Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The depressive episodes shorten

My depressions usually last for months or weeks, and in the past it's been years. Earlier this year I had a depression that lasted for six weeks, but since then I've had two episodes that were much shorter: a week at the end of March, and one day this past weekend.

Does a shorter cycle mean my medication is taking effect? My psychiatrist adjusted it a few months ago. I've never gone down and then back to normal so frequently. But if this is how it gradually disappears, so be it!

My Depression Meetup is going strong on Monday nights in Rogers Park. It helps me a lot and I'm grateful for the friends I've made there. Building a true friendship takes time, but I think I'm on my way with a couple of people in the group. It's extremely valuable to be friends with people who also struggle with depression. When I tell them my symptoms are back they aren't as likely to give advice or rush to help (although sometimes they do, to my annoyance). My depressive friends also don't feel guilty that they can't make my depression go away. They usually understand that telling someone I'm depressed isn't asking for help per se. It's just reaching out for support and someone to listen. When I'm in depression, mostly what I need is to just know they're there. 

Also, my friends and acquaintances who actively manage depression don't get tired of me saying I'm depressed, as people without depression can. I'm very glad I started that Meetup.

I wish I could say that sitting in the Meetup always makes me feel better, but sometimes I sit there feeling angry that so many of us suffer this way. It's so unfair, especially since mental illness doesn't get the support and attention that physical illnesses get. We can't be cured, so I want to wave my arm and wipe us all out to end our pain. But we're just a tiny group of strugglers. The world is full of people in pain with mental illness. It feels like an overwhelming nightmare.

I'm not depressed today. My symptoms are gone for now. But I still feel the unfairness of people having to live with these handicaps. All I can do is keep plugging along, and if I can help someone else just for a few minutes, so much the better. And that's really all there is.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Tippett responded!

Even though my review of a podcast on depression wasn't favorable, I tweeted it and tagged the host, Krista Tippett, and the show itself, On Being. And Tippett responded! 

This is great, although I'm not sure what she means by "it often works this cyclical way." Does she mean depression or her show? I'm kidding, but it seems that even with my Ivy League masters degree in English literature, I'm just not smart enough for this show, or even tweets about this show - ha ha!

But I really appreciate Tippett taking the time to read my blog. It's like she took time to talk with the people.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

It's back, but Crystal Chan kinda helped

I didn't even get one month before the depression came back. It rolled back over me on Monday and as hard as I've been trying to pretend "as if," I can't stop it. The twelve step programs advocate "fake it til you make it." Act the way you wish you were and eventually you'll really be that way. I'm not doing it very well with this disease. I'm doing a slow slide down into it.

Why is it so bad now? Why does it seem like in the past two years my depression has developed into a real pattern of on-again-off-again with completely sporadic periods and pauses? Is it about middle age? Is it about --- actually, I can't think of anything else that has changed about my life in the past two years.

Yes, my psychiatrist increased my meds. I've been doing increased exercise, decreased junk food; more fish oil, less dairy. I just don't know anymore. I just know it's back and I want to scream.

My friend Crystal sent me a link to Krista Tippett's On Being podcast. This episode is called "The Soul in Depression" and it aired on March 22, 2018. Three writers and experts discuss depression with her, and after listening to the whole thing my initial reaction is, "Wha-a-a-a?" Tippett mentions that she has experienced major depression, as have all of her guests, so it surprised me that whatever they said, she agreed with. Then again, she probably has the radio interviewer's focus, vocabulary and accommodating approach.

Andrew Solomon talks about depression in the second person (saying "you" instead of "I") which did not work for me at all. He describes his depression as "to be afraid and overwhelmed all the time," which isn't how I describe my depression. He says things like "You lose the sense of the inevitability of your own being alive," and referrs to "the profundity of the inner self." Huh?

Solomon also mentions that depression makes it hard to eat. I have never, ever had trouble eating through even my worst depressions. Tippett calls her depression symptoms "classic" and includes that she lost weight. Lost weight? That's a problem? I have wished SO many times that my depressions caused weight loss. I find several of their statements alienating because they don't apply to me and make me feel like I'm doing depression wrong.

Tippett asks Solomon to explain the statement in his book, "Depression is the flaw in love." He says love can't exist without a bunch of other emotions, like fear of loss. Part of loving someone is to feel sad when you lose them, so a range of emotion that includes great sadness and great pain is necessary for love. He identifies severe depression as an overactivity at the sadness/pain end of the emotional spectrum, but says that without those emotions, we couldn't have intimacy.

Um. Okay. So that's just a new way of saying that if we were never sad, we wouldn't be able to feel happiness. I resent Solomon's explanation because I've had plenty of depression (sadness and pain) in my life, but not so much love, so clearly being in this overactive state doesn't increase one's likelihood of experiencing the other end of it. So what good is this model? It has nothing for me.

Tippett's third guest, Anita Barrows, talks about depression as a spiritual place where there is "ripening" and "quieting." Quiet I get, but "ripening?"

Barrows at one point starts to say "the depressed mood," then stops and complains about the word and how "it's taken on so many rotten connotations." I assume she means the word "depressed," but I'm not sure what rotten connotations she's complaining about. She says she wants to "redeem it from the medical and the clinical." I really need an explanation of these comments.

Parker Palmer, the second guest, is much easier to understand, and he disagrees -- as does Tippett and her other guests -- with the Judeo-Christian belief that there's nobility or godliness in suffering. Good. But then near the end of the program, Tippett hypothesizes that depression can yield maturity, insight and a bigger soul and Barrows agrees. And there it is, the idea that there's some benefit to major depression, some payoff that makes it all worth it: the horrible days, the medication side effects, the broken marriage, the time in hospitals, the bills and knowing there's no cure and this is just how my life is.

The idea that depression leads to greater insight and compassion is nice, but I expect it's rare. I think most depressives just live with their disease, never getting the treatment they truly need and self-medicating with things like alcohol. And after they die, no one even knows they had depression. But Tippett is ever optimistic on her weekly podcast and it was a good note to end on.

On Being airs on National Public Radio (it's on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. and Sundays at 7 a.m. on Chicago's WBEZ) and its audience is probably able to keep up with its ideas and vocabulary, but for me Solomon was too intellectual and Barrows too poetic. I felt angry when the program reminded me that many depressives get skinnier and suggested that depressives live fuller lives that make (some of) us better people. It also just irritated me when I didn't know what they were talking about (the inevitability of your own being alive?).

Maybe this program would make more sense if I weren't depressed and exhausted. Or maybe I'm not even the audience for this. It's possible this discussion is for people who don't have depression, which would explain why they talk in such intellectual and poetic terms. Palmer is the one who speaks in the language of emotions and bodily experience. It's like his is the segment for those of us who actually have depression while Solomon and Barrows are for those who want to understand it.

Anyway, while the parts that upset me made me cry, analyzing and blogging about it has made me feel calm. So thanks to Krista Tippett and to Crystal who sent me the link.

NOTE: I tweeted my post and Tippett tweeted back!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

And then one day!

My depression lifted! I'm SO grateful. Last Tuesday I went to one of my part-time jobs managing a co-working space, and when I started interacting with people I noticed that I felt like smiling for the first time in weeks. In the next moment I noticed that I felt lighter and I knew the depression had gone back into remission. 

It feels so good to come out of a depressive episode! Not everyone's depression comes and goes, but mine does. It's definitely cyclic, but a big problem is that I don't know what causes it to come back or what causes it to go away again. It's mysterious and frustrating and I've tried to track my sleep and diet and habits, but no pattern has emerged.

That episode lasted six weeks, during which tasks piled up on my to-do list because I just didn't have the motivation to do them. In the last four days I've started doing them and I'm struck by how completely different my energy and motivation are when I'm not depressed. How can I feel so different when nothing has changed about my schedule or food or exercise or sleep? Depression baffles.

Looking back on the posts I wrote when I was in depression (this, this and this) shows me again that depression really is a form of madness and not at all just a feeling of being down. It really causes a detachment from reality and shifts my whole view of myself and the world and life. Or maybe it doesn't change my view, but it changes how I feel about my view. Two weeks ago I hopelessly believed my life wasn't in my power to improve and it would be best to die early. Today I still believe most things about my life aren't in my power to improve, but not all of them, and that's perfectly okay. I still think it would be best for me to die early, but I can smile while I say that and shrug and not feel bad about it. The hopelessness is gone, even though my beliefs are pretty much the same. 

So it goes. Since I don't know how long this reprieve will last, I'm trying to get as much done as possible. Maybe if I get certain projects rolling, the momentum will get me through the beginning of the next depression before I wind down to a halt again. (Summers are hard for me. I can get very moody in the heat.)

I really, really hope I get at least two months of this lucidity. Maybe even three.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Not getting better

I recently revised the labels on my blog. If you go to the labels cloud in the right column (in desktop view) and click on fatness, you'll see that I've been obsessed with food, diets, exercise, losing and gaining and it comes down to this: I'm 51 and a half years old and, even though I was thin just six years ago, I will never be thin again.

My struggle with depression has been a big part of this. Sometimes mental illness causes weight gain because medication increases hunger, a cruel and unacceptable side effect of psychotropic drugs. No drug that causes weight gain should ever reach the market.

Sometimes mental illness causes weight gain because we self-medicate with food and/or alcohol. That's my problem: I self-medicate with sweets. I've seen what can happen when I cut out the sweet junk food and just exercise a little: pants fit better and I can bend more easily. But I can't live without sweets for long because the depression comes back and then I need sugar. Foods like cookies and cake give me just enough of a boost in energy, focus and mood to make it easier to get through the day. When the depression symptoms pass, I can stop with the sweets and lose a little weight again. Then the depression comes back and the cycle repeats.

For years I've been thinking that my depression has been getting less severe, with more time between episodes. I've believed that I was managing it better and better, but 2017 taught me that's bullshit. 

In 2017 I had a hysterectomy which might have exacerbated a mild depression that had started the year before. Within two months the depression hit a dangerous stage and I did a week in a psychiatric ward on suicide watch. I spent the spring and summer of 2017 climbing out of that bleak place, completely demoralized, with my belief in my improvement dissolved.

Since the age of 22 I've been working with different therapists and psychiatrists and have used various modes of therapy to work through my fears and neuroses. I've released huge amounts of anger and fear about my childhood, relationships and life goals. I've doubled and tripled my self-esteem and have learned countless skills in interpersonal dynamics and my own inner mechanisms. I feel a big sense of accomplishment about all this; it's my life's work. I've never given up on knowing I can get better.

But now I admit that when the depression comes back, all that hard work goes out the window. My self-esteem plummets, my fears and neuroses settle back in and I lose the desire to work on goals. And my depression is getting worse, not better. The symptoms are more a part of my daily life now than in the past. Each year the number of good days decreases.

Recently I had a session with my talk therapist. I've been seeing her for 24 years and she has helped me immensely, but on that day I was deep in a depression and just sat there, staring into space. I had little to say and there was nothing that talking could do to ease my symptoms, so we spent part of the time just sitting in silence. She commented that it was hard to see me this way and she felt great sympathy for me, but at that moment her words meant nothing. Eventually I found myself reassuring her that I'd be different next time because my symptoms are rarely that bad for long (except last spring. I hate spring).

This indicates that more work on my interpersonal issues is not the answer. The depression is its own entity that can't be talked down. So I'm done putting so much effort into emotional healing when depression erases that work anyway. I'm tired of trying yet failing to achieve even mediocre goals. I'm tired of pushing back against the natural pattern of my mind.

Believing I've improved myself and my life as much as possible, I'll now just try to make the lives of others better, for instance with my depression support group. Helping others doesn't make me feel good either, but it makes me believe my life isn't a waste, and that's just a little better than nothing. 

Recently I hosted an event after which people told me they had a great time. One person said she really needed such an evening and appreciated it very much. I wish those statements could bring me even a moment of pleasure, but with depresssion, hearing such things is like taking a shower through a shroud: it just doesn't get through.

So, this is me at the age of 51. I've adjusted my goals: from earning good money to just not going into more debt; from dating and finding a relationship to just maintaining my friendships; from losing weight to just trying to exercise each day; and from kicking my sugar addiction to staying on this side of diabetes. I hope I can achieve these goals, but life brings no end of disappointment. By the way, I've given up suicidal ideation and I accept that my death will be beyond my control, which seems to make my friends and family feel better. Now I just go on.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Death sucks. So does life.

When I found out that the husband of a friend had died, I first felt sad, then angry. It makes me furious that so many people want to die, but instead people like her man die. But it's a random, godless world, so there's no place to direct my anger. Everything just sucks.

My friend has lost her life partner, a husband she actually liked and wanted to be married to for a long time. She's been robbed of someone she didn't get nearly enough time with, and she has three young children. Raising even one child is at least a two-person job. I alternate between sympathy and anger.

People with dependents, who deserve to live a long time, die every damn day, while others like me, who don't expect life to get better, are just waiting for it to end. We no longer expect to make a difference in the world or find another relationship or lose weight or beat our depression. I'm accepting that I'll be roughly as I am until my natural (or sudden, violent) death, which with luck will be not more than 20 years from now.

So many people would like to check out right now, whether because of mental illness or other diseases or disabilities. But are we excused from the table? No. My friend's husband was the same age as me and had so many reasons to live a good long time. I hate how life works. I'm done expecting it to be good.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Stuff I've noticed

Inspired by the final blog post of Obesio the Loser, a former online-friend, here's a list of stuff I've noticed over the decades.

1. Sometimes it gets better. Sometimes it doesn't.

2. No two people are exactly alike, but few people are genuinely special.

3. I still don't know what love is and suspect I'm not alone.

4. Women say they like to look good for themselves, but they're still judging themselves by how others have taught them they should look.

5. People will sometimes deny that someone in their lives has depression because they don't want to face their own.

6. It's bizarre and disturbing the way Americans see their pets as children or "fur babies," and the rest of the world agrees with me.

7. Enough Little Debbie snack cakes will make it better for a little while.

8. When you create your own family of friends, you know who they are at the end of your life when you look back and see who was there for you.

9. When a man dives in and plants his lips on yours before you can react, past generations called that "stealing a kiss." We now call it "assault."

10. People who don't remember their dreams when they wake up are the lucky ones.

11. Hugs matter.

12. Not everyone can do what they love.

13. Making friends with strangers isn't hard, but it takes confidence, or at least acting like you have confidence.

14. To others, there is no difference between having confidence and acting like you have confidence.

15. "Middle age" is the middle of life. If we typically live into our 70s, then I, at 51, am well past middle age and I'm okay with that.

16. It sucks being the oldest child.

17. Experts who tell you it's easier to keep weight off than to lose it are idiots for stating the obvious, but they're right.

18. Pets are good for people with mental illness, unless your symptoms include a bad emotional response to pets.

19. When someone younger than you says they feel old, don't disagree. They are the oldest they've ever been and their feeling of being old is legitimate.

20. Everyone has an area of expertise, whether it's professional such as writing, or not-so-professional such as how to hang Christmas lights, being a good neighbor or parallel parking.

21. Practice balancing. It will matter more and more as you age. When you get very old, it will be critical.

22. Not everyone can be whatever they want to be.

23. The old person who's holding up the bus line isn't driving and causing accidents.

24. You can't cure families, you can only prevent them.

25. I'm suspicious of people who don't use swear words.

26. When someone who looks perfectly able-bodied uses a handicapped space, don't judge. There are many illnesses and disorders that aren't visually obvious.

27. Many people live small lives because that's what they can do, and that's okay.

28. People who have cut family members out of their lives have usually done it for very good reasons. "But he's/she's your father/mother/brother/sister" doesn't hold up against decades of abuse.

29. Sometimes there's just nothing you can do for someone, and you have to accept that.

30. Every American generation aged with grace, until the Baby Boomers rejected aging and all terms such as senior, elderly and early bird dinner. They desperately insist they're "middle-aged" into their 60s and 70s. I'm counting on Generation X and Millennials to resume aging gracefully as the way to face life.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

If your friend is depressed, try this

This is what you can do when I'm so depressed that I sit there like a zombie and stare into space or can't stop crying. This might not apply to anyone else, but it's good for me.

1. Give me your full attention.
2. Say nothing. Just sit there in silence even if it's for five straight minutes (it won't be).
3. Don't smile at me.
4. When I start talking, listen.
5. Talk with me and let me guide the conversation.

I will respond best if you give me absolutely no indication that you wish I were different, that you want to make me feel better or that you'd rather talk about what you want to talk about. If I'm crying, giving me a hug is a good idea. If I'm staring like a zombie, it's not.

At the end of our exchange I might not look better, but you can at least know that you didn't make me feel worse. Chances are I will feel at least a little better because if you've done these things, I will feel cared for and I'll probably thank you.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

When it's not really respect

Recently a group of women organized a healing workshop in a suburb of Chicago. They incorporated meditation and movement, and one of the exercises used a gong. But they used the gong in a way that wasn't part of any Chinese ceremony or tradition. They simply took the gong and used it in a way that fit the theme of their event.

The reaction of Asian-American women included amusement and offense. These women were going to do what with a gong? Why? Whose idea was this? And what made this group of women think they could take a Chinese ceremonial object and use it as it was never intended?

A friend of mine asked one of the women on the event planning committee about it. She got the response that, yes, they had changed the traditional use of the gong, but they were doing it with complete respect for Chinese culture. These words indicated such a gulf between the viewpoints of the two of them that my friend didn't know how to respond.

Appropriating objects from other cultures that you don't know much about, and using them as they were never intended, is insensitive and exploitative. No amount of respect makes that right. 

But such respect isn't true respect anyway. That's an objectifying kind of respectFor instance, to see Asians as wiser and more spiritual than white people might seem good, but it's a stereotype. It objectifies Asians as being fundamentally different from everyone else. Such respect views a group of people in a way that keeps them mysterious and other. 

An analogy is the way some men respect women by thinking women are more precious, pure, good and close to God. It sounds good, but it's actually dehumanizing and leads to men not treating women like regular human beings with regular human needs.

Positive stereotypes are just as damaging as negative ones. I first heard the term "model minority myth" when I was at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1980s. I didn't understand how being seen as smarter than brown, black and white people could be bad, but my Chinese-American and Korean-American friends explained it to me. 

They said the idea of Asians being the ideal minority group locked individuals into a set of  painful expectations. If you were Chinese-American and weren't good at the things Chinese people were supposed to be good at, you could disappoint others just by being you. White people could fail calculus or chemistry without evoking "But you people are supposed to be good at that." Such a person could turn to another major without reflecting badly on his or her entire culture. But an Asian-American student who did poorly in math risked not only a lower grade point average and disappointed parents, but the feeling that they had let down everyone who shared their cultural background, including ancestors who had passed on decades ago. It's a traumatizing burden to carry.

The model minority myth penalizes people for being themselves if their natural inclinations don't fit the stereotype.

Returning to the women's healing ceremony: to make up a new way to use a Chinese instrument because you want to include some ideal of Asian spirituality is bald cultural appropriation and evokes the stereotype about Chinese people being more naturally spiritual than others. To use the defense, "But we're doing it respectfully" indicates how little you understand the insult. 

When a Chinese-American woman tells you that your view of Chinese culture hurts her, don't try to convince her that she shouldn't feel hurt. Put your confusion or guilt or embarrassment aside and listen. The more hurt someone is by your actions, the more important it is to listen because it's an opportunity to learn.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Welcome Dialogue Christmas Party makes the news!

Well, here's a story.
Now I'm SO glad I bought that Christmas mantel covering!

My new Christmas tradition is to invite any internationals over to my home who don't have a place to go and who would like to celebrate Christmas the American way. I do this through my American Skills for Internationals Meetup and Welcome Dialogue, my business that helps expat professionals make more money and more friends.

This year I also posted the event on my neighborhood's Facebook page and got a message from a journalist from CBS Channel 2 Chicago. They asked to do a story on my party! Of course I said YES, so an hour into my party a news crew came over and took footage of me and my guests (and my impeccable Christmas decorations *ahem*).

Me. Talking.
After they left, I declared that my party was officially going until 10:00 so we could watch the news together and see ourselves. Most people wimped out and left before then, I guess because they have no lust for the public eye. But two of my guests and me were ecstatic to see that our news segment was the second story of Christmas night! Well, locally on channel 2, anyway. Here it is and I love the name of the story. One Woman's Gift to Strangers: Fellowship and a Christmas Meal.

My only problem is: how do I top this?

Reporter Charlie De Mar and my guest Sumayia Hassan

The Press. They're always trying to get into my parties...
My guest Ahmed Albandawi.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

On the radio

Yesterday I was the guest on WGHC's "Loud and Clear" which highlights the arts. Host, Alicia Hempfling and I talked mostly about this blog, how I started it, what I write about, how I started writing as a child and topics such as depression, being part of an immigrant family and the state of American politics.

I had a great time. Alicia's show is an hour long, with musical breaks, which might seem like a long time to talk with no idea of what you're going to say, but I loved it. She said there was nothing to prepare and I should just think of it as a chat over coffee, so that's what I did. Sitting in the studio, waiting for the music to end and our cue to start, I didn't even feel nervous.

Although I feel perfectly comfortable talking about most topics on my blog, there's one that is not my forte: politics. When Alicia asked me for my opinion about things in the United States, I took my time answering, saying, "This is all going to get worse...now the rest of that phrase would normally be before it gets better, but I'm not sure about that half of it, so I just think it's all going to get worse."

Later Alicia asked me about the possibility of impeachment (the process by which the House of Representatives officially documents the crimes a president is accused of, and the Senate votes on whether or not to remove the president from office). Reluctantly I gave her my prediction about how El Idiota's term will go: "I think that impeachment is not going to happen. And I think that we are going to have our first president who was indicted and will continue to serve. And I believe that he will not leave office except on his own terms."

Alicia said my words made her sad and it hit me that I'm a terrible person to ask these questions of. But it's not because I'm a pessimist, although most Americans would call me a pessimist. It's because I lack the optimism bias most people (especially Americans) have. We Americans like to look on the bright side of things, expect the best of people and believe we're going to be okay. I don't. I'd call myself a realist and even say that depressives are the true realists.

Because I know how sexist and bigoted the United States is, I told a friend in 2015, "I'm afraid that if it comes down to President Hillary Clinton or President Crazy Town, we're going to get President Crazy Town." I believed that was extremely likely and I didn't like believing that, but it just seemed like what my country would do.

So I caution everyone (and certainly all future interviewers who might talk to me) not to ask me about politics or what I expect from the future. What I expect is that the US will just go back and forth between political lucidity (such as the passage of the civil rights act) and our worst instincts, back and forth, back and forth, with no net movement forward. Here and throughout the world, people will continue to exploit and kill each other.

In crisis, some people exhibit the worst of humanity and others the best. But the worst always dominates because that side of us is more wily, more violent and more ruthless. Our worst side has nothing to lose and that’s always the more powerful position.

People say they have hope that, given enough time, humans will achieve world peace and equality for all. I remind everyone of an inevitability we think about even less than our own death: that the human race -- like all other species in our genus -- will eventually die out. And we'll die out long before we reach world peace and equality for all.