Michael C. Bryan
So I have to start this flying word experiment with a caveat: I used to be super depressed and super anxious, and I’m not anymore. Okay, that’s a lie. I’m not entirely not, but I’m not a hot mess like I used to be, how’s that?
Here’s an example. Just the other day, I awoke and did what I do on most days: I lay in bed and reached for thoughts of appreciation, not thoughts (in my past) which would have made me crawl across the bedroom floor in search a cigarette after having smoked a few bong hits the night before, and then sitting by the window relishing the feeling of the cold air on my face and the hot cancer in my lungs as I watched my lips purse in the reflection of the smudged window, the blue smoke curling up and up and fading away, like all of my dreams.
I’m prone to hyperbole, in case that isn’t clear.
Back then I used to have 2, 3 or sometimes 4 cups of coffee to wake from the weed I smoked the night before, and then I’d go to the fridge and pack my lunch for my job. But not any lunch. A lunch from a meal I had made the night before from one of over 200 cookbooks I had in my kitchen. I was very fat back then. I was, as the worn cliché goes, eating not only my feelings but those of all of those in my apartment building and secluded parts of Europe and the midwest.
(Editors Note: Oh, by the way. While we like to keep Mindsoak hovering around the PG-13 line most of the time, all of those rules went out the window when Michael wrote this article. Michael’s experiences are not PG-13 (neither are yours….so don’t be so quick to judge) and we’re not going to lessen his storytelling by trying to hit some rating. What he writes below is as real and honest as it gets. If you’re offended by cussing, sexuality or honesty run away by clicking here. If not, please enjoy the rest of the show.)
Into Tupperware I’d stuff my fattening food (but so very good and most often, so very French) and I’d eat all day at a job where I was working for a man who was (in some, not all ways) my mother with a dick.
Let me get this out there so we can move on: I had a childhood where I suffered emotional and physical abuse under the hands of my mother.
She was a woman who suffered the same under the hands of her mother, my Grandmother, a Ms. Viola Dixon (true name – every woman should be named Viola – it’s a fine name).
Viola was a grand creature. Tall and statuesque and not unlike a friendlier version of the Child Catcher creature from that horridly annoying movie Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang (even the title makes me want to take Adderal).
Grandma Dixon was my dream parental figure. Schizophrenic in a fun way (there is such a thing) with an obsession for all things Elvis and a love of good, old-fashioned white trash cuisine. Oh, the bad meatloaf and instant mashed potatoes we ate together. She knew how to whip up a Jell-O pie and fake spuds like no one. Whenever I have a bad day (I tell this to no one, so let’s keep this between us), I buy one of those boxes of fake mashed potatoes and mix that sucker up and cook up a hamburger and add some cottage cheese and canned beets to the mix. My plate looks like Jackson Pollock’s wet dream.
Today, I’m a 52 year old man living in New York City who has spent his entire lifetime healing from the life I used to live, a life where I was haunted by endless anxiety and depression. I’m still trying to make sense of it all. Also, the fact that I never needed to heal, as I was born healed according to all truly smart spiritual teachings.
It was just the other day that I went to bed in the midst of a mild panic attack. I am, as I mentioned, 52 (a fact I’m told to stop obsessing over because my obsession over it, according to every great thinker of great thinking, is what holds me back from a higher vibration and being super, duper happy and rich) – I couldn’t sleep the other night because I’m afraid my life isn’t going the way I dreamed it would, when really, it’s amazing right now.
I told this to my sister who is accustomed to my thoughts creating these swirling emotions (not unlike those huge, swirling lollipops the Child Catcher used to lure in children, just like my mother used to lure me into an embrace before she’d slap me and kick me or call me a fucking dumb shit).
That put the skids on it all, didn’t it? I didn’t mean to, but see, this here, all this you’re reading is the way a feverish mind (that would be mine) was created from abuse and was born from the muck of the dirty and fertile lotus blossom bed of shit which was my abusive past (thank you Buddha for that truly beautiful metaphor, one I often cling to).
Are you surprised that the one constant said to me my entire life used to be “You need to tone it down” and “Less is more”?
I’ve come far, I won’t lie. I used to be That Depressed Guy who lived for the revival of Sophie’s Choice and Ordinary People. If you don’t know those movies, they’re made by depressed people for depressed people about the fun of being a depressed person. Depression isn’t fun. It’s the shits.
Nothing is worse than depression. It’s like being stuck in a virtual cage and inserting key after key into a lock and having none of them work.
I had such anxiety as a boy, teenager, younger guy, slightly older guy and now this guy in his early-50’s, that I still refuse to go near amusement parks because just looking at rides made me have a panic attack. You know, I write that and this is really funny: I went on a ride 10 years ago where I was whipped and flipped everywhere and I hated the moment before the ride but loved the feeling after. Why?
Because I thought I was gonna die and I lived. Dramatic, but you (hopefully) get my point. The bottom feeling of mental illness is crap, and yet the opposite, that swing to the top of the swing is what allows us to feel that glorious and balanced high which is like nothing else.
And yes, here it comes: that’s why any form of mood disorder is that dreaded term, a ‘gift’.
Mental illness takes away hope. It robs us. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t. I’m repeating that for a reason. It’s not the absence of hope. It’s the result of us not stepping back from that annoying abstract painting of our life and seeing how all the colors really do make sense.
Depression is pressing our nose on the canvas and saying, “I don’t see it.”
People write long-winded books on how to cope with depression and anxiety and manic-depression and all the other things we can suffer from (my family has felt them). They all mean well, and those 300 page books on how to embrace Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are lovely (we do adore our pretty bandages) but they don’t get to the root of the cherry blossom.
Too many words (I’m one to talk) about one basic truth when it comes to leveraging the fuck out of mental illness: it’s a super power.
Like Superman waking up in the morning and thinking, “Oh, fuck. Another panic attack. Cool. No worries. I’ll just have some coffee and take my vitamins and put on that red suit again and fly. I can do this. Sure, I’ll feel shaky, but I can empathize with that moron I’ll be saving later because of all the shit I’ve experienced. Gotta remember to not drink espresso after 2PM.”
That’s why Toy Story is a brilliant movie. It’s about a toy having an identity crisis. Of course, I have four very large Buzz Lightyears in my house. I’m not lying. He makes sounds when you open his wings and sometimes I fly him around the house. It’s a lot of fun.
I was told about the super hero thing by an actress I met two years ago in LA when I used to act. She had major anxiety disorder. I know the idea of mood disorders and emotional chaos being super powers sounds like what well-meaning life coaches in California would say, but it’s a valid observation. Why? Because that other way of pressing your nose on the painting doesn’t work. I know. And the paint smell is toxic.
Severe depression is severe. It’s not anger at someone spelling your name wrong at Starbucks or hating Monday mornings. It’s severe brain fucks. Such as standing on the ledge of a building in Brooklyn after too many drugs and feeling like there is no point, so why not just step off?
That was me in the 90’s. I almost did step off, but I didn’t. Isn’t that nice? Like Harry Potter, I was the boy who lived.
I always said a horror movie isn’t where monsters attack people, but where someone knows they’re losing their mind, are aware they are, and can’t do anything about it. Probably why that movie Angel at my Table is my personal Star Wars and one I can’t watch with anyone unless they’re cool with seeing a grown man blubber so loudly the neighbors call the police.
I knew I’d make it. And that’s what the well-meaning, if sweetly vapid, life coaches and shrinks and authors don’t know unless they know.
Even as I tipped that bottle of Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck down my gullet and smoked that sweet Bubba Kush (it is good weed, even if it’s so strong after a hit you flashback to Vietnam) or ate hamburger after hamburger or had sex with another stranger and it was only Tuesday morning I knew I’d come to my true sense. And I have.
Fun fact: I’ve had a lot of friends with sexual addiction. It’s like a fever, they tell me. They can’t stop. They find themselves running from their jobs on a Friday night and hopping from sex club to sex club (like you might bar hop) for 72 hours straight hours, and then waking up on a Wednesday morning filled with shame and regret. I love my friends who suffer from this because A) They have the best pointers on sex and B) They’re doing all they can (all of them – all of them) to not live like that because what they want, feverishly, is love and more love, not more sex, and I can’t help but love them for that.
There is a thing deep inside of all of us that knows it’s going to be okay, but it’s our refusal to look at that and put our attention there that makes us go for the Twinkie instead of the whole grain cereal in the AM, and the wine every night of the week (yeah, yeah it’s good for your heart, so two or three glasses a night must be really good for your heart, right?)
I often had such anxiety in my 20’s and 30’s I’d sweat on the subway in New York when it was negative 10 outside. People thought I had the bubonic plague, but it was simply good, old-fashioned severe anxiety disorder. I’d wake up in panic attacks. Did you read that? I’d wake up in a panic attack. That’s a lot of fun. Totally recommend it (not).
As you can see, I’m a big time sinner so I hope that’ll give me some latitude when I say one of the things that slowed down this whole crazy train of crazy was my connection to what we call Universe or Inner Being or Source or (here comes the naughty word) God. I tend to call it I call Wassup. Sometimes I add a ‘fuck you’ beforehand when times get tough.
It’s this thing in me, around me. God. Universe. Like The Force. Did you know George Lucas wrote about The Force after he almost died in a car crash and that’s where Star Wars came from? The Force = God. For me. Okay? Please don’t get your panties in a bunch when I write the word God. I’m just trying to do what my training as a writer has taught me and that’s to tell you the truth, the whole truth and only the truth, so help me – I’m sorry. I was gonna write the G-word again. I’ll try to stop. I do want, like Sally Field, for you to like me. That line isn’t just easy-funny, but there’s a super Sally Field reference coming up. It’s very rewarding.
When I was much younger, in my late-teens, I went to a bunch of what were called Charismatic Churches (no idea if that’s a noun; it is for me). At the time, I thought, “A name for a place where really loud people sing and praise whatever the hell it is that makes them happy? I’m so there.”
I went and I was one of the only white people, which was saying something in the white-trash town where I was born and raised. Everyone sang and played tambourines and spoke in tongues. A budding actor, I did the same. I spoke in tongues. All I was really doing was pretending I was back in jazz choir and scatting and everyone around me seemed to believe me. They thought I was speaking in this strange was that seemed to indicate I was connected to Wassup.
Fun fact: I spent my entire childhood in public schools avoiding getting hit or in a fight and I succeeded.
The worry about it plagued me every day of my life. I was called lots of names and made fun of quite a bit, but never hit. That only happened at home with my mom. Glad Norman Rockwell didn’t paint that portrait. No idea why that came into my head when it comes to talk of the Universe and the dreaded G-word, but I’m sure it means something a tad dark.
It was in my 40’s I got into meditation and spiritual teachers who said “If you keep talking about what you don’t want to be anymore, you’ll keep perpetuating what you don’t want to be anymore: and I thought “They’ve got a point.” Well, it wasn’t that I got into spiritual teachers in my 40’s. This shit has been following me around my entire life. My father was a family therapist. His beautiful neurosis is best suited for a different essay. Let’s just say on his death bed he made it clear to me he felt like shit for watching my mother abuse me, and that he loved me deeply.
In the movie Broadcast News there’s this super bit when Albert Brooks says, “Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If “needy” were a turn-on?” I am the kind of guy who makes that into a T-shirt and only one person in 200 would like it, but they’d be my BFF until the day I died.
If there is one thing (please, 400) things I could convey in this article, it’s that while it’s true we are not the neurosis we perpetuate, we are whole and pure and right and healed (with all due respect, AA, you’re wrong: people aren’t broken, they are, by their very nature, healed so stop telling them that).
In my late-40’s, I got serious about focusing on the whole shebang (very, very good word): meditation, yoga, working out (I’ve always been skinny, fat, skinny, fat) and I found a balance I was curiously bored by.
See, that’s what those of us who suffer from some form of very real depression and anxiety don’t want to admit: we like our depression and anxiety. Oh, oh. Yes, it’s a warm shoe of Poor Me. It’s what I Ioved for years and when it goes away I’m like, “Come back, you fucker. Hurt me some more.”
When I would walk down the street (this is all the past now – mostly) and I’d suddenly find myself sandwiched between two panic attacks, I’d feel this strange nothingness come over me. I’d stop in the middle of the street (there is no greater faux pas in Manhattan – it’s like stopping in the middle of freeway, which is why New Yorkers loathe tourists) and I’d stop and think to myself “This is so odd. What is this?”
While the feeling of peace was exactly what I was looking for, it bored me because there was no drama behind it.
Anyone who hasn’t had anxiety won’t get that. Nor will anyone who hasn’t had real depression, because in the end, anxiety is only the layer of icing on the cake of depression. Anxiety is layer one, and once you get past that tasty outside, then the gooey center under is depression and angst and Adele. That’s something no one says, but it’s the truth.
Anxiety isn’t the problem. It’s the thoughts that perpetuate the depression under the anxiety that’s the source of everyone’s bitching and moaning.
For 48 years, I thought I was my mother. I really did. I chose mates and friends and bosses who were my mother. Some where women with a dick, some where men with a dick, some were men who used to be women, or men who dressed like women. You get the picture. I’ve dated men, women, drag queens, transexuals, black, white, orange, pale yellow – it’s all a blur. But they were all my mother because my life was clearly about realizing I’m not my mother, I’m me, and I know that sound easy but oh, brothers and sisters, it’s not.
Now I know I’m not Her. Pretty much. And therein is the stickler. The gift? The stickler. The gift? Some days I feel her haunting me and I know she doesn’t want that for me. She’s finally at peace. I know that.
There are two brains at play for those of us gifted (I’m trying here) with a mentally ill parent, someone who raised us to believe they’re depressed or very, very anxious. When I’m feeling like shit, what comes out of my mind is wildly different than from my happy brain. This isn’t news. What we think when happy is different when we’re not, but for those of us raised in houses haunted by mental illness, it’s not as simple as “feeling happy” and yet…yet…yet it is.
We only have to accept that the bliss we seek is on tap. It’s on tap. On tap. One more time: it’s on tap. And I’m not writing that to dismiss the symptoms of the 40 million suffering from anxiety in the U.S. (yes, 40 million) or the 15 million with depression (Google the stats, that’s all I did), but as someone who spent their entire life controlled by anxiety and depression and mild bipolar, there is a way to control it by not trying to control it.
It’s like the one time I took Xanax (I’ve never taken meds for my mood disorder – I smoked a lot of weed which, honestly, is just fucking stupid in the end).
Xanax felt like a lid on a pot of boiling water. The water was still boiling, so I didn’t get why I was putting on a lid. Take the lid off. That’s what I say. Take the lid off and let the steam rise.
Fun fact: I don’t care if someone needs to take meds or not. I have no position on that, so this is not me saying don’t take meds. Do the best you can with where you’re at and if that means take meds, take meds. I didn’t. This is my story, not my version of anyone’s story. The world today is like a bull in a bull fighters ring. An animal huffing and puffing in the corner just waiting for someone to say or do the wrong thing to charge. The red cloth is down, okay?
I can remember when I first saw the movie Sybil on TV. I was 14 years old. I’d heard of the book which had come out in 1972 and it was on every bookshelf everywhere. My mother had bought it and had hidden it deep inside the linen closet, behind my favorite towels. I’d only discovered it when I went to get a fresh towel one day (she always made the laundry smell so good) and as I pulled out the yellow and white towel, the book Sybil fell out. It fell open to a few pages that were marked over and over in red. I read them.
Years later, after my mother took her own life, I struggled to find out what her true diagnosis was. As a boy she was always the mother who sat alone on the couch with a headache popping pills and more pills, so I knew, from my own life experience, that she suffered from depression. As a teen I spent most of my 15th and 16th year of life in bed, unable to find the interest in anything but my room and my TV and my books.
I knew she had anxiety. Our entire family had anxiety. We hated to fly (“metal death traps, if you ask me” my mother often said). We thought people who went on cruises where morons. Didn’t they see The Poseidon Adventure? We took tons vitamins and always bathed in anti-bacterial. Life was a walking death trap. Why help it along?
One summer, when I was in my mid-30’s, I’d visited the ER in Manhattan a total of 27 times thinking I was dying from a heart attack, when it was only a panic attack.
I write ‘only’, but a severe panic attack feels like you’ve stuck your finger in a light socket after a shower. It’s a lot of fun. I highly recommend you don’t have one.
So I knew she was anxious and that she was depressed, but there were things she did that weren’t like most mothers. Often she would sit at our dining room table and hold her hands in the air and say aloud, “I don’t know whose hands these are.”
She’d called me names like “creepy kid” and “motherfucker” and say to me later she felt the words come out of her mouth but that she couldn’t control them. You can see how that might have not been the best way to teach me how to parent myself.
The bottom line is this: I learned the only thing I could do to feel better on bad days was to remember what I already knew, and that was somehow everything was going to be alright. And when they were good to milk the fuck out of those days.
Now, this is a super positive ending, so hang on as I end this all with my mother’s suicide.
She was 72 when she died. She loved her booze and her pills and one night after moving back to the state where she was born, she simply ‘passed’ in the night for reasons no one can figure out. Her heart gave out. Of course, she died of a broken heart. After what she endured it’s no surprise.
It wasn’t what she endured as a girl, and what she drank or popped the night before that grabbed her. It’s what she did along the way.
After my father croaked, I went though the last of his and my dead mother’s belongings. I found her secret diaries. She wrote in the front page she hoped you kids would never read them, so of course, I had to read them. Pages upon pages about how difficult her life was. Endless medical diaries about her body falling apart. I’m talking reams. Lots of erotica, as well. My mother was a tremendous writer, I write.
I read those pages and thought, ‘Poor dear. She was a mess.’
Then something hit me. Feeling superior, I got up from the desk where I was reading her yellowing pages, walked over to a closet in my tiny and overpriced apartment in New York and opened up a closet and looked at a stack of over 40 journals of mine tucked away in the farthest corner. I plucked one out. Opened it. The first page was from 1997.
The same year as my mothers.
I read it. And read it. And then I read my mothers’ diary. You could have swapped out a few details involving gender and other unimportant details, and you would have thought you were reading the same diary.
I closed my diary (her diary? my diary?) and the gears clicked into place, I cried very loudly and then I looked at my stack of old diaries and saw that she’d gone left and I’d gone right and somehow I was stumbling to a different ending.
More About Michael C. Bryan: Michael C. Bryan is a bi-coastal writer who is the author of the memoir, Creepy Kid, which recently won a nationwide contest sponsored by Huffington Post and Simon and Schuster for best memoir of the year. It’s the story of his life growing up with a mentally ill mother and learning, to his joy and shock, that he’s not his mother. You can’t know what a relief that was for Michael. Like, major. He’s currently adapting the memoir for the stage with an established team of Broadway producers in New York City. Michael also writes for television and film. He recently completed a loose adaptation of his memoir as a new dramatic and comedic TV series entitled Woodridge which is being read by HBO, Netflix and Hulu. He’s also written a new pilot for a comedy TV show entitled The Life Coach which is not remotely based on his personal experiences working as a successful business and personal coach via his company MCBHappier (that’s called irony). He has written numerous plays produced off-Broadway, as well as many feature-film screenplays. He has performed stand-up comedy at Broadway Comedy Club, Caroline’s and New York Comedy Improv. He speaks nationwide to teens and younger people on the topics of mental illness and health. He’s also a certified spinning and yoga instructor and is obsessed with Golden Retrievers.