Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The bright side of mental illness!

Guess what, everybody? There's an upside to having bipolar disorder and depression! Dr. Nassir Ghaemi runs the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts USA. His book, A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, argues that typical people without depression have an optimism bias: they expect to do well, things to go well, people to behave well, etc. People who suffer from depression don’t have this. We tend to see things 50-50: there's an equal chance things could be good or bad. This tendency handicaps us when it comes to average daily living because we’re out of step with everyone else’s view, but it’s good when things go wrong. Suddenly we appear realistic, prescient and practical, plus we've often done some preparation for the crisis. Once again, there's good and bad in everything, even mental illness. Blessed be the symptomatic!

The project of Ghaemi's book is to show that people with bipolar disorder and chronic depression have qualities that make such people superior performers in times of hardship. Chapters compare depressive William T. Sherman's unconventional battle strategies to homoclite Robert E. Lee's Civil War traditional approach, and bipolar Winston Churchill's foresight and grandiosity to homoclite Neville Chamberlin's ill-fated taciturnity (Ghaemi's term "homoclite" refers to people who have no symptoms of mental illness whatsoever). Ghaemi makes the argument that people with depressive and bipolar tendencies do better in crisis than people without mental illness, but likewise, homoclites perform better when things are good. Thus Chamberlain was an ideal leader for peacetime, but didn't do so well in foreseeing the rise of Hitler.

What I find encouraging about this book is its argument that depression and mania aren't bad all the time. Ghaemi defines "creativity" as finding novel problems and solving them. Mania, which includes rapid thinking, flights of ideas and making grandiose plans, creates ideal conditions for high creativity. Creative people conceptualize complex ideas, making connections others would miss, and so does a person in mania. Ghaemi isn't the first one to point out that Churchill's mood disorder got England successfully through a war that a more clear-minded individual might have seen as a lost cause.

Ghaemi names four key elements of mania and depression that serve leaders well in crisis: realism, resilience, empathy and creativity. All of these are found in depression and two -- creativity and resilience -- are found in mania. Ghaemi identifies Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ghandi as depressives and Ted Turner as having bipolar disorder. He finds evidence for John F. Kennedy having been hyperthymic, which means slightly manic all the time. He also provides counterexamples of five homoclite leaders who unsuccessfully managed their countries' crises: Richard Nixon, George McClellan, Neville Chamberlain, George Bush and Tony Blair. Ghaemi isn't just seeing depression and mania everywhere. He also points out where it was actually needed!

Published in 2011, Ghaemi's book wonders if Barack Obama might have some mania or depression to help him get us through the crap heap he inherited in 2008. (From President Obama's performance thus far, I'd guess he does.)

So there's the good news. We are gradually uncovering the good parts of being mentally ill and they do exist. As a depressive, I'm grateful to learn that some of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century were aided -- not hampered -- by the same emotional disorder I have. Those of us with bipolar disorder and depression just happen to flourish when everything's going down the crapper, but hell, someone has to be able to take the helm at such times. Go, Obama! Please be a wacko.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Some thrive on the unknown

 The dirty stove (her job) competes with the uncleaned floors (his job)
for most neglected surface,
but the winner is her skin.
Emotions balance and unbalance, shifting positions and changing sides
Who's heavier?
It turns out the buoyant boy can sink,
while the puffer fish moves towards the surface.
Not too close because pressure is dangerous,
but so is lack of pressure.

She has spent her life in pitched and rolling seas
unable to see through the shadows ahead.
Uncertainty is her anchor.
In a life with nothing approaching stability,
new things are not only good, but preferred.
Against a dark now-ness
an unknown future always looks brighter.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Happy Administrative Professional's Day!

The Back Bone Of Our Company
Administrative Professionals Day | Forward this Picture

I work as admin support staff, but I like to call this Secretary's Day, too, but I might be the only person left in the country who refers to herself as a "secretary."

To those of us whose workplaces aren't recognizing this day (or our efforts) at all: Let's go buy ourselves a cupcake! Hey, any excuse, right?

EFT and Boston

Emotional Freedom Technique is making its way into the mainstream press! I'm excited about this.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Depression lifted! (and I'm so damn relieved)

Thank you so much to those of you who contacted me individually after seeing my post yesterday (I also posted on Facebook and Twitter). It really means a LOT to me when someone tells me that they're sorry I'm going through a depression. It makes me feel like someone's listening, like someone cares. I feel a lot less alone just getting a brief comment of support. Please keep those messages coming, especially on my blue days. Thank you.

The good news is that my frozen anger/clot of depression finally broke! You know what it took? It took my tapping circle, which was the only reason I left home yesterday. Emotional Freedom Technique tapping is a powerful way to release stuck emotions (and food cravings and other physical/emotional pain), but doing it alone hadn't helped this past week. Or maybe it had, but not enough to break my bleak mood. I had tapped for days and felt extremely frustrated.

But my EFT Tapping Circle Meetup was yesterday and five of us tapped on my problem and we finally shifted it! Our weekly meetings last 90 minutes and in that time we go around the circle, share our problems and tap on whatever challenges we're facing that week. By the end I felt 100% better and didn't want to leave. I felt afraid my gloom would descend once I was alone again, but it didn't! I still feel fine and it's amazing. It's like having a rock lifted from my chest and being able to suddenly breathe again. It feels so good it's almost miraculous.

It is SUCH a relief. I was feeling desperate and was beginning to wonder if I'd have to drop a wad of money on some individual therapy with a professional. I began the Chicago EFT Tapping Circle Meetup last summer. I'd been using EFT on my own and with a practitioner for two years and had gotten excellent results, but I read an article that said the power of a tapping circle was greater than doing it alone, and I figured it would be cheaper than one-on-one time with professionals (definitely true).

I threw together a website on Meetup.com last July and waited to see if anyone would respond. They did. At our first meeting on August 11, 2012 ten people showed up! I was surprised and encouraged. Since then our weekly tapping circle has stabilized at a core membership of about eight people who show up regularly. It's like a high powered support group because we check in, share our problems/fears, tap them out and always feel better afterwards, sometimes stunningly so.

For the first couple of months, after each tapping circle someone would turn to me and thank me for starting the group. I would always feel a little surprised because all I did was pay the 45 bucks to the Meetup website to start the webpage. The people who showed up actually made the group happen. But I never felt so grateful to myself for paying that initial $45 as I am right now. This was my crisis week and the hole I was in felt deep and inexplicable, but the tapping circle pulled me out. I owe a deep thanks to yesterday's fellow tappers and to MYSELF for setting up this incredible support system that caught me, held me and set me gently back on my feet, the gloom wiped away. I still don't know exactly how the hell EFT can do that, but I'm so glad it can!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Depression, Part 6,000

It takes me down. It takes me right down and I have no idea what the trigger was. What's the reason for this bleak mood? Maybe there isn't any. I've fallen and I can't get up. Even sugar won't be my friend these days. It's stopped helping, leaving me locked in an ice-grip of anger and self-disgust. Why doesn't it lift? Why doesn't it lift? Emotional Freedom Technique, yoga, meditation, affirmations, writing, talking. None of it has made a difference. Or has it? Would I be even worse without those things? 

Depression makes me unpleasant. I wish I could just pull the covers over my head so I don't bother anyone until this lifts. Why doesn't it lift? This was the weekend my dad was supposed to come visit, but then he had to change his plans. Is that part of it? 

I feel hungry right now, but I don't feel like eating. I can't think of anything I feel like eating right now. Nothing appeals to me. If I didn't have my EFT tapping circle at 11 AM, it's possible that I wouldn't leave the apartment today. Being depressed while married is even worse than being depressed single.

I hate this. It's been days. Days of tapping and Bach flower remedies and homeopathy and meditation and of course my fluoxetine. It's not like I'm off my meds. I hate that depressive episodes can descend even when I'm on everything I'm supposed to be on.

I'm a depressed blob right now. So be it.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Loosening the grip of food over me

I'm still struggling to accept my new body, the one I've grown into since I stopped my lifelong punishment of starving and binge-ing. After years of forcing myself to stay a size 8:

FIVE YEARS AGO (July 2008)

I've decided to let my body be whatever shape it naturally wants to be. It's possible that my body naturally wants to be a size 8 (but not likely), but I won't know that until I stop crazy-exercising and trying to force it to be hungry or not be hungry as I think my body should be at any given moment.

Since October 2012, after reading a few of Geneen Roth's seminal books, I've let myself eat whatever I want. At first that was a lot of donuts and cake and ice cream, but over the past six and a half months, my appetite has changed. Letting myself have everything I'd been depriving myself of, eventually took the edge off of my cravings. My I-can-have-it-all freefall has slowed and now I eat a much more typical amount of sweets.

Still, months of eating all the things I'd been dreaming of have had their effect (yes, I actually dream about sweets):

FOUR WEEKS AGO (March 2013)
According to weight experts such as Geneen Roth, as you work your way through all the foods you've been depriving yourself of, you gain weight, but you also start to emotionally heal your old patterns of eating. Once the novelty of eating everything in the world wears off, you gravitate towards treating yourself well: no starving and no binge-ing, just eating good food when you're actually hungry. Roth says that at that point, you lose weight and your body stabilizes at the size it naturally belongs.

According to others, once you put on the weight it stays on, but the process of letting go of old starving and binge-ing habits still heals your old food issues, so that you still end up happier and healthier: no starving or binge-ing, but from now on eating good food when you're actually hungry. You might not be thin, but you accept and love yourself completely, feeling comfortable in your body, possibly for the first time in your life.

(Please see Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your WeightLessons from the Fat-o-sphere and When Food Is Love.)

Both theories predict self-acceptance and stopping your use of food as a replacement for other things in your life and that's what I'm going for. The question is: will I eventually lose some of this weight as my eating habits normalize or will it stay? Sadly, wondering this means I haven't truly accepted my body as it is right now, which in addition to healing my food addiction, is the point of all this. I really want to accept my body as it is, but that's goddamn fucking hard to do in a society that teaches girls that we aren't all right just as we are, and then compounds that message with decades of humiliating body expectations. Fuck.

So I breathe and I tap (EFT). Some days I accept my body as it is and feel content. Other days I feel fat and ugly and I know my self-hatred has kicked in. I know the problem isn't really my body because I used to feel fat and ugly when I was a size 8, too. I used to hate my body when I weighed 125 pounds. I used to starve myself and drive myself through grueling workouts because I didn't like my body even when I looked like the first picture above. Yes, it was crazy, but it's not over because I still go in and out of hating what I look like, although it's getting better. The self-loathing times are getting fewer and not lasting as long as they used to.

I've been working on self-esteem and not misusing food for decades with therapy, self-hypnosis, neurolinguistic programming, meditation, acupuncture, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and lots of will power.  At this point I've added one more thing to my process: guided meditation by Paul McKenna. Disappointingly, McKenna's sales pitch is about making people thin, which is a toxic concept, but his focus is on the way you experience food. The guided meditation I listen to every night as I fall asleep stresses eating slowly, enjoying every bite, stopping when full and being aware of what my stomach wants and doesn't want. The emphasis is on treating food as physical nourishment, not a replacement for love, excitement, celebration or anything else.

(The importance of listening as I fall asleep is that such deep meditation provides direct access to the unconscious mind where we can learn new things, instill new beliefs and change our behavior. With recordings, we can work on new behaviors every time we go to bed. I've wasted so much time!)

Since I started listening to this meditation two weeks ago, my awareness of when I'm hungry and when I'm full has hugely increased. It's as if I've spent my whole life with the nerve endings to my stomach disconnected, stuffing myself without caring how my stomach felt. Now the connections are functioning again and when there's a cake in front of me I can actually hear my stomach say, "No, thanks. Not hungry and if I eat that, I'll feel sick." It feels like the first time I've let my stomach give input into what I eat without my brain overriding with, "I don't care if the stomach isn't hungry. I need this emotional pick-me-up / energy boost / compensation for my crappy day." I still have those overriding brain moments, but a lot of the time I'm now putting food in my mouth at the direction of my physical hunger, not my emotions.

Yesterday I celebrated two friends' birthdays. My homemade cake lingered afterwards, but through two meals I just let it sit there as I ate the food I really wanted. I sat at our dining table with a hunk of frosted cake as I ate last night's dinner and this morning's breakfast without having a bite of the cake! I've never done that in my life.

Sandwich I ate while the cake sat near me ignored!

I have hope that I'm getting closer to giving my body what it truly wants and letting it relax into the state it belongs in. I have hope that I can stop hating myself, or at least contain those feelings to a small part of my attention. Through this past November, December and January I steadily grew from a size 10 to a size 16. I've stayed at that size 16 (163 pounds) for three months now (I'm 5'1"). The spreading has stopped. I'll see what comes next.

WARNING: Following Geneen Roth, I put on 50 pounds that I never lost. Don't do it. 
-updated 28 Feb. 2018

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Who would mourn the human race?

Original photo by Bob Martin, altered by me.
I often consider the end of the human race (as I'm sure we all do). What would happen to the earth? What animals would care? Wouldn't all flora and fauna be immeasurably better off without us around to screw things up?

But now that I'm a dog owner, it's clear to me that one species -- and undoubtedly only one -- would be in worse shape without us. So tonight I leaned over Ozzie and said, "On behalf of all the other humans, thank you for being the only species who would miss us if the human race died out."

Friday, April 12, 2013

Used to be "American Association of Retired Persons"

A friend described looking at this photo as feeling like "a kick in the stomach!"

How about it Gen X? Is this disturbing or what?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Appropriate / inappropriate pain

I envy those whose pain is socially appropriate. If someone's walking into walls, red-eyed and unable to concentrate, we excuse that if we know her dad just died or she's going through a divorce. We also give people some slack if we know they're having a bad day with their migraines or sciatica or arthritis.

But people with mental disorders often don't get that kind of sympathy. Our pain isn't as socially acceptable. People think we have control over our emotions, so our families lose patience with us when we're having an episode. Non-mentally ill friends don't understand our symptoms which look like they have no "cause." They think we should just get a hold of ourselves. Taking a sick day for depression or anxiety looks like calling in when you're not "really sick."

I'm envious of everyone whose pain can be painted in primary colors that are easy to understand. Cancer, surgery, a sick spouse -- it's not that I want those things, but it feels unfair that people with those problems get cards and cakes and days off, while people whose crises take place in psychiatric wards and therapists' offices just get silence.

Depression, June 2011 Photo by me.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

I'm a failure - y que?

Failure gets such bad press, but it really doesn't deserve it. Who cares if you fail? It doesn't mean your life is over (unless your failure causes your death). I'm a big failure and I'll tell you all about it.

My first failure was leaving Cornell University in 1993 without finishing the PhD program in English literature. Instead, I fled with a masters degree and moved to Chicago, Illinois, USA. There I began my second big failure as a musician. I spent fifteen years taking voice, music theory, guitar and electric bass lessons and practicing, practicing, practicing. I was determined to make my musical mark on the world and I guess I did. It just turned out to be miniscule.

Although I performed a lot of others' music, in choirs and solo, my main focus was writing my own songs and I wasn't too bad at it. My specialty was a sort of acoustic folk with jazz, pop, country and Latin influences. My singing voice covered three octaves and my songs expressed the optimism and trust in life that I didn't feel at all. A chronic depressive who constantly struggled with her emotions, I wrote and performed songs with the comforting, soothing messages I needed to hear. My fans -- and I did have them -- particularly liked "The Penguin Song," "Not So Bad," "Happy Are We," and "I Like Life." I played electric bass and hired a guitarist and a conguero to accompany me. By a stroke of luck, I met jazz guitarist Neal Alger through a friend in 1999 and he worked with me on my music for years. He brought a lot of creativity and great ideas to my songs and was fun to work with (his website is here and he is great).

In my loneliness and depression, I craved singing. I sang all the time, to the radio, to my bass, to my guitar or to nothing at all. I'd spread myself out on the hardwood floor of my one-bedroom apartment with staff paper and pencil to create charts for my songs. I'd run melodies over and over, plucking at the heavy resonant strings of my bass to find the right harmonies and rhythms. The electric Fender Rhodes piano I kept in the corner did little but help me tune my other instruments since I never really learned how to play it. In truth, I never learned how to play any external instrument very well. I was a singer.

I wrote songs whenever I felt inspired and whenever I needed to drain off some of the emotion that overwhelmed me. On no particular schedule, I poured myself into my music because I needed to make my voice heard, needed others to hear my stories and craved attention. Chronic depression drove me through those 15 years of focusing on music, and I took my musicianship very seriously. I became rabid whenever anyone suggested singers weren't musicians, or if someone assumed our technical and theory skills were always worse than those of instrumentalists. I hated singer jokes (How do you know when there's a singer at your door? She doesn't know when to come in).

My singer stridency poorly masked my deep insecurities. I desperately wanted people to like and respect me. I needed applause and compliments. My favorite place to be was onstage with a bar full of patrons, listening to ME. I enjoyed the patter between songs as much as the singing because what I really needed was connection and understanding, and performing made me feel like I was getting that.

My wonderful friends faithfully attended my gigs and I even picked up a few followers. People would tell me that my music made them happy and no wonder: I wrote the chirpiest songs and felt happy while singing them for others. Often my only peaceful times were while I was onstage making music with Neal and Jean and telling my stories. I loved the spotlight, but the gloominess overtook me almost immediately afterwards. Some of my most productive years corresponded with my bleakest depression.

Then in 2006 I fell in love with a guy named Bob Martin (now my husband) (updated 2014: now my ex-husband). My need to sing began to wane. I spent 2007 trying to market my music to people looking for songs (record companies, commercial directors, film producers), but no one was interested probably because my lyrics were too obscure and my singing unimpressive.

By 2008 my desire to pick up my bass had pretty much disappeared. I no longer got those urges to write melodies and lyrics. My piano gathered more dust than ever and I stopped singing around the house. The worst of the fear and self-loathing that had driven my music seemed to have dissolved.

There's a cliché that artists must be in pain in order to create. I can't argue it because I sing when I'm sad, not when I'm happy. Once my need for connection and love was appeased by acquiring a husband, I simply stopped needing the music and my "career" as a singer/songwriter ended. I never became well known, I made no money, no one wanted the rights to any of my songs and I produced all of one CD that I never finished packaging. Oh, one more detail: I wasn't the best singer. When I listen to recordings of myself I'm amazed that anyone let me get away with all those sharp and flat notes. I just never truly relaxed in front of the microphone, probably because I was so desperate for everyone to love me.

A failure as a musician, I returned to focusing on the activity that had sustained me since I was ten years old: writing. Writing is truly my element and my lyrics were always stronger than my singing voice. Did I feel bad about my failure to break into the Chicago indie music scene? No. By the time I realized that I hadn't felt like practicing in months, the dream was dead. I felt no regret because by then I knew it was more important to do what felt good than to worry about how I appeared.

A few weeks ago, friends were discussing public speaking. They were saying that even professionals who have faced hundreds of audiences still get nervous before starting. I supported this opinion with my experience as a singer: even though I loved doing it, there was always some anxiety before a show.

"You were a musician?" someone asked as all eyes turned to me.

"Yeah, I wrote songs and performed and recorded them. I don't do it anymore."

"Really? You have recordings?"It was that familiar expression of someone being impressed by a part of my life that's actually already over.

"Yeah. I sang and played electric bass and performed with a guitarist and a conga player." I wasn't interested in going into more detail.

"Do you ever think about doing it again?"

"No," I said definitively.

I didn't feel embarrassed about my amateur career that existed in obscurity. It happened, and then I moved on. If pressed, I'd provide a copy of my last (and only) CD if they wanted, but no one asked, which is just as well. The last friend to whom I gave a copy of my CD either lost it or said she did because she didn't want to comment on my singing.

One thing that strikes me is that I was way cooler when I was the most miserable and depressed. In the late 1990s and early aught's, I prowled the streets with a 1972 Fender Mustang electric bass strapped to my back, heading to and from open mic's at all hours. Bar regulars became familiar with me as the chick bass player, and once someone even recognized me as such while I was riding the bus. I wore black shoes, a too-big bomber jacket with a fur collar and strutted as if I couldn't possibly be harassed on the street (I wasn't).

So I'm a lifetime failure and that's fine with me. God knows life isn't for riding out success after success, endlessly triumphing until we die. We're all failures and that's good or we'd never learn anything. I'll never be as hip as I was back then, but so be it. If suffering accompanies coolness then I'm perfectly content to be a dorky, pudgy, middle-aged woman who stays home reading and writing every night. That's failure I can happily live with.

Regina Rodriguez in 2001: beautiful and an emotional wreck.
Photo by Bruce Lorie.