Sometimes I get depressed. For some people who get depressed, there’s an obvious catalyst. Someone dies, or they lose their health, for example. In my case, there’s usually no obvious cause. Instead, some series of smaller setbacks will collude with whatever faulty brain chemistry I have and go cascading into a depressive episode. We’re talking very minor stuff — a new endeavor that didn’t go well, a perceived social slight — things that would mean nothing to someone who isn’t vulnerable to depression. But for someone like me who is, those events, when combined, can steal away weeks or months of my life. This happens to me about twice per decade.
What I find most disconcerting about this disease isn’t its unpredictability, but the fact that I always manage to fool myself into thinking that I can control its progress and resolution, when in reality I can’t.
When I was in my mid-20s, I was about due for another bout. I was in a relationship, with a woman whom I’ll call Heather, which had been deteriorating for quite some time, and my general outlook had followed suit.
When I was down, Heather’s impulse was to take me away for a few days and show me someplace new. Over the years this has resulted in some interesting impromptu trips. Since we were short on savings, she got the idea that we should go to the Poconos, a resort area in Pennsylvania. This was the late eighties. We’d seen the ads for Beautiful Mount Airy Lodge. It was nearby and cheap, so I thought it looked okay.
Heather even found the perfect place for us: the Rainbow Mountain Resort. It was billed as “the only gay and lesbian resort in the Poconos.” When we got there, I understood why there was only one gay and lesbian resort in the Poconos, and that’s because no one wanted one. This place was kind of a dump. It was also nearly empty. This was in June, the high season.
The place was kind of a disappointment. We both expected a little better. There was no heart-shaped tub. Our room was kind cramped. The whole place had a run down, neglected feel to it. My mood was rapidly plummeting. In addition, Heather lost a filling and was experiencing dental pain. Still, we’d driven all the way there and booked the room for two nights. We were both trying to be good sports.
With the exception of a waterlogged tennis court and foosball, there was nothing to do there. I think the owners realized this because when we checked in they’d offered discounts on activities at some of the larger area resorts so, lacking other ideas, we decided to take advantage of some of them.
Unfortunately, in order to get the discounts, we had to produce blinding, rainbow-colored coupons that declared to anyone within a 20 foot radius where we were staying. It wasn’t that I was embarrassed about who we were. It’s just that we’d go somewhere, surrounded by carloads of Pennsylvanians with their teens and toddlers, and quietly offer up our coupons, and I felt like we were walking around with giant H’s on our foreheads: “Hi! We’re from the homo resort down the road!”
It was never worth the discomfort either. Our day of misadventures ended with a canoe rental. We’d thought that would be fun. But then we realized that neither of us knew how to operate a canoe. So we spent much of the afternoon screaming at each other and dragging the canoe half a mile up river after we missed a turn. By Saturday night, as we sat in the resort’s nearly empty restaurant, talking to no one, not even each other, I felt relieved to be leaving the next day.
We checked out the next morning and I was fine with just going back to our apartment in New York. But Heather was still determined to salvage the weekend. Earlier on we’d spotted a billboard for a place called Claws ‘n’ Paws Wild Animal Park.
“You like animals, Julie,” Heather offered. “Let’s not go straight home. Let’s go there.”
It’s true. I do like animals. Certain kinds. I like most domesticated animals. I love goats. I thought, “If I can go somewhere and pet a goat, maybe I’ll be okay.” I didn’t believe that this place would have wild animals. We were in the Delaware Water Gap. How was that possible? It had to be a petting zoo. This time false advertising was going to work for me.
When we got there it was immediately apparent that the owners’ creative vision for Claws ‘n’ Paws was at tragic odds with their budget. This was strictly a two-by-four and chicken wire affair. To our surprise they did have wild animals. But the collection was totally random, like they’d taken whatever had fallen off the truck. The park was basically a series of small pens scattered wildly around a wooded compound. They were in no particular thematic or zoological arrangement, and the variety ranged from the truly exotic, like a Siberian tiger, to the mundane, something you could conceivably find in your backyard, like a tortoise.
The affect of the animals fell on two extreme ends of an emotional spectrum. They were either sullen, having had the will to live completely beaten out of them by this place, or they were totally enraged. They all sat in the barest of pens, usually with nothing to do — they’d have a log or a rock and that was it.
I should mention at this juncture that in addition to depression I also suffered from fairly frequent panic attacks during this time in my life. If you’ve never had a panic attack, I’ll describe it for you. It feels like you’re going to die. When you have a panic attack the region of your brain that regulates fear-based emotions goes totally haywire. This is what’s meant by the phrase “fight or flight.” Your nervous system is flooded with adrenaline and the uncomfortable physical sensations you experience as a result — trouble breathing, faintness, nausea, sweating — join with your increasingly agitated mental state in a terrifically effective feedback loop of anxiety. Those things then amplify each other until you go batshit. This part of our brains is primitive and its effect on us is primal: fight or flight. In my case, flight. All I wanted to do was flee.
As we made our way down this seemingly endless path of animal misery I could feel a panic attack coming on. I kept praying the next animal would cheer me up, that I’d find that fucking goat – anything. But each new pen featured a tableau as upsetting as the previous one. Desperate to escape, I spotted a sign that said “Exit through the Gift Shop this way.” Then I saw the gift shop and by some miracle it was only about 20 feet away.
Heather could tell that I was beginning to freak out, having been tuned into the signs over the years. She saw the sign too. So she was coaxing me along: “It’s okay. We’re almost there. We’re leaving.”
But there was one more animal left: the gibbon. The gibbon is a member of the ape family. It’s a beautiful, graceful creature, small for an ape, around 15 pounds, and can typically live for anywhere from 25-50 years, depending on the species. Like us, gibbons have no tails. They also have four fingers and an opposable thumb on each hand. Gibbons are found in Southeast Asian countries from India to Indonesia, where they live in rain forests. They spend most of their time swinging from trees and are rarely seen on the ground. My point here is that a gibbon has no business being in the Pennsylvania countryside.
This gibbon, a female, was situated in the middle of a round pen enclosed by chain-link fencing. Her sole distractions were the rock she was sitting on and an old tire. She was alone. As I approached her pen there was no way to avoid her eyes. They held my own in an unflinching, unblinking gaze. Her eyes contained a sorrow that I can only describe as bottomless and relentless.
I wanted to move, but she would not stop staring at me. It seemed like an abandonment to walk away from her in this moment. But the longer I looked, the more her eyes became a mirror of everything that was wrong with the world and everything that was wrong with me. And as I stood there, staring, in my mind’s eye a giant hand emerged from the sky behind me and, pinching my shoulders between its massive thumb and forefinger, gently turned me, like a doll on roller skates, positioning me just so onto the trajectory I’d been fighting to avoid. And then it gave me a little push, sending me rolling on my way into the abyss.
As I grappled with the realization of where I was headed next, the gibbon did something. She moved. Ever so slowly, without taking her eyes off me, she lifted one slender, very human hand up and casually draped her arm over her head like this.
This motion sent me over the edge. Next thing, I was racing through the gift shop with tears streaming down my face, possibly screaming, while panicked patrons got out of my way. Through my veil of tears and panic they were distorted and fuzzy. But I did notice them. And I felt kind of bad for them. There they were, having just gone through this animal park and probably had a good time. And now they were here in the gift shop, minding their own business, buying their otter refrigerator magnets or gibbon salt-and-pepper shakers, and suddenly there’s an insane woman running through the shop.
That was the last trip Heather and I ever took together. We broke up a few months later.
I don’t go to zoos anymore.