I’ve been watching Leslie write her blog every few days for a couple of years now. It didn’t ever appeal to me. However, Leslie’s blog has become quite popular now, and she receives over 70 hits per day most days. It could be that 200+ people are reading her blog. Then I realized – if Leslie would let me post on the blog, then perhaps 200 or more people would read what I wrote! I could preach about all kinds of stuff.
Leslie has editing rights, because it’s her blog and that’s only right, but I’ll definitely be writing with a different tone than Leslie, and I won’t be writing about craft projects most of the time.
Leslie has current events covered pretty well, so I’m going to go back 10 years. I think I want to talk about why I’m here in Haiti, but I’m going to take the scenic route to get there. I’m a little bit tired of writing mission update letters because I’m supposed to make them interesting and brief so that people will read them and not just delete them from their inboxes unread. I’m going to take a bit more time here. I’m really happy with my life here and now – something interesting happens every day and the work is rewarding. I’ve been especially happy over the past few years with Leslie and now Olivia in my family. However, I’m going to go back to a time when life was not so happy.
I went to Western Washington University in Bellingham. I spent my first two years there figuring out what to study and filling General University Requirements. I studied hard and lived in university housing. I spend my third year of university as an exchange student in England, in a nasty town called Hull in South Yorkshire.
For a number of reasons, I was very unhappy back then. In hindsight, I’m not sure how far it went back – perhaps high school or even junior high. It may be that I suffered from seasonal affective disorder (it rains A LOT where I grew up, in Vancouver WA, Vancouver B.C. and later in Bellingham – of course, northern England is even worse), or perhaps the low self confidence I felt in Junior high school never wore off. Another possibility is that I would just think too much . If I felt unhappy about a situation, I would just think and think and think myself around in circles trying to resolve it and never getting anywhere. It may well be that I was thinking so much because I was depressed in addition to being depressed because I was thinking so much.
There is some key background information here – I became a Christian at age 11 and really took it to heart. Even back then, it wasn’t just about the people I chose to hang out with and the things I professed to believe. Becoming a Christian meant to me that I gave my life to God. So how does being chronically depressed work out theologically for someone who’s given his life to God? In college, I thought that God had made me that way for a reason. That might be true.
This post is getting a bit heavy! I’m not sure if my wife will want to post it. I’m not sure if I still want to post it.
My depression got ridiculously bad toward the middle of my (first) senior year at college. I never missed class, but my sleep patterns got really weird, my grades went way down and I had essentially no friends. The thing about depressed people is they are absolutely no fun to be around so they end up being alone most of the time. My memory began to fail. Losing my memory actually frightened me a few times. The one example I remember was when I was out with my girlfriend (some poor girl actually dated me for about 3 months) and I asked her how many grandparents she still had. She stared at me perplexed for a few beats and said “Chris, you’ve met them!” I had no idea what she was talking about. Now, I can vaguely recall having cookies and tea in someone’s living room.
A month or so after that my thinking in circles actually led me to a course of action. I went to the student health center and got put on samples of Paxil, an anti-depressant. Up until that point, I was very much opposed to mood-changing drugs and saw them as a crutch, or something for the weak, or for people who couldn’t handle reality, or something ridiculous like that. I’ve heard that anti-depressants don’t work for a lot of people, but they definitely worked for me. I learned later that Paxil is also prescribed to some people for anxiety, or shyness. After the drugs started working, I would tell people what I thought, when I thought it. I just didn’t care what people thought, and it felt so good. I made a number of new friends within the first couple months of taking meds, and started getting invited to parties. My memory improved almost immediately, and my grades went up almost a full point average. I began making decisions, and for the most part they were good ones. I decided I wouldn’t date anyone until I got myself figured out better, ideally after I was finished taking anti-depressants. That ended up being 7 years later when Leslie and I got together.
Do you know how good it feels to be happy after being depressed for years? It feels good. It felt like waking up. For the next year, I had a lot of fun. That’s not to say I didn’t have hard times or didn’t make some bad decisions, but I had a life whereas I didn’t have one before, and my personality definitely changed in a permanent way. I bought a motorcycle and started getting speeding tickets. I got a guitar from somewhere – I can’t remember where – and taught myself to play. They had just invented this new thing called the internet and there were all kinds of songs with chords there. The new apartment I moved into had a great deck that overlooked Bellingham bay and I would sit there and practice. Reading this now, I’m sure it’s a surprise to no one but you should understand that singing in public is something I would never, ever have done before, with or without guitar. At one point that year the comet Hale/Bopp came by and it was bright in the sky. That whole time was kind of surreal and wonderful in lots of ways, and I had lots of adventures.
I developed a plan over time of how I could maintain my new skills (being happy, having fun, having friends, singing in public, etc) while getting off the medication and getting stable again. I should explain. I mentioned already that while taking Paxil, everybody knew what I was thinking all the time because if I felt something, I would tell whoever I was with. One day my new friend Joel and I were off on a Volkswagen errand (we did many such Volkswagen errands). We were in my Volkswagen, and it was a cold winter day.
Joel said “Don’t drive so fast, the roads are slippery!”
I said something like, “Whatever, we’re fine.”
A few minutes later, Joel said, “Slow down or you can let me out.”
I pulled over to the side of the road. Joel ended up walking all the way home in the cold, and it took him over an hour – we had been headed to some place out in the boondocks. I’m lucky Joel is so easygoing, because less than a week later he called me so we could go hang out and we remain friends until now.
As you can imagine, most people aren’t like Joel, and I wanted to be happy, yet behave like a normal person. I started weaning myself off of the anti-depressant almost a year after I started taking it, and it turned out to be hard. That quarter in school was a hard one for me, and cutting back my dosage along with Computer Aided Drafting class brought on panic attacks.
I came up with a tentative solution – I decided to take a quarter off school, go travel and get off my meds in a relaxed environment. However, I was under some serious financial constraints at the time. I managed to find someone to sublet my room, and of course I had my camper van to travel in. Unfortunately, my van broke down and as the quarter at school wrapped up, I had neither the time nor the money to fix it. However, I did have my motorcycle, the ’83 Honda Nighthawk 650 I bought for $500.
For anyone contemplating the idea, a motorcycle trip in January is a very cold proposition. In fact, I don’t think I really understood what cold was until I set out. I borrowed my roommate’s saddle bags, bought some cheap rain gear, bungeed my backpack to the luggage rack and left. And oh yeah, I strapped my guitar on top of it all. It looked ridiculous but that was okay, because only a crazy man would take a January motorcycle trip anyway. At least I chose the right direction: south.
I left with something like $800 in the bank and it lasted the whole trip. I left in January and headed back in March, so I was gone for 10 weeks or so. It was a great time for reflection. I chose to take the trip so I would have a chance away from school and away from people because in the previous months I realized that I cared way too much about what people thought of me. Getting off my meds was relatively easy in my new setting – camping alone in the desert. I took a full month to wean myself off them.
Eventually, I got tired of being on my own and wanted some company. It was sunny in the desert, but COLD. I made the right decision heading south down the coast highway from the start, but by the time March rolled around I figured it would be safe to take an inland route north. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Southern Arizona was nice, but as soon as I reached the high country I experienced an entirely new kind of cold. I headed up into Utah because I thought it would be nice to see Arches National Park. Well, Arches is way up into the hills, and the road got snowier and snowier on the way up until I really didn’t want to be riding my motorcycle on it anymore. I ended up camping underneath a bridge overnight instead of in the park.
The next morning I was reading a book in the sun and a wild looking man showed up and said “Do you want some meat?” He had blood on his hands and a rifle over one shoulder. “I’ll give you some meat if you help me haul it back to my camp.”
I said sure, I don’t have anything better to do. I think at this point it had been over a week since I’d had a real conversation with someone so I didn’t really care about the guy’s looks. I followed him up into the hills where he’d shot two deer. He had a big Alice pack that I wore and he filled it up with deer meat. The blood seeped through the pack and the blood smell was overpowering. It turned out it was quite a long way to his camp and it took the whole day to haul it back there but I didn’t mind. I had a chance to get to know the man. He talked a lot about the government, and how they had thrown out the constitution, and how he was so fed up that if he saw a game warden, he’s shoot him. I said a little prayer that no game wardens would show up.
I asked him why he was camped out in the hills. He said that the Sheriff’s men ran him out of Iron County. I asked him why and he said he threatened his roommate with a handgun. Great. As the conversation went on, I learned about all kinds of other stuff, including when the aliens almost abducted him. He talked about his dogs. I thought, “Oh, that’s nice, he has some dogs to keep him company.”
As we neared the camp, the dogs started to bark. The man yelled “SHUT UP!” We walked a little bit further and he yelled “SHUT UP!” again. A moment later, without warning me, he fired his rifle into the air. It was really loud, but it didn’t have the desired effect of causing his dogs to shut up. Another 20 minutes of scrabbling up the hillside with 70 lbs of deer meat on my back and we were there. There was an enormous boulder with a number of natural caves underneath it and about 12 dogs all tied up around the various nooks and crannies. He unloaded the Alice pack and threw meat to each of the dogs. The dogs mostly quieted down after they had food.
He showed me his cave, and we talked some more before heading back down again. I brewed some of my own beer in college, so we talked for a while about home brewing. He told me about the cider he and his friends had brewed using applesauce. Thinking back now, I realize he probably learned applesauce brewing in prison but at the time I just thought it must have made some pretty disgusting cider. When we reached the road, the man continued on walking towards town, which was about 15 miles away. We were both happy to have made a new friend.
I think the scenic route on how I came to be here in Haiti is going to take more than one blog post. Stay tuned.