My Brain Stopped Working: The Depression Journals of John McElhenney

exeter academy - john mcelhenney

My Brain Stopped Working

I have suffered from depressions since I was 15 when I had my first collapse at a prep school (Phillips Exeter Academy) in New Hampshire. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I was unable to study. (And boy, at that school I really needed to study.) I thought something was wrong with my brain. My dorm proctor didn’t have any advice for me. She recommended I go see the school psychologist. I did. It didn’t help. I was in crisis from some low-level depression, but no one back in the late 70’s knew what that meant.

I struggled on, failed Spanish, and did not return home for Christmas break, but when to NYC where my mom and sister were. My father was very unhappy with my decision. We survived the holidays and I was back at prep school with less mental horsepower then I’d had before the holidays. I was still unable to concentrate long enough to hammer more than the basic Spanish conjugations into my consciousness. You see, my subconsciousness was full-to-the-brim with fear and sadness. My father, was slowly, effectively, killing himself right before my eyes. He was an alcoholic and would not admit there was a problem, nor accept that he needed help.

I know that not going home to Austin, Texas at Christmas time wouldn’t have changed the trajectory of what happened next. But I couldn’t get over the feeling that when my dad had a heart attack the day we returned to school from Spring Break, it was because I had gone NYC rather than going home. I imagined that somehow I had caused my father the added stress that pushed his heart over the brink. It did not have anything to do with me, as I have learned over my years on the couch, but I couldn’t escape the onset of a major depression as I tried to return to my studies and my brain fog around learning a second language.

In the last weeks before the crackup happened I was miserable. The storms were raging nearby, my father was recovering from triple-bypass surgery with his new alcoholic wife back in my hometown. I was alone, in New Hampshire and began smoking dope to relieve my anxiety and depression. Well, that’s what I thought I was doing. What I was really doing was trying to self-medicate my blooming adolescent depression. I went to see the psychologist again, but nothing provided any relief. I wasn’t suicidal, but my prep school dream was crashing down on me. The guilt I was feeling for leaving Austin in the first place was adding to my growing sense of panic. Meanwhile, the dope was beginning to impart a “fk it” attitude about school, my future, and my father’s brutally sad situation.

On a warm and bright spring Sunday morning in Exeter, New Hampshire, I gathered in my tiny dorm room with two friends where we proceeded to get stoned to the max. We thought it would be fun to act out a rock-n-roll concert, with loud music, and even a real guitar. The two friends, stoned monkeys, watched on as if they were my adoring fans and I ripped out the entire first half of Rush’s 2112. A knock on the door stopped the music.

I turned off the music, put down the guitar and hesitated while we fanned air into the room from the 4th-floor dorm room window. I opened the door to see the tennis coach’s young wife. We had disturbed her Sunday afternoon nap.

“What are you doing?” she demanded.

“Um… I’m sorry. We’ll keep the music down.”

“Is that pot I smell?”

“No mam, we were smoking cigarettes. I’m sorry.”

“You three wait right here, I’m going to get my husband.”

And the gig was up. We were sent to our rooms to pack an overnight bag and report back to the commons room. We were told to wait in silence while the headmaster was summoned. The rest is a blur. The three of us were escorted to the infirmary to spend the night under observation. I don’t know if it was because they thought we might be suicidal (I probably was) or they thought we might escape out into the night on a partying rampage.

I’m guessing, many of the adults in the situation were also pot smokers. It was the late-70’s, and over the course of one semester, 10 kids (if you add the three of us) were expelled from Merrill Hall at Phillips Exeter Academy. We were a statistic. I’m certain that the tennis coach and his wife were stoners. The headmaster, perhaps not, but it was all over campus, and all over the country. Getting stoned was not a big deal. It was recreational fun. It was like getting drunk without a hangover.

Over the course of the next three months (last few weeks of May and all of the summer), I would start psychological counseling with a less-than-competent psychologist and get accepted to another prep school, this time a much smaller school in Maine. By the end of the summer, I was rearing to go. It was a new adventure. I had escaped my hometown blues, and more importantly, my father’s drunken wrath. I was free.

I was headed to a different mental disaster this time, but I could only see the potential for a new start. A lot of great things were going to happen between in those next 8 months. And I was, at that moment in the plane above the woods of Maine, in ecstatic bliss. I was hopeful. I was excited. I was probably experiencing my first manic high, as my bipolar illness began to take root in my 15-year-old body.

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