“A rod went right through the block. Engine’s done,” said the shop technician, confirming my worst fear.
I’d known the situation was dire since the day before when I floored Suzi for a third-gear pull to belt her exhaust off the bottom of a highway overpass. She roared in the waning summer light and then thunk, her engine spun down. Her gas pedal was lifeless beneath my foot as we coasted to the side of the road and waited for a flatbed tow truck as the sun set. Suzi’s engine died a warrior’s death: VTEC engaged, revs rising fast to redline until a bang at 7,000 rpm—and no more. Nevertheless, her sacrifice would have been avoided if I hadn't sent her into battle ill-equipped. I’d done her wrong, though I owed her my life.
Six months before the blowup, a psychiatrist at my five-day-a-week mental health clinic probed for the likelihood of my suicide, “Do you ever think about driving your car into another car?”
I laughed. “No.”
The doctor didn’t understand what was funny, but in the depths of my depression, I still found humor at the gallows. I could think of no scenario that could have more neatly distinguished the value I placed on my life vs. my car. I wouldn’t put Suzi in front of an oncoming car any more than I would my children. Myself, on the other hand. Soon enough, the doctor and team of therapists found out I thought about killing myself all the time; they considered inpatient hospitalization to keep me safe. Maybe a psych ward should have been the move, but I’m still here, even if my car is not.
The 2.0-liter, 9,000 rpm engines of early Honda S2000s like Suzi tend to burn oil as they age. So, in between regular oil changes, owners are advised to top off as needed. Let me take a deep breath and confess: I saw Suzi’s dipstick…once. When I first brought her to a mechanic years ago, he admonished me to check it often, lest catastrophe. As for oil changes, well, at one point, I took Suzi to a shop that performed otherwise faultless service but didn’t affix an oil-change-reminder sticker to the windshield. The next time I brought her in, only because her clutch was going out, the tech told me her engine was nearly starved of oil. Was it 5,000 or 10,000 miles since the last oil change? More? No clue. I would drive Suzi everywhere but to my death, so how was I not attentive to the simple task of checking her oil?
Of the nine primary criteria for Major Depressive Disorder, five are required to diagnose. In a rare feat of overachievement—at the lowest depths of my depression in the five-day-a-week clinic—I met them all: depressed mood, loss of interest/pleasure, weight loss or gain (I put on 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, feeling worthless or excessive/inappropriate guilt, and thoughts of suicide.
There is an additional criterion: “Symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” The most basic tasks like showering, brushing teeth, or getting dressed exhausted me—crippling arthritis of the mind. Work? Forget it. Self-care? No way.
Put another way in “Bartleby, the Scrivener” by Herman Melville, “I would prefer not to.” In the story, Bartleby refuses small assignments until he refuses to do everything altogether, each time invoking his mantra, “I would prefer not to.” Eventually, he does nothing but stare at a wall. That was my depression, an unstated preference for nothing.
A few months after my stint at the clinic, I began to get better with help from therapy, medicine, family, and a little blue roadster, whose engine—a mighty but torqueless little wonder—required revving to the moon and constant shifting. Suzi could plod around town or cruise the highway, but the harder I worked her, the happier she seemed and the happier I was. More than a respite from depression, she taught me a way out, rewarding me for mastering her lesson: willing myself to, even when I would prefer not.
Suzi loved to turn as much as rev. A figure skater approaching a spin pulls their arms into their torso, moving mass closer to the center axis, lowering rotational inertia. Likewise, an S2000’s longitudinal inline-four sits behind the front axle, abutting the firewall—front mid-engine—concentrating weight closer to her middle. Double wishbones are deployed at all corners. Expensive and space-consuming, these A-arms have lost favor with manufacturers but provide precise control and eager turn-in. However, when the tires lose grip in a corner, the car can spin, not progressively but abruptly, snapping like a twig under pressure that doesn’t bend until it breaks. Suspension geometry eludes me, but I understand that the early S2000 chassis has issues with toe changes that make it especially vulnerable to snap oversteer.
When Suzi’s tires were in firm contact with the ground, her handling was telepathic, but if she had a weakness—scratch that, she was perfect. If she had, say, a challenge, her electronic power steering may not have adequately conveyed to the operator the extent to which her tires had relinquished purchase from tarmac. So, when she began to slide while turning right—her steering wheel mute to my hands—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. When the slide starts, I must turn in the opposite direction, a.k.a. countersteer. Despite preparation from a half-dozen videos, my instinctive preference when first encountering snap oversteer was to do anything but countersteer. Instead, I wanted to continue in the path of the slide, slam the brakes, or in a state of paralytic shock, let go of everything, including my bowels. Yet, I countered my instincts and turned the opposite way, staying out of the trees.
Some days I wake up exhausted. Go to work? I would prefer not to. But I fear if I sleep in even once, I will do it again the next day, and before I know it, I will have spun into depression. Instead, I apply a skill I learned from therapy: Opposite-to-Emotion Action. It’s eat-your-vegetables advice. When emotions encourage unhealthy actions, do the opposite. So, tired mornings start with black coffee. In this way, I countersteer away from Bartleby and depression.
I wish fighting depression were as simple as mind over matter and caffeine, but I need stronger stuff. More than two hands are required to count the number of anti-depressants I tried in the last two years. But there was one, recommended by more than one psychiatrist, that I resisted, lithium. I associated lithium with other people’s sleepless three-day gambling sprees and manic episodes. In contrast, I was perfectly fine. I merely wanted to die all the time, miss growing old with my wife, not watch my kids grow up, and never redline Suzi again. So, thanks, no thanks, doc, but I won’t take lithium because if I did, that would mean I’m nuts. As long as I don't, I’m not.
The only crazy here is the logic. What a cruel judgment of people who take lithium. How cruel to me, letting my stigmas keep me from a medicine that could help. Opposite to my instincts, I finally tried it. A new psychiatrist explained that I don’t have bipolar, but something between that and depression—mid-spectrum depression. Fingers crossed, that’s why lithium is working. At work, I find lithium on a poster of the periodic table with oxygen and carbon. Lithium becomes just one element among others that my body needs, and the edifice of shame I built around this atom crumbles. But, the stigma lingers. Holding my lithium pills before bed, feelings of humiliation come back. How broken am I to need this?
I don’t choose depression and cannot help that it puts me in places where I have to turn around. Driving Suzi hard, sometimes into corners, requires setting myself straight like I do to fight depression. The difference is I choose to drive that way because Suzi wills me to, whereas depression does the opposite. Suzi knows that I’m more capable than I believe, compelling me like a teacher who pushes her student into uncomfortable situations they otherwise would not. It took more than a year of her absence to learn that lesson applies to more than driving her.
Is Suzi’s twitchy nature a flaw? The answer doesn’t matter. It’s her nature, and I‘m bound to her like my children. There is no cure for her tendency to spin or my depression. Her fancy aftermarket Swedish coilovers and my lithium pills are treatments. Ultimately, it’s up to me to take care of what’s needed, even when I would prefer not to. Like changing oil. Getting out of bed. Or reminding myself that I’m more than a diagnosis or a pill I take.
More than a year and a half since that summer twilight blow-up, Suzi is doing a stint in a second shop (multiple, because it’s that bad), waiting for a rebuild of a defective replacement engine from the first shop. She sports new mounts ready to cradle her engine and transmission. Her coilovers are revalved, held in place by new control arms and bushings. There are new summer tires on my S2000.
Once she is reconstructed, I would love to do what Suzi was made for: turn her larger cam lobes and blast down a togue, Japanese for winding mountain road. Sadly, the shop has prescribed a methodical break-in. After a rebuild, even Suzi needs to gather herself. She won’t accelerate fast on flat ground for a while, but I have some help for her. We’ll make do with the one proper downhill twisty nearby, a wooded-ravine speck of the foothills of Mt. Fuji set a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan. The road descends through zigzags to its nadir, a blind 90-degree right-hander. The conditions—oil, gravel, water, etc.—always change. At the margin, there are so many variables that I can’t predict if we’ll slide. Will Suzi and I make it up from the bottom?
Nothing is certain, but we’re ready to countersteer.
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