I nearly had a massive panic attack upon viewing Ava DuVernay’s Selma last week, but it’s not for reasons you might think. It wasn’t DuVernay’s masterful direction especially during the “Bloody Sunday” sequence or David Oyelowo’s gripping portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. or the film’s heady and timely content. It was a name that scrolled by during the credits, a simple name that squeezed out my breath sending me stumbling out of the darkened theater and into 1995, the year of my biggest regret.
The name, let’s call her “Joan Morrison,” appeared next to the title “Unit Publicist.” Back in 1995 Joan was a secretary at a publicity firm at which I interned leading to the ONLY positive work experience in my life. Unlike other companies, this particular firm rewarded its interns for their hard work with knowledge and professional benefits. I’d sit for days happily stuffing envelopes until my hands blackened with ink because I knew that around the corner something special would happen – working a press junket for a film and learning exactly how they worked; getting to sit next to Steve Buscemi at lunch and talking to him about his then upcoming directorial debut; working the red carpet for a film’s premiere; sitting in the VIP section with Catherine Keener as the bass pumped and colored lights swirled at the party following a movie screening. The rewards didn’t even have to be that amazing. They could be nuggets into the business’ inner workings, advice on how to succeed in the industry. I treasured every prize I earned and worked harder than I ever did in my life. I loved everyone with whom I worked. There was no tension, no drama, no games. And because of my hard work I received a job offer at the end of my internship, the chance to be a personal secretary for one of the firm’s higher-ups. I held in my hands a golden ticket, an opportunity to work for a company I knew loved to promote from within, one that nurtured and respected me as an intern. And I turned it down. I turned it down because I was 21 and still had a year of college left. I turned it down because I intensely feared my parents’ disapproval. I let them, without them knowing, choose my life’s path. A few years after I turned the job offer down, Joan was promoted to Vice President of Publicity for the entire east coast. Meanwhile, during an awful senior year within which I struggled to concentrate and suddenly found myself lost and near-paralyzed while writing class papers, I suffered my first panic attack.
In a moment of irony, the film’s inspirational theme song “Glory” by Common and John Legend eased from the emptying theater’s speakers as I wobbled towards a wall and slid down until I sat on ugly red carpeting amongst spilled popcorn next to a huge cardboard cutout advertising The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Heart pounding, my forehead beading sweat, I took out my phone and frantically Googled information on Joan Morrison’s rise as a Peter Jackson-esque battle raged through my head.
That could have been me! That SHOULD have been me!
You never would have met Elaine. You never would have had Sienna. You have the loves of your life.
I could have been famous! I could have been the golden child of the family instead of the black sheep!
You’re NOT the black sheep! This is just where you go!
I am! I failed at work! I’m a failure!
YOU HAVE A BRILLIANT AND BEAUTIFUL AND HEALTHY DAUGHTER AND AN INCREDIBLE WIFE! SHUT THE HELL UP!
My life could have been so different! I could have been a success! I could have had money! I could have been someone!
My shaky fingers scrolled through article after article: a picture of Joan wearing sunglasses on the steps of the Alabama capital building head turned slightly away from the lens preventing me from making a positive ID; Joan and another important woman mentioned in Variety; Joan’s official job title – Vice President of Publicity for Paramount Pictures.
Put away your phone and get up! GET UP!
I turned off my phone and clung to the banister weaving slightly down the stairs. A blast of sharp wind smacked my face as I opened the outside door. A car honked at me in the parking lot because I failed to look both ways. I found my car, got in and sat breathing shallowly with my arms and head on the steering wheel.
I could have been Joan. I could have been Joan. I could have been Joan.
Every so often I regret turning down the job and wonder, but here I was feeling the full weight of my life’s biggest crossroads almost 20 years later just because I saw a name scroll by amongst hundreds of others. Miraculously I made it home without causing a 12 car pileup.
Work remains my biggest trigger, the biggest force behind my depression and anxiety. Growing up work was a touchy subject in my family; to me it hovered over everything like a pesticide. I associated my father not with love and family, but with work, with suits and ties (he is no longer like this). I associated my grandfather handshakes, short conversations and work. As each grandchild graduated it seemed to me we were measured by our jobs and salaries. Before my 2nd nervous breakdown in 2010, my core belief was that work equaled identity and that I’d failed in the eyes of my family, especially my father and grandmother. I’d been a lowly secretary for nearly ten years with no hope for upward mobility. Each day I’d scroll through employment ads but my chest would fill to bursting and I’d have to turn to something else. I was that anxious. That scared. That depressed. I despised myself and fell deeper into the abyss with each passing day. Nothing else mattered or if it did (such as marrying the love of my life) despair quickly gobbled it up.
When I got home I immediately grabbed the computer and continued searching for Joan. I found an old Twitter address and sent her a message, but Elaine forced my laptop shut when I told her what I was doing and why.
“It might have been a different Joan,” she said logically. “There are probably tons of Joan Morrisons.”
“The odds of that are near impossible,” I stubbornly countered.
“Even if you had taken that path you don’t know if you would have made it. You can’t predict that your issues wouldn’t have gotten in the way. And you wouldn’t have me or Sienna.”
That much is true, but I couldn’t help to not just imagine, but glorify the path not taken. Of course I would have made it because history proved that that internship was the only enlightening, humanizing work environment I ever experienced – I kept in touch with my former employers through college and when I told them that I’d be traveling through Europe upon graduation, for instance, they hooked me up with a short job at the Cannes Film Festival and gave me tickets to MTV’s enormous gala (for those wondering, the firm did not have any openings when I graduated and the ensuing internships I took were horrible, soul-sucking experiences). Clearly I would have thrived at work meaning no work trigger, no depression, no anxiety. In my head which always extracts the negative from any situation, I convinced myself that none of the issues I experienced during childhood nor my predisposition to depression or the whacked out brain chemical imbalance I have would have reared their ugly heads in my perfect life. Rather, I would have followed what was then a passion and what now alludes me creativity- and work-wise; the passions that are Elaine and Sienna stood right in front of me as I tore myself apart imagining what surely would have been my sublimely accomplished and lucrative life, but I couldn’t see them.
Most depression sufferers do this. When languishing through an episode we can’t see anything but our own twisted minds. We aggrandize the what ifs, the things we don’t have, the choices not made, the paths not taken, at the expense of the positive people, events and choices in our lives. We also refuse to deal with reality or grow because we’re afraid of getting the tiniest bit more hurt than we already are.
- I am alive
- I’m married to a wonderful, intelligent, funny, gorgeous woman who loves me because I’m me; next year is our 10th anniversary
- I have a beautiful near 3-year-old daughter who loves life. learning and spouting out 80s catchphrases
- I’ve never had a better relationship with my family including pre-1995; my parents often tell me how proud they are; my sister and I went from no relationship to a great one
- I’ve held true to my beliefs in being loyal, kind and considerate and have the same best friends now at near 41 that I did in elementary school
- I hold a master’s in media ecology from NYU and bachelor’s in English from the University of Michigan
- I am a proud stay-at-home dad
- I’ve delivered a speech about depression and fatherhood in front of hundreds of people, I’m published in a critically acclaimed book, appeared on numerous podcasts and I’ve found my place in a community of dads and writers I value beyond words
- I may not be growing by the leaps and bounds my mind demands, but I am growing each and every day
Reliving “The Decision” (sorry LeBron James…my decision came long before yours) wreaked havoc on my weekend leaving me splayed on the couch like soft boiled cabbage, eyelids fluttering to stay open, my concerned daughter asking me if I’m “awake” (meaning “okay”). One name appearing on screen during Selma‘s credit roll took me back to the crossroads of 1995 as quickly as Marty McFly’s DeLoreon causing a near panic attack and another bout with depression, but the truth is it was just another trigger. I’ll never know what would have happened if I’d taken that job, but I can’t change the past. All I can do is try not to be so negative about it and instead concentrate on what my life is now – the passions that are my wife and daughter; growing my blog and improving my writing; learning how not to be so afraid. Who knows what’s around the corner?
What are your biggest regrets and how do you prevent them from overwhelming you?