My Stay at the Boiling Pot
If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will do everything in its power to escape and survive. Oddly, however, if that same frog is placed in a pot of cool water it will stay there, even if the water’s temperature is slowly raised. As it turns out, the frog can get used to these smaller increments of change.
Slowly the heat can be increased, the flames licking the sides of the pot; the temperature creeping gently. But still, the frog will not panic. It will not put up a fight. It will not search for an escape, even as steam begins to rise from the water’s surface. Ultimately this lack of action will render the frog truly motionless; it will die before it even considers the hazards of the climbing temperature.
Fret not, dear reader. No frogs were harmed in the making of this post.
However, the same principles that led to the imaginary frog’s demise are similar to an affliction that can affect any and every one of us: depression.
Just like the temperature of Mr. Froggo’s boiling bath, depression also creeps.
It can sweep in like a low carpet of fog, rising ever so slightly until you find yourself so immersed in it that you feel there is no way out. Trust me. I watched as the fog overtook me. Today, I’m glad to report that I escaped before the waters around me began to boil.
My story with depression began on what seemed like an ordinary day in March. The year was 1999, and the world was more worried about Y2K than paying bills. It was a Wednesday around 3 p.m., and I was on a school bus, my younger brother sitting two aisle seats behind, riding through the sun-filled, green-speckled paradise of Panama City, Panama. He was eight years old. I was fourteen.
Skyscrapers reflected against the bus windows as we stared out along our journey, fading from view as they ascended high into the humid Panama sky. Between that humidity and the heat, it often felt like we were trying to breathe underwater. But none of that mattered. This was just a pit-stop, and we would inevitably come back to the States. At least that is what my mother had told me. I believed her.
My most vivid memories are birthed from times of great pain. I can still see that white house and the rusty front gate — two stories of cinder blocks and memories. I can feel the emptiness of a house so full of people. I remember where I stood, close to the terrace doorway, the sun spilling on my back. I found out my mother had died on the third of March. A few months after, I came to the knowledge that she had been dying for years.
In that moment I was the frog, gently plunked into a pot of cool water.
Slowly, the temperature around me began to rise as I sat in the pot. By the time I was 22, it was ready to boil over.
By then I favored night shifts at work and would put in long hours. My weekends were unremarkable. I’d sleep in, if I decided to get out of bed at all. If I did get up, it would often be so late that no one would be awake at home. I assumed that I was just tired due to the long hours I worked. To me, everything was fine. It all made sense.
I was unaware of the rising temperatures around me.
On most days I would wait until the last possible minute to leave home for work, taking back roads to get there. These mostly passed behind businesses and homes, away from the hustle of the city. I had crafted the perfect schedule: sleep all day, wake up and work all night. Then I’d get up the next day to do it all over again.
One night I woke up to my grandmother waiting for me downstairs. My brother was there as well.
“John, your grandfather died this morning,” she said. “Don’t worry about it, just go to work. Everything’s going to be ok.”
My brother rolled his eyes. I said nothing. It would seem she learned nothing of how to give bad news. As her words began to reverberate in my mind, so too did her announcement of my mother’s death just eight years earlier. The connection twisted a knob, and the proverbial water around me began to steam.
Like on the day of my mother’s death, I stuffed the information into the back of my head, along with endless files of bad news and grief. I said good night, walked to my car and on to my well-oiled routine, but something was different.
I had to strain my brain to concentrate on the very simple act of driving a car. At work, I had very little patience, and others began to notice. A friend came over on her day off to see what was going on. When she found me, my eyes were crying. I say my eyes were crying because I had no idea that it was happening. I felt numb. I couldn’t have cared less if I lost my job, or if I made my way home that night at all.
It hit me then. I had not thought about my mother’s death for eight years.
The water was boiling, and I, the frog, was sitting motionless in the rapidly bubbling pot. But by some miracle I saw the bubbles. I felt the pain.
I requested two weeks of vacation and spent them going over everything I had avoided for years. Pictures of my mom, songs she liked, memories of childhood. It was hard, but it was necessary. While everyone cried over my grandfather’s death, I cried thinking about the loss of my mother.
I knew of depression, but could not see the signs. The frog could not see the bubbles, nor sense the heat. It crept ever so slowly for years. I had not noticed how isolated I had become, and how much I “enjoyed” the isolation. In reality, it made me miserable, but I detested company. So I changed this.
I called my friends, whom were happy to hear from me again. I started to force myself out of the house while the sun was still out. I fought my instincts, because they were twisted.
I wish I could say today that the frog successfully jumped out of the pot and lived happily ever after, but life seldom works like a fairy tale. Instead, I’m proud to say that the frog figured out how to turn down the heat and keep it at a tolerable warmth.
I still relive the pain of March 3, but it’s better than not noticing the date at all. For eight years, it was almost like I’d forgotten about her. It was as if she didn’t matter.
What I learned from my stay at the boiling pot — besides the fact that my grandmother should not be allowed to give people bad news — is that ignoring the things that cause us pain will not make them hurt any less. Sooner or later, the pain will catch up; the water will boil, and if you don’t take action, you could find yourself trapped in the pot.
Osteopathic Medical Student - 1st year (OMS I)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences