A lesson learned the hard way.

Brakes don't work when a car is airborne.

It's a simple lesson in physics. It's the clearest memory of the crash. My foot on the brake pedal. That dependable, sturdy chunk of steel mashed all the way to the floor. The car gliding through the damp December air. The stereo playing 311 at an eardrum-rattling volume. Seventeen-year-old blood pumping through my veins.

The speedometer needle pointed somewhere north of 75 miles per hour before the car went Pegasus. My friend's Camaro, much to my delight, was a distant set of darting headlights in my rear-view mirror. Gene, my best friend and copilot, had queued up the track. We were immortal.

A small rise catapulted us through the air, sending my Honda across the center line on a diagonal. It was a 1999 Accord coupe with an all-leather interior and a V6 under the hood that churned out 200 horsepower. The dual overhead cams sang an intoxicating siren song when the forest-green dart bounded above 100 miles per hour. With slight hesitation, the automatic transmission would lurch into a lower gear when you stomped the accelerator. That pause was the car saying, in its own mechanized language, "OK, you want it? You've got it, asshole."

The Accord nosedived through a telephone pole at speed. Nearly all of the glass surfaces shattered on impact. The stereo cut out and left us gasping for the air that had been knocked out of our lungs in the silence. When I could breathe again, I asked Gene if he was OK. He said yes, and got out of the passenger door. To this day -- I don't know why -- I crawled through the safety glass, which littered the leather interior like a fresh snowfall, and out the passenger door.

The pole I had plowed down carried a transformer. I didn't know it then, but a quarter of the town had just lost power. Months later, Gene would point out that there were live wires draped across my car door, and a lake of flammable transformer fluid had fanned out below the car. Had I exited through the driver's side, I would have been electrocuted or burned alive.

Instead, I was fine. But Gene's sternum was broken -- an injury that plagues him to this day. A few days went by before I learned the severity of his injury and his pain. There was no justice to it. I was the one who deserved to be broken. And what if I had killed him, I asked myself then, and nearly every time I start a car to this day. What if I had killed my best friend?

Before I wrote this, I texted Gene to ask if he'd be comfortable with me sharing this experience. He wrote, "Of course you know my POV is that I was just as guilty; either of us would have been stupid enough to do exactly the same thing in the driver's seat at that point in time."

It's true, though it does little to assuage my guilt and remorse. I recall our car crash often. I remember my eyes darting from Gene, and back to the twisted steel, from Gene, and back to the splintered telephone pole, from Gene, and back to the snowfall of auto glass.

I remember that we are more like glass than steel.

Different hills.

There is seldom what most would consider a good reason for feeling this way. Depression is a burden that builds up over time, each minuscule weight that gets added to the load is undetectable to the undiscerning. These tiny burdens can be anything: an offhand remark, an emotionally indecipherable email or text, or a nagging worry. But eventually, the load reaches a tipping point.

I've always felt that my depression was unjustifiable. I haven't earned the right to be depressed. I haven't had it bad enough. That self-perceived flaw is the most depressing aspect of all. I have friends and acquaintances who experienced real childhood trauma, or who fought in wars and are contending with PTSD. I feel like my depression cheapens or lessens theirs. 

I have a good life. I had a good childhood. I am successful. On paper, my little, white, American, middle-class life and upbringing are desirable. My position is enviable to 99 percent of the world's population.

I see, acknowledge, and accept these facts with the cool logic of a dispassionate observer. And yet, my windows remain fogged over with the familiar gray haze of depression. It's an obstructed view that I've contended with since I was 8 years old. The first time I was old enough to understand the words of Side B of "Abbey Road," when I heard The Beatles sing in unison, "Boy, you're gonna carry that weight," I knew exactly what they were talking about on a bone-marrow level.

Outside of my immediate circle of friends, I've never spoken or written about my depression, mostly because to this day, I am ashamed of it. No amount of awareness campaigns or chain Facebook statuses will change that. 

I think it's common for human beings to think that their struggles and hardships are unique. But with 7 billion of us talking chimpanzees walking around this rock hurtling through space, the odds of uniqueness are not in our favor. We have more in common than we care to admit.

That means there are others out there like me. I am writing this for them, for those who carry the same weight, who are stultified by the same potent cocktail of guilt, shame, and, oh yeah, that omnipresent depression.

You, slogging up that hill with that heavy ruck. I'm out there slogging with you. Odds are, there are others. We're all just slogging up different hills.

 

Six years ago today, the overhaul began.

Facebook showed me a face this morning that I barely recognized. It was a self-portrait, taken in a hospital bed, while doctor-prescribed morphine set my brain alight, and my appendix continued its slow melt into a puddle, flooding my bloodstream with potent bacteria. I looked like a half-ghost, one foot in the world of the living, the other in the world of the dead.

For most of our existence, barring providence, appendicitis was a sentence to a slow and painful death. I wasn't afraid of dying then. I had enough baseline medical knowledge to know that I'd walk out of the hospital, just as I walked in. What I didn't know is that I wouldn't walk out the same person.

The person in the picture was living on borrowed time. He had done most everything important wrong for the past four years. He had ignored what was essential. He had distracted himself with equal parts blind ambition and self-destruction. He was ignoring the billowing, black smoke pouring out of the engine and the oil change that was 10,000 miles overdue. It took the failure of an organ the size of his pinky for the entire system to start breaking down.

Most important, it took that failure for the overhaul to begin.