Depression is a tricky illness from a number of different angles. It is not something that can be cured up with a wonder drug. Medications for mental illnesses have a lot to do with hit and miss, which is to say you try one, and if it does not work, you try another. Depression does have a chemical basis, but it also is fueled by a persons perspective on life. The problem with that is that when the depression has taken root already, the person may lack the motivation or the strength to combat it, to make even the slightest changes in the perspective. Also, depression, like most mental illnesses, is very misunderstood by outsiders, particularly in the ultraorthodox community. People will try to tell you a good word, tell you to pick up a book or to ignore your evil inclination, but depression is not that easy to shake off.
I have had a love-hate relationship with depression for over twenty years. Ive done the therapy thing, been on a number of different meds, and sometimes these things have helped to push the depression off for a while, but the depression always comes knocking on my door again, voracious as a lion in a vegan restaurant.
We moved to New York from Beis Shemesh about four years ago, and my depression was one of the reasons for the change. We believed that getting settled in an environment that was familiar to me (as I was born and raised in the U.S.) and being more self-sufficient would change my situation, and indeed, my wife and I have seen tremendous improvements since we came to New York. About a year ago, though, that ol depression began to creep in the door, and I fought a silent battle with it under my wifes observant eye, but we did nothing about it, and the pressures and stressors in my life kept growing and building until we both knew that something was going to have to explode soon.
It finally did come out. The depression wielded its ugly head in true, fiery form, and my wife, thousands of miles away from any family, was at a loss of what to do. Depression is not such an accepted illness in the ultraorthodox world. When you have the flu, you can knock on your neighbors door and ask for some lemon juice. When you have depression, if you knock on your neighbors door, you are risking your childrens schools and future marriage arrangements.
My wife and I are close to a couple who live a couple of blocks away from us, and my wife turned to her in our hour of need. The husband suggested that I be hospitalized, and my wife agreed with him, and when the suggestion was brought to my attention, I just thought, Its about time.
I spent a week and a half in a voluntary lock-down unit, much to the chagrin and frustration of my employer, who was kept in the dark about what was going on with me, and I am proud to say that the hospitalization changed nothing about the depression. From the night I entered the hospital to the day I took the train home, I was not a different person save for two things: I was now on anti-depressant medication (which is professionals answer to everything), and I had made the resolve to be open and honest with my wife and others in order to protect myself and prevent any dangerous situations.
In the weeks leading up to the break-down that led to my hospitalization, my wife and I had been discussing the topic of wanderlust. I had not been out of New York City in nearly four years save three laborious trips to Eretz Yisroel, which are always more work than leisure when I have to take public transportation back and forth between Beis Shemesh, Jerusalem, and Tiberius. I was dying to get out of the city, to go anywhere, but far. I considered Louisiana, Idaho, even South Africa, just to go someplace new that I never had seen. One place, though, struck me as the ideal destination, and my wife and I began to talk about the necessity to get me out there.
Anybody who has studied a little bit of U.S. geography knows that there are fifty states, the youngest of which are Hawaii and Alaska. What many people do not know, however, is that in addition to the fifty states, there are five island territories that also belong to the U.S. Out to the east in the Caribbean Sea are Puerto Rico (and, you cant really walk four paces in New York City without seeing a Puerto Rican flag) and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and far off in the Atlantic, in the area known as Oceana, are American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam.
I had discovered Guam in an encyclopedia as a teenager and had carried with me an awe and fascination for it ever since then. In Beis Shemesh, as my depression was swirling and my wanderlust was calling me to run away from the depression, Guam developed into a serious hobby or obsession. Now, my wife and I began to consider the possibility that spending a brief hiatus in Guam might be good for my mental well-being.
Then, the hospital.
I was hospitalized just before Purim and indeed was discharged from the hospital on the day after Purim, which meant that my kids dressed up and went to the Purim celebration without their Tatty. Shortly after Shavuos, there was to be a wedding in Beis Shemesh that we had to attend, and I was, therefore, planning on spending the holiday by the Rabbi in Jerusalem, and we also wanted to make side locks for my son by the Rabbi, and I now had under three months to attempt to organize some sort of outpatient treatment for myself to make sure that I was secure and healthy enough to make the trip.
Something concerned me, though, about the upcoming trip to Israel, and that was the rigor of the trip. With Shavuos in Jerusalem and cutting my son's hair and my in-laws in Tiberius and a wedding in Beis Shemesh, the trip was going to be primarily a bunch of running around, no rest for the weary, and I was scared that I might not have the energy for such a trip.
I suggested half-jokingly that I might just go to Guam instead, and my wife responded by telling me that there was enough money for me to go to Israel and then spend a week in Guam.
My wife worked in the matzah bakery all winter in order to have money to go visit her family once a year, and with tickets to Israel under eight hundred dollars, there was still plenty of money for me to make a stop in Guam.
Okay. It sounded good. I was going to have the best of both worlds. I was going to see the Rabbi, make side locks for my son, and get to spend a week on my secluded island in the middle of nowhere thousands of miles from any of the stressors in my life.
Still, I was troubled by the fact that the trip to Israel might still be too taxing for me, and I had pity on my boss and did not feel comfortable leaving him stranded without me for three weeks even if the majority of the time I would be under pressure rather than having an actual vacation, so I came up with a new idea. I would cancel the trip to Israel altogether and spend a full two weeks in Guam.
My wife agreed with me but told me that I had to behave if I was going to be in Guam, nothing stupid or dangerous. If I returned from the trip in one piece, she said, then she would allow me to go again. I promised her that I would be okay there. Guam, I told her, would be a part of my treatment, so she could be assured that I would not do anything there to mess it up.
Because of my busy schedule, my wife offered to make the ticket for me. I insisted on taking care of my own ticket. The travel agent I used was fast and efficient whereas her travel agent was not only mind-numbingly slow but also our next door neighbor, and I did not feel comfortable giving the neighbor too much information about my whereabouts. Not many people in my neighborhood fly too often to Guam.
As I had predicted, when my wife spoke with the neighbor, he was completely unfamiliar with Guam and wanted to speak with me. I did not have time to deal with him and did not trust him either, so I told my wife to explain to him what Guam was. She was enough of an expert on the island from me. She told me that he had asked to speak with me, and I explained to my wife that any fool could find Guam on the Internet in a matter of seconds, so she resigned and told me to make my own ticket, which was precisely what I did (and my travel agent, who had never heard of Guam either, found my little island online in under five seconds).
By the time I was ready to go to Guam, I already had found a temporary outpatient treatment program, and from the start, I had been upfront with them about my intentions of going to Guam. They had been supportive of my decision, and I had assured them that Guam was neither an escape nor a solution but a part of the treatment. My trip to Guam was for the purpose of collecting myself, removing the stressors of my life for a couple of weeks, in order to gather my strength to return and deal properly with my issues. Guam was not going to erase the fact that I was overworked and underpaid and living in a one-bedroom basement with two needy children with no time to write and not enough time to sleep. All those things would be waiting for me on a silver platter when I returned from Guam. Upon my return, though, I told them that I would be ready to face all those stressors with golden gloves on my fists.
I counted down the days until my trip, which was scheduled for the day after Shavuos. My family went off to Israel a week before I was to fly, and it was relaxing enough to have the apartment to myself for those few days. Whenever my wife would go overseas with the kids, that apartment would go from the size of a shoe box to the size of the Taj Mahal.
Finally, it was my turn. Before Guam, though, I had a whopping thirteen hours to fly to Tokyo. The plane was spacious enough, and the seat next to me had been empty, but thirteen hours on a plane can make a man stir crazy. In Tokyo, I had about two hours to wait for my next flight, the one for which I had been waiting, and at 5:40 pm local time, my second plane lifted into the air on its way to Guam.
Guam is only a three and a half hour flight and one time zone from Tokyo, and I finally landed at 10:20 or so. The airport was breathtakingly small. There was no other flight around, so we were the only passengers coming in there. At the baggage claim, only one of three carousels was working, and I did not have to wait very long for my bag to come out, which is definitely a rarity. Passport control and customs took a matter of minutes, and I was quickly in the fresh night air.
The first thing one notices about Guam is the humidity. The weather was warm, probably in the high seventies, which I had come to expect, but I had known nothing ahead of time about the humidity. The skies were clear, though, although the forecast I had read before leaving New York had said rain and thunderstorms for most of the week.
Although somebody in the hotel had told me that it was within walking distance from the airport, at the airport I was told I would be better off taking a taxi as it was not safe to walk that time of night, so I found myself a taxi and headed over to the hotel, paying ten dollars for what would have amounted to a seven-minute walk.
When I walked into the hotel, the man at the front desk greeted me. Mr. Joshua, he said, opening out his arms. Welcome.
Thank you, I said, realizing that he knew my name because he was not expecting anybody but me to show up that late at night.
The man began to check me in but told me that the credit card I had used to book my room had been denied. It was a friends card, and I had given him the money before leaving, so I had no idea what had happened. The man at the desk called his supervisor, and after a couple more attempts at swiping the card and another few calls to the supervisor, it was decided that I could check in for now but had to pay before leaving the hotel. I thanked the man profusely with a bundle of apologies and, slightly annoyed by the situation, went to my room.
I awoke the next morning, showered, and prayed the morning prayers. After eating a sandwich of canned salmon wrapped in a tortilla, I donned my coat and ventured out into the new world in which I found myself. It was warm outside, not a sign of rain, but uncomfortably humid. I went to the front desk and asked where I could get a calling card. The woman at the front desk told me I could get one at Kmart. I asked her how I could get there, and she explained it to me, saying it was about a fifteen minute walk, but the hotel shuttle could take me there in another hour. I declined, saying I would rather walk myself, and went on my way.
Kmart was much closer than a fifteen minute walk, but I would not have minded venturing farther at all. It was a beautiful day with friendly, crystal skies that called out, Hafa Adai, the local, Chamorro greeting.
Kmart did not have any phone cards, but I was told that I could get one at the gas station, which was next door anyway, so I walked over to the gas station, picked up a calling card, and returned to my hotel after my first glimpse of this magical island.
I called my friend, who new immediately why I was calling. He told me that he had taken the money out of the account, but he would return it the following day, and I would be able to swipe the card. I thanked him and called my wife. My wife was grateful to hear from me and told me that everybody was having a grand time in Tiberius, but they were missing me. My son asked to talk to me and refused to give the phone back to his mother when she asked for it. He wanted me to himself. The card, though, rapidly ran out of money, and I was forced to cut the call short.
Later in the day, I decided to go buy some fruits and vegetables. I had brought with me my own food, but I needed something to supplement my diet while in Guam. The nearest grocery store was much farther than Kmart, but the walk was pleasant save the humidity, and I was thoroughly excited to be in Guam. I was away from all the stressors in the world, yes, had let them all stay behind me in New York, but I was in Guam. What could be more unbelievable than that?
The grocery was an actual grocery store, not the sort of quaint, family-run shop like where I worked in Brooklyn. I went straight to the produce section over to the left of the store and spent several minutes browsing through a selection of citrus fruits, melons, apples, and general, run-of-the-mill veggies. In total, I bought fifty dollars worth of fruits and vegetables, which I hoped would last me at least a week.
I was beginning to feel the freshness, the vitality, the life that Guam had to offer, and I laughed out loud on my way back to the hotel as, with blue skies above me, a light drizzle began to fall. This was incredible. In New York, rain is an annoying bother. In Guam, it is life; it is the seed of all miracles and the secret of genesis. This was why I had come to Guam.
As the days progressed, I felt an actual change in my mood. While I was not overwhelmed by my demanding job, not trying to watch every penny I spent, not cooped up in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment, I was able to absorb the energy of Guam. I could sleep when I needed to sleep. I had time to take proper care of personal hygiene, time to write, time to just walk around and explore and enjoy the beauty of God's creation. It was my own rebirth, my opportunity to reclaim my life, and each time the rain fell, I laughed. I laughed loudly. I rollicked in the rain, reveled in the sun and under the auspices of watchful, grey cumulus clouds. Every passing car with a Guam license plate was not an earsore but a testament to Gods mercy upon me. The strangers who would greet me randomly in the street were a delightful switch from the indifference typical of New Yorkers. In Guam, God was giving me the strength to rebuild myself, to return to some sense of psychological and emotional normalcy, and I understood that when I would return to New York, return to my wretched, taxing job and my cramped apartment and my screaming children, I would have a new mantra to say: I dont suffer from depression; depression suffers from me.