It’s 1:13 am. The heat in the house had been automatically lowered a few hours previously to accommodate sleep time, but I was not sleeping.
It’s the dead of winter in Minnesota. The seasonal depression has been in full effect for weeks now. I’m lying on the couch scrolling through Facebook, comparing my life with others.
I bet Mr. X actually enjoys his job. He posts entertaining images with his co-workers who banter back and forth in the comments. They seem really close.
Another person posts about their weekend with the kids. The son has learned to ride his bike without training wheels–boastful content about happy family life.
The old feelings of depression and anxiety surface.
I don’t know how I’m going to deal with work tomorrow. Here I am depriving myself of sleep because I don’t want today to end so I won’t have to face it.
This isn’t the first night I’ve had this feeling of paralysis, characterized by a parade of imaginary horribles.
Is it rational? Absolutely not.
But depression and anxiety don’t care about rationality. The “what could” wins out. It took me 37 years to finally put my foot down and say, “ENOUGH!”
Once I did, my life took a 180 degree turn, and as I like to say, I haven’t looked back since.
Hi, my name is Ben Romberg.
I have clinical depression and anxiety, but today it doesn’t define me. I’m an active advocate for mental health with dreams of becoming a professional speaker.
We all look back to our childhoods to try and find the source of our pain. Several defining moments provide some clues to mine.
Growing up as an only child, I had one best friend. I remember playing in his family’s backyard pool with his little brother and sometimes another neighborhood kid. Those carefree summer days were wonderful. I was a very shy child, but not when I was with him. My friendship with Ryan meant everything.
When I was almost 10, we moved to Minnesota because my father got a new job. At that age, kids often don’t keep in contact once geography separates them. It was 1990, 11 years before I would get a cell phone.
Ryan and I kept in touch the old school way, writing letters for a year or two. It wasn’t the same and the loss marked me in ways I didn’t realize at the time.
I was very imaginative and found solace in creating neighborhood street designs on paper, my bed cover, or the carpet. As I got older, I became a critic of what I saw as poor city street designs. I took an introductory college course on Urban Planning but when I found out that politics and money was often a barrier to improvement, I lost interest. Looking back, the interest in designing neighborhoods seems linked to the isolation I felt.
I didn’t have much interaction with others until I got to be a senior in high school. That didn’t diminish my capacity for caring; if anything I cared too strongly. I can vividly recall a handful of situations growing up where I was personally affected by what I saw. Other people’s pain always deeply moved me.
In 4th grade right after the move, I saw some kids picking on a boy who had a developmental disability in the hallway. I remember thinking to myself this is wrong but I can’t do anything. I was about 65-70 lbs at that time and don’t think I would have intimidated anyone.
At home I was the same way–hyper attuned to my parent’s feelings. I will forever remember the shrieking sound my mother had made a year earlier when she heard that her father had passed away.
Have you ever heard of someone being called an Empath? That’s me.
Then came the middle school years and my early teens. The acne, the braces, the interest in girls.
As frustrating as those things were, something more serious was lurking. A much more sinister problem than head gear and braces. So what was this bubbling thing lurking? I didn’t know at the time. All I knew was that I was slowly becoming more disconnected from life. I hadn’t had a solid friendship in 4 years.
This paralyzing fear of talking to people, joining in activities and the resulting isolation mounted. (COVID brings it all back so vividly!)
There were also some bright spots.
I ran track in the 7th and 8th grades. While I normally participated in individual events, I also did some team ones. I continued to carry on with it all the way through senior year. It was truly enjoyable and got me out of my head.
My parents decided to send me to a small parochial school for my high school years, hoping I’d have an easier time making friends.
My mom sent me to the first day not in the proper uniform. It wasn’t a great start!
Here I show up all snazzy in a dress shirt and shoes, and khakis. I look over by the corner of the building and see only t-shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes.
It wasn’t all bad: one of the most memorable experiences was going to my junior year prom…by myself. I believe I turned down a couple of girls that had asked me out.
I had fallen into the “appearance is everything” viewpoint so common in teenagers. I was voted most likely to “have a comedy club” in the Yukon. That may or may not have been sarcasm.
After graduation, I went to a technical college for a major I didn’t care for but that seemed practical. I basically flunked out of the spring semester and enrolled the next fall at the local 4 year university.
During this time, I had started to develop a solid friendship with a co-worker. I started to realize that in order to try and get out of my shell I needed to be around extroverted types.
I spent the next 6 years being with outgoing people. I just wanted to feel normal. I even had a long-term relationship that was going well.
But it was still there. That THING lurking inside. By now, I knew it was depression but I had no clue how to handle it.
There I was, 26 years old with a stable job, great girlfriend, friends, and an apartment. I had a MENTAL BREAKDOWN.
I quit my job and ended my relationship. Just like that, all gone. My depression and anxiety had taken over.
I got no treatment even though I knew I needed it.
I became addicted to anything related to self-help as a way of coping. I would spend hours a day reading information on the internet. I was mad at myself and at life. I was tired of Minnesota so I ran off to California for a few months. I tried bringing faith into my life to help figure out who I was. I soon ran out of money and headed back home to live with my parents.
I wouldn’t move back out on my own until I was almost 32.
I was that guy in his 30s living in his parents basement.
My eyelids have started to get heavy by now. It’s past 4 am and I will need to be up for work in the next few hours.
The dread of the next day still lingered in my mind. I guess I’d better try to get a little sleep I think.
I turn off all the lights in the living room and slowly wander to the bedroom. A perfect time to open the door and wake my partner up since she’s a very light sleeper. I always feel guilty when I do this but I can’t HELP it. Sometimes I end up choosing just to sleep on the couch instead.
During this time, I saw a couple of counselors/therapists to help me navigate my emotions. I had made the effort to seek out help with the encouragement of my partner.
I had also started to find a career, helping people with various disabilities become empowered to make contributions to society but I needed to work on myself as well.
No amount of exercise, decent job satisfaction, or having a loved one could eliminate the growing strength of my depression, anxiety, and rumination. It was making life very difficult to navigate.
It reminds me of the 80’s cartoon He-Man. I was tired of Skeletor telling me, “ I help no one but myself.” I needed my “magic sword” like He-Man so I could say, “ I have the power!”
Something had to be done. But what?
“Let’s explore your options about medication,” my partner said.
I was ready. About as ready as one could be.
It’s late 2017 and I go to the doctor. We discuss options and choose a medication to start with.
I took my first dose of medication on January 2, 2018 and as I mentioned in the beginning, I haven’t looked back since.
I’m now cured for life and everyday is like an episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood! Well, not quite…but I have a shot now.
I have an opportunity each day to use that magic sword to move forward with my dreams and passions. I have a chance to live in the moment, the now. And how sweet it is!
I now see doors opening at times, with light shining from in, instead of complete darkness surrounding me. A mind that is no longer constantly ruminating about every little thing that could go wrong.
The only darkness I like nowadays is dark chocolate. That’s pretty good stuff.
The last 3 years have been the most productive of my life. It’s truly amazing what medication and support can do for one, no matter the diagnosis.
It’s important to know that mental illness is a chemical imbalance in the brain. You can NOT WILL it away.
“You Are Not Alone. Together, We Are Stronger!”