By Patrick Klinger
I awoke to the incessant ringing of my cell phone. The phone said it was 8:30; whether that was a.m. or p.m., I neither knew nor cared. It was an ex-girlfriend calling to see how I was doing. She didn’t know what else to say. Nobody did. We ended our brief conversation with her recognizing that all was not right, but not knowing how to address it. Now I was awake, on what turned out to be an autumn evening in 2010. Awake and alone.
Not physically alone: I had three roommates at the time in a shitty house in Pittsburgh with cheap rent but was unable to relate to them. I know they were unable to relate to me. After coming back from summer vacation, everything had changed. They knew my brother had died but were unable to feel the same loss and understand what it is like to lose a part of yourself, someone or something that has been around for as long as you can remember. For my part, I did not attempt to explain.
I suppose you could say that I was in school at the time, though not going to class. Instead I was spending most of my time avoiding everyone as I struggled with my feelings, searching for something inside myself, looking for the happiness which had deserted me. The summer had passed in a blur, and the fall was shaping up to be a dark haze of pieced together half-memories. I tried talking with some of his friends; I was told by the grief counsellors that it would help. All part of the process, everything is normal and expected after an unexpected death. Procedural. His friends all wanted to know whether I would get a tattoo to commemorate him, as tattoos were the new fad. Does a man who lost his leg have to get a tattoo to remember his limb, or does he simply have to look at the scars left behind? Is he not keenly reminded of the loss every time he dresses and undresses? Do I need more reminders of the loss than my mother crying on every holiday as she sets an empty place at the table, my father unable to offer consolation for a loss he keenly feels as well? It is poignant and raw and real. My response was that I would not be getting a tattoo. They obviously did not understand, and I was not in the mood for explaining. I did not talk to any of them again. Isolation was the modus operandi.
I couldn’t sleep, hadn’t been able to in months, at least not well and regularly. Hell, I couldn’t sleep more than two hours unless I was drunk, only to awake feeling even more tired. At least it made the days pass faster, like a time machine. You could lose 12 to 16 hours of consciousness and memories if you tried. This was obviously unsustainable, and I tried a variety of other measures to pass the time, trying to get lost elsewhere. I tried exercising exhaustingly, reading books, playing videogames, and watching movies, anything where I could forget about what I was feeling and focus elsewhere. None of it helped. You still wake up in the same situation, as the same person, with the same feelings. In an act of desperation and recognizing that perhaps I can’t fix this on my own, or no longer wanting to try, I made an appointment with one of the doctors in the school’s employ. It gets tiring fighting the good fight. I asked for the earliest appointment available, which was about two weeks away.
Upon arriving at the physician’s office, after the usual check-in procedures, I was finally called back. I explained that I couldn’t sleep well, had not been able to in some time, and needed help. He gave me a quick depression screen, a series of five or so questions, ranging from being tired, having little interest in doing things, trouble falling asleep, and trouble concentrating, among a few other questions. From this test he concluded that I was indeed suffering from depression and prescribed an antidepressant called Bupropion, and said that they are not usually willing to write prescriptions for sleeping pills, and that inability to sleep is a symptom, not the root problem. He then began explaining the causes of depression, that it stems from a chemical imbalance with serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain and the inability to receive them. I was told that the medicine would take about three months to take effect.
Three months. Three fucking months. Here I am, treading water and going under slowly, asking for anything to hold on to, a lifeline, and I’m told to wait three months. I can understand his reluctance to give me sleeping pills given my appearance and desperation. The circles under my eyes a testament to the countless hours spent tossing and turning, lying in bed thinking about life, what I am doing with mine, and the attempts to distract myself long enough to fall asleep. I looked like someone at the end of his rope, and indeed I was or I would not have asked for help. An act of desperation, a plea for help, met with indifference. I attempted to explain. My depression was not from a chemical imbalance but a familial imbalance: a sudden dearth of brothers, a scarcity of redheads and friends. He nodded in apparent understanding but pointed to the screening and said he could not do anything as I was at high risk for suicide.
I most assuredly was. Hell, I probably checked the box that questioned whether or not I thought of killing myself. Of course I thought about it, like a child thinks of being a dragon or something equally ridiculous. It was just as impossible. Having seen the repercussions and pain in my family from losing someone else, how could I ever put them through that again? The pain and sorrow is still there, festering beneath a scab of time which is picked away intermittently year after year, pus flowing as tears. He did not believe me or did not care, the reason not affecting the result. I took the pills prescribed for a total of four weeks before stopping. They induced very vivid, very unwelcome dreams, and I slept less than before.
I tried to drown out the world, wash out my feelings, by drinking. It did not help. Feeling sorry for myself did not improve the situation; drugs did not either. I lacked happiness. I was barely making it from one day to the next. I sat down and reflected on my life for days, harshly and critically, to determine what I enjoyed and what I wanted to accomplish. I needed to get a degree, but engineering no longer interested me. My grades were well and truly fucked after two semesters of not going to any classes. I still enjoyed mathematics, set a goal to finish school elsewhere, and then tried to decide where and how. I needed more time to finish planning and wait for acceptances at other schools, and decided that enlisting in the Army was the right decision at the time. It was the most selfish decision I have ever made.
It was also one of the best decisions I have ever made, and the one thing that I can point back to and say, “Here is when I became an actual adult.” I simply walked into the recruiting office, which was two blocks away from campus, and sat down and spoke with a recruiter. SSG Velazquez was about 27, in the Military Police, recently returned from Iraq, and took me to take the ASVAB. The ASVAB is a standardized test all entrants in the military are required to take, and is used to determine what job you are suited for and other minor details. I scored in the 98th percentile, which meant that I qualified for all positions. Unfortunately the Army also bases recruitment on availability of positions, so in reality my options were cook, truck driver, mechanic, surveyor, or human resources. I selected surveyor and went in for an initial medical evaluation.
As it turns out, you need 20/20 uncorrected vision to be a surveyor in the Army. Or so I was told by a different soldier after the completion of the medical evaluation. He then said I can be a truck driver, cook, mechanic, or human resources. I selected human resources because of the $30,000 bonus that was offered. It was, and still is a miserable, mind-numbing job, though I did not know what I was getting into at the time. I signed the enlistment contract, swore in, and went home for Christmas. I told my parents that I left school and had enlisted when I arrived. They took me to a psychologist.
Maybe she was a psychiatrist, but having never received a prescription from her nor asked for one, the point is moot. I felt good about myself. I had a plan, I asked for help, received none, and managed to enact change through myself. I mapped myself through introspection and a critical eye, allowing for no lying or subversion. Solving the problem of my unhappiness, rising from the depths of despair, was enjoyable. It can be beneficial to be your harshest critic, assuming you can hate yourself and still function enough to change. That is quite a large assumption.
Happiness coming from within is as well. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or is it life, liberty, and property? Does anyone have the right to be happy, or just to strive for happiness? Does the accumulation of property lead to happiness? Up to a certain level—the poverty line—it does. Once you reach the point where you can comfortably pay your bills and eat, not so much. Maybe Descartes had the right idea. I think, therefore I am. Will constantly telling yourself that you are happy lead to a manifestation of happiness, or will you see through the lie? Self-deception can be tricky like that.
Perhaps happiness is relative. Does a man who has been unhappy for so long suddenly find joy in the minutiae that a happy person would not even notice? Being in the dark for months will lead to even the dimmest candle being blindingly bright, while staring at the sun will make even the brightest spotlight seem dull, if you see it at all. Is it transient and fleeting, a puff of smoke we inhale and hold as long as possible but must eventually release and return to our normal levels?
Or perhaps there is a finite amount of happiness in the world, a limited resource for which we must compete. For you to be happy, somebody else must be sad. Point and counterpoint, give and take, yin and yang. If so, are we born with a certain amount of happiness inside of us, adding it to the collective pool of the world, or is there x amount of happiness in the world over which we all fight? Is it right to be happy when so many others are sad? Is it right to have wealth when so many are in poverty? Is it right to deny some happiness so that others may be? Should we all be equally happy? Capitalism vs. Socialism on an emotional level. Does this kind of thinking make you sad or feel guilty?
Does it matter where happiness is derived or how it comes about, so long as we experience it? And if we taint our happiness with guilt, or limit it for others’ benefits, why do we continue with life? If it is wrong to strive for happiness, what is the goal of life? Why even try?
I do not know the answer to these questions. I know that I will not feel guilty for hoarding happiness, seeking it out in all endeavors. I have seen the other side of the coin and built myself up from poverty. Rugged individualism, the American Dream.
Patrick Klinger is a senior accounting major, member of the Army Reserves, and works as an auditor with KPMG in Harrisburg. His poem “Steer into the Skid” won Best Poem for the 2014-2015 issue.