There’s that number running around: 10,000 hours. It’s got some controversy surrounding it, but the idea, at least, that it represents is the amount of time, the finite amount of time that it takes to become a master of something, some skill, like playing the violin, sculpting, painting, writing, golfing — anything. Ten thousand hours is a finite amount of time; it’s achievable, not so long that it doesn’t feel within reach. When I first heard the number, which came out of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, I like many others started adding up the amount of time I’d spent on this or that over my life. Maybe I was a master at something, and I didn’t even realize it. Or maybe I was at least getting close.
This was 2008. I was 25. My career was off to a great start. I bought a car, a luxury I’d gone without for three years. I was on top of the world. About a year after the getting got good, in the throes of my first bout with workaholism, I woke up and drank a liter of red table wine left over from a magnum I’d started the night before. I drove to work early, as was typical at the time for me — first in, last to leave. It was normal for me to cry on the commute. It was normal for the first drag of my cigarette to make me feel like vomiting, and it was very normal for me to push through it all and plaster a smile over everything. Seventeen-hour days in the office were normal, too, and I would usually start drinking around the halfway mark, four or five in the afternoon.
Downing a liter of cheap red straight out of bed was not the best way to kick off the morning. It caught up with me by lunchtime. I didn’t lie, but I didn’t elaborate on why I wasn’t feeling well. I must have reeked of it. Did I bother to brush my teeth? Who can remember. The next day, to my credit, I walked in and quit.
Soon after, I’d start my first-ever round of antidepressants. Lexapro, prescribed by my GP with little more than family history and a listen to how I was feeling, was supposed to be the ‘one with the fewest side effects.’ She gave me a diagnosis of major depressive and generalized anxiety disorders that matched my father’s and told me everything was going to be okay.
It’s hard, though. It’s hard to believe that, especially in that moment. I kept my mouth shut about it, but I was scared for my life. That round of depression and anxiety brought with it some old friends: self loathing and suicidal ideation. When it gets bad, I do more than just let those thoughts blow like a hurricane through my mind. Many a night has found me with water running over a blade and my upturned wrist through the years. I’ve always managed to throw the knife or have it be too dull or at least cut somewhere else before crumpling into a weeping pile of myself.
It’s been with me as long as I can remember, literally. It’s one of my earliest memories. I’m not sure how old I was, but I was very young. I know this because of certain cues in the memory, like the height of things I could see through the crack of the closed closet door and the thought behind what I was doing, which was trying to kill myself. It’s adorable, really. Little Karl was so cute. He thought he could asphyxiate himself by locking himself in the closet to cut off his air supply. I don’t remember what drove me to it that time, but I know that in that moment I was, maybe for the first time, entirely committed to the idea that I deserved to die for what I’d done. I hated myself. I’d let down my parents with my actions, whatever they were, and the penalty was death. This brings me back to the 10,000-hour rule.
There’s one thing I didn’t add up the numbers on back in 2008, something that occurred to me only a week or so ago, almost ten years later: I have truly mastered hating myself. Even back in 2008 I probably could have counted up my 10,000 hours. How good am I at this point? Well, I’d worked out this whole system in which I told myself and others that I was a survivor, that I had beat depression and anxiety, and I wasn’t ashamed to admit it. Admit that it was over, not that it was tearing down whole sections of my life, not that I was still sick and that, hard as I tried to compartmentalize, it was ripping through hull after hull of compartment after compartment like the iceberg that took down the Titanic.
How many times did I tell this lie to my first therapist because I wanted her to be proud of me? It’s hard to know. It didn’t even register that it was a lie, such was the level of my mental trickery. A growing part of my life was filling with water, but I had enough things going well to keep up appearances, to look like I was still afloat. The lie worked for years, probably five or six, before that iceberg took down one compartment too many, and I wrecked.
The day it all fell apart, about three months ago, I remember it felt like the identity I’d created out of the lie was a vase that had shattered, and I was there on the floor using my bare arms to sweep the shards into a pile I could cling to, hold tight to me while it sliced into my skin. An entire day passed during which I could only cry. I had to stay home from work. I couldn’t eat or drink or brush my teeth or even sit still without falling completely apart.
A few weeks before, a friend, not a close one but someone in my life I’d talked to about depression and anxiety, killed herself. She died because she didn’t treat it, because her despair and doubt had talked her out of getting help. As I thought about her suicide, I walked myself through her despair, or how I imagined it. Empathy wasn’t hard to give, but it was taxing, destabilizing. After the shock, after the first round of grief, a thought occurred to me: she died of something I have, and if I don’t address it, I will likely die, too.
I started listening to a podcast called The Hilarious World of Depression in which comedians talk about their depression and anxiety. I heard them talk about their low points, when they were at their worst. It sounded like my day-to-day. The things I was telling myself, the doubt and guilt and shame and fear I brought with me everywhere, the shit-colored glasses I couldn’t seem to take off — all of these things that I’d normalized, the comedians were talking about them like war stories.
That’s when it hit me: I wasn’t a survivor of depression; I hadn’t beat it. Clarity came like the sun rising over a city destroyed by flood. It lit things invisible to me in the dark. I saw self-hatred strewn about everywhere, depression staining everything, and anxiety stopping me from addressing any of it, like I was pinned by a collapsed house, forced to watch as the flood destroyed everything I’ve ever known and loved.
I didn’t beat depression. I still haven’t. In between the bouts of blinding despair, I found help, but I haven’t survived anything; this, right now, is a life-or-death situation.
You know what else I haven’t done? I haven’t killed myself. Important for my anxiety to hear is that I haven’t screwed up my life, either, and this time, I haven’t tried to go through this alone. I’m going up against a master of self-hatred — myself — and it isn’t going to be easy to win, but I haven’t given up trying to get well. I don’t know how many hours I have racked up fighting for my life, for my happiness, but I haven’t stopped. I will master this, too.