A life sentence with mortal punctuation: part 7

Last week: It takes sixteen years, but finally, I see the light.

Sorry this is a bit late.  I was actually WRITING today and I lost track of time.  It’s been a very good day 🙂

So that’s what it’s called

The Way Out, or Suicidal Ideation: George Grie...

The Way Out, or Suicidal Ideation: George Grie, 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I learned a new term last week: Ideation.  I didn’t know that those pesky and persistent thoughts of self-harm and violence had an actual name attached to them.  Specifically, it’s called suicidal ideation.

Thanks to a friend for that.

How I deal with my depression

This week, I just wanted to go over a few of my symptoms and the strategies I’ve developed to deal with them.  Some issues I still don’t have under control, but I’ll share how I’m working through them and my progress to date.

What I don’t do

I have chosen not to go through extensive therapy and after the Paxil, I chose not to take any other kinds of medication.  I know people who struggled for years to find the right medication or combination of them to address their symptoms and in some cases, they still become accustomed to a particular dosage or formulation/combination and have to search for and acclimate to new medications.

This takes a lot of time that I have decided I can’t afford to take.

Everything that I do, I do on my own, and I know that for some of you, that will make you uncomfortable.  It may mean for others that I think I know more than you do.  I assure you: I do not.  I only know what works for me and share it in the hope that others will be able to benefit from my experience.

Others still may feel that my depression can’t be that bad if I can manage without talk therapy or psychoanalysis, medications, or a combination of all of the above.  You are welcome to your opinion, but please do not abuse me for holding to mine.

How I learned

When my father had his breakdown, I was scared to death.  I’d heard that depression and other mental illnesses had a genetic component.  If nothing else, it might predispose you to developing the disease, or other diseases yourself.

I started to pay attention to my father and to what my mother said about him.  I started to pay attention to my friends who had other kinds of mental illness, and the behaviours they exhibited.  I started to ask questions about how they dealt with their diseases and to think about whether their strategies would work for me or not.

When I got into my self-help phase, one of the exercises in one of the many books on the subject indicated that you needed to examine your life and the past events that may have contributed to your depression.  I did this in detail, repeatedly.  The greater part of at least one journal is filled with it.

As life went on and I continued to experience symptoms and the fall-out resulting from them, I continued to adapt and refine my strategies.

Having a mental illness of any kind can seem like having another person inside of you.  Have you ever heard one partner say of another, ‘That’s not her talking.  It’s the depression.’?  It can be very true.

As you might do with any other person, adult or child, you have to treat your illness with respect.  You have to take the time to get to know and understand it.

As with anything, mindfulness is the key.  Be aware in the moment and hold the lesson of it close in your heart and mind.

Mellie’s deadlies

  1. Ideation
    I’ll start with this because I already mentioned last week a bit about how I handle these unwelcome thoughts and feelings.  First, acknowledge them.  If you try to ignore them, they’ll only come back more persistently.  Then, accept them.  They are a part of you because they are a part of your illness.  They are thoughts.  You don’t have to act on them and you certainly don’t have to fear them.  Fear will give them power.  You don’t want that.  Finally, thank them.  I’m serious.  They’ve made you aware of something important about you and the nature of your disease.  Once they feel this respect, they will go on their merry way of their own accord.
  2. Exhaustion
    I am tired all the time.  Most days, I feel like I could stay in bed all day.  On the occasional bad day, I might.  My depression is only one cause of this.  Insomnia is another.  Hormones are another.  My malignant hyperthermia (MH) may be yet another cause.  Ultimately, they are likely all connected.  MH is a funny condition.  I’ve read of some people who show symptoms of what used to be called chronic fatigue syndrome, and others who are largely bed-ridden because of their symptoms.  One of my relatives suffers from the much-debated fibromyalgia.  I believe that this may be an affect of the MH.  Regardless of the cause, several things have helped.  Regular sleeping habits.  Because of work, I have to get up at a particular time.  I find that I wake up about this time whether I’m working or not, and whether I choose to stay in bed or not.  I’ve tried sleeping pills for the insomnia and didn’t like their side affects.  I’ve always felt nervous using medication to solve a problem.  Naps don’t work for me.  I used to nap all the time, but if I sleep during the day, I’m more likely to have trouble sleeping at night.  I’ve tried herbal remedies, warm milk, keeping the bedroom dark and quiet, but the thing that seems to help the most is going to bed at a set time and waking up at a set time.  Exercise.  I find that if I’ve exercised, even just walking, at any time during the day, then I’m more likely to fall asleep quickly and sleep through the night.  Getting used to it.  This may seem a little harsh, but you can function when you’re tired.  I do it every day.  I’m very aware of my physical state and I can see the signs of when I’m getting too exhausted.  This will be an individual thing, but it’s important to know your limits and the difference between functional tired and dysfunctional tired.  When I fall into the latter situation, it may well be time for a day off.
  3. Rage
    In general, I’m a laid back person, so laid back, in fact, that sometimes I don’t react in the way people expect.  I never express it, but part of my depression is rage.  This is where some people find talk therapy helpful.  They can unload all the unpleasant baggage they’ve been carrying around and have someone tell then that it’s alright, that it’s normal to have these feelings.  I find this to be similar to ideation, but I substitute my journal for a therapist.  Like a therapist, my journal doesn’t judge.  It just accepts.  I don’t need the reassurance of anyone else.  I know that the rage is one of the effects of my depression.  Journaling my rage allows me to unload in a healthy way and unlike talk therapy I have an artefact that I can refer to.  I can return and examine my thoughts and feelings and see if there’s a pattern.  Because I journal about my dreams, creative ideas, and other everyday events, I can often connect trigger events to my written episodes of rage.  There was a period of several years where I had a lot of rage to vent.  Now, not so much.  I think my journaling has helped me immensely in this regard.
  4. Self-doubt
    This is related to number five, but finds its source more in the friend wars and in the negative experiences I’ve had as a creative person.  Since I’m socially awkward, I can get the feeling that nobody likes me, even though I know this isn’t true.  I try to keep a few central truths in mind.  First, the people in your life are there because they are equipped in some way to handle your shit.  This means that they are true friends and accept you even when you act like an idiot or say something strange or unkind.  They love you regardless.  Trust them.  Have faith in them.  The opinions of people who don’t ‘get it’ are not worth your time or energy.  By and large, I try not to care what people think of me, but I find that, when I look at it objectively, I am generally well-thought-of.  Creatively, I keep in mind that I have been published and not just by one source or in one genre.  Many of the rejections I get are encouraging ones.  I have also claimed my identity as a writer.  I’ve been writing since I was a child and I’ll continue to write until I die.  It’s who I am.  Publication is a wonderful validation, but I don’t need it to feel good about what I do, or to keep doing it every chance I get.  Writing is a healthy addiction.
  5. Self-hatred
    This is the biggie for me and strangely, I’ll spend the fewest words on it.  My version of hell is to be confronted with all the things that I’ve said or done that have hurt someone else.  At heart, I feel that I’m a terrible person and I don’t have to look far to find confirmation of this.  I don’t have to look far to find confirmation of the opposite either.  I have few, but intensely loyal friends, a small, but deeply loving family.  It may sound bizarre to some of you, but I’ve had a string of wonderful pets in my life that have all taught me what it is to love unconditionally.  My self-hatred is born of fear.  Striving for self-love is an act of courage.  I try to be brave every day.
  6. Emotional instability
    Though my crying-at-the-drop-of-a-hat days are long over, I can still be a basket-case from time to time.  Some of this I attribute to hormones.  I first noticed when I was younger and on birth control that my emotional instability was at its worst.  In the years since, I have occasionally had need to go on the pill again for various reasons, and though I’ve tried a number of different formulations, without fail, I become weepy.  Even without artificial hormones, I can still take a maudlin turn at certain points in my cycle.  The early years of my relationship to Phil were the worst.  The smallest things would send me into an ‘end-of-the-world’ funk for days, sometimes weeks, and Phil has confessed to me since that there were times when he thought we wouldn’t make it as a result.  Phil was, in part, my salvation though.  His intelligence stimulated and inspired me, his keen and twisted sense of humour, so like my own, has kept me laughing all these years.  He can make me laugh until my cheeks and stomach are sore, until my eyes tear up.  It’s amazing what a good belly-laugh can do for you.  We have several values in common and I trust him implicitly.  We are the best of friends.  We just happen to be married 😉

Above all, writing has been my best therapist, my best medication, and my best spiritual balm.  It was only when I started to write regularly that I really started to get my emotional house in order.  Much of my journey feeds into my writing and I continue to explore the themes of my life in the pages of my stories and novels.

There is something of me in every one of my characters and often pieces of the people I’ve known and loved.

Have you been able to turn an illness to your favour?  Have you mined your life and experiences for your stories?

This is not the end of the story, though it will be the end of this thread of the tapestry.  Next week I will return to my narrative where I had to leave it to discuss my depression in more depth.  This has been a story within a story that had to reach its conclusion before I could continue.

I hope these stories have served some purpose and will continue to do so.

Good night and I hope everyone had a happy Easter.

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A life sentence with mortal punctuation: part 6

Last week: A tumultuous year sets the gears in motion.

This week: Fumbling toward stability

But first …

A recent experience and how it led, in part, to this series

Last year, a co-worker of mine tried to quit smoking by use of a certain, psycho-active cessation medication.  I’d tried it in the past myself and warned him that while my reaction was atypical, that he should be wary.  Initially, he was undeterred, but a few days later, he said he’d had to stop.

He told me that he was in the kitchen, cutting vegetables, and the thought occurred to him how easy it would be to slice his flesh and he had the unsettling desire to find out what that felt like.  That moment frightened him so much he determined to stop taking the medication immediately.

I stood there, listening, and in retrospect my reaction wasn’t what it should have been.  It didn’t even occur to me that other people might not have these thoughts.

Ever since that fateful year when I was seventeen, I’ve never been on a balcony without thinking how easy it would be to climb over it and jump.  I’ve never been on a subway platform without wondering if I could really jump in front of one of the trains.  I think of car accidents (having them or causing them) all the time while I drive.

Often when doing routine tasks like cutting vegetables the unwelcome image of plunging the knife into my stomach—or worse, someone else’s—walks through my head.  I tell these thoughts to keep on walking of course, and to let the door hit their narsty asses on the way out, but the fact is, I have these thoughts so often, I actually thought that they were a normal part of everyone’s mental landscape.

Not so, obviously.

I was never so foolish as to think that my battle with depression was over.  It’s something that will be with me for the rest of my life and these thoughts are a reminder of that.  I’ve learned how to turn them down so they’re just background noise.  I acknowledge them and send them on their various ways.  They have no power over me.  Their work here is done.  Mindfulness restored.

I just got so used to them that I forgot not everyone thinks of self-harm every day.

The fumbling part

It took me until I was 33 or so to really address my depression.  That’s sixteen years.  Some struggle longer, others not so long, and every struggle is different.  This, again, is only my story.

When I left for university, I lucked out and got a room mate who really understood.  She suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), something that she didn’t reveal to me until our second semester together.  She did so by asking me to read a short story.  It was a tactful and creative way of introducing the subject.

After that, we started to communicate through books.  It was a very cool and private way to conduct a friendship, like an exclusive book club.

My roomie saw me through a lot.  She helped me discover my parasomnias (I held conversations, got up, and moved around while asleep), helped me start my first journal to capture these experiences, held me when I broke down recounting my tonsillectomy trauma (there are things that I didn’t and wonn’t share with you), and let me talk until I was hoarse while my second serious relationship disintegrated.

She also helped me to rediscover my passion for writing, something that I will forever be grateful for.

We shared a harrowing ditching of my car on our way up to Elora Mills to visit a friend during a winter snowfall, baked and ate a crust pie (we were crust fans), and opened up our lives to one another.

When I moved away, my roomie told me that she’d started cutting.  On a visit up to Sudbury, I inadvertently broke her OCD with our hectic schedule.  I don’t know if I supported her through either of these transitions.

The Dad detour

In the second summer I was at Guelph, I got myself a job with a video film crew.  The business taped horse shows across Canada and into the US, edited the footage, and sold it to the horsey-set as memento, or training tool.

I was away in Southampton, NY for a couple of weeks and while I was down there, my father had a nervous break-down.  It was set off due to the dismantling of his unit at work and his potential relocation to southern Ontario.

Mom came home from work one day to find him sitting with a knife.

She didn’t tell me any of this when it happened, but only that Dad was fine, in the hospital and that she would fill me in when I visited home in a couple of weeks.

Dad was hospitalized for months and eventually diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder.  From there, he went on long-term disability though his employer’s health plan and eventually applied for Canada Pension Disability.

He never returned to work.

Not quite independence

There was nothing I could do for Mom when I went home.  I was just shocked by the news and returned to Toronto, where I moved in with BF number three and tried to survive.

Though I still saw my old roomie, I was without a constant confidant.  I turned to self-help books in a major way.

I wanted to spank my inner moppet and fast.  I was determined not to end up like Dad.  I feared it might be inevitable though.

Just before Christmas that year, my maternal grandmother passed away.  She’d been on borrowed time since I was a baby when she’d had multiple bypass heart surgery (see: Something I don’t remember).  I was about to start a job, but asked my new employer for a delay in my start date to go home for the funeral and Christmas.

It was surreal.  Once again, I didn’t feel connected to the event.  I couldn’t muster emotion at the appropriate times.  I continued to cry at odd ones, usually when I was alone, which, when you think about it, is the exact wrong time.  It’s like an alcoholic drinking alone, a sign of something wrong.

Really, I was worried about Mom.  She had been primary caregiver for my grandparents for a number of years.  Even though the burden should have been less, it wasn’t really.  She now had Dad to take care of too, and my grandfather was an alcoholic, something kept in check by my grandmother’s presence.

Mom was adamant that I couldn’t do anything to help, though, and so back south I went.

A series of jobs and the crash and burn of my third relationship eventually caused me to re-evaluate my life.  My attempts to find another place to live met with disappointment again and again.  I couldn’t survive alone, working a low-paying job in Toronto, and while I toyed with apprenticeship (masonry was kind of looking interesting for a while), journalism, or radio, or returning to university, my eventual move back to Sudbury decided me on two things:

  1. I was going to complete my degree in English and use that experience to become the best writer I could be, and
  2. I wasn’t going to get into another relationship until I’d sorted my shit out.

Growing up

Of course, I broke my second resolution and was dating Phil (now hubbie) before the summer was out.

Margaret was back in Sudbury too, and with her forever partner by then as well.

I was still not fit partner material, and I don’t know why Phil put up with my neurotic self.  I still became sad and cried often.  I fled from conflict, literally, and on several occasions Phil had to run after me.  If he hadn’t, I’d have retreated completely.

Still, he proposed, I accepted, and we were married the July of my second year at Laurentian.

Things changed again.  Margaret moved to Port Elgin when her husband got a job in the area.  Though I’d made some friends in school, I once more felt bereft.  My roomie from Guelph fell out of touch.  I was still searching.

Academically, I excelled.  Creatively, I was on a roll.  Several prize-winning short stories and poems led to my invitation to write a short story for the first issue of a new magazine.

I graduated cum laude with a concentration in rhetoric, but I still didn’t have any self-confidence.  I decided that I needed a master’s degree before I could be considered a ‘real’ writer.  All of my university friends were moving on to master’s degrees, or teacher’s college.  It just seemed like the thing to do.

Phil was in university now as well, and in order to pursue my degree, we’d have to live apart.  And we did.  For years.

I’ve written about my master’s experience elsewhere.  Here, I will only say that by the end of it, though I achieved my goal, I was beaten down creatively.  Despite having my poetry included in two anthologies and a handful of other journals and publications and despite having completed my thesis, a collection of short stories, I doubted that anything I had to write would have meaning or significance to anyone else.

I returned to Sudbury and a life of contract jobs interspersed with unemployment.  Those were rough years for Phil and I, and I still hadn’t sorted out my issues.  I still lived in fear of becoming like my father, of being as much of a burden to Phil as he was to my mom.

Then, Phil’s sister told me about an opening with her employer, which I applied for and was successful in getting.  Though it is the same employer I continue to work for today, the job was in a much different capacity.  I was working in a call centre.

The work was emotionally draining and I quickly reduced my hours to part-time.  Still, the wage was better than most jobs I could have gotten in Sudbury at the time and the benefits were even better.  Within a year, Phil and I had a house and mortgage, a car and car loan.  We were growing up.

I took advantage of the benefits I had, got a surgery I’d been putting off, braces, and therapy.  The talk therapy was limited by what my plan would pay for.  I hadn’t actually tried to kill myself or anything; I was just trying to figure out how to deal.

I also went on Paxil.

I’ve never been a fan of medication.  I tried all sorts of herbal and vitamin supplements to improve my mood, level of energy, and feeling of well-being.  No combination I’ve tried worked.

The Paxil seemed to work.  It gave me a respite from the anxiety and mood swings, but after a few months, I wanted to get off the drug.  I didn’t want to become dependant.

The withdrawal symptoms were easily the worst I ever experienced and I never want to go through that again.

Though it may not seem like much, it was my decision to get off the Paxil and get in control of my emotional life that was my turning point, not the therapy or the drug itself, nor any of the other, external things I had tried to that point.

I found ways to cope.  I’ll talk about a few of those next week.