This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal dawn, and gloaming, on sea and continents, and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.
– John Muir
Within the English language there are numerous great synonyms for twilight. The evening onset of darkness at the end of the day. That transitional period at the coming of night may be identified by a number of terms; be it afterglow, afterlight, crepuscular light, evening, or simply the decline. But for today let’s focus on gloaming.
Why gloaming, and why now?
To the question of why now, it is because as we approach the Winter Solstice we approach the longest night of the year. The sun will rise at a tardy 7:47 AM here in Hartville on Wednesday morning. It will shine over us a mere 9 hours and thirteen minutes before dipping again below the horizon at 5:00 PM. That night will be long, dark, and cold. But it won’t last forever. On December 22 we gain a full minute of additional sunlight. And each day the length of the light will grow until we reach mid-summer’s eve and the Summer solstice.
Why gloaming? Because, to me at least, it carries a weight of apprehension and dread. There is a darkness implied in gloaming. A darkness that breeds anxiety in my soul and expresses itself noticeably in this season. It’s a darkness I don’t share with others. A darkness with a stigma attached to it. A darkness we’ve all kept too long in the shadows. Something we don’t talk about in polite company for fear of making others uncomfortable. And that’s a cultural cycle we all need to change.
The recent suicide of Stephen Laurel “tWitch” Boss prompted me to finally sit down and write this post. Don’t know who that is? Don’t worry, I didn’t either. But he was a talented artist, dancer, producer, and a featured co-host for the Ellen DeGeneres Show. He died by suicide on December 13, 2022. Perhaps it is his fame brought to my attention, but I believe when we look at suicide we must acknowldge that every life matters.
So with his passing as impetus, I share with you my long contemplated personal struggle with mental illness and suicidal ideations in today’s blog.
Earlier this year, almost a whole year ago now, I found myself in a place I never would have thought. The psychiatric ward of a mental hospital. I had been “pink slipped” by a medical professional, meaning I was deemed a potential danger to myself, and admitted for my own safety. It was, no doubt, one of the more traumatic experiences in my life. I would be admitted twice to the same institution early in the year before fully beginning my path to recovery. It still is something I am very uncomfortable discussing. However, I strongly feel we need to remove the stigma from depression and mental illness. And I believe we can only do that by normalizing the idea that we can all be subject to depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses in our lives. Only by normalizing the idea that we all are potentially subject to these experiences can we openly begin talking to others without fear of judgement. Have no doubt, if it were not for my wife’s willingness to ask difficult questions in my darkest of hours I would not be here sharing this with you today.
I cannot pinpoint when my personal struggles with depression began, though I guarantee it was long before I ever sought treatment. I grew up in a decent neighborhood in a desirable small town. I had loving parents and siblings, although there was a tendency to shelter me as the youngest from a lot of things. I went to an academically respected public school. Sure I got picked on as a kid, maybe a little more than normal, but I was so aloof as a child it seemed to carry no long term impacts. I found my stride in college and made there during those years some of the best friends I would have throughout my life.
A year or so after college, not having found any significantly meaningful employment in my field, I enlisted in the military. I do not regret that decision. Not one bit. For in those six years which I served I found opportunities and experiences I could have garnered no where else. For much of that time I truly felt that I had found my place in the world. I still reflect fondly on my years of service and take pride in being a veteran. I served. As did my father before me.
But we lose 22 veterans to suicide each day. That’s right. According to Veteran’s Administration statistics we lose an estimated 22 veterans each day, or approximately one veteran every 65 minutes, to suicide. Veterans who, like me, chose to serve their country. Veterans who, for reasons of their own, chose to end their lives. In a culture that views emotion as weakness, perhaps they couldn’t reach out to someone they thought would listen. Maybe, like me, a diagnosis of any type of mental illness could sideline their career.
It was in those years with the Army I had perhaps my first periodic instances of depression. I can remember once or twice during my extended stay in South Korea finding myself unexpectedly choked-up or tearful at inappropriate times. Fortunately, at least I believed at the time, no one noticed or knew about those episodes. They occured in private. Out of sight from friends and my fellow soldiers. It was also during this time I recall a stretch with a particularly demeaning superior officer that had me, at one point, broken down to the point of tears and begging my company commander for a change of assignment despite loving the job and people that I worked with while there. That’s a pretty hard fall, especially in a community that does not openly express emotion. Turns out I was not the only one who had similar experiences with that individual and eventually he would be reassigned, though not formally reprimanded, after yet another complaint following mine. I weathered that storm though and finished out my time in Korea in a similar assignment with a much better working crew.
I returned state-side in 2000. Shortly thereafter I also married. Things seemed good for a while, but married life in the service can be hard. Especially for non-military spouses. The cultural aspects of military life can breed distrust, as could the very nature of the work I performed for the military. The strain soon overwhelmed that relationship. I would leave the military partially in an attempt to save that relationship. But the years of perception bred during our time together in the service took its toll. Took a toll on both of us really. We would divorce soon after I left the service and we moved back to Ohio.
After our divorce I used to joke that, “I thought my ex-wife hated the military, turns out it was me.” In an honest retrospect though, I’m sure it grew from a little of both bred in an environment of mistrust and questionable loyalties. Thankfully we could separate and go our own ways post military. We didn’t have children, so there was nothing to prevent us from going our own ways and pursuing our own separate lives.
And then there was the drinking. To be fair, it was not my time in the service that led me to drinking. I drank in college. Drank like you imagine college students drink. Drank like the average college student drinks. I drank more in the military. Drank like you imagine soldiers drink. Hard drinking. But after the military I drank like I hadn’t drank before. I drank to a point where I scared myself more than once. Drank to a point where I realized there was a normal me and a drunk version of me. Those two entities struggled for control over my mind and body once I had a bottle in hand. Fortunately I hit a point where I knew I had to stop before I killed myself or someone else during “Drunk Todd’s” exploits. I sealed up Drunk Todd tightly in a bottle and stowed him away. I still drink regularly, a glass of wine or pint of beer or tumbler of scotch here-and-there, but never like I did in the few years after I left the service.
Later, having kids helped a lot to keep me in check. My two biological children are the result of my second marriage. It also failed, but for different reasons. It was during the late stages of that marriage that I was first diagnosed with depression and first prescribed medication. Several actually, until I found one that worked. I personally hate taking medication. Any medication… even ibuprofen for the occasional headache. But after the end of my second marriage having the kids shifted my priorities. I could no longer put myself first. I always had to think first about their welfare. I didn’t want to ever have to explain to them why alcohol had landed their dad in jail or depression had shut me off from them.
Then, there was a while where I thrived. I found a medication and treatment that worked for me. For the first time in a long time I felt not just “normal,” I actually felt good. I rekindled my love of nature and found myself thriving through hiking, kayaking, backpacking, camping, and nature journalling. Daytrips and long weekends allowed me to share these experiences with my children. And much to my surprise, although somewhat in a fashion similar to John Muir, I found my connection to God in nature. God was a concept lost to me for much of my adult life. I had espoused to be agnostic for many years, but I found God through meaning in nature. I also found Christine in these post-depressive years. In time we found this property for our homestead. A year later, in October of 2021, we married. Afterward, we honeymooned in Muir’s “Range of Light,” California’s magnificently beautiful Yosemite Valley. Times were good. Times were very good.
But then, in December of 2021, it all began to rapidly unravel.
Months before I had received a letter. It was from my insurance company. Apparently, despite the premiums I paid to maintain the highest standard of healthcare offered for my family through my public employer, an actuary had decided that the cost of a particular medication was more than the insurance company cared to pay. Mind you the insurance company made this decision. The insurance company. Not me. Not a doctor. Not a pharmacist. So here was this letter stating that the particular medication I was taking was no longer going to be covered by my insurance. I could either trial other medications until I found one covered by insurance (ie., cheaper and therefore more to the insurance company’s liking) or I could pay for the medication out of pocket (approximately $900/month).
Folks, we work off farm jobs just to be able to homestead. There’s no extra $900/month. Hell, there’s hardly $5 extra some months. In giving me that choice the insurance company’s actuaries had effectively given me no choice. Even with supplemental prescription assistance programs we were looking at hundreds a month that we didn’t have. Insurance and healthcare, two more broken systems in desperate need of reform that we collectively allow to continue to operate.
So I played the medically sanctioned game of Russian Roulette with a variety of medications once coverage terminated for the medication I had been taking. Impaired, I didn’t notice at first, but I gradually began to decline on the first medication offered. My interest in many things I loved slowly began to diminish. I didn’t hike as much. I took fewer photographs than in years before. I felt too tired to pursue any interests. By the time I noticed, Christine had seen it for a while. The next medication left me exhausted and foggy. A supplement to balance that out didn’t do me any better. And then an abrupt change to a different medication in December of 2021, threw me into a complete tailspin. I just fell apart. I lost control of my emotions. I lost all semblance of hope. I suddenly felt like an impostor in my own life. I questioned everything. What value did I have? What good did I do? What benefit did I bring to those around me? I felt that nothing brought me joy. I felt I brought nothing to this world. I found myself thinking that my value in life insurance dollars outweighed any other benefit I could bring my family, or anyone for that matter. In this low period I nearly lost it all.
But Christine saw it. And she asked the tough questions. Questions I wonder if I would be strong enough to ask if it were someone else. Questions that undoubtly saved my life.
I know now, only after going through this experience and treatment, that sudden medication changes can cause serious chemical imbalances in the brain. The particular medications I was on in the later stages of my depression were one’s that recommended a taper (lower doses leading higher target doses or gradually coming down off higher doses at the end of a course of treatment) when starting or stopping usage. It was a sudden shift in prescribed medications that completely upended life as I knew it in late 2021, early 2022. In the space of less than two weeks I completely fell apart.
Now, nearly a year later, I am still recovering. Some things never came back. My brain is physically wired differently due to chemically induced change. Some things may not come back. Even though I still see God’s hand in the natural world, I don’t hike as much as I did before the letter. I take a few more photos now than I did a little over a year ago, but still not nearly as many as what I once did. Thankfully, I have found renewed joy in tending to the land though. My love of my family and this homestead we’re building brings me joy like nothing else.
There is another reason I share this story with you today. You see, farmers – and us homesteaders through extension – much like veterans, are also at a significantly higher risk of suicide. In September of 2022, when I first started contemplating this post, I had recently read that the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released data showing that suicide rates are significantly higher among farmers than many other groups in society. And after all, why not? We face a number of factors that are outside of our control. Be it weather, finances, crop failures, commodity prices, animal illness, or a host of other factors we all encounter a high level of stress. Stress beyond our control. And that stress can lead to anxiety and depression. This time of year, with the long, cold nights and few crops growing to keep us busy, we can be weary. We can all use a bit of light and warmth.
So don’t let what happened to me happen to you. If you’re going through a tough spot, find someone to talk to and release that stress. If you’re in a good spot then check in on your local farmer, homesteader, or neighbor. Normalize talking about the good and the bad of mental health in our daily lives. I’m sharing my experience in the hope that it will encourage others to do so too. I was in a bad spot a year ago. I’m in a much better spot today because someone listened. Someone noticed my struggle. So I want my family and friends to know that I am there for them on their gray days. I know I struggle at this time of year – I chock it up to the diminished hours of daylight and seasonal affective disorder – and I’m sure that others do too. But, just as John Muir points out in today’s opening quote there is always another sunrise coming in the eternal grand show.
But only if we are there to rise and meet it.
Weather the darkness friends. Look out for one another. Let’s all greet the next sunrise together.