I Thought Becoming Jack Kerouac Would Cure My Depression

There are moments in <i>On the Road</i> when the author seems cured of his own mental health issues, so I figured that a freewheeling, weed-smoking experience might have the same effect on me.

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Nov 13 2014, 3:35pm

Highway 138, California. Photo by Tiberiu Ana via ​Flickr

This post originally appeared in VICE UK

​When Ford launched the Model T—the first-ever mass-produced car— in 1908, not only did traveling get easier for Americans, but automobiles became expressions of their individuality. No longer did people need to cram onto trains with a ton of strangers; instead, they could travel alone or with whomever they wanted sitting in the passenger seat.

When the Great Depression hit in the 1920s, Americans began traveling more out of economic need than as a means to convey their individuality to strangers. John Steinbeck depicted this in The Grapes of Wrath, a novel telling the story of Tom Joad, a farmer journeying from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to California where, apparently, everything is fruitful.

Then, when the Depression ended after World War II, a generation of middle-class youth began rebelling against society, and the concept of the teenager was born. Having been reared on the car, they started commandeering it as an instrument of their restlessness, driving not to any place in particular but just anywhere away from Here.

I first fell in love with the myth of the road at 19, when I read—somewhat predictably—Jack Kerouac's On the Road. A member of this rebellious generation, Kerouac drove and hitchhiked around America until essentially the day he died, cataloguing a period of it in On the Road, a book of ecstatic revelations and wild, free-flowing prose.

It was a precarious point in my life: I was jobless, had no education—having dropped out of school because of depression—and was living through a horrendous time in my country's history (Ireland, the Celtic Tiger years) where almost everyone was making money—more money than I, with my vague ambitions, ever hoped to.

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Naturally, Kerouac's kind of travel appealed to me. It offered not just the drug and sexual experiences I feared I was missing out on by not going to uni but also—in allowing me to "find" myself—a cure for my depression. However, in the cold light of day, the thought of me hitchhiking felt ridiculous. Because I lived in Ireland—an island you can drive the length of in five hours—I'd at least have to get to mainland Europe first, and how could I do that without any money?

Applying for a job seemed impossible. Though the answer to their question would be simple—"I dropped out of school because of mental illness"—the idea of telling this to someone terrified me. I wasn't secure in my depression. Maybe, because I lived in a house where it wasn't really spoken about, I believed—deep down—it didn't actually exist. Often I wondered whether it was more weakness, rather than depression, that had fucked me up.

So I began searching for other stuff like On the Road: books and films that could be consumed from the comfort of my bedroom, but that depicted an outside world rife with the ecstatic revelations I hoped for when I did get to travel.

The trailer for Five Easy Pieces

Something pointed me to Five Easy Pieces, a road movie starring Jack Nicholson from 1970. In it, he plays a guy who drifts around a lot and boozes, but unlike Kerouac he does more to escape his past than run towards a fulfilling future. In childhood, we learn, he was a piano prodigy—a calling he now regrets giving up on, judging by his frequent fits of rage.

Forty minutes into the film, he travels from California to Washington to visit his disapproving father. He seeks forgiveness but finds his father incapable of speech and movement after a stroke. So with no forgiveness coming, he hitchhikes to Canada, leaving behind his pregnant girlfriend and everything he owns.

The tone of the film definitely doesn't match On the Road's, but I did identify with Nicholson's character immensely. Not that I'd been a prodigy at anything, but I'd certainly been destined for a better life than the one I ended up having. At least if I'd stayed in school—ignoring the immense blackness and continual need to hide—I could have had a future of meeting my parents' expectations, instead of one they only ever spoke about when I left the room, when my mum didn't think I could hear her crying.

And not that my parents were as disapproving as Nicholson's father: They were understanding in their own confused way. But they, too, couldn't transcend their shortcomings to get a grip on mine. Instead, they thought I was completely culpable in what was happening—that, if I really wanted to, I could "cheer up" and turn my life around.

The author, trying to find peace on the road 

Back then, though, these things felt less worrying than my perception of the road having been tainted. In Five Easy Pieces, the road wasn't really a place to find yourself or cure any depression. It was a place to get lost.

I began wondering if my understanding of On the Road was false, if—through weakness—I'd distorted it into something grossly one-dimensional. Years later, I read it again. Though rife with moments where Kerouac seems cured of his own depression (what he calls, in the book's opening lines, the "feeling that everything was dead"), the transience of these moments felt much more apparent the second time around. Ultimately, I admit that On the Road and Five Easy Pieces essentially came to the same conclusion, one that Kerouac couldn't bring himself to express all that clearly when writing the book, but one he must have screamed from the rooftops while drinking himself to death at 47—that the road can't cure anyone.

At 19, though, I told myself that it could, that there were endless things capable of curing me if only I had the strength to master them. Surely—if I was weak—strength was the perfect antidote.

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As time passed I began to live, making it to mainland Europe, where I finally got a job. In the end, getting one was nothing. No one cared if I was depressed as long as I did what I was supposed to. Unfortunately, that was even more depressing, as—for years—I'd lingered on my illness, and then: nothing.

I traveled, too, but not like Kerouac—more three-star hotels than weed and fever dreams on a bed in a Mexican brothel. Eventually I had to confront the fact that I wasn't Kerouac, lacking the bravery to do things in his pure, unprotected way.

As a result, traveling and living abroad frustrated me. I should have gone in two-footed, but, all over the world, I was too timid to talk to strangers, too shy to enter intimidating-looking bars, too weary to stay up past 4. Bullshit stuff, but for me, too-frequent reminders of the boy who'd spent years hiding from life.

Looking back, was I hiding? I think I was—but my limitations back then didn't allow for anything else. Really, if I'm honest, I didn't accept that these limitations even existed until recently, and it's only now that I can begin to judge myself against what I'm actually capable of, rather than against the myths given to me by books, films, and the internet.

Yes, it would have been nice to have gone to uni, to have done tons of drugs and become Jack Kerouac, but I couldn't do what my body wouldn't allow me, couldn't be who my mind wouldn't let me be.

The author, having a crack at the Kerouac experience

Now, at 27, I'm back in Ireland and the Celtic Tiger has been dead for almost a decade. Maybe it's because it is dead—or maybe it's because I now expect less from what's essentially just a mass of land—but the country does seem slightly less horrendous than it used to.

One thing that isn't dead, though, is my depression. Lately, in fact, it's become a good bit worse. I don't think this is the product of added stress—recently, life has been going pretty well. With writing, I've finally found the perfect outlet to talk about this stuff, earning a little money in the process. I'm now in the privileged position of being able to look back on my teenage traumas and say that maybe they were fate, that while others were raking it in during the Celtic Tiger, securing loans that they now can't afford to repay, I was learning how to live on almost nothing; and while others were going to uni, reading the same books I was reading but only talking about them in coffee shops, I was in my bedroom, alone, learning how to fucking write.

So, today, I wake in the middle of the night and worry about endless shit. My days, they blur together. Very few joyful experiences take place. Though I'm happy with my writing, and satisfied with some other stuff, I'm afraid that these things will soon become unsustainable. I'm afraid that—like it did when I was a teenager—the cloud of depression that's forever on my horizon will again move in and envelop everything.

"IN THE END, MY OBSESSION WITH THE ROAD COMES FROM HOPE"

Something else that isn't dead, obviously, is my obsession with the road. So lately, maybe in desperation, I've been wondering whether its benefits are as transient as everything suggests, whether I could still travel in Kerouac's pure, unprotected way and cure this illness.

But I've wondered about this enough to know I'll never take that step. I think, at 27, I've tried all that I'm going to try: meditation, medication, religion, exercise, therapy, to name but a few things. That's not to say that I've tried everything there is, or that I've done all these things correctly, only that—after a decade of pushing myself to the brink, pouring time, money, and my heart into different treatments, different methods, and different doctors—something eventually has to give.

Did I think I needed the road at 19 because, actually—like Kerouac's generation—I wanted to rebel? Certainly, my vague ambitions did extend to not wanting to end up like my parents, eking out a living while taking shit from people who didn't deserve that power, ultimately being so racked with fear that, if my son came down with a serious mental illness, I could barely even speak about it, much less get him help.

But to say I truly wanted to rebel would be bullshit.

I think, in the end, my obsession with the road comes from hope—not hope that there's a cure to this depression, but that there's an easy answer. I think, if I hit the road, everything will be fine. I think, if I drink that shot, take that pill, see that therapist, I'll be a completely different person.

Over the years, it's been easier to stomach this—that there are endless things capable of curing me—rather than the more hopeless reality. Reality has never been my strong suit; even when Five Easy Pieces tainted my one-dimensional view of the road, even when I learned Kerouac had drunk himself to death, I still told myself that my initial, addled perception was correct.

It was at this point, I suspect, that the road became a punishment. I began beating myself over the head with it to atone not only for what I'd let happen in dropping out of school, but also for what I was letting happen every day of my life by being such a pussy. Also, I can't help questioning whether my interest in America was real, if I wasn't just torturing myself by obsessing over a country that—lacking a university education—I'd never get a visa for. Why else did I know more about the Ford Model T than any car I'd ever actually driven? Why else do I know more about the Great Depression than any event in Irish history?

But despite all this—all the delusion and bullshit—I did always think I'd overcome it. Never did I see myself in old age still battling depression, having endured it for 30, 40, 50 more years. Soon, something would come along and save me.

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Now, however, I feel I must resign myself to the possibility that such a future awaits. And though I tell myself to be stronger, to quit being such a pussy—because this is what I've always done—I've tried that enough times to know it doesn't work, either. Calling myself a pussy is just another easy answer—my whole life I've looked for easy answers and now it's time, finally, to face reality, stop hiding and let go of the fallacy that, with them, I can cure this complicated illness.

Can I let go, however, after all this time? I can certainly afford to. Though reality may be more hopeless than I'd like, I know I ultimately lack the bravery not just to hit the road in the pure, unprotected sense but also to kill myself. Ironically, the fear that keeps me from becoming Jack Kerouac is probably the same fear that keeps me alive.

Mainly, though, I'm too tired not to let go, tired of being depressed but really fucking tired of having hope that—like a road not taken—doesn't lead anywhere.

Maybe I am weak. But I feel now like I need to accept the inevitable and admit that, whatever it is—weakness or depression—it'll probably be a part of me forever, and if a cure does exist, it won't be something I can force or even hold in my hands. It'll be time, or luck, or something I haven't thought of yet. I don't know—but I do know for sure it won't be a pill, calling myself a pussy, or the road. And for the first time in my life, that's kind of OK.

Follow James Nolan on ​Twitter.

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