Dead Poets Helped Me Survive Depression

13 08 2014

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote on my Facebook page yesterday.  The original post appears truncated in the timeline for some users and it highlighted the title of the Apple iPad ad that was attached at the bottom. I’m afraid some folks might not have taken the opportunity to read the post because, well… I post a lot of Apple gloryisms and I think most of my friends probably just grin, roll their eyes and move on along.  That little snafu is misfortune. The post is not about Apple products or even the beauty of the ad itself. So… Just to give the words another shot at reaching the intended audience, here is the essay again… in it’s entirety (with a little update at the end).

Yesterday I posted a movie poster image of of the 1989 classic movie Dead Poets Society. In the movie Robin Williams plays John Keating, an English teacher who tries to inspire the students at the all boys school, Welton Academy. The script for the movie was based on the story of a man’s life at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, TN.

Two years prior to release of the movie (almost to the day in fact) I broke my work contract and walked off the job I had with a summer camp in South Mississippi. I had just received my final grades from my freshman year in college and the news was not good. The letter included the words “Academic Suspension” in a font bolder than it probably needed to be. In the months leading up to the day I quit, I had very little sleep. Yes I said months. I’m not sure I had eaten much either. I can still remember the feeling of the massive weight of guilt on my shoulders. I had blown it. In the previous 12 months I had done things I thought I would never do. I was acting in a way that was not normal and I couldn’t explain my actions. I left Mississippi in desperation, but deep inside I knew I was going to do whatever I could to pass the buck… to ignore the pain and act like nothing was wrong. I would blame my youth and the fact I had been negatively influenced by others. I drove home to West Monroe and to my surprise I found help instead of reprimand. Those who knew me best knew something was wrong. There were many long nights and “counseling sessions.” Heck, there were even hypnosis sessions.

Ultimately I was referred to a psychiatrist who ordered blood work and after several hours of meetings with me and my family members they found it. There it was… the tests revealed a chemical imbalance in my brain that was causing clinical depression. A treatment plan was established and so it began… The long, long road to work my way back into reality and out of the funk and pain I had been in for so long.

Fast forward two years to the summer of 1989. I saw Dead Poets Society in a theater in Gulfport, Mississippi. A couple of months before that day I worked up enough gumption to ask my previous boss for another shot at working the entire summer. He was a man I greatly respected and I wanted to prove myself to him. After leaving him in a lurch before, I wasn’t sure he would do me the favor. He did. I hung in there for the summer and I even stayed an extra few weeks afterwards to help button up the place for the fall sessions.

In the middle of that summer, and after nearly two years of be treated for depression, I saw a movie that to this day I can’t get out of my head. I’ve only seen it one other time since that night in Gulfport. But it doesn’t matter. The dialog is fixed within my mind. The images are etched in my consciousness. There in the prime time of my treatment I saw myself in everyone of the characters. I listened to John Keating as though I was one of his students. Granted, it was probably at one of my most impressionable times in life, but it impacted me. It was what I needed to help me push through the side effects of the meds and the highs and lows of depression.

Taking the meds was always an issue. Since I’m not a pill swallower I mastered the practice of tearing the caplets apart and making sure every little grain of dust made it into the six ounce jelly jar glass I kept next to my bathroom sink. I learned early on that it was easier to mix if the water was already in the glass. The taste was bitter, but if the water was lukewarm it would go down fast, so I made it though. I was still increasing the dose little by little to enter into a more therapeutic range at that time, with the hope that my brain would catch on and start producing the right balance of chemicals on it’s own and I would someday be able to drop the dose down to nothing.

Fast forward another year and I found myself living in Nashville. Not far from Montgomery Bell in fact. I was alone, without a church family and working lots of hours. There was a small group of friends though. People who had no clue about my history. It was pretty much a clean slate. My doctor appointments had moved to scheduled long distance phone calls and blood draws at clinics that also handled the testing for those who wore tracking beacons on their ankles. My meds were at their highest level and the side effects had normalized (if that’s even possible).

Part of my therapy assignment was to write. I was really bad at it. I dreaded it actually. I worked in the music industry in Nashville and there were writers all around me. Great writers. I often got to hear the poems and stories that moved to become hit records before more than a handful of people got to hear them. Who was I to write anything down? Someone once told me back then that if you want to write well you need to read the well written. So I did. I don’t know if if helped, but at least I did begin to write. I would recall the plot of Dead Poets Society and I would replay the parts that made me want to dig in and feel the emotions of the great writers and then mimic it.

There is one 80 second segment spoken by Robin Williams, as he portrayed John Keating, that I found especially poignant. It was the kind of word string that as soon as you heard it you wanted to jump out of your seat in the theater and yell at the projectionist to rewind the film so you could hear it again. Just so you could make sure you got all of it. “That the play goes on… and you may contribute a verse.” The words that bookend Whitman’s poem may have been pinned by Tom Schulman, but it was the delivery of Robin Williams, heard by an impressionable 20 something living with depression, that caused a visceral eruption of waterworks. My shirt sleeves were soaking wet from wiping the tears of passion that had been pulled out of my heart after hearing those worlds. I needed a good cry at that time in my life. At that very moment. I needed to realize that I had something to contribute.

And so now today… My depression has been beat down. My brain did catch on and begin producing what it needed. My dose was lowered to nothing in 1992. Five years of treatment. Five years of embarrassment. Five years of wondering if I would ever be normal. It was discovered when I was 19, but I had been living with it for years. In fact, I still live with it. I’m always on the look out for it’s return. When I have a run of bad days, I get concerned. I know the signs and I’m hyperaware of them. And fortunately I know how to handle them.

There is great risk in telling the world about this part of my history. The mere fact that someone as gifted and talented as Robin Williams took the steps needed to end his own life yesterday trumps that risk. I’m no Robin Williams. I’m a normal guy riding the same kind of roller coaster as you. If you feel, really feel deep down inside, that something is just not right with how you are looking at yourself or how you are looking at the world around you, talk to someone about it. Tell your spouse or a trusted friend. Then, and this is important… talk to a professional. Don’t be embarrassed or too proud to make that call. I’ll even make it easy… here’s a number: 318-868-6554. It’s private and all you need to say when they answer the phone is “I’m depressed and I would like to talk to someone.” They will take care of the rest. OR you can message me directly. I will be more than happy to help in any way I can.

Just ignore the fact that ad below for the Apple iPad. Play it, but focus on the words. It includes the segment I mention in this post. The first time I saw it on TV you can probably imagine what I did. Of course my family thinks I cry at all the Apple ads… and the Hallmark ads too. Little did they know the back story of these words and how deep they go into my soul. God’s speed Robin Williams. Captain, my captain.


[Update 8.13.14] I have 718 friends on Facebook and 650 followers on Twitter.  As I often say in my Social Media Presentations, this is the only area of my life were I can prove I am above average! (considering the average Facebook user has around 150 friends).  That being said and based on health data, 117 of my friends and followers suffer with depression. Chances are very good that your life has been impacted by this illness in one way or another.   I believe that there is one critical ingredient that is required for successful treatment of depression.  Besides the modern miracle of doctor’s knowledge and medications, besides the love and support of family and friends, besides the one-on-one conversations with those who “get it.” Besides the constant balance of work and free time… It takes faith in the Creator…  The Maker of the universe. God made you with special care. He didn’t mess up and neither did you. So why then does He allow depression to have it’s way within us?  I honestly don’t have an answer for you. Having faith means you don’t always get to know the answers.  I can say this though… When I look back at my life, at that time when my world was falling in around me… My belief in God was shaken. I’ll admit it.  It was.  The roof blew off and the walls caved in. But as the healing was taking place… as debris was being removed, the foundation was uncovered. It was marred and corners of it were chipped, but what was left was more than enough to rebuild my life on.  Build your life on the foundation of God.  He’s more than enough!




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