By John Dominguez
I was born in 1972. It’s an important fact that I’ll come back to later.
At 12 years old, I recall feeling disconnected. I couldn’t relate to those around me, my ability to participate socially was compromised, and I found myself in a dark place that didn’t make sense. Throughout my teen years, I went through various stages of withdrawal, sadness, confusion, and moments of joy that didn’t seem deserving. I was filled with self-doubt and insecurity, but I also felt graced because I could articulate how I was feeling—even if I only explained it to myself.
I didn’t hear much about depression and body dysmorphia until my senior year in high school. However, during that time it was almost exclusively a conversation around my female peers. In my self-imposed isolation, I had become angry and started lashing out at those around me. I was breaking things--destroying artifacts of my present and past--and refusing to confront a steadily worsening eating disorder. My dad, who wasn’t one to pause and reflect on emotional issues, finally agreed to have us visit a psychiatrist. Following a 30-minute conversation, I was asked to leave the room. As I approached the couch located just outside the doctor’s open door, I heard him tell my dad, “you have a very depressed child.” I recall feeling relieved. However, I couldn’t have predicted the journey I was about to undertake.
At 17 years old, I left high school and entered a facility for young people struggling with everything from drug addiction to emotional and physical abuse. In my first meeting, I was asked to tell my story, which resulted in a label that stayed with me throughout my time as a patient: I become John, depression and verbal abuse. I learned a lot during my time away from school and around peers coming to terms with the confusion of being labeled, without really knowing about themselves or the greater world continuing with or without them. In a largely controlled environment, you spend a tremendous amount of time reflecting and answering questions you carry around like a book. You experiment with your thoughts and responses because you’re safe. If anyone judges you, it’s likely that most of the group will react negatively to that judgement.
I met peers from different backgrounds and circumstances—some were privileged, but most were not. The common bond I shared with nearly all of them was a feeling that our worlds had become small and focused on thoughts we couldn’t reconcile, so we resigned to modes of survival. Some took drugs, while others were paralyzed by thought and fear. For a time, a was slightly envious of those who resorted to vices, such as unhealthy sexual behavior. I falsely believed they had given themselves an opportunity to find enjoyment in the chaos. My beliefs were misguided, and I soon began to learn how that behavior resulted in devastating psychological damage.
I was a patient for two and half months. I walked out with a clearer understanding of myself, and I was now equipped with some tools to manage my depression. However, I neglected the most important piece of effective treatment: honesty. I didn’t confront my own sexual insecurities, my fear of failure, and I never discussed my eating disorder. For the latter, I simply believed access to food was the issue. I had lost nearly 20 pounds while in treatment and assumed the problem had fixed itself. I also met people being treated for anorexia and didn’t connect the dots of my own psychological issues with body image.
I was 21 years old. I had unsuccessfully attempted to move away from home, and I had spent the better part of the past decade trying to make sense of why I was forced to think about so much. I was overwhelmed by feelings of death, despair, and suffering. While I had withdrawal at 12, I began to recognize how far back these issues had started. I was identified as gifted during my adolescence, but I didn’t understand why. If I had to be honest, these feelings of disconnect started when I was much younger. That realization was enough to set me into a tailspin.
I managed my depression with drugs and self-deprecation, but that abuse led to anxiety, which resulted in severe panic attacks. While my past had included periods of withdrawal, these attacks put me into near complete isolation. I was experiencing six to seven panic attacks every day. My body was under so much stress that I couldn’t eat or engage in anything active. I was so hyper aware of my heart rate and breathing that I’d often spend hours lying in bed, doing nothing except react to tiny fluctuations in either of those functions. I had become convinced that death was close, so I waited. For almost four months, I did nothing but wait for a heart attack or stroke—anything to bring finality to what had become a prison of panic. Several weeks before the attacks started, I had been to see my family doctor. At the time of that visit, I weighed nearly 250 pounds. I was in the same doctor’s office when I learned my weight had dropped to 162. I was told that hospitalization was necessary if I didn’t stop losing weight. My only choice was to confront the panic attacks instead of fearing them.
Over the next 15 years, I would learn and relearn different tools to manage my depression, while failing and succeeding at confronting the issues that worsened those periods. I found love in the journey, married, and have two wonderful boys. However, over the course of those tumultuous years, I found myself in a very familiar, dark place many times. I would go through healthy months and years, then start binging and starving to make myself both happy and secure—neither worked. I was equipped with tools from therapy but, at times, I just didn’t want to use them. I sought meaning in work and influences outside of my family, which led to a fear of both failure and success. Throughout this period, I could still articulate how I was feeling, which created a false sense of accomplishment and arrogance. I really believed I could treat myself and do it alone.
After the birth of my 2nd child, I found myself in a very strange place. I was thriving in a career that brought some validation to my feelings. I started to find meaning in my story through work, but I still couldn’t figure out why I was still battling cycles of depression. As a result, my moods were becoming more erratic, my communication became ineffective at times, and I started to withdraw again. However, this time, I had no place to hide. My job required me to be public facing and I found myself responsible for the happiness of too many people.
My father was dying, and I was falling apart.
As my father battled cancer, I was coming to terms with the collapse of my marriage. My wife and I hadn’t been speaking with each other in a healthy way for years. We managed to remain friendly and loving, but we also struggled over years of emotional distress. During our marriage, my depression had resulted in failed jobs, brief periods of anxiety, and poor communication. All through this chaos, I somehow convinced myself that I, alone, had the answers. My method of self-treatment had carried me through some horrific periods, which resulted in a destructive arrogance. Nobody could explain how I was feeling better than me, so why did I need professional help and a support system? This thought remained with me until very recently.
Two years after my father died, I decided to leave my job and home. With the support of my ex-wife and close friends, I have been given an opportunity to reflect and renew. However, this time, I’m not doing it alone--I am building a support system to help me in this process. I’ll admit, it has not been easy. Even with the collective strength of my family and friends, I still find myself in periods of immense emotional pain, which clouds my judgement and reactions. I still fear what achieving great success means, while also fearing the stigma of failure. These are thoughts I can’t confront alone. I cannot allow myself to be isolated, and I certainly can’t create my own method of treatment. I have learned to ask for help, even when I believe it’s not deserved.
One constant during my journey has been music. During the darkest periods of my life, I’ve often turned to the simplicity of song lyrics to make sense of my own confusing thoughts. Some of my favorite albums were released in 1972, the year I was born. I’m reminded of the beauty this world can create every time I discover a new album released during that year. It’s my connection to something bigger, which is what I was looking for all this time.
For many, it takes decades to find answers to their mental illness. What none of us should do during that journey is walk alone. It’s taken me a long time to believe those words, but I know the result will be worth the wait.