture. I squeeze it repeatedly out of nerves. “It’s just time you know that I’ll do anything to make this work. Stay brave with me.”
“Bravery’s not one of your strong suits these days, buddy,” Jenna says, not missing a beat.
“You know me, Jenna. Always cowering atop the shoulders of giants.”
She nods. “Cute.” If there’s a smile, the shadows obscure it. She grabs the pruning shears from my nervous hands and throws them down. “So much for scripted fairy tales.”
I reach out for her hand. The first time we’ve touched since our fight. Gently. Her fingers only. To roll a palm upward. “Were there bruises?”
“No, Chris. You didn’t bruise me. I mean, sort of. Were you trying to bruise me?”
“No, Jenna Lee. No, I wasn’t trying to actually, physically hurt you.”
“Well, that’s good.” Her shoulders sag heavily. “At least we have that going for us.” Her sigh is exhausted. She fends off my stare by looking at the light of a house across the otherwise sleepy street. Her arms cross her stomach, her knees are pinched shut.
“I’m twenty-six, Christopher. I don’t want any more of this drama. Call it a girl’s fairy tale if you want. I don’t care. Call it what the fuck ever. I don’t even want a fairy tale anymore. I don’t want drama. Good. Bad. Ugly.” She points at me. “Really ugly. I don’t want any more stories, Chris. Sooner or later there’s enough stories, and I don’t want to do any of this. Even if it means no fairy tale. No drama. Just real.”
Here’s where we find out if the practice pays off.
“Okay, Jenna,” I say. I rest my palms in my lap and try to sit as neutral as possible. Like rehearsal. “Just know this, if you choose this hero, I’ll always be at your side when it’s dark, and no matter how heavy my sword weighs in these tired hands, I will always protect you from the bad things of this world and anyone who would harm you. And I promise, Jenna, most importantly I promise you will never be alone again.” I improvise a little. “Sometimes a little drama is worth the fight.”
She’s still looking off into the darkness across the street.
“I will be your brave prince. I will give you everything, Jenna. Everything you’ve ever wanted in a man. I will fight your dragons. With you. The big, nasty scary ones. I’m getting good at fighting dragons.”
Jenna plants her feet on the ground, digs her elbows into her knees, and clasps her fingers.
“I don’t know how…” She tucks some hair behind an ear. She looks me dead in the eye. “It amazes me that you think you could ever be the person to do any of this. You need like serious help. After everything you’ve been through. It’s really time you got that help before you totally jack somebody up.” She takes a breath or two. Her whole body leans into what she’s about to say.
Jenna’s eyes lock onto mine.
My ears begin buzzing, and the tunnel vision gives me vertigo. If she offers to be the help I need, I will get better. If she commits to staying by my side, insisting that we only be honest with each other, Major Depressive Disorder will finally be a thing of my past. It could be so easy.
My heart swells when her mouth opens.
“Chris, remember when… remember when you said it’d be best if I went ahead and started seeing some other guys?”
This disease is very clever. It has a way of invading nests and evicting everyone it doesn’t want to devour.
I tell Rhiannon she is the first person to come over to the house in months.
“I don’t blame you.” She motions around the place as she walks back to the living room. “You’ve been busy. What about that nice girl you were hanging out with?”
“Jenna?” I kick a half-empty value-pack of toilet paper into the closet. “I don’t think she’s into me anymore. I’m probably not her type after all. Nice girl and all.”
“I had no idea you were headed into all this. Could I have helped?”
“If we were still together? I don’t know. Yeah? No, probably not. My hunch is that nothing was going to stop this. It’s probably best that you weren’t around. I don’t think… I don’t think I would have let anyone hang around.”
“What if I found a way to hang around? Just pretend. Do you think I could have helped?”
“Shit, I would have found a way to end up alone. On some subconscious level, I would have made sure you were out of the way. Trust me. This disease is very clever. It has a way of invading nests and evicting everyone it doesn’t want to devour.”
“Maybe that’s what happened to us?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. Seems like our divorce was too amicable to be the result of some sneaky, slithering mental illness. We had, like, the most amicable divorce in the history of divorces. That’s gotta be an indication it was the right choice. Right? If no one cries during a divorce…”
She frowns. “I cried, Christopher Downing.” She’s an inch shorter than me, so we’re nearly eye to eye. Close now. Except her eyes are blushed. She smiles, and the squint of the smile causes the tears to pool in the corners. “I still have no idea why we split up. Christopher, I cried a lot. Goddammit. Now I’ll wonder if I would have fought you on the divorce, if would I have been able to prevent all this from happening.” She flips her hand toward the walls, toward the broken furniture, toward The Ex-Husband slouching there, that hollow, dry papier-mâché of what she once loved.
She won’t cry in front of me. She won’t allow it. She never did.
She takes deep breaths, steps right up, and chest bumps me. I smile in surprise. She smiles too.
Then she kisses me. On the mouth. Soft. And still. She holds it there. Pulls away slowly. And exhales a big burst of air on my face.
“Fucker,” she says. “You’re losing our house?”
“Sorry, sweetie. I tried.”
I don’t answer right away. “Yes, Rhiannon. I tried.”
She pushes me and somehow ekes out a smirk through all the emotions bouncing back and forth between our hearts. She pats my chest, turns her head at an angle, and points toward yet another bloody print on a wall of some less recognizable body part. “You might want to get that cleaned up.” Standing in the middle of a living room with no usable furniture, she stares at me. “And all that too, Christopher.” She swirls a finger at my heart.
“Yep. Working on it.”
She crosses to the front door, springing over the clutter of my disease in big whopping strides. When she opens the door of the house we once shared, she smiles real big. She breaks the last silence, clearing her throat. “Well!” She hangs on the door handle, still smiling back over a shoulder.
There’s a ton more I want to talk to her about. At least two more speeches on tap. She hasn’t been here that long. But it’s out of the question. Hanging on the door at a deep angle, half in the sunshine, half in the shadows, she just needs to say goodbye.
But she doesn’t say it. She doesn’t even watch through the doorway as she finally pulls it shut for the last time.
Excerpted from Van Gogh in Peppers: A Self-Portrait of Male Depression