I’ve told you about Chris Rose, the former humor columnist for the Times-Picayune whose life was forever changed by Katrina and her aftermath. He still writes for the paper and he still possesses the quickest wit on this side of the globe, but he’s forever changed. Now we know why.
Driving in from North Alabama Monday afternoon, I heard someone on New Orleans talk radio refer to Rose’s Sunday column. Late that night, I was comfortably in bed and de-stressing from a long drive when my son Neil called to say I should read Rose’s column. Tuesday morning, I did.
“I pulled into the Shell station on Magazine Street,” Rose begins, “my car running on fumes. I turned off the motor. And then I sat there. There were other people pumping gas at the island I had pulled into and I didn’t want them to see me, didn’t want to see them, didn’t want to nod hello, didn’t want to interact in any fashion.”
“Outside the window, they looked like characters in a movie. But not my movie. I tried to wait them out, but others would follow, get out of their cars and pump and pay and drive off, always followed by more cars, more people. How can they do this, like everything is normal, I wondered. Where do they go? What do they do?”
“It was early August and two minutes in my car with the windows up and the air conditioner off was insufferable. I was trapped, in my car and in my head. So I drove off with an empty tank rather than face strangers at a gas station.”
Trapped. Empty tank. Good metaphors, Chris. After beginning with this classic incident of depression, Rose interrupts to confess he never believed in depression or taking pills. That was for desperate housewives and fragile poets, he writes.
No longer. “Not since I fell down the rabbit hole myself and enough hands reached down to pull me out.”
“One of those hands belonged to a psychiatrist holding a prescription for anti-depressants. I took it. And it changed my life. Maybe saved my life.”
He continues, “I had already stopped going to the grocery store weeks before the Shell station meltdown. I had made every excuse possible to avoid going to my office because I didn’t want to see anyone, didn’t want to engage in small talk, hey, how’s the family?”
“My hands shook. I had to look down when I walked down the steps, holding the banister to keep steady. I was at risk every time I got behind the wheel of a car. I couldn’t pay attention. I lost 15 pounds and it’s safe to say I didn’t have a lot to give. I stopped talking to Kelly, my wife. She loathed me, my silences, my distance, my inertia.”
“I stopped walking my dog, so she hated me, too. The grass and weeds in my yard just grew and grew. I stopped talking to my family and my friends. I stopped answering phone calls and e-mails. I maintained limited communication with my editors to keep my job but I started missing deadlines anyway.”
“My editors, they were kind. They cut me slack. There’s a lot of slack being cut in this town now. A lot of legroom, empathy and forgiveness.”
“I tried to keep an open line of communication with my kids to keep my sanity, but it was still slipping away. My two oldest, 7 and 5, began asking, ‘What are you looking at, Daddy?'”
“The thousand yard stare. I couldn’t shake it. Boring holes into the house behind my back yard. Daddy is a zombie. That was my movie: Night of the Living Dead, followed by Morning of the Living Dead, followed by Afternoon….”
Rose remembers how all this darkness began. “(It) first became visible last fall. As the days of covering the Aftermath turned into weeks which turned into months, I began taking long walks, miles and miles, late at night, one arm pinned to my side, the other waving in stride. I became one of those guys you see coming down the street and you cross over to get out of the way.”
“I had crying jags and fetal positionings and other ‘episodes.’ One day last fall, while the city was still mostly abandoned, I passed out on the job, fell face first into a tree, snapped my glasses in half, gouged a hole in my forehead, and lay unconscious on the side of the road for an entire afternoon. You might that that would have been a wake-up call, but it wasn’t. Instead, like everything else happening to me, I wrote a column about it, trying to make it all sound so funny.”
“It probably didn’t help that my wife and kids spent the last four months of 2005 at my parents’ home in Maryland. Until Christmas I worked, and lived, completely alone.”
“Even when my family finally returned, I spent the next several months driving endlessly through bombed-out neighborhoods. I met legions of people who appeared to be dying from sadness, and I wrote about them. I was receiving thousands of e-mails in reaction to my stories in the paper, and most of them were more accounts of death, destruction, and despondency by people from around south Louisiana. I am pretty sure I possess the largest archive of personal Katrina stories, little histories that would break your heart.”
“I guess they broke mine.”
“I am an audience for other people’s pain. But I never considered seeking treatment. I was afraid that medication would alter my emotions to a point of insensitivity, lower my antenna to where I would no longer feel the acute grip that Katrina and the flood have on the city’s psyche. I thought, I must bleed into the pages for my art. Talk about ’embedded’ journalism; this was the real deal.”
“Worse than chronicling a region’s lamentation, I thought, would be walking around like an ambassador from Happy Town telling everybody that everything is just fine, carry on, chin up, let a smile be your umbrella.”
Yes. We’ve had a few of those diplomats arrive to hand out just that counsel, clothed in biblical references, to our pastors.
“As time wore on, the toll at home worsened. I declined all dinner invitations that my wife wanted desperately to accept, something to get me out of the house, get my feet moving. I let the lawn and weeds overgrow and didn’t pick up my dog’s waste. I rarely shaved or even bathed. I stayed in bed as long as I could, as often as I could. What a charmer I had become.”
“I don’t drink anymore, so the nightly self-narcolepsy that so many in this community employ was not an option. And I don’t want TV. So I developed an infinite capacity to just sit and stare. I’d noodle around on the piano, read weightless fiction and rach for my kids, always, trying to hold them, touch them, kiss them. Tell them I was there.”
“But I was disappearing fast, slogging through winter and spring and grinding to a half by summer. I was a dead man walking. I had never been so scared in my life.”
At this point, Rose says readers began to complain about the darkness of his writing. He used to be positive and funny. Now he was depressing. One suggested he either move away or pull the trigger and get it over with. Rose assumed he was being clever and showed it around the office. But he did think about it. Three of Chris’s friends did end their own lives in the past year. He rejected the notion, but “I understood why they did it.”
Rose’s depression was not as bad as some, he writes, and worse than others. For one thing, his job had immersed him in other people’s problems and he was drowning. “There is no such thing as leaving it behind at the office when a whole city takes the dive.”
This was so difficult for the class clown, the one guy in the room who could find the laughter in every situation. “I have always felt like I was more alert and alive than anyone in the room.”
On the surface, Rose appeared to have come out a winner. His house, his job, his family were all good. He put together a book of his post-Katrina columns and the sales were terrific. “Full auditoriums everywhere I was invited to speak.” Television, radio, gifts, flowers, plenty of thanks from every direction. No doubt about it, he writes, “disasters are great career moves for a man in my line of work.”
So why was he depressed? He put a new message on his phone: “This is Chris Rose. I am emotionally unavailable at the moment. Please leave a message.” He thought it was hilarious. His editor, his wife, his friends recognized it as a cry for help and urged him to find a counselor.
He resisted. “I didn’t want help. I didn’t want medicine. And I sure…didn’t want to sit on a couch and tell some guy with glasses, a beard, and a psych degree from Dartmouth all about my troubles.”
When a colleague of Rose’s at the newspaper, an award-winning photographer whom I’ve written about here, took a mix of medications and went off the deep end this summer, Chris finally decided if he did not do something, he would be next. So he went to his family doctor. He recommended a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist asked Rose not to identify him for this story.
The doctor said he wanted to see Rose a few times before making a diagnosis, and sent him home without a prescription. Kelly and Chris’s editor were upset. It was clear to them that he needed quick help, and not just “sessions.”
Kelly wrote a letter to the doctor asking him to put Chris on medication, so midway through the second session, he pulled out samples of a drug called Cymbalta. “It will take a few weeks to kick in,” he said. Wrong. He started taking it August 24, and since he carried no body fat and had built up no drug tolerance, it went to work immediately. By Monday, the 28th, the dark curtain had lifted and the despondency had disappeared. “I was who I used to be: energetic, sarcastic, playful, affectionate, and alive.”
The surprise Rose made was that the right medicine did not alter his identity but helped him recapture it.
His story goes on, most of it analyzing what happens to people who are depressed and much of it discussing medications. There are so many drugs on the market. “It’s a roll of the dice,” his doctor said when explaining why he chose Cymbalta rather than Prozac or Wellbutrin or the other antidepressants. Some work for some people and not for others.
In running the lengthy article by Chris Rose–I have seriously abbreviated it here–the editors did something else. Across the bottom of the last page, they announced: “Who to call if you’re depressed,” and listed sixteen organizations or agencies.
Neither of ours was listed, but we frequently recommend the Granberry Counseling Center in Baton Rouge and the First Baptist Church of New Orleans. The church office will route you to a professional counseling center in the city for which the church was recently given money to assist counselees. Both of these choices will put you in touch with outstanding Christians who are professional therapists.
Caregivers may suffer from the same maladies as those they’re helping. It’s not a sin, not wrong, not a sign of weakness, and most definitely not anything to be embarrassed about. It’s simply a sign you’re human. If you don’t understand that, you really do need help.