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Posts Tagged ‘mental illness’

Sometimes you have to take a vacation. From everything. Usually you’re allowed to plan such vacations. You need to request the time off from work, clear the kids’ calendars, buy the tickets, pack the suitcases. When you get wherever you’re going, you turn off the electronics, throw on the flip-flops, and chill out with your favorite beverage next to your favorite person.

Occasionally such vacations are forced upon you. Family emergencies. Accidents. Major depressive cycles. Zombie apocalypse. You don’t get to plan for those – they just happen, and you simply have to ride them out.

Sorry for not being around these last two months, but that forced vacation thing hit me. My absence started as a simple lack of planning and time management as we prepped for, and then went to, one of our historical war weekends at the end of May. It was a lovely weekend, too. Overcast, cool, with occasional light rain and drizzles. My kind of weather. I slept well, we had excellent sales in our merchant booth, we visited with great friends, and we came home exhausted but happy.

I did have a minor mishap as we were packing up to go home. I was carrying a bundle of camp trash to the dumpster when I stepped in a camouflaged gopher hole. If you knew my history with wars and gopher holes (I’ve broken both ankles at various events this way), you probably wouldn’t be all that surprised that I managed to find another one. But it’s a long way down when you’re as tall as I am, and a hard landing to boot because I’m carrying so much extra weight. The left ankle screamed as it was twisted, the right knee bruised and swelled as it made impact with the hard ground, and the left elbow went for the all-of-the-above option as I finished my topple. Don’t ask me how I managed to do that left-right-left thing. I think it has something to do with gravity and chaos theory, but I’m no physicist.

Thankfully, there didn’t seem to be any serious damage. Just some sprained joints and a bruised ego. I hobbled around, taking care of business as best I could. I cleaned up our camping gear from the war, I did laundry (lots of laundry), updated our business records, paid bills. The hubby and I went to our annual check ups at the doctor’s, where I refused the recommendation for a second blood pressure medication, mainly because I’m a stubborn idiot. I got new glasses (I can see! Well, better anyway. Still not fully corrected. Additional options are being explored). And somewhere along in all that, the fog closed in. A black, unrelenting fog that left me adrift in a sea of crushing exhaustion, fiery body aches, and virulent self-loathing.

Depression is the Cthulhu of emotions. It’s a little of this and a little of that, combined with some of this other stuff, and overall an evil sumbitch that sucks the life out of everything it touches. It’s not just feeling sad. It’s not just something that I can “snap out of.” It’s not all in my head. It’s a biochemical shit-storm that turns an otherwise intelligent human being into a drooling crybaby who’s only thought is “I suck.” Nothing can be accomplished because nothing is worth accomplishing. Nothing is worth the effort of even trying, least of all me.

I couldn’t write. I couldn’t do anything creative. All the usual voices in my head disappeared, replaced with the constant mantra of self-hate. The only desire I had was to crawl up into a little ball in the dark and just disappear – forever. Just turn myself off and be done with it all. I hid a lot. I spent an inordinate amount of time in bed because I just didn’t have the strength or the will to do anything else. When I wasn’t there, I was at the computer, hiding in my fantasy games or watching hour after hour of videos on Hulu. I was incapable of doing anything else. I didn’t cook. I didn’t clean. I didn’t get out of my pajamas. I’m not even sure I showered. Much of the time is lost behind a black veil of murk.

It took a chunk out of my life. It’s only been in the last couple weeks that I’ve been able to catch glimpses of little patches of blue in that otherwise stormy sky. I’m slowly creeping out from under it. I’ve done a couple small things creatively – I stitched up some lavender sachets, and played with beads to put together several scissor fobs. I even jotted down a couple notes for a short story idea. But it’s an unrelenting struggle. Every day I wonder what the hell I’m thinking, trying to start a writing career at my age. Each positive thought I generate is countered by a dozen negative reasons why none of it will ever matter. Who am I kidding? I claim to be a writer and yet it’s been months since I did anything to support that claim. No new words on the page, no queries sent out, no contests entered, no submissions e-mailed. I don’t even have the obligatory cat mascot right now. What a loser.

Yet, despite all that, I’m still here. I’m still trying. You should, too. Don’t believe those evil voices in the dark – they lie. Believe me, I know how hard it is. And sometimes you just have to close the blinds and crawl into bed and ignore the world for a while. But don’t do anything more than that. Hold on until you reach the other side. It’s a fine line we walk, those of us with mental illness. Constantly bobbling to one side or the other, desperately flailing our arms to keep from falling. And it’s a merciless battle to keep doing it, year after year after year. Keep doing it anyway. Keep working on getting the right balance of meds. Keep going to therapy. Keep talking to friends and family. Keep exercising. Keep eating right. Keep looking for the triggers. Keep doing SOMETHING to fight back.

Say it with me: it will get better. It will get better. It will get better…

Because it’s worth the fight. So are you. And so am I.

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On Monday, August 11, 2014 one of our most beloved and treasured entertainers reportedly took his life. Our world has lost a powerfully unique and singular human being. I write, of course, about Robin Williams. Comedian, actor, humanitarian and, by all accounts, a generous and kind individual.

The reaction to this news has largely been stunned sadness. The tributes and salutes and comments have poured in from all over the planet. The analysis and opinions and theories have as well. As I write this, there have already been untold number of words spent on this terrible topic, but I am compelled to include mine. Not because I’m any sort of authority, but because I need to. Because I know what he saw.

I have carried the burden of depression my entire life. I wasn’t formally diagnosed until my late twenties, but that was simply the official recognition of something I already knew. I’ve been in and out of therapy over the years, and have spent the last sixteen on medications after my own step to the brink of that final abyss. Some particularly insightful friends managed to grab me back at the last second and that’s when I realized I needed more help than counseling alone. Medication has allowed me a semblance of sanity. It’s not entirely secure. It never is. But it’s better than where I was, and for that I am grateful.

Much of the commentary following Mr. Williams’ passing included the question “Why?” Why would someone of his intelligence, wit, charm, success take his own life? Why didn’t he reach out for help? Why didn’t someone notice his descent into darkness? Lots of questions and very few answers, because there simply are none. Most people are bewildered by his actions. Some are angry. My own husband accuses Mr. Williams of taking the coward’s way out, of giving up. A very few have spewed horrible invective onto his family about him, proving only that they are sad, hateful little humans who refuse to be part of the better world and deserve nothing from the rest of us. After the initial shock, my reaction was simply a quiet understanding.

Let me tell you a little bit about depression. The clinical explanations barely touch the deep truth of it. It’s more than just a feeling of sadness or chronic fatigue or losing interest in those things you always loved before. It’s a dark, crushing black hole of self-doubt wrapped in layers of hopelessness covered in a gooey topping of what’s-the-point. It’s looking in the mirror and seeing a fat, ugly failure with no hope of redemption, no matter what the actual reflection might be. It’s watching the world pass you by in all its rainbow brilliance while you sit under rain clouds pouring hot acid onto your soul. It’s the blinding loneliness of the Sahara’s dunes in high summer, despite being surrounded by cheerful crowds at the oasis. It’s the voice of a hateful demon constantly whispering in the nooks and crannies of your mind, ever relentless in its demeaning commentary.

What it’s not is a choice. No more than being tall or short, black or white, or gay or straight is a choice. Depression isn’t “just in your head,” it’s a biochemical nightmare storming it out in your brain and affecting every molecule of your body. One who lives with depression can’t just “get over it,” or “cheer up,” or “be happy” on command. If that were the case, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. No, depression – and all other mental illnesses – is an actual, physical assault on the human body by that one thing we all must have to survive: our own brain. And if the brain isn’t working properly, neither is anything else.

Oh, there are treatments. Therapy helps. Medication helps. Eating right, sleeping regularly, exercising – it all helps. Until it doesn’t. There is no predictor for that point. No magic formula or simple test or watching the moon cycles on the calendar. It’s just working, and then it’s not. There’s any myriad of reasons why, as individual as the person involved. For Mr. Williams I suspect there was a handful of reasons, a perfect storm, if you will, that brought him to that point in his home when he knew he just wasn’t going to live like that any more. With the news of his Parkinson’s diagnosis, it makes even more sense to me. Here is a man whose entire life and career has been dependent on his frenetic energy, grandiose physicality and uncanny faster-than-light wit, learning his greatest gifts will be taken from him in a slow and tortuous degradation. Yes, people live with Parkinson’s every day, and successfully, as Michael J. Fox has shown. But what works for some just can’t work for others.

That’s the truly challenging thing about mental illness – there is no one-size-fits-all solution. You can’t just dole out the pills and expect everybody who receives one to just up and get better. You have to look at the individual, examine their physical and mental needs through multiple tests and counseling sessions and come up with a plan that will only work for that one person, and then you need to change it and fine tune it constantly as that person progresses. It is a time consuming, money-sucking endeavor that isn’t supported by our current medical system. As long as “health care” is about actuary tables and statistics and profits instead of people, we will continue to have beautiful lives lost to mental illness.

The irony is, the business of medicine is actually penny-wise, pound-foolish. Take out all the analysts and claims reviewers and paperwork and layers of bureaucracy, and just pay for what the doctor and patient determine is necessary, you’d probably find the “business” even more successful. And there would be a huge upward spike in public satisfaction. We need to make mental health care a much stronger priority, not just in medicine, but also in our society in general. The negative commentary that sprang forth from this most recent news only goes to show us how depression (and other mental health issues) is still widely stigmatized and misunderstood by the public at large.

Our brain controls everything. Separating the needs of our brain from the needs of our body does not help either. Mental disorders can be the root for obesity and anorexia, drug and alcohol abuse, and violence. Want to stop mass attacks like Newtown or Columbine? Don’t worry about gun control – that’s closing the gate after the horse has already run off. Get the funds into the hands of researchers, medical professionals and programs that can figure out what is miss-wired in the heads of the people who perpetrate such actions, and help them before they snap. Neuroscience has come a long way from the days of trepanning and warehousing the afflicted, but it still has a very long way to go.

All the articles I’ve seen this week about “The (X) Signs of Depression,” or “The (X) Things/Foods/Exercises You Can Do to Beat Depression,” or “The National Dialogue on Depression” are fine and well, and help us feel good for now. But they are just frosting on a many-layered cake whose ingredients we aren’t sure about. We need to make mental health care our priority. We need to focus on it and tear into it like we did the journey to the moon in the 1960’s. Our very existence as a species demands it.

As for Robin Williams, he didn’t quit, he made a choice. Not a choice everyone would make, but one that he decided was right for him. Shouldn’t we all have the right to choose how we leave this world? Life should be about quality, not quantity. And the definition of quality can only be made by the individual concerned, not the public. It’s time we gave that the respect it deserves. Then we can remember a man for how he lived, not how he died.

 

© 2014   Cheri K. Endsley   All Rights Reserved.

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I have returned. From Eureka, that is. Actually, I’ve been back just over a week, but it’s taken me this long to recover from nearly three weeks of sleeping on a cot in my mother’s living room, and two 16 hour trips on buses and trains. I’m still dealing with a wonky equilibrium. But maybe that part’s because of the renewed sinus and ear BS going on.

The whole time I was up there, I had no sinus issues. I could breathe freely, didn’t have a dripping nose, didn’t have that crap sliding down the back of my throat, didn’t have constant itching ears because of fluid build up. I spent the entire visit breathing cool, ocean breezes laced with the scent of roses, redwoods and eucalyptus. I was able to sit outside on the porch in the afternoon and not feel like I was cooking in a microwave. For all the drama that was going on otherwise (the reason I was there), it was nice to just sit and enjoy the day.

Then, about halfway through my trip back, the sinuses reminded me of their hatred of SoCal, and I’ve had some level of a headache ever since. Plus it’s been hovering around 100°F outside, with a “monsoonal” offshore system that is pumping the humidity up to Gawd-Awful (at least for this part of the country). The house AC is working its little condenser off, as evidenced by the latest whopping electric bill (and we have the thermostat set much higher than we’d prefer), but the truck AC decided to die. My hubby has to deal with that heat all day, his only relief when he manages to stumble through the door in the evening. Have I mentioned that I hate Southern California?

The other piece of crap news is that Jasper the Wonder Mutant decided to take his walk across the rainbow bridge while I was gone. Hubby had to deal with that all by himself, and I didn’t get to say a proper good bye. We’re all out of animals now and the house feels weird. Except for a couple years in college when I lived in the dorm, there have been animals underfoot my entire life. Mostly cats and dogs, some fish, lizards and turtles, a few parakeets, and even a dark chocolate colored mouse I named Templeton Kern. Working from home meant having many deep conversations with whatever animal was nearest. Now there is nothing but empty house and the occasional flit out of the corner of my eye of some shadow sneaking out of my subconscious. I’m not liking it.

I’m not liking a lot that’s happened lately. The situation in Eureka is far from over. Nobody died or is terminally ill, but in some sad way that might almost have been better, because then we’d have a resolution and/or a definitive course of action. As it stands, we just have lots of family angst, bewilderment at the amazingly inept authorities involved, and anger at a system that still considers mental illness “all in your head” and leaves those that suffer hanging out to dry. I feel sick about it all, and find myself crying at the slightest, most unexpected things. I have a problem with injustice and stupidity. Combine those two with my inability to really do anything to change any of it, and you get Cheri’s Most Miserable trifecta.

And don’t bother to guilt me into feeling better by pointing out how terrible people are having it in Syria, or Iraq or Gaza or West Africa. Knowing that kind of ugliness exists in our world, when we supposedly have the intelligence and technology to do so much better, doesn’t help. It only makes me all the more depressed. I can’t do anything about those issues, either. I am powerless, and that is the one feeling I just simply can’t stand to have.

Each of us has our own set of bullshit to deal with. Whether it is fighting an Ebola breakout, jihadi militants, iron-fisted tyrants, or the Spirit of Christmas Past, we each are trapped in the world around us. There is very little we can do to change what is happening. We can voice our outrage, or write our congressman, or dance a jig on the graves of our enemies, but none of that does little more than let some steam off. The path is already set. There are no do-overs here. At least, not in this particular time line. Depending on one’s theological leanings, maybe there’s a next time, maybe you can decide what you need to learn or maybe the gods roll the dice for you. But here and now is all you know for this life. The only thing you have control over is you: how you react and how you feel. Right now I’m reacting very badly because I feel like crap.

The last three years have been a constant beating. Yeah, compared to the lives of others maybe it’s not so horrible. But that’s my reality. I shouldn’t have to defend feeling crappy and depressed by that beating because children are being bombed in the Middle East. Those are two separate issues. I have a right to my feelings. That doesn’t mean I’m unsympathetic. It just means I only have enough energy to worry about one thing at a time for a while, and right now I choose me.

 

© 2014   Cheri K. Endsley   All Rights Reserved.

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In my constant effort to avoid actually accomplishing anything, I spend an inordinate amount of time browsing the Internet, reading all sorts of memes from the right and the left on Facebook and watching videos of everything from dancing cats to epic fails on YouTube. Usually it’s all nothing but time wasters, but every now and then something sticks with me and I end up going back to it several times just to make sure I saw it right or didn’t miss anything, or sometimes just because it makes me feel good.

Recently I ran across a video of Michael J. Fox on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, during which Michael was talking about living with Parkinson’s and his attitude toward life. You can see it for yourself here. If you’re any kind of fan of his, or have spent any time whatsoever watching the news or talk shows or reading his books, you’re already well aware of his positive outlook despite his challenges. So it wasn’t really new for me to hear. But for some reason it really stuck with me this time.

As a chronic depressive, positive thoughts are a rare bird in the bush of crazy that is my mind. It’s not that I’m consciously creating the negative, hopeless, self-loathing things that inhabit nearly every moment of my life. In fact, I constantly have to fight against them, forcing logic and reason into the forefront when anxiety and OCD tendencies are running amok. Thankfully there was a time when my insurance actually paid for counseling sessions as well as the meds, so I have some tools I can use in the everlasting fight for my sanity.[1] One of those tools is to focus on the good things on your life. In the beginning it can be hard to recognize what those are, but over time and effort it becomes a growing list. Since I’ve been Mrs. Crankypants these last few entries, I decided that today I need to let that go and look at the good things I have and get back into a better head space. So here we go:

1)   Husband – For most of my life, I figured I’d never have one of these. Being bigger, stronger and smarter than most of the guys I knew made it hard to get a date. I was 39 when this big lug of a blonde finally convinced me he was worth my time and I haven’t been happier. He is truly my partner, confidante and cohort-in-crime. He supported me without question when I told him I didn’t want to go back into an office job anymore, and was going to stay home and actually try to get this writing thing going. He’s my rock, my hero, my battle-brother, my knight in shining armor, and my best friend. If I had nothing else nice to say about my life, he could make it seem like a picnic in the park.

2)   Family – I actually like most of my family. I have too many friends who are estranged from parents or siblings, and even my husband was more relieved when his mother passed than sad. But as a kid, my family didn’t have a lot and being in the military, the only constant was each other. Sure we’ve had our disagreements, but most of them we got over, and the ones we didn’t we just don’t talk about anymore. And since I didn’t have my own kids, I have to stay on good terms with my nieces and nephew, because they’ll be the ones deciding what happens to me when I’m completely senile.

3)   Friends – My husband and I are very private people and have a bad habit of not letting others in, metaphorically speaking, even when we could really use the company. We care deeply about the people in our circle and would do just about anything for them if asked, but tend to not let them see what’s going on with us. We have the attitude that we “don’t want them to see us like this.” But there have been a couple occasions over the last few years where we’ve been forced to ask for help because there was just no other option, and people stepped up for us. It made us realize that we’re not alone in this world. And we also learned that we have a pretty bitchin’ team for the coming zombie apocalypse…

4)   Schedule – I am my own boss. I don’t have to subscribe to someone else’s idea of what my day should contain and when. This is especially nice since I’m a night person. All those years working the 8-5 office grind wore on me in more ways than just all the annoyances from the bosses and co-workers. Now, I get to be on my body’s normal vampiric circadian rhythm, in bed about dawn and up in the early afternoon, all without having to set an alarm. I do what I want when I want, and any deadlines on me are those I decide for myself. That, folks, is true freedom.

5)   Creative Ability – I can play more than a dozen different instruments, compose music, write fiction and non-fiction, do needlework and weave at a level some seem to think is pretty astonishing, design my own patterns for needlework and weaving, do respectable drawings, and can even color inside the lines. These creative things have been easy for me all my life, a gift that I often neglect to appreciate.

6)   Health – There are those who know me that might wonder about this one, given that I can’t see past the end of my nose, have terrible tinnitus and frequency loss, had titanium knees installed, suffer from migraines, carry A LOT more weight than I should and, of course, the depression. But those are things that have been with me most of my life, and that I have largely adjusted to in one way or another. Even as my old, fat self, I’m far stronger than the average person, have pretty damn good reflexes and endurance, and make my doctor crazy when he looks at the scale and then looks at my near perfect blood work. Already I’ve lost a number of friends that were my age or younger even, to heart attacks, stroke, aneurisms, and I just keep on ticking. We’re long-lived in my family, and I plan on terrorizing the world for some time to come.

7)   House – Yeah, it’s in a geographic location I’m not too thrilled about, but the house itself is pretty good. It’s nice sized, has some features I really like, and keeps me dry. It’s my haven, my sanctuary from the cold, cruel world, my fortress of solitude. I’m not at the whims of a landlord who couldn’t be bothered to care beyond that monthly check. I can put nails in the wall, paint things chartreuse if I really wanted to (and could convince my husband), can have pets, and share it with a really cool roommate. Owning your home gives you a security you just can’t have any other way, and that helps keep me calm on so many levels.

8)   Companion Animal – There’s all sorts of studies about how pets can help ease stress, but anyone who’s ever had a pet doesn’t need a study to know the benefits. Right now we’re down to just a cranky old cat, but he’s a great character to have around. Mostly for comedic relief. He makes more noise coming down the stairs than our 60lb. dog did, and is about as graceless as a cat could be. But he also walks on the treadmill with me, tucks himself against my back when I’m not feeling well, and insists on helping me with whatever project I might be doing, usually when I’m right in the middle of the most important part that I really can’t screw up or the whole thing is screwed. Nothing like a 15lb. cat in your lap when you’re trying to be productive. But there’s also nothing like petting a soft, warm, purring bundle of anti-stress when the world has been mean to you.

So these are some of what I’m thankful for, the good things in my life that make it all worthwhile. I’m going to still have my days when the depression is beating me mercilessly about the head and shoulders, but these will help me fight back. It won’t be easy. But it will be worth it.

© 2014   Cheri K. Endsley   All Rights Reserved.


[1] Maybe someday cognitive therapy will be taken more seriously, but as long as the public at large, politicians and even the medical community just want to throw pills at mental illness, or, at worse, don’t want to throw anything at it at all because it’s “all just in your head and you need to get over it,” then people like me will continue to struggle. Get educated, people. It could mean life or death for somebody you love.

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