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I find myself terribly depressed right now. There are a few triggers  specifically associated with summer — the lack of structure that school provides, the lack of nighttime in Alaska (which I won’t see for about two more months.) It’s a struggle just to get out of bed, or to shower, or to dress, or to make myself something to eat or drink. I’m trying to be kind to myself, trying to find some way to help me out of this funk. But nothing is working so far. Many days I can only accomplish the tasks that require the least mental work, because even my brain is fatigued. In fact, I’m having to write this relatively short blog post in several sessions because that’s all the brain power I have today. But I couldn’t not write this post, so here I am.

Anyway. My laptop is an easy distraction for my depression. I can run a marathon of some sitcom I’ve seen before on Netflix with little effort of my brain. I can play a simple game of Boggle or Bejeweled. And, perhaps most importantly, Facebook gives me the ability to talk with those most dear to me about what I’m going through.

Three grey striped kittens a few weeks old, sitting in a row on a light blue blanket.

I’ve long held that Facebook is best suited for sharing kitten pics anyway. Photo credit: Mathias Erhart via Flickr.

But Facebook is a double-edged sword Read the rest of this entry

Fending Off the Black Dog

I can feel it coming on. Most years, it comes around the end of September. I fall into even poorer dietary habits than usual, and pizza, cereal, and ice cream become my mainstays. I have to push myself more to socialize. I run out of energy even if I feel like I’m in a good mood.

And there’s the trick. One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn is that I can think I’m in a good mood when I’m not. I can be happy with some of the more peripheral things in my life–like school or chorus–but still have a deep-seated discontent.

And right now there’s plenty of reason for deep-seated discontent. It really all began a couple of months ago, when I turned 39. Now, I don’t buy into this silly game of being ashamed of how old you are. You should be proud to be a survivor. But, as my hair falls out more and my joints betray me more often and my metabolism disappears, I’m acutely aware that I am middle-aged, and that, unlike in my twenties, I cannot take anything about my future for granted.

It was right around my birthday that I got word that a friend of mine had died. We weren’t really close but we weren’t just nodding acquaintances either. Her death has haunted me these past two months. I don’t think I’m thinking about her any more often than I did before, but now I have to stop and remind myself that she is no longer alive. All the good things I’d hoped to see her do will never come to pass. My next time to see her in class or on the bus or what have you will never come.

All of this transpired not long after I had come to the realization that I am now an atheist. It was a long time coming. For most of my Christian experience I had grave doubts about the existence of God, but I could not express or explore those doubts because of the culture I found myself in. It all came about bit by bit. I left evangelicalism because I was expected to do the impossible and punished when I was unable to do so. I left Christianity when I realized that the narrative of Jesus didn’t make much sense. But the exit from theism was more gradual. When I identified as an agnostic, I explained that it wasn’t really that I wasn’t sure about the existence of God. It was more that there were days I believed there was a God and days that I didn’t. And as time wore on, the days I didn’t grew more common, when one day I realized that I couldn’t remember when exactly was the last day I believed in God.

So I’ve been adjusting to a new paradigm, which is never easy for anyone–even and especially if they tell you otherwise. And, as my thoughts, for all the reasons above, have drifted to the nature of mortality, I’ve had to understand what that looks like, in a very literal sense. In the past, I could picture what existence after death looked like. And that picture changed over time, but it was always there. Now, it is like a friend of mine who was born without eyes. The best that I can imagine what the world is like for him is that he sees nothing but black. But this is not the case at all. My friend sees nothing, and this is impossible for me to grasp. So it is now with death.

Now, this is not to say it’s an impossible concept. The majority of people can assent to the idea that the world existed before they became conscious of themselves and the world around them, that there was a time and place that there was no “me”. And of the remainder who do believe they existed before they were conceived, most will still state that there is no way for them to mentally access a perception of the world before their present existence. And so, I can conceive that existence after I die is just like existence before I was conceived (or was born, or became self-conscious, take your pick).

But just because I can conceptualize this idea, however abstractly, doesn’t mean it is at all comfortable. In fact, I find the whole affair depressing. And I’m learning to cope. And I’m arranging some therapy.

But this round of depression isn’t solely influenced by such morbidity. There is also the sorry state of American politics. Right now, the House of Representatives is quite willing to throw most of us under the truck because it best suits their own interests. And the lower you are in the socioeconomic pile, the more screwed you’re going to get. And I’m pretty low in the pile.

We’re facing a federal-government shutdown come October 1. Now, I remember going through a government shutdown once or twice in my life (I’m not bothering to Google for the dates). And the shutdowns were just for a few days, and the only thing you really noticed was that you didn’t get any mail for three or four days. Then Congress resolved their issues and it was back to business as usual. But the two parties (oh, don’t even get me started on the impracticality of a two-party system) are much further apart now than they were ten or fifteen years ago. I anticipate that this shutdown is going to last a long time. Even as it is, the current sequestration is seriously damaging the United States. Our research labs are having to lay off scientists. Wildfires rage as the fire service can’t provide adequate containment. Preschoolers have lost educational enrichment at a crucial point in their lives. And that’s just for starters.

I’m having to scramble, coming up with alternative plans for finishing my degree, for work and for housing. Twice I’ve had to leave my undergraduate studies because of financial issues outside my control, and I will not allow that to happen a third time. I tire of always scrambling, yet it’s almost all I’ve known.

And so comes the black dog (what Winston Churchill called depression), not because of some quirk in our orbit around the sun (for the record, I’m not diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, but with major depression), but because of factors outside my control.

Sit! Stay! From Cynr via Flickr.

Now I have to soldier on. I have to keep appointments and visit friends and keep up on chores and so many other things, regardless of how little energy I have, regardless of how much it physically hurts to do these things. Because if I don’t, I could fall into a deep vortex. I have been at the bottom of that vortex before, though it’s been awhile. I’ve worked really hard to stay out of it, and I will not allow myself to go there again.

Edited 17 Dec 13: I inadvertently attributed a quote of Winston Churchill to C.S. Lewis. My apologies for not double-checking.

Triple Threat

Writing about one’s own disabilities online is always a huge risk. One of the first things hiring managers do these days is google the name of an interviewee to uncover any reason they might not make a suitable employee. And whilst it’s illegal in the United States for an employer to deny a job solely on the basis of a disability for which they can make a reasonable accommodation, it is almost impossible to prove this is why you weren’t hired. So to be able to go online and say, “I have a disability” can threaten your future livelihood.

But there are things I value more than my future employability. First, I value truth. I often say that my first obligation is to truth. I really can’t imagine living any other way. It’s why I use my real name, rather than a pen name, for this blog. If I say something, I should be able to stand by my words. I also highly value the dissemination of knowledge.

Another of my adages is, “Knowledge doesn’t care who knows it. It only cares that it be spread.” One of the amazing things about the internet is that, if you have learnt something, you can share it with the whole world and they can access it, for all intents and purposes, free of charge. The site-administration tools WordPress provides offer me a glimpse at how people find my blog and what they want to learn. This information lets me know that I am indeed saying some important things, some of which are hard to find elsewhere. (More on that later.)

Finally, I believe in freeing people from guilt and shame. So much stigma surrounds disabilities, particularly mental disabilities, that we don’t really talk about it, which perpetuates the shame. Indeed, I myself struggle to simply acknowledge my disabilities without crumbling into a heap of apologies.

It took a long time to figure out exactly what my disabilities are. It’s not an exact science. We do not (yet) have a way to instantly identify every disabilities from a blood draw or suchlike, and even if we did, a single disability can exhibit itself in radically different ways from one person to the next. At present, doctors look at symptoms and match them against a rubric. Some disabilities look very similar but are treated differently. There can be trial and error involved.

I have wrangled with a number of misdiagnoses. At one point I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, but every doctor since has thought this diagnosis is way off. Indeed, when I started to look at the associated behaviors, I couldn’t see how I got that label, other than that I had early-childhood privations and that I am not as mild-mannered as the typical Minnesotan. I have been informally diagnosed with autism by a lot of people–not by professionals, but curiously, by a lot of people who are diagnosed with autism. Again, I have too many behaviors to indicate otherwise, and what symptoms I do have that resemble autism can again be attributed to early-childhood social and material deprivation.

But the most significant misdiagnosis I had was bipolar disorder. And I understand why I got that diagnosis. The label was attached to me upon a cursory observation, when I was agitated, thinking and talking very fast, and having a lot of trouble with my sleep. And so I labored under the diagnosis for over thirteen years.

But then I started seeing a new doctor, and he couldn’t observe the manic symptoms associated with bipolar disorder at all. Indeed, when I was “agitated,” I did not exhibit classic symptoms like grandiose thinking, excessive trust in others, and financial irresponsibility. Likewise, my sleep disturbances were not in a pattern of staying up a long time and only sleeping very little–I was sleeping a long time and forcing myself to stay awake a long time in a failed attempt to reset my circadian rhythm.

In the end, my diagnosis of bipolar disorder was revealed to be three separate disorders that, when combined, looked like bipolar disorder at first glance. Major depression is the most obvious, I think especially to those who know me well. I think most people have a basic understanding of depression, though some believe that it’s something that can be “snapped out of” through sheer force of will. There is no scientific evidence that it works that way. It’s often a long, slow slog out. That’s not to say that there aren’t actions one can take to help one out of a depressive state. It’s just that it’s much more than a snap of the fingers.

I talked some about generalized anxiety disorder yesterday. I am always wound up, some times more so than others. It takes a great deal of effort to relax, and even the pressure of trying to relax can crank up the anxiety. This might be the condition that plagues me the most on a day-to-day basis, because it most affects how I interact with people. Always people pressuring me to “take it easy,” “get a sense of humor,” and “relax” so that they can feel more comfortable around me, and all the pressure just makes it that much harder.

The last of the triple threat is something I’ve talked about some here in the past. It has a few names, including hypernychthemeral disorder and non-24 sleep-wake disorder. It’s a very rare condition that mostly affects blind people (which I am not). Though the medical community is not 100% certain of the cause, it is mostly likely related to how sunlight influences the production of hormones responsible for waking up. Basically, my body tries to wake itself up one hour later in the sleep cycle than it does for other people. So, whilst I sleep a normal number of hours (though at the high end of normal–10 hours–this has not been a concern to doctors), I naturally want to wake up one hour later and go to sleep one hour later every day, putting me on a 25-hour cycle. Thus, untreated, I cycle from being a day person to a night person back to a day person over the course of three or four weeks.

It took a long time to get a stable treatment regimen together. Most medications used to treat depression can actually heighten anxiety and, in my case, cause serious heart issues. And though the treatment of hypernychthemeral disorder mostly consists of an inexpensive over-the-counter medicine, it is the only known treatment for the condition, so until I had a proper diagnosis, I could not maintain long-term stability in my sleep patterns. Fortunately, in spite of the misdiagnoses, most treatments for bipolar disorder are similar to the treatments for major depression and generalized anxiety disorder. All along, it’s been a gradual progress of zeroing in on the best treatment for me, regardless of diagnosis. This makes sense, since modern medicine, for better or worse, focuses on treating symptoms rather than diagnoses.

My progress under my current regimen has been uneven but gradually improving. I’m waking up the best I have in my entire life. Problems that used to weigh me down for weeks or months now only bring me down for hours or days. I’ve worked on adding activities in my life to improve my mood and general health.

However, I also have a number of disability support services that aid my improvement. Mostly, I have two workers I meet with weekly who assist me in compensating for and overcoming my disability issues. Their support has been instrumental in my improved health, and the goal is to keep improving to the point that I don’t need their services anymore. I am well on track for that goal. It’s just going to take some more time.

No one should have to live under the pain of stigma, and if sharing my story can help someone to live a little freer, then I know I’ve done my job.