Note: The following post is about my struggle with depression. If you are struggling with your own mental health and need immediate help, please contact the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255. There is hope for us.
On a May morning earlier this year, I lay in bed unable to move.
Outside the orange sun was shining through the windows. The birds were singing their morning songs. Emery, my 3-year-old daughter, stood at my bedside asking for breakfast.
But it felt as if there was a 10,000-pound boulder resting on top of me and I couldn’t find the strength to move it. After months of fighting, my depression had taken hold and I wasn’t sure how I was ever going to get up.
For the better part of the past two years—if not longer—I’ve struggled with depression. (It’s taken a lot of self-reflection and acceptance to write that sentence.)
I can’t say for certain what triggered my downward spiral. I think back to when I first felt depressed. It was 2006. My grandpa, with whom I was very close, died weeks before my high school graduation. I never got a chance to say goodbye, immense guilt I still carry to this day. Rather than dealing with those feelings, I’ve always pushed them away.
When I really look back, I think to a stretch between 2017-2019 when I reported on a series of stories that, in hindsight, affected me worse than I realized.
August 2017 brought Hurricane Harvey, a storm that ravaged Southeast Texas and flooded thousands out of their homes. I remember feeling a sense of dread as I met with families who lost everything. Why, I questioned, couldn’t I do more to help these people who needed so much?
I met with families in a small, predominately immigrant community outside The Woodlands whose homes were completely submerged by floodwaters. Many didn’t have the means to rebuild. Instead, they erected tents outside of their flooded homes and built a makeshift community center with outhouses and showers that carried fresh cold water from nearby jugs. I was in awe of their resiliency, but struck by the dichotomy of how mere miles away in the affluent Woodlands community, million-dollar homes were either spared or immediately repaired. Meanwhile, these people—the janitors and cafeteria workers and maids who staffed the office buildings or cleaned those homes—couldn’t afford to take time off work to rebuild their own lives.
There was one family in particular that I’ll never forget: Adam and Joyce Romero. At 90 and 71, respectively, they lost nearly everything they owned, including the home that Adam built with his hands decades earlier. I sat with them on their front porch one afternoon as they stared at the pile of trash before them: Adam’s custom-built cabinets, Joyce’s Elvis Presley memorabilia, all water logged, covered in mold. Adam cried as he stared at the pile. Joyce tearfully spoke about how they didn’t have the means to start over.
I felt the stories weighing on me. But instead of dealing with those emotions, I pushed them down and drowned them away with alcohol, and kept reporting. My family and I were safe, I reasoned. We had all our belongings and a roof over our heads. Who was I to complain when so many others had it worse?
Then came 2019, a year filled with reporting that sent me deeper and, what I believe, served as a perfect storm that collided with the mental toll of the Covid pandemic.
January brought on a project about priests sexually abusing children throughout the Houston area, and how the Catholic Church helped cover the abuse. My team and I heard from countless families and survivors who recounted the horrors of how priests lured them in and sexually abused them.
I turned to a familiar cycle. I kept my head down, drank on the weekends or the occasional weeknight when the feelings got too heavy, and kept pushing on.
By March, I moved to another project sharing the stories of the people impacted by the shooting at Santa Fe High School, where, in 2018, a student gunman killed eight students and two teachers. I covered the shooting the day it happened—an emotional struggle of its own. I returned a year later to give a voice to the victims’ families and survivors whose stories had been lost in a news cycle that largely focused on the shooter. I spoke to a student who was in the art room closet as the gunman fired inside, as well as a police officer who patrolled a door near the art room, not knowing his mother lay dead feet inside that door.
Once again, I kept my head down, drank on the weekends or the occasional weeknight when things got too heavy, and kept pushing on.
By July, I’d moved on to a project investigating failures in Texas’ child protective services system. My team and I found that 12 children had died in Southeast Texas in the past year, all of whom had families with prior run-ins with CPS. But we focused on one case: an 11-week-old girl who was shaken so violently her brain was “liquefied.” I’ll never forget reading her autopsy report. I sat at my desk wanting to cry, wanting to shake her parents to death because who could hurt such an innocent girl?
The haunting details stayed with me. In her pictures I saw my own daughter, 2 years old at the time and so full of life, and I was saddened that the young girl didn’t get the same chances to run wildly and laugh and play.
Looking back, by the time we released that project I was in a rapid downward spiral—though, of course, I didn’t know it then. I was quick to anger, the smallest things upset me; I dreaded getting out of bed and going to work; I was filled with self-doubt, unable to make decisions; I was crippled by a growing voice in my head that told me I was a worthless husband, father, and human being.
I was drinking heavily to numb it all. And one drunken night I finally spoke the d-word to my wife. I think I’m depressed, I told her.
Later, while sober, I chalked it up to being drunk and I didn’t know what I was talking about. Depression? Ha. That’s for the weak, I told myself.
So, I kept working, drinking on the weekends except on the growing weeknight when things got too heavy, and kept pushing on.
But for the first time, I felt myself sink. All the feelings I tried to suppress in the months and years before started to bubble. And unlike in the past when drinking helped keep them away, now it only made them worse.
By March, when the Covid crisis hit, I was miserable. I lacked much—if any—motivation to work. I didn’t care about reading or writing or cooking in my free time. Some days I struggled to finish the most routine tasks; instead, succumbing to lying on the couch trying to shield myself from my thoughts and feelings under a blanket.
This was all compounded by the fact my position at work changed due to the crisis back to a job that I loathed with every ounce of my being. I was tied to my computer five nights a week from 2-11. I didn’t get to eat dinner with my family. Bedtime with Emery was rushed, storytime cut altogether. I worked Saturdays, too, when Elissa and Emery home laughing and playing in the living room.
I increasingly felt like a terrible father because Emery often ran to my desk and asked, “Daddy, why do you work so much?” as I split my attention between her and writing the latest bullshit breaking news that no one would remember in five years anyway.
Finally, on that May morning, all my sadness and frustrations and anger imploded into an all-consuming bout of depression that left me crippled in bed as I stared into my daughter’s eyes as she asked for breakfast.
I’ve never felt like such a failure as a father.
The longer I lay there the more my anxiety worsened. I felt the walls closing in. I felt like I was suffocating. Without thinking, I threw off the comforter, made Emery breakfast, and drove her to day care. And there, sitting in the parking lot, I realized I couldn’t go home; I had to get away. So I drove to one of the places I cherish most: the Texas hill country.
It was there, sitting in a tube in the cool running water, that I’d realized just how far I’d fallen. I couldn’t lie to myself anymore: I was depressed. I was in a bad place. I needed a change and to focus on getting better.
So, I quit my job and I’ve spent the past two-and-a-half months being honest about my emotions, spending more time with my wife and daughter, drinking less, exercising more. I slowly opened up to close friends, only to learn that they, too, were struggling with their mental health. In a way, it made me feel less alone.
I’ve realized I can’t fix myself. So today, I start therapy.
I’m far from healed, but I finally have hope that I can start picking up the pieces and put myself back together.
If you're dealing with depression and need someone to speak with, I'm available to listen. I'm not a therapist and cannot offer any clinical advice, but in struggling with my own depression I've found such a weight was lifted in speaking to those who have dealt with their own battles. Please, don't hesitate to email me at bymattkeyser[at]gmail[dot]com. I promise to keep your story confidential. If you are, however, dealing with an immediate crisis and are in danger, please contact the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255 or seek other professional help.