A Hardship Post: The Lowdown on Getting Low, and Down

ornate building in dilapidated condition with the word HEALTH over one storefront
Not all health is good health. Former Monessen Savings and Trust Building, et al., Monessen

Preface: In the six+ years I’ve been doing Pittsburgh Orbit, I’ve made every effort to make it not about me. There are no bylines to my writing and the photographs are uncredited. I don’t include a bio and most stories are written in third person (or with a “royal we“). I’m not one that wants personal attention but I do want readers to focus on these (hopefully) interesting things all around us and appreciate them while we can.

That said, I’ve been going through some heavy personal stuff and–much to my chagrin–that’s the only thing my fancy brain can focus on right now. The subject is perhaps an odd choice to include in the Orbit–or even to make this kind of private info public at all–but the shame and stigma of mental illness is one of its most dangerous native features. If you can’t hang with that–or it’s just, uh, too depressing–I get it; you’re completely excused. Hopefully we’ll be back to our regular diet of upbeat stories on disappearing towns, sad toys, and partying alone in the cemetery soon enough.

large wall mural, only partially completed
Not right in the head/an incomplete picture. In-process mural, South Side.

Something isn’t right, all of the time. This is the water in which my brain swims and it’s how I’ve always been. No matter how good the occasion or how temporarily high the mood, there is a gnawing caution to not get too excited, to not enjoy it too much. This won’t last, the killjoy noggin chimes in to remind me, good things never do.

Dysthymia (aka persistent depressive disorder) is chronic, low-grade depression. It’s not among the more cinematic I wanna kill myself or I hear voices flavors of mental health affliction; it’s what used to be called “depressive personality.” That charming descriptor was deadnamed some time in the ’70s or ’80s for its less offensive and more clinical-sounding current title. Most of the time, it is entirely manageable with some low-octane pharmaceuticals and reasonable lifestyle choices.

mural of characters from Winnie the Pooh painted on wooden fence
Not quite right. Mural, McKeesport

Just like where I come from and who raised me (and who didn’t), dysthymia has affected everything about me. A half-finished painting is almost always more interesting than when it’s “done.” Forty-five degrees and drizzling is never bad weather–it actually feels pretty natural. Summer, with its relentless sunshine and unrealistic expectations for carefree fun, is the very worst of seasons. It’s why the minor third and flatted seventh sound so much better than their sprightly major cousins; Nick Drake, the Elvis of Sadness, gets a lot more spins than, you know, the Elvis of Elvises. I like my humor dry and dark.

painting of violin with with words "No Violins" and "No Crying"
Violins welcome. Outside art, Bloomfield

It’s also been a driving force in the Orbit aesthetic. Many people–some of whom are married to me–find spending a Saturday in, say, the Mon Valley to be “depressing.” The idea that I would return–over and over again, by choice, in my precious free time–to towns many view only as models of vacancy and despair, depopulation and collapse, where “they should bulldoze the whole place,” just doesn’t make a lot of sense to them.

stained glass window of figure in garden with many glass panes missing
Only half there. Mausoleum stained glass, Allegheny Cemetery

I don’t see it that way. Las Vegas is depressing. Suburban sprawl is depressing. Grown-ass adults scoring the likes on their selfies is depressing. Places with lovely bones, rich histories, big personalities, and flowers growing through the cracks in the sidewalk are fascinating, warts and all.

They’re also a convenient parallel for those of us who suffer from mental illness. We can’t throw these places–and, more importantly, the people who live there–away, just because the industries that built them abandoned the people who built the community. Likewise, there are those that would discard people who get brain sick as defective, broken, lazy, weak.

artwork of a man wrestling a bear
Man vs. bear (artist unknown)

Winston Churchill famously called his depression The Black Dog. I liken my experience to a different animal.

I’m in the woods and there is a bear chasing me, every day, all the time. He’s not one of those friendly bears. No, if the bear catches up with me, I will be mauled to death. I can outrun the bear, but only if I never slow down, never look back, never trip on a rock or pause to take in the view. If the bear gets me, gone are the relatively benign “blues” and “sads” we all experience and in comes the full battery of clinical symptoms: sleepless nights and loss of appetite, racing thoughts, guilt, shame, uncontrollable emotion. It becomes impossible to access joy.

It’s a good lifestyle for getting things done. When something wants to kill you, you don’t waste a lot of time on dumb TV, sleeping late, or doomscrolling. But being hyper-productive because the alternative is a hospital stay is no way to live.

deflated basketball in empty lot
Deflated, people say, they’ve got the blues or had better days. This ain’t that. Sad basketball, Lawrenceville

Anyway, I’ve been running for a long time–it’s been seven years since the last big one–but just recently that ol’ bear caught up to me again with a sneak attack I could never have prepared for. In the parlance of my psychiatrist, this is a “double depression” (I prefer “Double Bummer“)–a debilitating clinical depression on top of the everyday low-grade stuff. In the on-brand attempt to make lemonade from guilt-ridden lemons–and no capacity to write about anything else–I thought I’d take the opportunity to share one person’s perspective on dealing with the noonday demon.

If you’ve been there, this may be all too familiar; if you’re one of the lucky ones that never experiences major depression, maybe this will help you empathize the next time a friend is afflicted–and they will be, even if they’re too ashamed to tell you the truth about it. Regardless, I hope it can help someone.

large public statue, wrapped in plastic
He’s (almost) dead, wrapped in plastic. Christopher Columbus statue, wrapped, stacked, and packed for relocation, Schenley Park

Wrapped in plastic is maybe not as common a metaphor as greatest hits like The Thick Fog, Wearing a Lead Suit, or Stuck in the Depths of the Ocean, but it’ll do–and the Orbit archives contained a good photo to illustrate. The world is still going on out there, but at best we can only see it through a gauzy film; arms and legs too restricted to be of any real use.

This experience of having one’s eyes wide open–knowing exactly what we’re missing (or, at least, what the brain’s unreliable narrator tells us we’re missing)–is endemic of the experience. It’s watching our lives fast-forward to the near end when we can only dodder about while the world blissfully continues without a second thought about us.

two 1970s Lincoln Continental front ends joined together to make a single art car
We don’t know which way we’re going, either. “Two Face,” Schaefer’s Auto Art, Erie

There’s no right way to go. It’s a conundrum: when The Brain Fog takes over, every decision is the wrong one and every action taken is disaster. Doing nothing puts you into self-imposed solitary confinement; doing anything guarantees failure. Yes, this also describes the intersection where West Carson, Steuben, South Main, Sawmill Run, and The West End Bridge roll the dice to see which piece of infrastructure will claim a human life today.

brick wall with word "No" painted on it
NO, South Side

No, just no. Republicans have famously become The party of ‘No’. No, you can’t bring that bill to the floor; no, there will be no discussion on the topic; no, we don’t have any ideas of our own. But if a person really wants to get down to the no-no sound, he or she just needs to take the D train, downtown. That’s the fastest way to get to hurtin’.

It’s here in this underground club of mind control experimentation that the brain’s wondrous capacity for life-threatening distortion will override any inconvenient, fact-based truths. In a kind of scorched-earth one-upsmanship, the body follows the noodle’s lead and raises the stakes by impairing the ability to move. Want to do the things you love? No, you can’t. How about some simple relaxation? No–the body may be at rest, but the mind is on a wild crime spree in Crazy Town. Want to laugh, sleep, communicate like a human being? Ain’t gonna happen.

downtown Pittsburgh viewed from distace, at night
Nighttime is the wrong time. Downtown Pittsburgh after dark.

Nights are the worst. The daily experience of lying in bed, unable to sleep, night after night, is a living hell. To spend an evening–heck, every evening for the duration of the depression–alone with one’s devastating thoughts is like being on a long drive with someone that hates you. Unlike Bon Scott’s view of hell, this is a bad place to be.

As I write this (section), it is 2:38 am. Two melatonin tabs, deep breathing exercises, a sleep meditation recording, and one prescription-grade horse tranquilizer only bought me one hour of shuteye. I’m averaging around three hours sleep a day; if I get five I feel like I won the lottery. Like clairvoyants or time travelers, we know the day ahead is already ruined well before sunrise.

plastic skeleton on front porch with arm raised to wave hello
Hello neighbor, we’ll be over…sometime. Skeleton friend, Lawrenceville

Making friends with Death is one of the oft-overlooked bright sides to a clinical depression. Yes, there are others. Don’t discount the No Appetite Diet‘s ability to burn off some of the lockdown 35 in a most ruthless fashion or all the extra time one gets when you can’t sleep past 4:30. Every morning is a like three “fall back” time changes right on top of each other. Just imagine all the things you have no energy to do with those extra hours.

But as a lifelong wake-up-screaming-in-the-night worrier about the unknown hereafter, when one’s twenty delirious waking hours every day exist on a cold cocktail of dread, exhaustion, guilt, despair, and self-loathing, death is still a haunting specter–but it’s no longer the terror it once was.

[Side note: personally, I have never been suicidal and don’t intend to start now. But if you are anywhere near that mindset, sweet Jesus, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255.]

metal folding chair with hand-written sign reading "Please do not move chair. Therapist coming."
Help is on the way…as long as there’s a place to park. Therapist parking chair, Lawrenceville

Something hopeful. I’ve been through this enough times to know these things end–they always do. It doesn’t feel that way when you’re in it–the brain is making some very convincing arguments that we’re in a hopeless situation with no possible resolution and no means of escape.

But that’s not true. We can beat this, it’s just really really hard. For me, I have to go into a holistic mind/body regimen like Rocky prepping for Drago: long, heartbeat-elevating daily walks/bike rides; being open, honest, and talking with anyone who’ll lend an ear; professional help; cut out drinking and mainline fruits and vegetables; do everything you can to ensure a decent night’s rest. (This last one is a particularly tough nut to crack, see above.)

The very best thing, for me at least, is what I’m doing here: writing about it–heck, writing about anything. Even when I’m unable to pick up the guitar or focus on a movie, I can get my head deep inside a piece of writing and feel like I’ve learned something in the process. It’s why this little blog post, authored gradually over a couple weeks of ups and downs, turned into an epic saga–I just kept having more to say, and it felt good to get it down. Getting thoughts out and organizing them, reading them back and clarifying ideas, the old gadget of writing a “letter never sent”–these things really work.

public art sculpture of UFO in Mars, PA
We’ll get out of here, one way or another. The Mars UFO.

Lastly, when Mrs. Orbit read an earlier draft of this piece her reaction was, “It’s good, it’s heavy, and people are really going to worry about you.” Please don’t. I will be fine and I do know that I’ll get through this … eventually. This past week was way better than the week before (when most of the above text was written) and I’m legitimately feeling like I’m emerging from the fog.

But it’s a good reminder that people are suffering all around us, all the time. The isolation and anxiety of the pandemic has sent previously-epic mental illness rates through the roof. Please check on any friend you haven’t connected with recently; make sure your neighbors are OK; call your mother. Nothing gives a person in depression hope like a friend just reaching out to ask, “How are you? Are you doing OK?” … and then letting them say whatever they need to let go of.

14 thoughts on “A Hardship Post: The Lowdown on Getting Low, and Down

    • James says:

      You’ve described the everyday agon of chronic dysthymia and and the truly hellish outbreaks of clinical depression accurately and elegantly. Anyone who lives through it knows what torture it can be, and how it can grind down one’s soul. IIf you can find at least one friend (not an easy thing with depression taking up so much space and energy in one’s life) — but just one friend who will listen during those long days and nights you can get through the episodes. If you have someone like that in your life do not let them go. Try everything and anything that can help you cope. Most importantly, be patient with yourself. This thing passes. If you can’t do anything else, simply wait.


  1. Paul Schifino says:

    I for one and certainly glad that you got that all off of your chest. I am also glad that you are emerging from the fog. Sending lots of love your way from this end of Main Street. Just remember… There is an Orbit-styled pizza critique at the end of this tunnel!


  2. missteps739 says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us. I’ve enjoyed reading The Orbit for years and this post (combined with the photos) is so powerful. Your words give voice to what many others (myself included) have been feeling during this time. Once you’ve regained your footing, come on out for some industrial archaeology explorations – the Pittsburgh hills are alive with the sounds of… decaying concrete. 😉


  3. Ryan says:

    I just wanted to say your instinct to keep writing through this and beyond is something I really believe in too. May your work give you strength.

    Oh and I was raised in Pgh, live elsewhere now, but come back a few times a year. Your blog has really spurred me to explore and appreciate whenever I’m in town. Thanks for that!


  4. Torch Marauder says:

    This is raw, honest and real. It’s also riveting, and important. I found it cathartic to read, and hope it will be helpful to others as well. Thank you for writing it, and thank you even more so for sharing it.


  5. JAMCENTRIC says:

    like others have said, i feel myself in your words. sometimes i wonder – as – i dont know if i have total concentration. its nice to see someone who does, and who can maybe speak words others have locked inside. bless you. for real. bless you. this small post is a simple voice for many (or atleast me – jamcentric) – – – keep the words flowing, and the songs too. work is NEVER done, till you eat the very last piece of tasteless fruit.


  6. AJBL says:

    An eloquent and compelling evocation of your mental state. I’m glad putting it in writing seems to be helping you get to a better place. Your work here is invariably a refreshing draught for an adopted Pittsburgher far removed from Western Pennsylvania. Long may you continue, with a free and untroubled spirit.


  7. Erin Stiling says:

    Thank you for sharing your truth and your honest perspectives – we are all better for it, as we are from all of your ruminations and reflections on our little corner of the world. I admire your generosity of spirit. Thank you!


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