Ebook 99¢ Special: 12/21–12/28/16
by David Sandum
Publisher Sandra Jonas Publishing House
Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Memoirs, Health, Fitness & Dieting/Mental Health, Health, Mind & Body/Psychology & Counseling, Parenting & Relationships, Self-Help, Health, Fitness & Dieting, Nonfiction
Ebook 99¢ Special: 12/21–12/28/16
David Sandum appeared to have it all: a beautiful young family and a promising career ahead as a business consultant. But his life started veering off course, and upon returning to his native Scandinavia, he fell into an inexplicable, deep depression.
This award-winning memoir presents a searingly honest account of David's struggle to overcome his crippling mental illness. After years of hopeless despair, bleak hospitalizations, and shattered dreams, he is finally saved by his art. The paintbrush becomes his lifeline, enabling him to express his emotions and relieve his suffering.
I WOKE UP WITH A STIFF NECK and fierce headache. What I wouldn’t have given for just one more minute in bed. Mornings were the worst, especially when they started before sunrise.
Fighting the urge to fall back asleep, I forced myself to sit up, then reached out to open the bedside window. The cold winter air rushed in through the crack.
I looked at the clock, hoping to discover I had set the alarm too early. No such luck. Trying to focus, I inhaled deeply, in through my nose and out through my mouth, visualizing a far-off place, a place as green as Virginia with waters as blue as Lake Powell’s, away from all the stress and responsibilities. But within seconds, the image disappeared, and I was left staring at a white brick wall—a wall that generations of students had stared at before me. More beige than white really, it was the ugliest color I’d ever seen.
On several occasions, I had asked student housing for permission to paint the walls, perhaps in a soft yellow or a warm green. All my requests had been denied. Student apartments had to be white, they told me, and could be touched only by campus staff. Their response was as rigid as every other part of my life, which lately seemed to be more about enduring than enjoying. Yes, I needed to follow society’s rules—go to work, be productive, get straight As, be a good father and husband—but those rules had become as sterile and dreary as that white wall.
Yet who was I to complain? One part of me loved school and work. I was a go-getter and could make things happen. That was my talent, some said. College wasn’t about whining, but sacrificing for a better future, for the freedom to become something.
So the color of my wall was “slightly insignificant,” as my stats professor would say. Graduation was just around the corner, and come nightfall, my last final would be over and I’d shout like Martin Luther King: “Free at last. Thank God almighty, I am free at last!” Free from late nights, struggle and toil, a sore gut, and saggy eyes. That diploma was my ticket to the capitalized free world.
I glanced over at my wife, still sound asleep. I loved her—I knew that. Some people had told me how they weren’t sure if they loved, which never made any sense to me. Love isn’t just about passion and romance. Nobody feels ecstatic forever. Marriage is also about loyalty and sticking it out together.
Still, I had to admit that our relationship had recently turned into an uphill climb. I didn’t know why—I had no reason to feel “cold.” We were living separate lives, she busy with the kids and working at a nearby childcare center, and I busy with work or school. The only time we spent together was an occasional Sunday afternoon in the park, when I wasn’t stuck studying in the library. Perhaps it really was true what older married folk so often warned about—the danger of growing apart. A life on my own? I couldn’t fathom it.
Shaky or not, our circumstances were about to change. We planned to move back to Scandinavia, buy a home in suburbia, and drive a van like everyone else, so we, too, could send our kids to college one day, thus furthering the cycle—and the American way of life. After living in the United States for nearly six years, I even dreamed in English. This was, after all, the Promised Land, where dreams were as important as food on the table and success was defined by “getting ahead,” an ideal I wholeheartedly embraced.
Like many young couples in college with kids, we’d had few options. Quitting work would have meant no insurance for the family and limited funds to pay tuition, while cutting down the student load would have prevented me from ever graduating. It was a tough game, and every college senior knew how few actually made it, but I was close and would never stop. It was a fact of life that you had to fight to become something.
In one swift move, I managed to get myself out of bed and stumble into the bathroom, a tiny space built for people half my size, with a bathtub so small I had to place my feet up on the wall to stretch my legs. Staring at myself in the mirror, I saw that the bags under my eyes were even darker than usual. I bent my head to avoid the horrible sight and brushed my teeth so fast I spat blood. Back in the bedroom, I grabbed clean socks and threw on the same jeans and T-shirt I’d worn the day before, too tired to care.
In the tiny kitchen/living room combo, probably designed in the ’60s by some nerd motivated by cost cutting and a possible Christmas bonus, I noticed the silence, so quiet I could hear my own breathing—evidence that our two sons, three-month-old baby Andreas and four-year-old Alex, were still asleep. The peace was so intensely satisfying that it made me feel guilty: no good father should ever relish being alone.
My reflections ended abruptly when I looked at my watch. I was late, damn it! Of all the days of the year, this was not the one to mess with. I was taking a final in my Age of Imperialism class with Professor Setzer, who viewed tardiness as a sign of weakness and worthy of an F on a test day—that would definitely destroy my plans of getting hired by one of the world’s leading consulting firms.
I had two, maybe three minutes before the campus shuttle came around the corner. Panicking, I grabbed a jug of milk from the fridge and chugged it down so fast I spilled some on my chest. Ignoring the mess, I threw on my jacket, hat, and gloves, tossed my backpack over my shoulder, and dashed out the door with the same thought I’d had every morning since puberty: Tonight I’m going to bed on time.
OUTSIDE, A WALL of heavy snow hit my face, blown by the bitter wind. God, how I hated the cold! Because I come from Sweden, Americans expect me to love freezing temperatures; many think that polar bears roam our streets, the Swiss Alps are nearby, and we live in knee-deep snow. Actually, I despise cold weather, probably like most Swedes. Why else would half the country go on vacation to Crete or the Canary Islands during the cold winter months?
Knowing the shuttle sometimes arrived early, I started to run. When I reached the stop, I gave a sigh of relief and was met by stares from a dozen or so figures huddled in the dark. Having lived on campus for almost two years, I recognized many of them. Most were foreign students—although some were “domestic foreigners” from Alaska or California. I had little in common with them.
Catching my breath and nearly gagging, I found a secluded spot under a lamppost and dropped my bag in the snow. The shuttle was now late. I got angry, but then my thoughts turned to my upcoming final and I felt extremely nervous. It didn’t make any sense. I had taken hundreds of exams by that point and considered myself a veteran. No, this was another kind of nervousness, a struggle to breathe, as if the whole world were coming to an end.
Just then, the sharp pain returned, cutting like a blade deep into my chest. Not for the first time, I was convinced I was having a heart attack. I had all the symptoms: chest pain, nausea, even pain down my left arm. Any second, I’d fall into the snow and die, and there was nothing I could do.
Afraid to move, I stood still, staring up into the snow floating through the air in structured waves until it landed on my face. Each flake seemed so calm and organized, accepting its purpose and destiny. In a strange way, I felt that I, too, was going down my destined road.
To my surprise, nothing happened. The pain gradually lessened, and I gave another sigh of relief, loud enough to make a few students turn and stare. One, a huge Tongan who looked out of his element in his skater shorts, black winter boots, and red down jacket, smiled and laughed, probably thinking I had lost it.
I noticed that the wind had stopped, and except for an occasional car driving by in the distance, there were no sounds, as if the Wasatch Mountains bordering the Salt Lake Valley had silenced them.
I WOULD MISS this place. Life would never be the same—could never be the same. A lot had happened since we left Sweden. It had been a bold move to come here so young, when I was just twenty-two and my wife, Kersti, a year younger. We had been married only a year. I was nineteen when I met her in Denmark while attending a Mormon youth conference for Scandinavian members. She was so pretty with her long blonde hair, exuding such charisma that I fell for her instantly. By the end of our first dance, we had become a couple, prompting one of my friends to call me a show-off. Well, show-off or not, two years later (following countless trips back and forth between her hometown of Moss, Norway, and my city, Gothenburg, Sweden), we were married.
After Kersti moved into my old flat in Gothenburg, we had a tougher time than expected. Marriage experts say the first year is the hardest, and they’re right; adjusting to each other isn’t easy. In our case, Kersti never felt she belonged there among all my Swedish friends, and I realized that we had to move to make it work. The United States seemed perfect for a fresh start—she had an American mother and dual citizenship, and I had spent a year in Salt Lake as a high school exchange student and taken several trips to California, Florida, and everywhere in between.
We simply picked up and left. Crazy, really. But what was life except one big mystery? Who wouldn’t risk taking a giant leap into the unknown at least once in their lifetime? So we quit our jobs, sold what little furniture we had, and left without making any concrete plans, except for a promised room at a friend’s house in Bountiful, Utah, and $1,500 in our pockets.
The arranged stay didn’t pan out—the wife acted imposed upon, and we felt as though we were disrupting their lives. So we borrowed their van and went apartment hunting. After a few hours, we spotted an apartment complex off the freeway in Murray that seemed decent; the next day we moved into a small one-bedroom unit. Noticing that we had little more than suitcases, the property owner offered to lend us some old furniture from the basement, which we gladly accepted.
Now we were in a race to find work before the next month’s rent was due. I landed a job doing assembly-line work at the nearby Franklin Covey Company, a popular day-planner manufacturer. Standing there like a robot every day, I was utterly miserable, feeling the sting of missing my family and friends back home and thinking I had made a terrible mistake. In contrast, Kersti said she had finally come home. Would we ever feel we belonged somewhere together?
One day at work, I told my manager I wasn’t right for the job and quit. Kersti worried about how we would manage, but everything worked out for us. A friend told me about a job at a watch shop in the mall, and Kersti was hired as a secretary at the University of Utah by someone who loved Norway.
To get ahead, I knew I needed to go back to school, so I started taking night and early morning classes at the nearby college. As the years passed, we became part of the community—skied at Brighton, not at Park City like the tourists; bought bread at Great Harvest, not the supermarket; and went for barbecues up Mill Creek Canyon in the fall with the locals. I fell in love with the beauty of the state, especially the southern part, red rock country, which looks like another planet.
Kersti and I both enrolled at the University of Utah, we both worked, and our two sons were born. Utah now felt like home, and Scandinavia seemed utterly foreign. Who would have thought?
Not all the changes were positive. I didn’t fall asleep anymore—rather, I collapsed. Waking up was even worse, and I was constantly overcome by fatigue. Fighting nausea every day, I wondered what was wrong. My stomach was an endless mess, and walking fast made me sick. I could work out, but only later in the day. Sometimes after lunch, my throat would tighten, making it nearly impossible to eat a full plate, and a few times I’d had to hurry into a campus restroom to vomit, coming out feeling like a junkie, as if my body were hollering for me to stop and listen. But I didn’t want to stop, not this close to my goal of graduation.
Was I any different from the thousands of other students doing the same? So what if I worked full time and took a full load at school—that’s what everyone did. Wasn’t that why hiring agencies said that a degree was so important, that it showed we were goal-oriented and had self-discipline? No, I needed a rest, that’s all. I needed to go back to Scandinavia and be near the ocean again. I needed to listen to the waves lapping the shore—that would nurse me back to health. I missed the ocean terribly. Utah was a lovely place, but it had no ocean, and I couldn’t live without it.
AT LEAST I’D be playing squash with Dean today, I thought, trying to cheer myself up. Dean May was my good friend, professor, and mentor. I had gotten to know him by taking his Utah history course. He would talk to anyone—the guy in the locker room, the waitress, the student—inevitably ending up in a deep, personal conversation. Students had nominated him for several teaching awards, and locals recognized his face from numerous appearances in a TV series about Utah history.
When he and I talked for the first time, I was nervous, having stopped by his office to discuss my term paper on the Goshute Indians. Of medium build with brown, thinning hair, he had warm eyes and a broad smile that quickly put me at ease.
At the end of our conversation, Dean asked, “So I wonder, since you’re European, do you play squash?”
“Squash. The game, not the vegetable.”
“Oh, right,” I said, smiling. “Do you have squash here?”
“Oh yes, we do. We have several courts at the gym. But you’re right. Most Americans play a less divine form of the game called racquetball. I started playing squash as a student in Germany years ago and have played ever since. But my squash partner just graduated, so I’m looking for someone to play with. What do you say?”
“I guess I could try . . .”
“Oh, don’t be shy. I’ll teach you. It’s settled then,” he said, stretching out his hand toward mine. “Is Monday at noon fine with you?”
We had been playing for years now—every Monday around eleven, followed by a chat in the sauna, and then lunch. At the beginning, he beat me badly, despite a back injury that gave him a slight limp when he walked. But gradually I learned the game and started playing quite well. What I liked most were our talks afterward, when I could discuss and process just about anything. He read my papers sometimes and even made corrections. Gradually his down-to-earth attitude erased his rank and title from our relationship, and I considered him one of my closest friends.
If anyone could explain what was happening to me—the nausea, chest pains, and anxiousness—it was Dean.
THE SNOW KEPT FALLING. We’d been waiting forty-five minutes, and still no sign of the shuttle. My toes were frozen, and I waved my arms back and forth to keep warm. Most of the others students had wandered off. A few hopefuls still lingered, telling themselves, like me, that it was better to wait for the next one than to begin the walk.
The atmosphere was amped. Some cussed out loud, and one tall student kicked the signpost so hard it rattled. How could they do this to us? It was as if those clueless shuttle drivers decided to be late during midterms and finals simply to piss us off. Then again, most drivers were students themselves, working for an unimpressive minimum wage. If I spent my days driving around in circles, I probably would have stayed in bed myself on a day like this.
The final would begin in twenty minutes, the amount of time I’d need to walk across campus. Should I stay and wait for the bus or go on foot? If I walked, I had to start now. What would happen if I didn’t arrive on time? Professor Setzer probably wouldn’t let me in. I had heard such stories before. The final accounted for 40 percent of my grade, so I’d be in serious trouble. He hated me, I knew it, and he would never believe my shuttle story.
Dean had told me that my fears about Setzer were unfounded, that he was a soft, kind man. On the contrary, he seemed anything but kind to me in his conservative brown suit and gray beard. From a reliable source, I had learned that a year earlier he had opposed my application for a department scholarship. Setzer was an ignorant, self-righteous prick who only saw things his way—though I had to admit I viewed most people with skepticism these days.
Despite my good grades, I saw myself failing at everything, thinking some professors hated my guts, even when they openly told me otherwise. Constantly fretting, I studied more than necessary, and those around me had started to notice. My wife often told me to relax, that I “overdid everything.” She was probably right. Heaven knew I had lost the ability to unwind.
Right or wrong, I was keeping my ongoing health problems to myself, except for the time my chest hurt so much I asked Kersti to drive me to the emergency room. Convinced I was having a heart attack, I persuaded the nurse at the front desk to move me to the front of the line and straight into the emergency room treatment facility, where I was strapped up with wires and given quite the attention.
But the EKG showed no sign of heart problems, and ten minutes later, the doctors dismissed me, advising me to go home and get some rest. Had I imagined all of it? If my heart wasn’t the problem, what was? The pain was excruciating and real, all right.
“David,” Kersti said, “are you sure you weren’t exaggerating?”
“Exaggerating? I should have told you that when you were in labor and nearly crushed my hand.”
What was all this talk of exaggerating? My best childhood friend, John, who also lived in Salt Lake, had made similar comments lately, and I could barely keep from punching him in the face.
Okay, I agree—I could be tenacious. But this time they were wrong. There was no embellishing going on. This was the real deal, pain of the serious kind. I knew that before long I’d be back in the emergency room to get some bleak diagnosis, and then that cursed doctor and the rest of the world would owe me one hell of an apology!
The hardest part lately was hearing countless, unsolicited statements about how awful I looked. Not a day went by without at least one person mentioning it. How total strangers could say such things was beyond me.
“Thanks,” I would say. “You look like crap yourself.”
That wasn’t funny even when I was exhausted. I once told Dean about these comments, but he brushed them off, saying he had seen his fair share of tired students and I’d be all right. My dad, on the other hand, worried that I was getting “burned out”—a recently popular phrase in Sweden, increasingly making headlines and sometimes coined as “the next world pandemic.”
Then there was the remark from Professor McCarty, another history professor. After a conversation in his office, he asked me how I was doing—a question that seemed odd coming from this full-of-himself Irishman.
“You look beaten,” he said. “You’re a good student, but everyone needs to rest.”
Sensing his honest concern, I nearly broke down, and he saw it. He scrolled through the campus phone directory and wrote down a phone number. “I want you to call this place on campus that deals with these kinds of issues. There’s no shame in it.”
What issues? I had no idea what he was talking about but didn’t ask. With graduation approaching, I tossed the note in the trash.
FINALLY WE SPOTTED the dim lights of the shuttle through the falling snow. It was packed, but having waited so long, we barged in and pressed our way forward. I ended up on the doorstep, clinging onto the side window and staring at the profile of the heavyset driver.
As we approached the next stop, the driver grabbed the microphone and yelled over the loudspeaker mounted on the roof, “Sorry folks. I know it’s finals and all, but the shuttle’s crammed, and you’ll have to wait for the next one.” Likewise, he drove past the remaining stops, passing dozens of angry students in riot mode.
We arrived on campus fifteen minutes later. I sprinted toward the history building and bounded up to the second floor, my footsteps echoing through the empty stairwell. Had I been on time, students would have lined the stone walls, chatting and reading.
When I reached the room, I paused to catch my breath and then slowly opened the door, expecting Professor Setzer to be there to send me away. But all I saw were the backs of a hundred students writing like mad. Trying to sneak in unnoticed, I jumped when the door slammed hard behind me. Everyone in the last three rows turned to look, and I gave them a halfhearted nod. Having been told not to come up front if late, I found an empty desk in the corner, and within seconds, the TA handed me the exam: two short essay questions and instructions to choose one and write extensively.
Nervous, I scanned the room for Professor Setzer and spotted him seated at the front, reading an old book with his legs crossed like an English gentleman. In the same brown suit and tie he had worn the entire semester, he acted as if he couldn’t care less if we were there or not. College, after all, was not high school, he told us repeatedly. Next to the professor rested his old leather briefcase, which would soon contain our neatly stacked bluebooks, the determinants of our fate.
I had studied hard, so I felt confident seeing only two questions. But when I read them, I didn’t understand either one. Suddenly the sharp pain in between my ribs returned, this time reaching my fingertips in some sort of climax. Every instinct in my body told me to get up, run out the door, and keep running.
Yet I remained seated in complete stillness, thinking I could explain this—it was cancer, high blood pressure, or the prophesied burnout. Struggling to get air and breathing heavily, I worried about disturbing the other students, but they continued writing while I did nothing.
More valuable time passed. All I could do was try to regroup, so I rested my head on the desk, feeling its cold surface beneath my chin. Five minutes later, I managed to muster enough energy to sit up and reread the test, though I still couldn’t come up with a single constructive thought.
Half the time had now elapsed, and I knew I had little chance of pulling this off. It was as if everything I had memorized for weeks had vanished. Irritated, I made some noise that caught the attention of a guy to my left, who turned and stared at me as if I were crazy. For the first time in my life, I felt real rage and wanted to get up and smash his teeth in. But all I could manage was a desperate glance, and he turned away, shaking his head.
About to give up and leave, I jotted down one of the questions: “Explain and discuss British imperialism in the late 1800s.” Almost instantly, I remembered a name, then a date, and soon my entire memory returned like a big glob of Jell-O. I wrote nonstop until the TA signaled five minutes remained.
Closing my final sentence, I felt my stomach crunch. No relief, only a crunch. My hands were clammy and stiff, my mouth dry, and sweat dripped down my spine. As the time expired, most students forced their way to the front to deliver their tests. Anxious to get outside for fresh air, I hurried to get in line. When I handed my bluebook to the TA, I asked if he could send my score and grade early by e-mail. Knowing I was a graduating senior, he nodded and said, “Good luck in the real world.”
Outside, I joined the herd of students migrating from the south side of campus to the north, eventually converging with the rest of the crowd passing by the library. Most of the students looked rushed or apathetic, some relieved and laughing. I felt as if I had gotten the wind knocked out of me and couldn’t see straight.
Why wasn’t I happy? I had dreamed about this day for ages, planning my victory in detail—I would celebrate with a lumberjack breakfast at Dees, and when I was full, I would walk out in the middle of campus, shout, and jump-kick my heels like Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain.
But I didn’t feel like doing anything—I definitely didn’t feel like eating ham and eggs. All I felt was the fear of an uncertain future.
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David Sandum was born in Gothenburg, Sweden, and lived several years as a young man in the United States. He attended the University of Utah and graduated in 1999 with a BA in speech communication. When he became ill with depression, he turned to writing and art to grapple with his symptoms. A thriving painter today, he views himself primarily as a colorist and expressionist; energy and emotions are key to his work. In 2010, he earned international acclaim by founding TwitterArtExhibit, a social media initiative that enlists artists to help raise funds for local charities. This annual event has gone global, taking place in such cities as Los Angeles, Orlando, and New York City. David lives with his wife and two sons in Moss, Norway.