jakebe: (Writing)
This summer I've been trying to focus more on my writing -- after all, I'm a writer, and that's what I do. The trouble is I lead a pretty full life as it is. I have a day job that's fairly intensive, so I need to spend my work hours actually, you know, working. My commute is pretty long, and while I can definitely fill the time with podcasts (and I do) that takes a bit more time away from my passion. I'm married, and I love my husband, which means I want to spend as much time with him as I can. And I have friends that I love to spend time with too! There's exercise, and cooking, and making sure the burrow isn't an absolute mess, and spending time with our rabbit Puckles, and reading, and general adult responsibilities, and...you get the point.

I've said all of this before, and if you're a writer who isn't making a living at it chances are you have the same devil on your back too. It's not easy, but the struggle makes success that much sweeter. Or so I've been lead to understand.

Despite the difficulty, I feel like I've been doing better with writing these days. That means sacrificing time spent doing other things while also learning to become more efficient with the time I do have, but even that's a good thing. The fact that there's such limited time to do everything that I want to do means that I really have to sit down and determine my priorities. Once that's done, I really have to make sure I know how I'm going to focus on them. And then, I painstakingly develop the skills necessary to actually execute on them. Little by little, day by day, I'm growing up.

The blog and the Patreon are top priorities, of course -- I've committed myself to a certain amount of output for each one, and I must set aside time to make sure I hit those goals. That's still a work in progress. I had to let the blog drop last week to concentrate on work, the Patreon and a few other things, and I'm still behind. It'll take some dedicated time and focus to catch up, but I think I can do it.

This weekend, I'll be running my Pathfinder game for the first time in a long while. If you've ever run a tabletop role-playing game, you know how daunting the prep work can be. I went into the whole affair relatively unprepared for the kind of story I wanted to tell, and paid the price for it. When Ryan went to Japan earlier in the year, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to step back, get some knowledge about how to properly run Pathfinder, and actually tinker with the game so that balance and story issues are hammered out.

I'm still not 100% there, but I'm pretty close. I've used the race creation rules in the Advanced Race Guide to retool my homebrew races so they're not quite so overpowered and I've made sure that my PCs were mostly up-to-date with their sheets. It was a good chance to revisit their power sets and really understand what they're good at. I've also taken notes on the players and my understanding of what they want out of their games, tinkering with how I tell the story to include more of that. Mostly, I wanted to re-dedicate myself to making the game fun for people. My anxiety about running got in the way of that in this really big way, so even though I'm trying to be more careful and focused I also want to be more relaxed. Not every experiment will work, but being adaptable is one of the most important traits you can have as a game master.

Beyond the blog, the Patreon and Pathfinder, there are a number of projects I'll need to tackle before September rolls around. There are two story commissions that I need to complete and publish -- one needs an editing pass while the other still needs the first draft. A third short story will need to be written for a zine that I'm lucky enough to be a part of, so I'll need to jump on that. And a short story for a Changeling: the Dreaming anthology needs to be pitched; I've finally locked on to an idea for it, so I'll be putting together the submission for that very soon.

At the end of August, I'll be headed back to college. I've enrolled part-time in a local community college with an aim to get an Associate's Degree that transfers to a four-year university. I haven't decided if I'll try to get a Bachelor's in English or Psychology, but either way I'm tremendously excited. School's no joke, of course, so I'll need to get even better at squeezing every drop out of productivity time that I can.

I'm juggling a lot right now. It's important that I'm smart about how I spend my time but also self-aware enough to know when I'm being overwhelmed. Stress management is just as important as being productive, and for someone like me -- prone to avoidance behaviors when my anxiety kicks into high gear -- it's imperative that I take the time and space necessary to remain grounded and focused.

That will mean having to say no to a lot more things, just for the sake of preserving my sanity. A cup that's completely full will not retain anything, of course; and the whole point of most of this stuff is to learn and grow as a writer and human being. Having the space to hold what I'm already working with is a necessary part of that process.

I might be a little harder to reach online and sparse in my usual hangouts for a while. I want to get better about setting expectations about my available time and energy, so this is part of that.

Things are busy right now, and they'll be getting busier. I might be able to dip my toe into the waters of the Internet when I've gotten my time figured out, but for now, the limited time and attention has to be devoted to other things.

I'll still be here, of course, and I welcome comments. I'll make it a priority to engage here!
jakebe: (Mythology)
One of the earliest memories I have about my mental illness is breaking down in the middle of lunch in sixth or seventh grade. Things were not going well for me. I was a shy and awkward kid who loved reading fantasy books. I was really sensitive, so I didn't hold up to bullying very well. And I had gotten into trouble enough that in addition to homework and everything else, I had to write a sentence "I will not...something something something." 1000 times.

I was sitting alone, trying to think of what impossible task I should do over lunch and how I could justify putting off the others, when I just needed to put my head down. It didn't help. Tears welled up and I let them fall. My entire body locked up. All I wanted to do was curl up tighter. Someone found me, stood me up, and asked me if I had eaten anything. Then they marched me up to the lunch line.

It felt like my entire body had fallen asleep. I didn't have full control over the way I moved, so I just lurched around like Frankenstein's monster. I couldn't stop crying. There was no way I could eat, or speak, or open my mouth. When the lunch lady asked if I needed anything, all I could do was sob and shake my head and lurch back to my seat.

To this day I have no idea what to call that episode. A panic attack? A nervous breakdown? Who knows. But it happened again when my sister ran away from home, and again shortly after I dropped out of college and moved to Arkansas.

I've been dealing with depression and anxiety for my entire life. Most of the memories I have of my childhood are unhappy ones, where something in my brain just snapped and a response rose from within me that I still don't understand. What's more, I can remember similar things happening to the people around me; my father's mind going after his divorce, retreating further into himself; my mother disappearing for hours to sleep off depression; my sister's mood swings; the strange rumors that dogged certain neighbors. When I was growing up, our understanding of mental illness was little more than being able to identify "crazy" behavior; if someone did something "crazy" once too often, then they were branded. And there wasn't anything they could do to shake that off.

Even now, knowing what I know about my family history and the struggles that my siblings and I face, I see that for the most part that understanding hasn't deepened much. My sister is on medication that makes her incoherent or sleepy. My brothers still do things they don't understand. And, now that she's reaching the end of her life, my mother is beginning to forget things and become confused.

It's taken me a long time to come to grips with my mental illness, to accept it and learn how to incorporate it into my self-image. But there are so many black Americans and others in the diaspora who either can't or won't for a constellation of reasons. Most of us simply can't afford treatment for mental health issues, and wouldn't know where to begin even if we could. There is a stigma, even now, around therapy and medication that makes it difficult to encourage folks to seek out. There is still this narrative that those of us with mental illnesses are just "weak" or "whining" and only need to "get your mind right" to overcome them. We know so little, but we have such strong opinions.

Talking about my personal struggle with these things is still frightening to me, even though I do it so much. But it's important that I do. Within black circles, and geek circles, and even Buddhist circles, there is so much misinformation about mental illness and what people who deal with them are like. If being open about them can help to dispel that, then that's what I have to do. For my family, for my friends, and for my community.

If you are dealing with a mental health issue, please know that you're not alone. There are more of us than you know, willing and able to lend a hand. If at all possible, do what you can to lessen the stigma around these issues -- especially in minority groups. There is no shame at all in having a chronic mental illness, or in seeking treatment for it. There is no shame in doing what you need to do in order to be the best person you can.
jakebe: (Self-Improvement)

We live in a world of constant, almost unavoidable connection. At our computers we have the world at our fingertips -- we can search for any obscure thing our hearts desire, or keep up on the news of countries around the world. At any given moment, we can check in on our friends and the updates to their lives, big and small. We can watch any of the 300 hours' worth of new videos posted to YouTube every minute; we can read any of the 150 million blogs on the Internet to find out what anybody thinks about, well, anything; we can read up on any of the 5 million articles there are on Wikipedia. It really does feel amazing to have the knowledge of the human collective within easy reach day in, and day out.

There's a downside to this, of course. Between the news and blogs and YouTube and Twitter and Facebook and TV shows and movies, it feels like we can get trapped in this cycle of bouncing from place to place just to keep up with it all. If we're not checking things out more and more often, we'll end up farther and farther behind. Checking in with friends on Facebook becomes this anxiety-inducing chore; we have to wade through ads and posts that have been shared and re-shared, or get into political arguments with family, friends and coworkers. Wading through Twitter becomes this disorienting nightmare where everyone sure has these opinions about stuff and you have no idea what you're talking about, but your silence is part of the problem.

At the end of the day, you're sitting in bed scrolling through Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr just to make the little number badge on your phone go down -- not because you're actually retaining or processing the things you see. And you go to bed knowing that when you wake up, there'll be a whole eight hours of NEW news to catch up on. You'll already be so behind on things just because you need to sleep.

Infomania is a real thing, and it can be a major drag on your life. The podcast Note to Self recognizes this, so a few months ago they came up with a week-long challenge aimed at getting people to pull themselves out of the deluge of information, gird themselves with a life-vest, a raft and a paddle, then jump back in armed with the knowledge of what they want out of the stream. Instead of drowning in information, we can actually ride that wave, fish for what we need...and then head back to shore to digest it properly.

That challenge is Infomagical. I went through it last February, and I have to say -- it really helped me to establish boundaries for myself and get the most out of my digital life. Now, four months later, I've got the chance to do it again. So I'm doing it! And I'd like you to do it with me.

The Infomagical challenge should be approached with one (or more) of several goals in mind. Do you want to be more creative? More knowledgeable? More in touch with yourself? More in touch with friends and family? Or do you want to be more current on what's happening? The daily challenge is geared towards getting you a step closer to that goal.

Last time, my goal was to be more creative -- all of the information I consumed was meant to push me closer to that purpose. This time, I'd like to be more *focused* with my creativity, so I'm going to make sure that I'm geared towards only taking information that helps me to be more knowledgeable and focused on storytelling. Every day I'll check in here to talk about the day's challenge, and to share what I learned from the previous day.

Today's challenge is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding: today, you have to make sure that you do one thing at a time, to completion. That's right -- single-tasking. And these days it's a lot harder than you think.

According to a scientific study, our brain switches tasks every 45 seconds. Even though it typically takes us 20 minutes to really focus and dive in to a single task. Every switch eats up a little bit of the actual fuel our brain uses for energy, so by the afternoon we're exhausted and irritable. This has pretty far-reaching consequences for us; our ability to make responsible choices is compromised, our ability to focus is near non-existent; our stress levels shoot way up. And what's worse is the pattern of interruptions (or multi-tasking) self-perpetuates. After a rash of external interruptions at work, we'll end up interrupting *ourselves* once it calms down.

So, today, we try to break the cycle. We resolve to work on one thing and one thing only until it is done. Or until the time period you've alloted to work on it is over. Keep interruptions to a minimum with the help of understanding friends; keep distractions as few and short as possible. Notice how you feel at the end of the day, after you've spent the whole time cultivating focus. And let's talk about it tomorrow.

Be well, friends!

jakebe: (Mythology)

Chronic depression is one of those things that can be very difficult to deal with, mostly because those of us who suffer from it exist in two states. When things are fine, we might think that we've rounded the bend and things will never be as bad as our last valley again. And then, when we find ourselves descending towards another crash, we have no idea how to stop it or make the cliff feel any less steep. I think most of us have an "out of sight, out of mind" attitude towards things that are big problems; when we're not actively battling our depression, we prefer to forget we have it.

But the fact is that chronic depression is a disease; an invisible one, one whose symptoms might not show up for days or weeks or months, but a disease that most of us will have to cope with for a major part of our lives. When a diabetic has his glucose levels under control, the diabetes isn't cured -- it's just managed so that the symptoms aren't making it difficult to function.

I think it's useful for those of us with mental health issues to think of our illnesses like that. The symptoms might not be bad enough to prevent us from functioning most of the time, but it's still doing its thing under the surface. There are things that we can do to help ourselves manage it; taking care of ourselves can make depressive episodes less frequent and less severe. I can't guarantee that we'll ever be completely free of it, but we can develop a number of coping mechanisms to help.

Learning how to live with depression is a process. Sometimes it might feel like we're making no progress at all; sometimes it can feel like we're sliding backwards into our worst places. But it's important to have patience with the process and with ourselves. There is nothing fundamentally broken about us; there is nothing that we can't handle. There are just a lot of considerations we must make that most others might take for granted. This can be a gift of practice; learning how to appreciate many aspects of our life that we wouldn't even notice otherwise.

Here are some of the things I've learned to do over the course of several years. You might find that different habits work better for you, and that's fine. It's not important to do every single thing that people recommend for you. It's important to find your own way of managing your mood and getting to a place where you feel comfortable and capable within your own skin. Take my advice, or discard it and forge your own path. But please try. It's worth it, I promise.

Sleep. This is single biggest piece of advice I would recommend for people dealing with mental illness: sleep well. I can't overstate the importance of rest in helping yourself to get on a more even keel. If you don't have a sleep routine, or you're having issues with getting regular or quality sleep, I really do think this should be a top priority. Sleep allows us to settle our emotions and builds our ability to cope with fluctuations in mood or changes in our environment that would cause anxiety. It is one of the best things we can do to care for ourselves.

Building a good sleep habit takes time and practice. The chemical imbalance that can lead to depression also impairs sleep function, so we end up sleeping too little or too much. However, keeping a regular sleep practice is a great foundation for routine that we can use to help us weather those times. Listen to your body; notice when you start to feel tired or your brain tells you it's time to get to bed. Notice when you're most likely to wake up without an alarm clock. If at all possible, build your sleep time around your own circadian rhythm. If it's not possible, determine when you need to get up and count back nine hours -- start getting ready for bed at that time.

It's not easy, and it's not quick, but it is effective. Once you're sleeping regularly, your body can begin the work of stabilizing itself.

Eat well. I know in a lot of situations this can be exceedingly difficult. Even for those of us in the United States, we might live in a food desert where fresh produce or lean meat might be hard to come by. Many of us simply don't have the money or time to make our own meals. I get it. But making sure we at least eat food that gives us a good balance of proteins, fats, carbohydrates and fiber will give our body its best shot at managing itself.

If possible, eat three squares a day that includes lean protein, unsaturated fat and complex carbohydrates. Think a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread, multigrain chips and fruit. Try to limit caffeine intake after 2 PM; we all know that caffeine plays havoc with the ability to sleep and too much of it will definitely exacerbate anxiety issues. Drink more water, and cut back on sodas and sugary drinks.

You hear this kind of advice all the time, and I know how much of a drag it can be to try and follow through. But it's definitely important. The better fuel you give your body, the better it will be able to function. That's the simple fact. And I know that the instant you begin to control your diet it feels like you're swimming upstream, and we just can't put in the effort all the time. But try. And keep trying. Notice how you feel -- how you really feel -- after you eat. Does the food sit heavy in your stomach? Do you feel gassy or bloated? Greasy? Light? Satisfied? Focus on the foods that make you feel good -- not just emotionally, but biologically. The more you listen to your body, the more it will tell  you what it needs. To be a god-damn hippie about it.

Exercise. I know, I can hear the groaning from here, but trust me -- being active when you can really helps. Just going outside or getting the blood flowing helps just about every part of your body, including your brain. When you find the activity that works best for you, your brain learns how to release endorphins that tell you that you're doing a good job. And again, pushing yourself to pay attention to your body will help you recognize how it speaks to you -- how it tells you that it's in pain, or needs food or water, or what kind of shape or mood it's in. Learning your body is the first step to being comfortable with it, realizing and accepting its limitation, and appreciating the things you like about it.

Most people think of exercise as a slog; huffing on the street during a grueling run, or sweating through some terrible routine that you can't begin to keep up with. But it really doesn't have to be; it can be any activity that gets you moving and makes you happy. For me, it actually IS running. I get a wonderful high and a sense of accomplishment after putting in my miles. But for you, it might be anything from playing tennis, basketball or football to playing Dance Dance Revolution or Rock Band on your XBox. If it gets your heart rate up and your body moving, it's fair game. Do it as regularly as you can without hurting yourself.

Therapy. This is another suggestion that takes on almost limitless forms. For you, it might be therapeutic to write your feelings down in a journal or talk to the spiritual leader of your congregation. It might be reading, walking in nature, talking to a therapist or taking medication. Whatever works for you, seek it out and do it; develop a self-care routine, arm yourself with coping mechanisms, engage with the world and community around you however you see fit.

Again, I understand how difficult this might be for some of us. We might live in places where mental health professionals are hard to find or prohibitively expensive; we might not have access to an understanding or capable support network; we might not know where to begin to develop a framework of self-care. But if you're reading this, you probably have access to the Internet and that gives you a leg up. Research things that might help you and try them out; describe the results when you use them, and determine if it would be useful to keep doing them. Seek out communities online if you can -- there are a number of websites and forums for those of us dealing with depression and anxiety. Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Try.

Sleeping regularly, eating as well as you can, doing active things you find enjoyable and engaging in a therapeutic practice are all basic things we could all do to help stabilize our mood as much as possible. Again, these are a lot easier said than done for many of us, but please -- do what you can when you can. Seek out help and support where you can find it. And keep trying. What helped me most with my depression is seeing it for what it is. It allowed me to engage with it, really understand it. And by doing that, I understood myself a lot better. Self-awareness is perhaps the most powerful tool we have against our mental illness. It helps us learn how to cope with it and to live happy, full lives even while we struggle.

If you have depression, anxiety or another mental illness difficult to endure and tough to make people understand, I see you. I'm with you. I want to help. And I'm not the only one.

But the best way to get help is to help yourself. We can support you, but we can't "fix" you. There's nothing to be fixed. You're a human being, wonderful and complete just as you are. You deserve to live, to be happy, to be loved. For people like you and me, it takes more work and care. But it makes the results of that work so much sweeter.
jakebe: (Mythology)

Last Monday, I posted a quick primer on what happens physically and chemically to the brain when depression strikes. On Wednesday, I talked a little bit about what that feels like for me. I wanted to state (again) that depression and other mental illnesses are incredibly varied and complex; there's not a single cause or expression of it, and everyone's experience and struggle with it will be different. However, I'm hoping that talking about it will give people a better idea of what it's like to live with it.

Today I want to talk about how we can help loved ones who are depressed, especially when they're in the middle of an episode. It's fairly common for people living with depression to have periods where they're managing OK and things are at some kind of baseline, then fall into an abyss when chemicals or external factors shift. Even when they're doing everything possible to manage themselves, this can happen. It's no one's fault when it does -- that's just the nature of this illness.

It can be exceedingly difficult to watch someone you're close to go through that. You can see them start to think horrible things about themselves and the world around them; to sink down into a hopelessness that causes a complete negation of who they are; to watch them say or do things to make the situation actively worse. Because we're a social species, and because we genuinely care about these people, their despair can frequently become our own. And because most of us don't know exactly what's wrong, any attempts to fix it at best do nothing and at worst only pushes the person further down that pit. Helplessness becomes frustration, and frustration can become anger.

As someone with depression who've also dealt with a number of loved ones going through the same thing, I get it. I've been on both sides of this equation. I know what it's like to be in the mental space that says I'm a terrible person living in a terrible world and nothing will ever get better. And I know what it's like to speak with someone like that, to try to make them feel better, to feel the panic and maddening frustration when everything in my bag of tricks simply doesn't work.

So this is as much for myself as it is for anyone else in these situations. It can be hard to remember a few things that may help us relate to someone in the grips of depression a little better. If you have your own recommendations, or would like to share your experiences, or would like to offer feedback on mine, please feel free.

First, please remember that your friend is in the grips of an illness. This is an actual disease that affects the way your loved one thinks; those thoughts can lead to words and actions that are difficult to deal with. Most of the time, all we're going to see is what our loved ones say or do. As with most invisible diseases, that's just the tip of the iceberg. There are a host of interrelated thoughts, experiences and body processes that lead to that result that we're not aware of. It's important to keep that in mind -- your loved one is having trouble coping with what is happening with them, and that often leads to behavior that doesn't make sense or can be outwardly intensely aggravating.

In times like these, I've found it helpful to try my best to keep in mind that this person is effectively disabled and treat them as such. We wouldn't expect someone in a wheelchair to just grab something off the top shelf, and we wouldn't expect someone who's diabetic to just eat something that would send their glucose through the roof. During episodes where our coping mechanisms fail or we enter the depths of our illness, please don't expect us to just behave normally or think differently or be something else. It's exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

When we talk about everything that's gone wrong in our lives, it's often not that we have no idea how to solve these problems (though that may certainly be the case). It's that depression or anxiety looking for a reason to exist, latching onto anything it can find to take root and become more permanent. I don't want to say that a depressed person complaining about their lot in life has nothing to complain about; what I am saying is that what's going wrong feels insurmountable and unsolvable when we're at our worst, whether it's true or not. For us, that perception is reality. Life is fundamentally broken, and it can't be fixed.

I think this is what lies at the fundamental disconnect between a depressed person and a loved one. There is that seemingly unbridgeable gulf between our perception and theirs. To someone in a depression, no one understands just how awful things are, how wretched and permanent. To someone watching depression from the outside, this loved one doesn't understand just how much they are loved and have people willing to help them if they would just get up and try.

I believe the best thing we can do for our depressed brothers and sisters is to accept them as they are, in that moment. When I'm in that valley and I talk about how terrible things are, I'm not necessarily looking for a fix; I'm looking for understanding, for the comfort that comes with connection, for someone to take my hand and say "I hear you, and I know that you are suffering."

That can require an extraordinary amount of empathy. So many of us don't like sitting with difficult emotions, even if we're the ones feeling them. We look for ways to stop being angry or sad or uncomfortable as quickly as possible, and because we've never developed the patience or compassion for ourselves to allow these emotions to exist within us when it appears in others we simply cannot tolerate it. We want THEM to stop it as quickly as possible, too.

So when a depressed loved one comes to us with their difficulty, we treat the situation like we would treat it in ourselves. How can we fix this? How can we distract from this? How do we stop this? The short answer is that we can't. We must simply accept it, be in that difficult space, find a way to bear it, however we can.

That load is lessened so much when there is someone willing to be with us in those moments. Just hearing someone say "I know this is awful. I am here for you." can make an unbearable, permanent situation feel like something that is "only" difficult. Hearing someone try to offer solutions to my problems can have a paradoxical alienating effect; I know that they're only trying to help, but the attempts to offer solutions only underscores the fact that they don't understand me. Sometimes, it forces me to admit that I don't understand myself at those times.

Like a cold, or a bad flare-up of arthritis, or some other chronic disease, depression is not necessarily something that can be fixed. When it happens, we can only manage it as well as we can. Because it affects the way we think, speak and act, those of us in the thick of it are often unable to do what we need in order to manage it. As part of the support network, sometimes it falls to us to find ways to make that happen.

Empathy, patience and understanding are necessary for this. I understand that so many of us have that in limited supply, mainly because we're dealing with our own issues. Taking on the suffering of someone else is not easy, even in the best of times. But whatever we can offer to someone else has a tremendous effect.

Finally, please be sure to take care of yourself. I know how difficult I was on the people around me during my worst depressions, and I know that a lot of these people burned themselves out giving and giving and giving without making sure they were OK as well. Do what you need in order to be OK; get good sleep, eat well, talk to someone about your experiences and difficulties, if you can. It's impossible to care for someone else if you don't care for yourself first.

Wednesday, I'll offer advice on what we can do, as depressed people, to care for ourselves. All of this is first drafty, but I hope it's helpful anyway. It's important that we at least begin these types of conversations.
jakebe: (Self-Improvement)
On the weekend before last, I walked all night to raise money and promote visibility for suicide prevention and related issues. There were more than a thousand people with me, all dedicated to this cause because they had been touched by mental illness and the havoc it can wreak over the lives of people who cope with it and the people who form their support network. It was a sobering thing, knowing just how many people were directly affected.
Walkers wore honor beads to show their connection to suicide. Green meant you had a personal struggle or attempt. Gold meant you lost a parent; white meant you lost a child; orange meant you lost a brother or sister. Red is for losing a spouse, purple is for losing a friend or other loved one. There was a rainbow of colors over a sea of blue shirts that day, and the sheer variety of people wearing green beads really blew me back. There were old hippies, young video game nerds, intellectuals and business-people, homemakers, people of color, couples and whole packs of others. I could look at someone, see their green beads, and know that I'm not alone in what I survived. So many people from so many different walks of life also deal with depression and the suicidal ideation that can be a part of it. It was inspiring, but also surprising.
We don't talk much about suicide or the conditions that lead to it -- namely, deep depression and anxiety. I can understand why. Mental illness is something that can be very hard to wrap your brain around; one can understand it logically, or have an idea of what it's like through metaphor. But when you're dealing with a loved one who feels like they're only burrowing deeper into a hole you're trying to pull them out of, it can be exasperating, confusing and make you feel hopeless.
Why do we do that when we're depressed? What's actually going on when people like me are in the worst of those troughs? I wanted mainly to try and explain things on a few different levels -- what physically or chemically happens to the brain; what it feels like to me personally when it does; how it looks to our support networks; and what the depressed and their loved ones can do to help manage their condition before, during and after episodes. This might take me a little while to do, and it'll most certainly take multiple posts. I want to make sure that my information is correct and any recommendations made are helpful, but also please keep in mind that I'm not a mental health professional. I have intimate knowledge about this, but I'm not trained to deal with it any way.
Depression (or major depressive disorder, or chronic depression) is a mood disorder often characterized by deep feelings of sadness, hopelessness, numbness, loss of interest and lethargy. People within a depressive episode can appear sad or empty to the point of near-catatonia; angry or irritable; entertain irrational thoughts or worries that leads to catastrophic imaginings; be unable to sleep, or sleep too much; appear tired or "slowed down", so that thinking and speaking are noticeably delayed; appear distant, aloof and/or unable to explain what's going on. There are a lot of other symptoms, of course -- depression isn't a "monolith" illness, and everyone's relationship with it will differ depending on physiological and environmental factors.
So what's going on in the brain that depression manifests with such different symptoms? Why do some of us get really sad and still while others get agitated, angry or paranoid? Why is it so difficult to treat depression with medicine or lifestyle changes, like so many other illnesses?
That's a difficult question to answer, simply because so little is known about the physiology of the brain and how it relates to mood. The brain is a frighteningly complex organ that is really a bundle of inter-related systems working together to do amazing things -- if any one of them runs into a problem, it can cause changes that are hidden through some dependencies and rise in others. The simple fact of the matter is we can't pinpoint to one part of the brain and say with certainty that this is the part that causes mood disorders.
What we do know is that there does seem to be a genetic component, and parents can pass depression and other mental illnesses to their children. For example, my biological mother was schizophrenic and the children of schizophrenic people are at a higher risk for chronic depression. There is also a physiological component that might take a bit to explain.
So, our moods are actually electrical and chemical messages that travel through our brain. What happens is an electrical message is sent from a neuron, travelling down the long trails called dendrites to the end of the branch. Think of it like a rural family walking down a long dirt road to put a message in a mailbox. That message can be anything from "This thing you're touching is very hot." to "You are getting sleepy." That message changes from an electrical stimulus to a chemical when it reaches the mailbox, and that chemical is called a neurotransmitter.
Receptors at the end of dendrites for other neurons are specially formatted for any of the 30 (identified) neurotransmitters; when those receptors pick up the neurotransmitter, it converts the chemical message back into an electrical impulse which races along the dendrite (that dirt path), into the cell body, and then to the axon -- which changes the electric impulse back into a chemical -- and the whole process starts all over again. We have anywhere from 10-100 billion neurons in our brains, and they can communicate with each other in less than 1/5000 of a second. It's amazing stuff; our brains are processing incredible amounts of information at astonishing speeds, converting electricity to chemicals and back again.
So what happens to the message once it's been received by a neuron? Well, it's released from the neuron that started it and floats in the synapse -- the space between neurons in our brain. It's then either taken back by the neuron that started it (that's called reuptake) or broken down into another chemical called monoamine oxidase (MAO).
There are three neurotransmitters that have typically been focused on when it comes to depression -- serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Any one (or more) of the three have been shown to have unbalanced levels in people who are depressed. Basically, the chemicals that tell our brains to regulate our mood, sleep, appetite, stress and sexuality are in short supply or the brain has trouble actually knowing what to do with them.
While at first we believed that it was the level of these chemicals that were the main cause of the problem, there has been research that indicates it might be the connection between neurons in certain parts of the brain -- like the amygdala, thalamus and hippocampus, all of which have been shown to be physically different in people who deal with depression. Anti-depressants target certain processes in our brains to elevate the level of these neurotransmitters and to improve the number and quality of connections in the areas of the brain associated with them. SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, basically prevent one of these neurotransmitters from being called back to its parent neuron. So there are more of them floating in the synapse, waiting to be picked up by other ones and pass along the appropriate messages. MAOIs, or monoamine oxidase inhibitors, are drugs that prevent these neurotransmitters from being broken down if they're not doing the reuptake thing.
So, to sum up, depression can be caused by an imbalance of three neurotransmitters -- serotonin, dopamine or norepinephrine. This imbalance could be caused by an overly efficient reuptake process that calls back these chemicals before the job is done; it could be caused by bad connections between synapses in certain parts of the brain; it could be caused by the brain's inability to form these chemicals properly to begin with. Each possible medication treatment targets one aspect of this problem, and possibly only one neurotransmitter. That is why it can take some time for medication to work in the first place (because physical and chemical changes to the brain don't happen overnight) and some time for your psychiatrist to find the right medication (because the problem might not be that your serotonin is too low, it's that your dopamine can't attach properly to synapse receptors).
Even though our brains have a "post office" that passes along literally billions and billions of messages between neurons every single minute, sometimes something goes wrong with the system and we lose the ability to send and receive postcards that say "Having a great time, I hope you're doing well!" Sometimes, it's not even something in the brain -- it could be hormones that are causing different physiological responses in the body that ultimately end up affecting the brain. There are no quick or inexpensive tests to pinpoint exactly what's going on with the chemicals in the brains and bodies of us depressive people, so medication is often our most educated guess.
There are, of course, different kinds of depression. Major Depressive Disorder is what most of us think of when we talk about depression, but there is also Persistent Depressive Disorder (where depression lasts more than two years), Bipolar Disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Postpartum Depression, Psychotic Depression (which is accompanied by hallucinations, delusions and paranoia) and others. A proper diagnosis can lead a psychiatrist towards one or more medications, but most often treatment will happen on multiple fronts; while looking for a chemical solution, cognitive behavioral therapy can help us identify and manage thoughts and emotions that come from depression.
What's important to realize is that depression is a distinct physical illness -- as real as diabetes, AIDS or Parkinson's Disease. There is a real chemical and/or physiological disorder in our brains that affect how and what we think, our levels of energy, our ability to manage conflict and stress in our lives.
During depressive episodes, our brains are going through changes that make it much more difficult to manage our moods, sleeping patterns, appetites and other things. When we're depressed, we may literally be physically incapable of being happy, maintaining a balanced perspective, sleeping or eating as we should, or even getting out of bed. The chemicals that allow us to do that are simply not present or active within our brain.
That is what those of us who manage depression have to face. While many of us are lucky enough to have access to mental health care and responsive treatment, many more of us are unable to visit a therapist or psychologist; have no means to seek help; or are in an environment where mental illness is poorly understood, stigmatized or completely ignored. Those of us trapped within those situations often have no recourse but to suffer alone and helpless.
So many of us who have this illness recognize that there's something wrong with us; that we can't feel happy or motivated or interested the way most people can, or that we feel empty and hopeless even though we have no reason to. We know that our inability to do everything that might be expected of us can be a real burden on those around us, and that it can be difficult or impossible to explain just what's happening to us. When we're in a place where getting out of bed and just taking a shower is all that we can do today, it can be extraordinarily alienating for even the most well-meaning advice to miss the mark of our experience, to offer ideas or solutions that the depressed person is simply incapable of imagining.
It's an awful thing to be in that place. We can often be unable to think of times when we didn't feel this way, or imagine a future in which we won't feel this way. This is going to sound lame, but U2's song "Stuck in a Moment That You Can't Get Out Of" was a revelation for me; it really captured the major problem of depression for me, that idea that this is something ugly and permanent that I will have to bear for the rest of my life.
For those of us with this illness, there are a number of things that make our manifest symptoms and internal experience unique. Specific brain chemistry, personality traits, environmental and social factors, hormonal imbalances, life experience and so many other factors contribute to how we express, cope and view depression. And I know how difficult that is to help with, but trust me -- it's not any easier for those of us trapped inside of our own heads.
On Wednesday, I'll talk more about my personal experience with depression. But for now, here are a few links that offer further information.
All About Depression -- A website that offers information and resources about what depression is, how it works and manifests, and treatment options.
What Causes Depression? -- A page from the Harvard Medical School that talks about what we know (and still need to learn) about the physical and chemical roots of depression.
Antidepressants (Wikipedia) -- Wikipedia, of course, has an extensive article on antidepressants and how they work chemically. What's interesting is we still don't know exactly WHY they work; but the data gathered over the decades prove that they do.
National Alliance on Mental Illness -- NAMI is the leading organization in the United States dedicated to mental illness and improving the conversation about it within our country. They also have tremendous resources, information, and outreach.
See you folks on Wednesday. If there are any questions about depression or comments about information I've presented here, please let me know!
jakebe: (Buddhism)

There's this idea in Buddhism about the Noble Eightfold Path -- after you've taken every step along the path, what comes next? You've attained Right View and Intention, Right Speech and Action and Livelihood, Right Effort and Mindfulness and Concentration. Where do you go from there?

You attain Right View after that.

Like the wheel of karma, the Noble Eightfold Path is also a circle; reaching one spoke of the wheel brings you to the place where you can reach the next one. There is no completion, even after you attain enlightenment; there is only the work of realization of the present. One of the reasons I identify with Zen Buddhism so strongly is its acknowledgement that perfection is an illusion. Being alive is a constant balancing act, maintaining your stance while rolling with whatever bumps and turns ripple through the wheel.

It also reinforces the concept of interconnectedness. One thing leads to another, leads to another, leads to another. In this way, one act -- however small -- sends ripples through the wheel of your life that shape everything that comes after it. This is really what karma is; the awareness of the consequences of your actions, large and small, predicted and unintended.

So: my dear husband Ryan has been in Japan for nearly two weeks. He's been planning this trip for months, and I'm tremendously excited to have him back with me so I can hear about his experience and see the places he's visited. I also miss him terribly. For the past two weeks, I've lived as a bachelor -- it's just been me and my rabbit Puckles, watching TV and eating whatever we felt like sprawled out together in bed.

Except not really. The home we share is in a condominium complex that scheduled a fumigation for the weekend after he left, which meant that I would have to get everything ready for that. All of our food and medicine had to be double bagged in special material in order to avoid contamination. And I would have to clean up as much as I could, because there's no way I'm going to let strangers know just what kind of things we let slide in our household.

The work was more intensive than I expected, so it meant many late nights. I don't sleep well without Ryan anyway, so that meant trying to snatch just a little more rest well after the alarm went off. That meant being unable to meditate and ease into the day before work, which meant that I arrived at the office tired, harried and rootless. That meant being less resilient to stress, which there was plenty of last week. And that meant coming back home with my willpower depleted, my brain fried and unable to rest because there was more preparation to do. Which meant more late nights…

You get the idea. For the past two weeks I slipped into a cycle where I had all but abandoned the self-care mechanisms I had been building for a while, and the effect was dramatic. My mood plummeted, my anxiety skyrocketed and my coping mechanisms disappeared. All from staying up too late.

Except, of course, not really. The contradiction here is that I made a series of choices that put me into that cycle. I could have made more efficient use of my time, or gotten up early anyway to make the best of so little sleep. I could have asked for more help with getting the apartment together before that weekend. I could have simply sacrificed precision (I couldn't ignore the opportunity to throw away expired food and medicine) for time. Each choice I made along the way nudged me a little more firmly into that cycle, until momentum made it easy to remain there.

And once you're there, you feel stuck. Life doesn't pause for you to get your head on straight; there was still work and fumigation and everything else. Taking the time to put in the effort to get yourself off of a bad path can be difficult to find, but at a certain point it's necessary. You have to stop and take a breath.

This past weekend I managed to slow down enough to consider the choices I make. I went to bed earlier, caught up on sleep, re-established my meditation practice, and took the mindfulness I gained off the bench and into the rest of the day. I'm in a better place mentally and emotionally, but I'm still recovering. Pausing and changing momentum is still energy that must be expended. I believe I'm applying Right Concentration now, making a concerted effort to make sure the changes I make today stick.

Eventually, I'll get to a place where I can work on attaining the Right View.
jakebe: (Reading Rabbit)

Further Confusion 2016 will begin tomorrow, and for most of us furries we're just counting down the hours until we can head to San Jose to immerse ourselves in fandom for four glorious days. I know I'm itching to get there myself. But one of the things that rarely gets talked about at these conventions is how big a disruption they are to our daily lives, and what that disruption can do for those of us coping with mental illness. While the potential is there for a brilliant weekend, the craziness of the convention alone can throw us off-kilter.

For many of us, FC 2016 is one of our only chances to be with people we feel truly understand us; for four days we can put aside the problems of our regular lives and enjoy company and kinship in a way we rarely get to experience. We become so attached to the promise of a non-stop great time that any disappointment or gap in pleasure can send us spiraling into dark places. Unfortunately, downtime and disappointment are both facts of life; we can do ourselves a huge favor by learning to roll with them.

I want folks who are going through rough times at the convention to know that I see them, and I sympathize with what they're dealing with. I'd like to share a few things that have helped me get through conventions and have made sure I have the best time possible.

Absolutely take care of the basics. 6/2/1 is a mnemonic I've seen floating around recently to remind people about the basic things you should do every day during a convention. 6 hours of sleep, 2 meals a day (at least), 1 shower. Making sure you're well-rested, well-fed and well-groomed can have a profound effect on your mood -- this goes doubly so for those of us with mental issues.

If nothing else, making sure you get enough sleep and enough to eat is absolutely essential for managing your mood. Sleep allows the brain to recover from daily stresses, and your body needs nutrients to keep it running properly while you're awake. And making sure you're clean and wearing comfortable clothing you feel good about being seen in helps tremendously with self-esteem. Those three things alone are vital, easy things we can do to keep us on a stable footing emotionally.

I know that sleep and showers can go by the wayside pretty easily, especially for those of us stricken by FOMO -- the Fear of Missing Out. It can feel like leaving our friends is a guarantee of not getting to see or do something awesome. But it's important to remember that the convention (and your friends) will be there when you're awake, cleaned and your hunger is satisfied. It's a trade-off of quantity of time for quality time. When you feel better, you will have more fun. Trust me on this! I've stuck around for things way longer than I should have, when I was hungry or tired, just because I didn't want to leave. It was miserable.

For those of us who need a little extra self-care, I would recommend sleeping at least 7 hours a day, eating 3 square meals, taking 1 shower and making absolutely sure you take any medications that you've been prescribed.

If possible, adapt your routine for travel. One of the ways I manage my mental state is by doing my best to establish a routine. I get up at a certain time, I go to the bathroom, I meditate, take my medication, then get to writing. Doing this every day gives me a nice foundation to center on through the craziness of the day; it's how I try to put my best foot forward. Obviously, it's a lot harder to stick to it when traveling, but I give it my best shot and I recommend you do the same.

If you have a small set of activities you do at certain times, find ways to stick to them when you're traveling -- especially if it helps to center and calm you. If that's just not possible, think of alternate activities that provide you with the tools you need to be mentally resilient through the day. It can really help you through the marathon of interaction that conventions tend to be.

Learn to be OK with being alone or having downtime. This can be difficult, especially if the convention is the one time you get to spend with friends you only know online. But the fact of the matter is sometimes your friends will be doing something else or you're waiting to join up with someone; you will find yourself alone with nothing to do. This doesn't have to be a bad thing; there's an enormous convention happening all around you, with new people to meet and all kinds of interesting things to do.

If you find yourself having downtime -- unexpected or otherwise -- take advantage of the events being set up by the hard-working convention staff. Take a look at the schedule to see what's open and where things are; the gaming area tends to be open most of the day and night, and there's a number of meeting areas that you can camp out in and hang out. If nothing grabs your fancy, pre-planning an "alone time" activity or two to fall back on can help keep you occupied for a while. Take advantage of downtime to center yourself and collect your thoughts. Being alone doesn't necessarily mean being lonely.

Allow yourself to feel what you're feeling. Sometimes, despite our best efforts and careful planning, we'll fall into a bad mental state. That is OK! No one -- not even at a world-class furry convention -- feels great all the time! Sometimes we'll be sad, or bored, or angry and frustrated. There's a huge emphasis on avoiding the negative feelings we have, but that can make things worse. I know for me, I'll think that I "shouldn't" feel the way I do and that guilt or frustration (What's wrong with me? Why can't I just be happy?) just makes things that much worse.

If you're having a bad time, or you're feeling low, take a moment to tell yourself that it's OK you feel this way. It's a valid emotion to have, and it's only temporary. It will pass in time, even though it might not feel like it. What's more, you don't have to necessarily *do* anything about what you're feeling. It can be a powerful thing to accept your feelings, even when they hurt. You may not feel better, exactly, but it can ease the pressure that we can feel about our emotions.

Further Confusion is a wonderful con, and I hope that everyone who attends has an amazing time. If you find yourself struggling to deal with emotions, please reach out to someone. You are not alone, even though it may feel like it. But you have to take care of yourself before you can expect others to take care of you.

Make sure you get enough sleep, get enough to eat, and present yourself as best you can. Plan to take care of your needs ahead of time if at all possible. Accept who you are and how you feel. It can be difficult work, I know, but the work is worth it. I'll see you folks in San Jose in about 24 hours.

jakebe: (Thoughtful)
One of the reasons I believe Rabbit is such a helpful totem for me is that fear is such a strong emotion within me. I'm afraid all the time, of various things real and imagined, and that fear drives a great deal of my behavior. One of the lessons Rabbit teaches is how to move through that fear to engage with a broader, brighter world where danger lurks unseen just in the peripheries of your vision. You have to eat, you have to sleep, and you have to enjoy yourself sometime. There are moments of grace, quiet and contentment to be had in a scary and sometimes hostile world.
Over the summer I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder in conjunction with ADHD. That diagnosis was a bit of a surprise to me, especially since over the past several months I had been feeling more frustrated than frightened; I was unable to make headway on most of the projects I'd been working on and I was moving into a new position at work that I know I would have trouble with if I couldn't get my concentration issues under control.
Part of the treatment for the diagnosis is a group therapy class given by Kaiser Permanente every Thursday where we learn what Anxiety Disorder is, how it manifests in people, and what's going inside your brain to cause this behavior. It's been illuminating -- both in my own tendencies and how paralyzing anxiety can be for people. I've met so many people in class who have trouble with dealing with work, or keeping good relationships, or even leaving their houses due to their anxiety. Just coming to the group is a major victory for them, but they can't see it because they just want to be fixed, want to be normal.
From what I understand, Anxiety Disorder is kind of like an emotional allergic reaction. With allergies, your body has mechanisms to protect you from foreign bodies that go haywire on things that it should be desensitized to -- like pollen, or dust, or certain foods. And the best way to deal with that is to either avoid the trigger or take an antihistamine to block the effects.
With Anxiety Disorder, your mind is set up to deal with threats in a certain way. It releases hormones that prepare you to flee the threat or fight it, and those hormones do all kinds of stuff from elevating your heart rate to making you breathe faster to take in more oxygen, to hyper-focusing your brain to deal with what's in front of you. Only instead of the bear that's charging towards you or the really important test you have to study for, it's imagined scenarios about a presentation at work, or the story you're writing, or saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Most of the time we cannot avoid the triggers that cause this reaction, and most drugs that would lower our reaction have side effects that make us unable to do anything else -- so we have to find a new way to deal with it.
For me, my anxiety is wrapped up in any activity where I have to show a decent level of competence, requires sustained concentration and involve other people being affected by what I do. Writing stories is all I've wanted to do for my entire life, but I just can't bring myself to finish a story and put it out there. I'm so afraid of the process of writing -- knowing that I won't be able to provide the focus that the story deserves really stresses me out. Knowing that I'm not where I want to be with my writing prowess yet is so discouraging, because I'm 35 already and so many people write great novels in their 20s. Knowing that I would have to present my work to a world that is scary and sometimes hostile fills me with dread -- what if it's simply not good enough? What if people rip it to pieces? What if it's deeply offensive in a way that I hadn't anticipated? Or worst of all, what if something that means so much time and effort to me is just met with a gigantic figurative shrug and no one cares? It's better not to do anything than to risk all of the fears I have about myself proven right.
I work in Silicon Valley on a very technical and complicated suite of software. I was brought on in an administrative capacity, but for my career to advance there I'll need to move into a position with significantly more technical work. That terrifies me. I'm not tech-illiterate, but the amount of know-how that the job requires, the attention to detail and the ability to navigate thorny issues with angry customers is just paralyzing for me. My brain doesn't work that way; as much as I would like it to, I just can't remember a host of considerations to be effective with troubleshooting, and confrontation drains my social batteries almost immediately. The job would require me to learn a lot through doing in real-time, making mistakes and recovering from them, all while under pressure to perform at a level expected of world-class support. I'd be moving from dealing with mostly people (which, while draining, I'm more comfortable with) to dealing mostly with tech (where the consequences for a mistake can be catastrophic).
In these, two of the most important aspects of my life, my Anxiety Disorder has pushed me into a spiral I didn't even see but kept me from moving forward. The situation causes an anxious thought, which triggers an outsized emotional reaction, which triggers a *physical* reaction that triggers another anxious thought, which sustains and solidifies that emotional reaction, which ratchets up the physical reaction, which…you get the idea.
Without realizing it, my reaction to these stressors has been to flee; I'll get to work, take stock of what I should be doing that day and get freaked out enough by my workload that I retreat to something easier -- a mindless task that's more comfortable, Twitter or something else. The moment a story gets difficult or starts to diverge from where I had expected it to go, I'll bail on it. Or I'll muddle through it in fits and starts, unable to keep the story disciplined so it fulfills my worst fears and justifies me never trying it in the first place.
I've learned a lot through the Anxiety class about being mindful with my worries, knowing what kinds of thoughts send me into a spiral, and all the ways people with Anxiety Disorder tend to magnify or distort issues in order to justify the emotional/physical response. Catastrophizing the outcome, "fortune telling" about what terrible thing will most certain happen, "mind-reading" the reactions of those around us or what people are truly thinking all happen in varying ways, to various degrees.
Last week I learned how the fight/flight response tends to work in those of us who have trouble with anxiety, and what we can do about it. The fight response tends to be obsessive worry with a particular problem -- working through every possible angle and outcome until everything is accounted for, which is a problem. Sometimes, even after you've put an issue to bed with a solution that covers all your bases, your brain can be really good at chewing on the bones of it over and over again. The flight response most often manifests in procrastination, sometimes aggressively so. If I'm worried about a project, it often feels like there's a block in my brain that physically prevents me from working on it.
I've been taught that with Anxiety Disorder, the best thing to do is often the exact opposite of your initial impulse. If you're a compulsive worrier, it's best to try and take your mind off the problem (I don't know how that works, but I'll assume we'll learn about that next week); if you're a procrastinator, it's best to lean in with the issue and face the thing that's worrying you.
For example, with my job I'm worried that I will not be able to perform up to the standards of my managers and will face months of disappointed superiors, warnings and eventual termination. As an exercise, we were encouraged to visualize the worst-case scenario of that fear three times; each time, we would deconstruct our imaginations with an eye towards learning how we catastrophize.
I was surprised by just how awful my story was: because one of my superiors is also a friend, I imagined that the situation deteriorated our friendship to the point of dissolution. Because I was desperate and afraid, I'd lash out at work, and THAT put a strain on the relationship between my husband and I, and my superior and his partner. That put this strain on our entire social circle, and because I was so emotionally devastated I just could not deal with it. My world got smaller and smaller until I couldn't even get out of bed, and by association my husband's world got smaller -- between taking care of me and our strained relationship, he was becoming increasingly alienated. I couldn't get it together enough to do anything; I was too fragile to shoulder any of his problems, but he had to deal with all of mine. Our marriage suffered...and I had to bail on the rest of it. It became too painful.
When I was back in the room, I noticed how tight my chest was, how fast my heart was beating, how dry my mouth felt. Then I answered the questions: Is this likely to happen? Will thinking about it make it happen? If it *did* happen, what could I do to cope? What aspects of the situation had I misinterpreted that makes it less likely to happen? After that, I felt better, and the next visualization felt embarrassing for how melodramatic it was. I came out of it, refined the answers to my questions, and visualized a third time -- by then, it was boring and silly. I knew how impossible the worst-case scenario would be, and had a better appreciation of the strength of my relationships and the love of my husband.
The tools I'm developing to deal with my anxieties -- after learning how to clearly identify and understand them -- are allowing me to lean in towards the things that scare me the most. I was able to move through my discomfort talking about mental illness earlier, and I have a lot more patience with myself when it comes to my writing. The progress is steadier, faster than it's been for a long time. I can actually imagine a life in which I am capable of learning new things, becoming more competent with the things I want to do, actually reaching the goals I set for myself. It's so great to learn about myself and take those lessons into direct action.
I'm still afraid, of course, but now I have a much better time with that fear. It doesn't paralyze me the way it used to. And I have professional help to thank for that.
I understand that not everyone with Anxiety Disorder has this experience; there are so many people in my group who are affected a lot more strongly than I am, and will probably need furthere help over a longer period of time to deal with it. My heart goes out to them. I know how much my relatively mild version of it has hampered my life; it must be terrible to deal with much stronger fear day in, day out. Once you see how fear manifests through a broad swath of people, you notice it driving so many other behaviors -- especially the ones I've found antagonistic or particularly angering. That allows me to see myself in these people a lot better, which allows me to check my anger and better understand what they might be going through. Understanding myself helps me to connect better with others.
I'm curious if anyone else out there has issues with anxiety. What about it do you find particularly challenging? Are there ways you've learned to cope with it? Are there experiences you would like to share? I'm all ears!
jakebe: (Hugs!)
No Shame Day was last week and I completely missed it, so I thought I would take a bit of time to open up further about my mental health issues. I believe that the more we discuss these things openly, the more people understand the nature of mental illness and the more we destigmatize those suffering from them.
I manage chronic depression, and I'm pretty sure I've had it all my life. Depressive episodes have been really bad a few times, and it was only recently (when I moved to California) that I finally got the help I needed. Now, I cope with a mixture of medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, and Zen meditation. For the most part this does the trick -- my thoughts don't run away from me nearly as often because I can recognize when something is being driven by depression and have tools to engage that.
However, things aren't perfect. One of the reasons I identify with rabbit so strongly is because it's a creature whose life is ruled by wariness. They're constantly on guard for potential threats, and so much of their communication is about worry and the lack of it. The less they worry, the more their personality comes through; it can be hard to "get to know" a rabbit, but it's a delight when you do.
I'm a high-strung person; most of my effort goes towards the managing and alleviating of stress -- in myself and others. At work, I sweat the small stuff as much as I can, though it gets exhausting to do so and I end up dropping a lot of the details because I just don't have the capacity to deal with them. THAT can stress me out, knowing that I'm inconsistent with my attention to detail or the ability to get things done. And since I'm stressing about that, I have a reduced capacity for new stressors in my life.
The cycle completes when I get overwhelmed. It becomes impossible to concentrate on the things I need to do. The more I try, the more my brain just seems to slide off the task and I look for anything that can provide a distraction. Sometimes I'll end up just clicking on the same three websites over and over for distraction's sake, not taking in anything, just doing something so I don't have to think.
But that's no way to live your life, much less spend your career. I'm trying to move into a position of more responsibility at work, but it's difficult when you struggle to manage the responsibilities you have. This obviously isn't something I can talk about my superiors with; I'm not a bad worker, I just have trouble dealing with certain aspects of my work. Still, something had to be done.
So I went to a psychologist to see if I had ADHD; the lack of concentration and focus, the excitability, the tension all seemed to point to that. After a test and a consultation, she determined that yes, that was a likely possibility as well as Generalized Anxiety Disorder. GAD is characterized by excessive worrying about various aspects of daily life (in my case, writing and work) with physical symptoms that include fatigue (yes), muscle tension (yes), twitching (yes), difficulty concentrating (yes), irritability (also yes).
So now I'm embarking on a new front for my treatment: group therapy classes for GAD and ADHD, with a round of medication possibly starting up today. I'm hoping that the coping mechanisms learned in these group therapy classes can help me cope with anxiety, and the medication at least puts me on an even keel for long enough to make those mechanisms habit. We'll see how the rest of the year goes, but I'm optimistic that it'll at least help me deal with my reactions to stress.
I know that mental health issues are difficult to speak about. You have celebrities and various seminars and self-improvement courses trying to tell you that it's "all in your mind" and medication is never a good idea. You have the media promoting the idea that when something terrible happens (like say, Dylan Roof) it's because the perpetrator was mentally ill. Well-meaning friends and associates tell you to suck it up or get over it without properly understanding just how difficult (and sometimes impossible) that is -- like people who suffer haven't tried that already.
But mental illness is a real thing with real causes; sometimes those causes need medication to be resolved, and sometimes developing a mindfulness program is enough. Sometimes the condition is transient, brought out by extraordinary stimuli. Sometimes it's chronic, without any cause but chemical, and you'll have to work to manage it for the rest of your life.
All of this is OK. We each have our own burdens, and sometimes we need the help and wisdom of people better equipped to deal with them. It takes a while to find a therapist we feel understood by; it takes a while to find the medication that makes us feel even without feeling emotionally restricted. Learning just how to handle mental illness is a journey that can be long, lonely and frustrating. But like getting to know a rabbit, the end result is very much worth it.
It's important to me that people know mental illness is a real affliction, and that it can be managed. People who have them can live productive and meaningful lives. And most importantly, that there's help out there. If you feel there's an issue that you can't manage on your own and need help, mentalhealth.gov is a good place to start. Reach out to friends and/or family you trust; a support network can be tremendously helpful. And know that you're not alone. There are those of us who are fighting the fight with you, all the time, every day. We see you, we understand you, we love you.

November 2016

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