I remember pulling into the parking garage, turning off my car and sitting in the silence, thinking, “Maybe this would all be so much easier if I just wasn’t alive anymore.”
I starting thinking about all of the things that kept me going, the things that helped me push forward, the things that made all of this worth it.
It was my parents, my family, my friends. If something happened to me, there is a small group of people that would be devastated and I would fight and bleed in the mud every day of my life before I’d cause any of them a single moment of avoidable pain.
I got out of my car and finished the day – made dinner, did laundry, showered and prepared for tomorrow, but I was afraid. I’ve been struggling with depression for a while and it kind of sucks but it’s been tolerable. That night, though, death slipped into my thoughts as a possible solution. I wasn’t anywhere near acting on that thought but I was terrified it even became a remote possibility.
Up until that moment, I was ok with being depressed. It made my life a bit difficult at times but it really didn’t impact anyone else. Now, though, it felt like I was entering into a phase of my depression where maybe it might start having a negative impact on the people I care most about. It scared me. That can’t happen. It was time to solve the problem.
I began thoroughly assessing why I was feeling depressed to begin with and why it was getting worse instead of getting better.
When I was a kid, I saw a doctor who told me that I was so skinny and my BMI was so low that I was likely infertile and if I didn’t do something about it, I’d be infertile forever. Of course, I believed him and went on thinking that my body was not strong enough to pass my genes on to the next generation. I’d like to note that I’m a doctor now and can confirm as scientific fact that he is a stupid jerk.
A few times in my younger years, I couldn’t breathe and had to go to the hospital so they could give me inhalers and shots and stuff so I didn’t die. It was eventually revealed that I was allergic to a bunch of foods and trees and pollens which were contributing to my episodes of not breathing. Besides most of the plants growing right outside of my house and some other random foods, peanuts, hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts and cashews were identified as being a big source of my problem.
I was told it was almost always a genetic issue. But neither of my parents, or anyone else in my family had allergy issues. The doctors offered no other possible causes of my allergies so, naturally, I concluded that I was genetically defective and this was just another piece of medical evidence proving I was weak and fragile. I needed medications and inhalers and occasional emergency room visits because my body wasn’t strong enough to survive in this world on its own.
Somewhere around 7th grade I started getting bullied by a few kids. They were stronger than me and would push me around, hold me down, throw me into puddles, take my stuff, you know, all of the hilarious things that boys like to do at that age. The leader of the pack would tell me they did all of this because I was so weak. They were actually helping me, toughening me up. I’d thank them eventually, he assured me.
As I went through high school, the bullying continued before the bullies matured and fizzled away. A few times, I gained some courage and fought back. And every time I fought, I lost. After one of them, a random kid came up to me and said, “Jeez, James, do you ever win a fight?” It was embarrassing and added yet another piece of evidence to my narrative that I was weak and fragile.
And that became a core piece of who I was. Weak, defective, sensitive, fragile. At restaurants or when people would cook for me, I’d have to ask if there were any nuts in the food. I was ashamed and embarrassed and would say, “haha, sorry! I’m just so fragile!”
I remember being at a big group dinner where the host brought out a nut-filled dessert that he worked very hard on. He was so excited for us to try it and I didn’t have the courage to tell him I couldn’t eat it. I picked it up with a napkin so I didn’t touch any of the nuts and as I nervously and slowly brought it towards my mouth to take a bite, a friend from across the table screamed, “James, don’t eat that!!” and then kindly explained my allergies to the gracious host. “Sorry I’m so fragile!” I joked. Everyone laughed. I felt worthless.
When I was 19, someone asked me if I was a boxer. I said, “No way, I’m too fragile!” He didn’t laugh and said, “You should look into it, you have the body type to be a great boxer.” The next day, I joined a boxing gym and started training. It was so hard. I couldn’t get through a training session without my inhaler and my body hurt everywhere. I went a handful of times over the next few weeks and finally asked the coach if he could teach me how to actually fight. He laughed and told me I’d just get hurt. I never went back.
At that point, I totally believed I was inferior. I wasn’t strong enough. My genes weren’t suitable to be passed on. If I ate something that most people enjoyed, I would die. I was defective. I was weak. I was sensitive. I was fragile.
I finally decided to change all of that. Whatever it took, I would become strong, tough, accomplished. I would become something great. I started studying. I started training to be a fighter. I refused to quit and I began making some real progress. I stopped taking any medications, got into medical school, began competing in martial arts, got a job teaching Muay Thai and even fell in love and got engaged. I still called myself “fragile” pretty regularly but it seemed like I was moving forward.
My progress stopped as I started my third year of medical school. My fiancé fell out of love with me despite giving her my very best effort. Shortly after that, I lost a Muay Thai fight by getting knocked out in the first round in front of a huge crowd. And within a few months, I convinced myself that all of my effort and everything I had accomplished and worked for meant nothing.
She fell out of love with me because I’m not good enough. I lost my fight because I’m weak. I’ll never be good enough. I’ll always be weak. My depression began.
It was bad at first. I didn’t care about anything. I hated when people would talk to me. Everything hurt, all the time. I felt hopeless and alone. It was awful.
I showed up to a class and the professor would hand out an exam that I didn’t know about. I forgot assignments. I barely did enough to get by. It was a few weeks before I realized how big a problem all of this was.
I began counseling and it helped. It got me through the worst of it. I doubled my efforts in school and in martial arts. I studied more, I trained harder but the depression remained. Up until this point, I am confident that my depression was a fairly reasonable response to everything I was going through but it stopped making sense after that.
I won a Muay Thai fight after knocking out my previously undefeated opponent. It wasn’t a lucky one-punch knockout. It was a well-placed and well-timed combination after a solid performance on my part. I woke up extremely depressed the next day. I apologized to my coach for not doing better, for not following his advice well enough during the fight.
Before and after every exam or assignment in med school, I convinced myself I was on the verge of failing in spite of the fact that I was receiving excellent grades. I was asked to give a speech on behalf of my class at the graduation ceremony. I graduated. I got my first choice of residency. I passed my board exams. I was on a winning streak in Muay Thai. I was dating a really great girl. I had achieved almost every goal I’d ever set for myself.
And still, somehow, I sat in my parked car, convinced I was weak, fragile, defective. I felt like I didn’t deserve any of those accomplishments, that they were the result of oversights or luck.
After all of this reflection, I officially convinced myself that I shouldn’t be depressed and something was wrong.
Because I work in a medical clinic, I have incredible access to doctors, lab tests and treatments. I asked for help but I did it kind of like a paranoid dad in the 50’s who was building a secret bomb shelter for the family. I asked different people for different kinds of help so no single person completely knew what was actually going on. I feel obligated to mention that this is absolutely not the way to get quality medical care and it’s kind of stupid and I do not recommend it but it was the only way I was comfortable getting the help I needed.
I had a bunch of lab tests run and some reasonable explanations for my depression were revealed. One of the tests I ran was a food allergy and sensitivity panel which showed no reaction to peanuts, hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts or cashews. I’m going to type that again because it blew my mind; I had no reaction to peanuts, hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts or cashews. Whaaaaa?
I had multiple vitamin and mineral deficiencies which led to some abnormal blood stuff and I had some hormone levels that were out of the normal ranges. I worked on correcting these things and within a few weeks I started feeling better. Things have continued to improve since then.
During a catered lunch, as I was eating, I realized there were cashews in the salad. My initial reaction was panic. “Are these cashews!?” I nervously asked. “Yeah, I think so,” someone answered. I took a deep breath and said, “Ok, thanks,” as I set the salad aside. I likely already ate a cashew or at least something that touched a cashew but I didn’t die.
A few weeks later, my beautiful, long-distance relationship lady came to visit and brought me a cookie shaped like the state of Oregon. I saw that it was a hazelnut cookie and was too afraid to eat it during her visit – I didn’t want to waste her vacation in the emergency room.
After she left, I took the cookie out of the package and put it in my hands. I rubbed it against my skin and put it down. After a minute, my skin did not break out into a rash so I sniffed it. It smelled glorious. A second later, I gave it a timid lick. (This is such a ridiculous story.)
I took a small bite, chewed it up and swallowed it. It was delicious. I waited for my throat to close and my lungs to shut down but it didn’t happen. I devoured the rest of the cookie. I didn’t die. I didn’t feel anything. Well, besides my completely satisfied sweet-tooth.
I was hit with a profound realization; I am not defective. I am not weak. I am not fragile. Maybe I never was. I suddenly felt free of all the things that limited me for my entire life. I was finally free of all that pain and self doubt. I felt strong. I felt confident. I felt worthy.
What I’m trying to say is that it was probably the best cookie I’ve ever had in my life. (Thanks, Kayo!)
As I continued to reflect, it dawned on me that while my depression was the result of those abnormal medical findings, those abnormal medical findings were most likely the result of chronic stress, over-exertion and over-exercising. The quest to correct my perceived short-comings caused my depression.
I told myself every day for most of my life that I wasn’t good enough, that I was fragile and weak and defective. I tried so hard to solve this non-existent problem that I created the problem. The solution was never to fix the broken piece, the solution was to realize that nothing was broken in the first place.
I still have a lot of work to do but I smile pretty often these days. I’m proud of my accomplishments. And while I’ll never stop trying to achieve more, I won’t do it because I’m not good enough the way I am. I’ll do it because I want to, because it’s fun. You know what else is fun? Eating hazelnut cookies shaped like the state of Oregon.