By Marty McLaughlin
Hi. My name is Marty McLaughlin. By day I work as a mild-mannered engineer. But at night I transform into a mysterious crime-fighting hero who is an inspiration to peace-loving citizens everywhere…Er…Take that last part back. I’m just me. I’ve always been me, no matter how hard I try to be something else. I have a wife and daughter who are my bedrock. I have a dog that worships the very ground I walk on and a cat who finds me mildly irritating. I’ve been teaching myself how to play the piano during the pandemic. My dog is not a huge fan of this.
I was diagnosed with Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD/Dysthymia) back in 2004. PDD is described as a chronic form of mild depression that doesn’t abate for years. But my experiences with therapy showed me that problems started well before I was first diagnosed and that I had probably suffered several major depressive episodes before my initial diagnosis. Since then, my treatment and diagnosis has evolved to include Inattentive Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). ADHD is a condition that, in my case, makes concentrating on anything for more than a short period of time very difficult. Staying organized is nigh on impossible. With me, there was also a profound sense of frustration that would occasionally boil over into rage over making frequent errors caused by my inattentiveness. There’s a debate over whether my ADHD was the genesis of my depression, or whether my depression inflames my symptoms of ADHD. It’s a “chicken or the egg” sort of conundrum.
I wasn’t diagnosed until 2004, but there had been signs all through my life that things were amiss.
I was considered sensitive (“thin-skinned” was the phrase used at the time) when I was a young boy. I would cry at the drop of a hat during my elementary school years. If anyone was emotional around me, I would sometimes get emotional too. I couldn’t deal with people being angry or frustrated with me. Teachers who were considered harsh were my kryptonite. In second grade I had to go to a private school because my original teacher frightened me so much.
Things didn’t get much better in middle school. I was overweight and constantly bullied and shunned. I would feign illness once or twice a week at one point just to avoid school. I still had problems with harsh adults, too. I remember my 6th grade math teacher scared me so much I would cry every day when I got home. That went on for weeks.
After surviving middle-school, in high school I discovered I had some agency in my life. I got it in my head that I was going to be a fighter pilot. Someone who was the exact opposite of how I saw myself. I made that dream my mission. I set a goal of going to the Air Force academy and figured out what I needed to do to get there. I got active in sports to lose weight. However, I was fortunate in that for all my difficulties, school came easily for me.
I couldn’t entirely escape emotional struggles, though. My weight-loss and fitness odyssey included enduring a bullying and abusive coach for many years. I wilted in the atmosphere he cultivated. When I was in season, I was always anxious and downcast. Things came to a head my senior year. I had a severe breakdown and decided to leave the team. It was the right thing to do, but the coach made sure to deliver some very personal verbal abuse to me on my way out that would rattle me for many years.
Things didn’t entirely go according to my original plan. The Air Force academy rejected my application and my eyesight had degraded quite a bit since middle school. The notion of being a military pilot was an impossibility. But as I was maturing, I seemed to be gaining some resilience that I didn’t know I had. I was able to take those losses in stride and focus on new goals. I still wanted to be a military officer, and I was able to earn an Army ROTC scholarship to study engineering.
College was a good time for me, overall. I had my share of dark periods. I had extreme difficulty keeping up with my coursework and my time commitments didn’t allow me to get the amount of exercise I felt I needed. But I had a strong network of friends and family to help keep me propped up and I honestly felt like I had some sort of control over how my life was turning out.
Shortly before graduation, though, I suffered several blows in a short period of time. My father had been diagnosed with cancer the previous spring. He suffered horrifically during his treatment. I watched impotently the entire summer and fall as he wasted away. He passed a week before my graduation. Only a few weeks prior I had learned that I had been assigned an Army branch specialty that I actively did not want and that effectively dashed my chances of achieving any professional goal I had set for myself. Finally, after returning from the most miserable Christmas holiday I ever hope to experience, the Army informed me that after my officer branch orientation training, I was going directly to Korea to serve at least a year in a specialty I had absolutely no interest in. I was going to be as far away as possible from everyone I trusted for support.
Something happened within me after taking all of that in. Everything I had been told—everything I thought I knew about life—now seemed to have been completely wrong. Worse, everything my old coach had told me years ago began to ricochet in my head again. Only now, I was completely on my own. I fell apart in spectacular fashion.
For months afterwards, my daily life was pretty much the following:
- Wake up in the morning to sob uncontrollably for 10-15 minutes.
- Put on my “functional human” disguise and perform my daily duties.
- Go back to my room and sob uncontrollably until I fell asleep.
In my position there was nowhere I could really turn for support. A Chaplin was kind enough to guide me to a bereavement support group to help me begin to mourn my dad. But that was about it. After some time, things got somewhat better. But I was fundamentally changed by the whole experience. I was anxious and downcast most of the time. Whatever self-confidence I had built up over the years was completely gone. For a time, I completely lost the capacity to imagine myself accomplishing anything. I would periodically explode in self-destructive rages. I felt ashamed all the time. I limped on for years afterwards, thinking that this was just who I was now and that this was what life was all about.
I left the Army after my commitment was up. I moved back to be with friends and family again. Things were good for a while. I got married to my college sweetheart and found a job I could at least tolerate. But as time went on, I would still have short but frightening breakdowns. They became much more frequent. Work was becoming unbearable to me, and I was becoming unbearable to my wife. She finally gave me an ultimatum to seek professional treatment in 2004. I’ve been in therapy and on medication ever since.
What Helps (and What Doesn't)
The first thing that helped for me was medication. Up until that point I felt like my life was going to be like walking down a dark path and randomly falling into seemingly bottomless pits every so often. The medication didn’t remove the pitfalls from my path, but they do make them shallower and easier to see so I can do a better job of avoiding them. I stopped feeling this nearly constant overwhelming dread that was getting in my way of doing anything. The medication allowed me to proceed with a little more confidence.
I’ve learned to be more forgiving to myself. In the course of learning about my illness, I’ve learned that my dad struggled quite a bit with depression when I was young. Also, that there is a significant genetic component for susceptibility to mental illness. Knowing that it is not all my fault for being ill makes it easier to be kinder to myself.
Therapy and writing have worked as well. Talking to a trusted professional and getting my thoughts out of my head and onto the page helped to relieve mental burdens that would otherwise build up. Over time, I’ve learned how to be more conscious of my thought patterns and realize when my own thoughts are wounding me. I’ve learned how important sleep is for my well-being. If the world seems to appear darker, the first thing I do is evaluate how much rest I’m really getting. Getting enough good sleep has almost always been a factor in keeping a positive outlook.
Consistent exercise has been vital for me in keeping an even keel emotionally. It helps that I’m an exercise nut. I’m knowledgeable enough to know exactly how much effort I can handle. I have enough experience to know that no matter how awful I may think I feel, that I will feel better after a good workout session. It’s not a cure, to be sure. I think of it more like one of those medicated ointments you apply to a real bad sunburn. It may not feel great when you are lathering it on, but the relief you feel afterwards makes it so much easier to keep going.
Most of all though, what helps is my support network. I’ve been blessed with unconditional love from an amazing spouse, siblings, parent, and friends. To me, knowing that you have people on your side who would do anything to keep you safe and healthy, and that I would do the same for them, is to be wealthy beyond measure.
I’ve learned not to abuse my support structure either. I owe my wife everything, and I know there were moments during my random fits of rage when she questioned her commitment. For a long time, she was on the receiving end of my anger and frustration, even if it wasn’t aimed at her. That’s too much to ask of anyone. She was doing the best she could to keep me propped up. It wasn’t her fault that she didn’t have the proper training to help me address all the underlying issues causing my behavior. Your support network is there for support. But to get to the heart of my illness, I needed the help of professionals.
Speaking of professionals, finding a good professional therapist who you are comfortable with is not an easy task. When you’re in the middle of a major episode it can feel almost impossible. If I could do it all over again, I would start my various searches for a doctor at the first sign of trouble. Searching while I wasn’t thinking straight made for a lot of wasted time and energy.
My diagnosis wasn’t an ending for me. It was a beginning. The study of mental illnesses is complex and is still poorly understood compared to more physical ailments. Sometimes something works when you don’t think it would. It helps for me to keep an open mind.
For example, I’ve mentioned how I’m somewhat of an exercise nut. I discovered in high school that I would feel so much better emotionally when I was exercising regularly. The more intense the exercise, the better I would feel. It’s the only time my mind would feel clear.
All my therapists have known how important regular exercise has meant to me. A few years ago, after hitting another dead end with a medication I was taking, my doctor decided to experiment with ADHD treatment options, even though ADHD wasn’t part of my original diagnosis. The results were striking for me. It’s hard to describe how much clearer my perception of the world around me felt after the medication started to take effect. My doctor reasoned that I had probably been struggling with some latent ADHD since I was a kid, and it may have been a source of some of my struggles back then. That I had found refuge in vigorous exercise wasn’t surprising in retrospect. Strenuous activity is often recommended for children and young adults who struggle with ADHD. Before this, I had never considered the possibility that I was struggling from something else in addition to depression.
My journey is ongoing. Continued treatment and vigilance have allowed me to reap the benefits of a career in a field that can be very demanding and challenging at times. My experiences give me the confidence that I can endure whatever troubles might lurk ahead.