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With driving and depression, it’s all about making a change in direction

When I teach my S2000, it teaches me how to master heights by sliding one hand at a time.

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They drove a rod right through the chopping block. The mechanic at the repair shop confirmed my worst fear when he told me the engine was toast.

When I had to floor Suzi in third gear to belt her exhaust off the bottom of a highway overpass the day before, I knew things were dire. She bellowed in the fading summer light, but then her engine suddenly shut off with a thud. The moment my foot touched her gas pedal, it was dead. We coasted to the shoulder of the road and waited for a flatbed tow truck as the sun set. With VTEC activated and RPMs climbing rapidly toward redline, Suzi’s engine reached its maximum speed of 7,000 rpm before suddenly exploding. Nonetheless, I could have spared her death by not arming her properly before sending her into battle. She was entitled to my life, but I had wronged her.

A psychiatrist from the mental health clinic I visited five days a week asked me, “Do you ever think about driving your car into another car?” six months before the explosion.

After reading this, I couldn’t help but chuckle. “No.”

Even in the depths of my depression, I found humor at the gallows, which the doctor failed to appreciate. There is no other scenario that could have so clearly shown me the difference between the value of my life and the value of my car. Putting Suzi in front of an oncoming vehicle is like putting my own children in danger, and I would never do that. On the other hand, that doesn’t describe me. After my doctor and therapists learned that I frequently considered suicide, they seriously considered admitting me to a psychiatric facility. Perhaps I should have checked into a psychiatric hospital instead of staying here, but at least my car is still operational.

Early Honda S2000s like Suzi have 2.0-liter, 9,000 rpm engines that are prone to oil consumption with age. Oil should be topped off as needed in between scheduled oil changes. So, I’m going to take a deep breath and come clean: The only time I ever saw Suzi’s dipstick was when she was using it. Years ago, when I first took her in for maintenance, the mechanic warned me to make frequent inspections to prevent any disasters. In terms of oil changes, I once took Suzi to a service station that did a great job but forgot to put a sticker on the windshield to remind me when it was time to get Suzi serviced again. The next time I brought it in, it was only because the clutch was giving out, but the mechanic said the engine was almost out of oil. What was the mileage between oil changes, like 5,000 or 10,000? More? I have absolutely no idea what to do. If I had to drive Suzi to my death, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second, so why wasn’t I paying attention to something as basic as her oil?

The diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder requires five of the nine primary criteria. Depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, weight loss or gain (I gained 40 pounds in less than a year), insomnia or sleeping too much (I slept too little), psychomotor agitation or retardation (mine was the latter; moving slowly), fatigue, feelings of worthlessness or excessive/inappropriate guilt, and suicidal ideation were all symptoms I experienced during my time in the five-days-a-week clinic.

An additional requirement is as follows: Significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning as determined by clinical criteria. Showering, brushing my teeth, and getting dressed all drained me, and I felt like I had arthritis of the mind. Work? Ignore it. Self-care? No way.

To paraphrase Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” “I would rather not.” Bartleby starts out by saying he doesn’t want to do anything, and eventually he refuses to do even the smallest of tasks. He eventually stops doing anything besides staring at the wall. That was the depth of my sadness; an underlying desire for absolutely nothing.

Several months after leaving the clinic, I started to feel better with the help of therapy, medication, family, and a little blue roadster, whose engine was a mighty but torqueless little wonder and needed constant revving and shifting to function. It didn’t matter if I took Suzi for a slow ride through town or a fast one down the highway; the more I pushed her, the more satisfied she seemed, and the more satisfied I became. She gave me more than just a temporary reprieve from my depression; instead, she showed me how to overcome it by rewarding my ability to apply the principle she taught me: forcing myself to act when I don’t want to.

Turns were just as much fun for Suzi as revs. When a figure skater is about to perform a spin, they pull their arms into their torso to bring their mass closer to their body’s center axis and thus reduce their rotational inertia. The S2000 is also front mid-engine, with the longitudinal inline-four mounted behind the front axle and up against the firewall. All four corners use double wishbones. These A-arms have fallen out of favor with manufacturers due to their high price and large footprint, despite their ability to provide responsive control and quick turning. When the tires lose traction in a turn, however, the car can spin suddenly, like a twig under pressure that doesn’t yield until it breaks. Although I am not well-versed in suspension geometry, I have heard that the early S2000 chassis is particularly susceptible to snap oversteer due to problems with toe changes.

Suzi’s handling was telepathic when her tires were firmly planted on the ground, but if she had a weakness—no, scratch that; she was perfect. If she encountered an obstacle, the electronic power steering might not have warned the driver that traction was deteriorating beneath her tires. She would tell me through the driver’s seat, “My rear end is rotating faster than yours, so command your hands counterclockwise post haste—or we’re spinning into a tree,” whenever she started to slide while turning right and her steering wheel was silent to my hands. When the slide begins, I need to make a U-turn, or countersteer. Despite watching a half dozen videos in preparation, my initial reaction to snap oversteer was to avoid countersteering at all costs. Instead, I wanted to keep going down the slope, slam on the brakes, or, in a state of paralyzing shock, just let go of everything, including my bowels. Nonetheless, I went against my natural inclination and veered away from the woods.

Some mornings I wake up feeling completely spent. Where are you going, go to work? To be honest, I’d rather not. But I’m afraid that if I sleep in just once, I’ll sleep in again the next day, and before I know it, I’ll be spiraling downward into depression. I use an ability I developed in therapy instead: acting in ways that are the polar opposite of how I’m feeling. Basically, it’s telling you to eat your vegetables. When feelings prompt harmful behavior, take the opposite course of action. Black coffee is the norm when you wake up exhausted. I’m able to avoid Bartleby and my depression this way.

I wish willpower and caffeine were enough to beat my depression, but unfortunately they aren’t. I’ve probably tried more antidepressants in the last two years than you have fingers. However, there was one I didn’t take, despite the advice of multiple psychiatrists: lithium. Lithium reminded me of other people’s manic episodes and three-day sleepless gambling marathons. But I felt fine as a cucumber. Simply put, I wished I could die at will, never get old with my wife, never see my children mature, and never have to redline Suzi again. I’m sorry, doctor, but if I took lithium, it would confirm my worst fears about myself and I simply cannot do that. For the time being, I will not.

The logic is the only thing that seems off. What a horrible generalization to make about people who take lithium. How heartless of me to allow my prejudice to prevent me from taking a medicine that could make my life better. Although it went against my better judgment, I gave it a shot. My new psychiatrist has diagnosed me with mid-spectrum depression, which lies between bipolar disorder and clinical depression. Hopefully that’s why lithium is helping. Lithium is on a periodic table poster at work, right next to oxygen and carbon. The wall of shame I erected around lithium crumbles as it becomes just one element among many that my body requires. Yet the negative connotation remains. My shame returns as I hold my lithium pills before bed. To be this broken, I need this?

I don’t want to be depressed, and it’s not my fault that it forces me to make U-turns. When I’m driving Suzi aggressively, I have to pull over and get my head on straight, just like when I’m fighting depression. While Suzi’s influence compels me to take that route, depression forces me to avoid it. Like any good teacher, Suzi forces me to do things I wouldn’t normally do because she knows I’m capable of more than I give myself credit for. After more than a year without her, I finally realized the lesson wasn’t limited to just the car.

Could you say that Suzi’s nervous disposition is a defect? It makes no difference what you say. It’s in her blood, and I’m as attached to her as if she were my own child. Neither her spinning disorder nor mine can be treated. Her treatment involves expensive Swedish aftermarket coilovers, while mine consists of lithium pills. In the end, it’s on me to do what needs doing, even if I’d rather not. Just like when you get an oil change. The act of rising from slumber. Or just telling myself I’m more than my label or my medication.

It’s been over a year and a half since Suzi’s summer twilight explosion, and she’s still waiting for the first shop to finish rebuilding the defective replacement engine they installed. Her engine and transmission are protected by brand-new mounts. Her coilovers have been overhauled, and she now has brand-new control arms and bushings. My S2000 now has summer tires.

After her restoration is complete, I hope to put Suzi to use as she was intended: turning her larger cam lobes and racing down a togue, the Japanese term for a winding mountain road. Unfortunately, a methodical break-in is what the store recommends. Suzi, too, needs time to collect herself after a reconstruction. On level ground, she won’t pick up speed immediately, but I can assist her. We’ll have to make do with the area’s single true downhill twisty, a wooded ravine nestled in the shadow of Mount Fuji just a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan. The lowest point of the road is a sharp right turn without any sightlines. Every time you turn around, the oil, gravel, water, etc., has changed. There are too many unknowns on the margin for me to say whether or not we will slip. Can Suzi and I start at the bottom and work our way up?

There is no guarantee, but we are prepared to make a U-turn.