The Worst of Times

I really could use the time spent writing this post for work-related activities. However, I have decided that it is of such vital importance to chronicle the most-depressing week of my life that I should take the time necessary to do so. I know that there isn’t any real quantity of time that is sufficient to make someone fully understand the depth of despair I have felt because this experience goes far beyond what words alone can convey. However, I will endeavor to relate what I can, in the manner that I can, full of omissions and errors as it may be.

I have to set the stage for the incidents that transpired this week, though. To do that, I must go back several years. I must go back to another depressing time in my life, a period during my first marriage. It began when I was attending Columbia College in Los Angeles, California. My first wife, Tara, and I were newly married and taking care of our newborn baby, Cameron. I won’t go into great detail about that time, but only state that I came under such stress to shut down mentally. It was only later that I learned I had been suffering from manic-depression. Tara and I didn’t know anything about that. She figured that my inability to function normally was due to laziness. This led her to treat me harshly, which added to the stress and, consequently, the depression. I was told later on, by a psychiatrist, that there are neurotransmitters in our brain that connect parts. There is a part in our mind which holds desire, and another part which controls acting upon that desire. The stress had shut down the neurotransmitters, so the two parts weren’t connecting right. I had the desire to do the things that needed to be done (e.g., go to work daily, attend school, help out around the home, be a good husband, etc.), but I couldn’t do it. Now, to someone who has never suffered from depression, this all sounds like a copout. To people who handle stress normally, it is sometimes beyond their imagination to think that “taking care of business” is often tough, but never impossible. I testify that it is, indeed, not that way. I know that I wanted to be the best I could be, and had enough desire to do so, but found it physically impossible to carry out that desire. Sadly, that period led Tara and me into a freefall that never ended. Eventually, we separated and then divorced. Yes, there were a lot of other issues that led to the demise of our marriage, but it was like a boulder falling down a cliff by that point. On the way down, there were small bumps here and there that led us to have glimmers of hope, but the overall downhill direction never really changed.

From that point forward, I had had no other experiences with depression. That is, until this past week. It isn’t a hereditary issue, because I was adopted, but it is important to note that most of my family members have also suffered from depression. I state that “it is important” because of the influence it has had on me throughout the years. They all sought help and got it in the form of medication. Prozac was held in high esteem in our household for many years as a miracle drug. It made our very dysfunctional family bearable. Although I never took any medication since the aforementioned period of depression, several of my family members went through a litany of antidepressants of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) class. As new SSRI’s were accepted by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), my family members were directed to try them out by several doctors. I also learned that this swinging from one SSRI to another is a common practice among a lot of people, not just my family members. It seemed that every FDA-approved SSRI was being tried to see if it was better than the last one by a lot of people around me.

Fast forward to my current marriage, a few years ago, and I began to feel that my wife, Shu Mei, suffered from depression. She showed some of the same signs that I had exhibited during my depression, and that my family members had throughout the years. She was irritable, hard to reason with, lackadaisical about fulfilling her responsibilities, and generally a very depressing person. However, her behavior has differed from my past depression in the manner by which she tends to have erratic periods where she is unexplainably gleeful. I believe this is the “mania” part of manic-depression and the reason why I was probably not diagnosed correctly by that psychiatrist all those years ago (i.e., I never had the periods of glee). I determined that it might be in Shu Mei’s best interest to seek help for her seemingly bottomless pits of despair. The problem was that Shu Mei wasn’t raised in the same environment that I was and was adamantly against going to a psychiatrist, let alone taking any medication for something like depression. Shu Mei won’t even take medication for a headache. Psychiatrics is viewed by her family as akin to the paranormal. To them, people who have mental disorders don’t reveal them at all, and probably should be kept hidden away somewhere. Honestly, that is what the current society here in Taiwan is like. In the six and a half years I’ve lived here, I’ve only seen one person with Down syndrome. According to Shu Mei, they hide the mentally challenged, either in their family homes or inside mental institutions. So, she wasn’t going to have any part of going to a psychiatrist.

I decided that our relationship problems were so extensive that I would go to a doctor and fake being depressed, in the hope that I could get some medication and show Shu Mei that it isn’t harmful to take. I figured if one isn’t suffering from depression, taking an anti-depressant is like taking a sugar pill. Nothing happens. I went to a doctor and followed through with my plan. He prescribed Prozac to me, after telling him that it was working for some of my family members, and leaving out the part that I was adopted. I took the drug every day, making sure that Shu Mei witnessed me doing it. I also worked extra-hard on trying to act extra-happy, so Shu Mei would sense that if the meds were helping me, they would help her, too. What I hadn’t accounted for was side effects, though. I began experiencing terrible side-effects, such as insomnia and a buzzing in my head that wouldn’t go away. Of course, when I told this to the doctor, he prescribed sleeping pills and a different SSRI. So, then I was feeling the lingering sleepiness during the day that accompanies taking sleeping pills at night. In addition to that, my libido hit an all-time low. Shu Mei never knew about that, because our relationship has been the antithesis of intimacy from the beginning. That’s a whole other story that I don’t want to think about at all.  After trying my experiment for a few months, I stopped it due to the harmful side effects I was experiencing from the drugs.

Fast forward to a few months ago, and I found myself experiencing another overly-stressful time in my life. The school where I was employed had decided to not renew my contract, after having employed me there for five years. I felt confident that I was doing a stellar job and was even told so on several occasions by the administration. There was never a mention that anything I was doing was the least bit unacceptable. Then, out of nowhere, they told me that my contract wasn’t being renewed and gave me the excuse that I wasn’t encouraging students to speak English. I knew that nothing could be farther from the truth, so it floored me that this was happening. True to her nature, Shu Mei initially blamed me for the occurrence. She later semi-recanted her accusations in the form of telling me I should view the happening as something good, rather than bad. (I say “semi-recanted” because Shu Mei is not one to ever apologize for anything she has said or done. Humility is not her forté. She later reiterated comments that supported her original accusation.) I was feeling a great deal of stress because we were barely surviving financially. I set out to find employment elsewhere.

I put together a hodgepodge of teaching jobs, consisting of teaching at one highly-acclaimed high school for a couple of days per week, one cram school for a couple of nights per week, and an online tutoring website for some weeknights. Through the process, the stress was high on me. It was so great that I felt I needed some help. No longer could Shu Mei and I afford going to a therapist once a week, so I went to see a psychiatrist, using the universal healthcare plan that exists here. He put me on an anti-depressant, another SSRI, and prescribed Xanax for anxiety. Of course, there were yet more sleeping pills to accompany the two medications. I returned to see a different doctor a month after because the prescription needed to be renewed. This doctor asked me a lot of detailed questions that the other doctor didn’t. He decided to put me on another anti-depressant; this one was not an SSRI, called Mirtazapine. This was the beginning of a horrific mental nightmare for me that continues even as I write this post.

I experienced all of the common side effects of Mirtazapine: visual hallucinations, increased appetite, vivid dreams (fantasies and nightmares), drowsiness (more than a sleeping pill), dizziness, headache, and local swelling (a sore throat). In addition to that, I had some less-common side effects: difficulty urinating, muscle twitching, flu-like symptoms, and major depression. The last side effect I mentioned is “the killer.” I thought I knew what depression was, but I never understood the depths of despair one could feel until I too Mirtazapine. I hate to admit it now, but there was a thought that passed through my head that it might not be a bad thing if anyone who had anything to do with that drug suddenly died. Luckily, thoughts of suicide did not enter my head. However, I can understand how people would feel suicidal now, even people who believe in an afterlife where problems only get worse upon committing suicide – as I do. It isn’t hard to imagine the relief that one would hope for, using suicide to rid oneself of the utter despair that comes from major depression.

The less-annoying side effects occurred the day after I began taking the drug. I figured the flu-like symptoms were actually due to the flu. I thought it would pass. As the more severe symptoms occurred, nearing the second week on the medication, it was apparent to me that this was not a drug I should be taking. However, by that time it was too late. It had already taken hold of my psyche. This is where it becomes difficult to express my mental state in words. It was more than a falling mood; it was like being sucked into a vacuum.

My conscious alternated between memories of good times in the past to huge problems that were never resolved. The fond memories came sporadically, one-by-one, whereas the regrets hit in huge bunches. At one point, I felt as if all the mistakes of my past were bearing down upon my soul at once. I found it difficult to breathe through the tears that were streaming down my face. I thought I was going to die. I honestly felt like I was in hell. What a terrible feeling. As I stated before, it was the worst period of my life, and I’ve had some pretty bad ones for sure.

Yes, times are tough. Yes, I’m working hard and making peanuts (more on that later). And, yes, my relationship with my wife is the worst it has ever been. But it was Mirtazapine that almost did me in this week. I used Skype to call my parents, to seek their help. They offered words of encouragement, but it was a pebble in an ocean of gloom to me. When Friday arrived, I was utterly unable to do anything. Shu Mei has a small class that she teaches downstairs, at the cram school she and her friend Linda run, so she was gone the whole day. Tyley was spending the day with his aunt in Taichung. Luckily, Billy was home and helped me make it through. I told him to please not leave me alone and he said, “Okay, Daddy!” And, he was a boy of his word, for he never left my side the entire day as I struggled desperately to keep my mind “above water” by concentrating on activities with Billy, instead of anything else.

As I write this, I am not out-of-the-woods mentally. It has been five days since I last took Mirtazapine. I also was drinking vast amounts of Coca-Cola to counteract the drowsiness caused by Mirtazapine and the drug before it. I quit drinking Coke along with stopping the drug. The only medication I have taken in the last five days was a sleeping pill last night because I could sleep otherwise. I hope I can sleep tonight without having to take anything. If I cannot, I will take a Xanax instead of a sleeping pill, as the sleeping pill made me drowsy all day today and Xanax doesn’t do that to me. Of course, I never want to take another anti-depressant, sleeping pill, Xanax, or whatever other drug is prescribed by a psychiatrist as long as I live. I’m not saying that psychiatrists are bad. I’m just saying that I feel I don’t need them. For me, I think, or hope, rather, that I will never need their aid. We never know what the future holds in store for us, though.

Now, let me paint a bit of the picture of my current financial situation, for posterity’s sake. It isn’t a pretty picture, by any means. In a 5-day work week, I have to dedicate 60 hours of my time to work. (Soon, I will also be working on Saturdays, but I’m not sure of the details of that arrangement yet.) Because I’m teaching advanced students and adults now, 36 of those hours are in preparation for the classes. This is because I have to create the curriculum (i.e., there are no textbooks), and 9 of the classes are presented via Microsoft PowerPoint. As anyone who’s worked with PowerPoint knows, it isn’t an easy process. So, I’m not only teaching, but I’m creating the lessons and presenting some of them via PowerPoint. How much money am I making for this 60-hour work week (55 hours plus 5 hours commute time)? NT$13,142. That comes out to NT$52,568 monthly, or $NT238 hourly, depending upon how you want to look at it. In US dollars, that’s $1,645.84 monthly or $7.48 hourly. My home state of Utah has a current average annual income of $55,619. My yearly salary at this stage, in US dollars, is only $19,750.08, a mere 35.5 percent of the Utah average. Now, that is a very bleak picture. Oh, how I miss the US right now!

The problem remains of how actually to get to the US? Our house will not sell here, because it is in a bad location in the midst of a very down economic period. Consequently, if we did get enough money to afford plane tickets (even that’s doubtful, now), we’d have nothing there when we got there. My parents said we could live with them while I tried to find a job and get an apartment, but I think we’d drive them crazy, in their small two-bedroom house. But, it is an option to consider. As the famous quote/saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. A thought just struck me: I know that if anyone who I’ve ever hurt in the past happens to be reading this, they’re getting quite a thrill. My life, at 43 years of age, is in confusion. Worse is the fact that I don’t have any real marketable job skills. What am I going to do when I get to the US? I can’t teach, because I don’t have a teaching degree. I’d probably be starting over somewhere, somehow. It just pains me to no end to realize that I’m in this position, and having these two wonderful boys, Billy (5) and Tyley (3), having to endure it with me. At times, they are a handful (as boys can be), but, honestly, they’re genuinely the most magnificent boys a father could ever hope for. They’ve helped me through some rough times, and I need to keep my chin up and stay alive for them so that I can somehow pay them back for bringing some joy into my miserable life.

Well, I’m already two days behind on my work-week. I’ll do what I can do and let the chips fall where they may. Sadly, whenever there’s a decision to be made, I tend to make the wrong one. I guess that’s just the withdrawal effects of Mirtazapine affecting me, but it is as real as ever to me. Again, I just thought of anyone who wishes me ill reading this and thinking “Waaaaaa! Your life is sooo bad! Poor you, BB! Now, you’re finally getting what you deserve, you worthless piece of garbage!” If that is genuinely what he/she/they is/are thinking, at least I made someone happy from reading this.

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