Monday, August 18, 2014

Ferguson, racism, etc.

Maybe the U.S. is reaching a crisis point at which things will have to change. Maybe not. You'd think police forces would learn that using military grade weapons and technology contributes to escalation of emotion and racial tensions, but they don't seem to be. It makes me furious that to be black in the U.S. is to always be in a state of vigilance, carefully altering one's behavior so as not to make anyone feel threatened. That is: altering one's behavior so as not to make anyone at all feel threatened in the least. To be a black person outside of one's home in the U.S. is to constantly navigate the impressions that others might have of you, impressions you must be aware of because if anyone misinterprets your behavior you will pay the price.

I see an Ayurvedic practitioner whose office is on Oak Street in the most expensive shopping district of Chicago, Illinois USA. Oak Street is near "The Magnificent Mile" which is where you go to drop hundreds of dollars on a single scarf. I arrived early for my most recent appointment and stood outside the building, not wanting to be too early. The doorman for my practitioner's building stood on the sidewalk not far from me. I had nowhere to go, being surrounded by stores that I'd never patronize. For a couple of minutes, I pretended to be window shopping, but then I just stood there.

No, this isn't an it-happened-to-me-too story. The doorman took little notice of me and I knew it was because of my white privilege. "White privilege" means I have enough physical markers of money, education and higher-than-working-class-social-standing that I'm accepted as an honorary white person. This is true even though all my grandparents came from Mexico. My white privilege meant I could loiter on that expensive sidewalk without anyone calling the police or asking me to move on. I believe my markers were my coffee-with-cream skin color, fashionable haircut and eyeglasses, nice purse and shoes, and that I carry myself as if I belong anywhere I happen to be standing. One of the reasons I've developed my yes-I-belong-here attitude is that I was raised in a white neighborhood and went to the best schools. I'm a Mexican American with an unusual amount of white privilege.

As I finally approached the building, I saw a slender, blond woman sitting on the ledge of a store window talking on her cell phone. I tried to imagine a black man of her age being able to do the same thing. At that moment I realized that she and I fit into the same category of non-threatening white people. I felt grateful and disgusted.

I'm aware of my white privilege. I could say that I wear it like a sticky rain slicker: I appreciate its protection, but it doesn't quite sit right and I wish I didn't need it at all. But it's much more dangerous than that. To have white privilege is to inhabit the dichotomy of white-versus-black that this country was practically founded on. We who aren't being targeted by the Ferguson police, who are watching things unfold on the Internet or on TV, might feel like we're sitting on the sidelines of this one, wishing we could be there to support those fighting for justice.

But Ferguson is no epicenter of racism. Racism is everywhere and by racism I mean people making assumptions based on skin color. People like to say, "I'm not a racist" as if racism were always physically violent and hostile. But racism is also nice, polite, quiet and clean. Racism is expecting someone who looks Chinese to speak English with a Chinese accent. Racism is assuming that someone who looks Indian and wears white collar clothes knows a lot about computers and software. Racism is asking a non-Caucasion-looking person "Where are you from? But I mean where are you from?" Racism is assuming that someone with my education, speech and habit of dress isn't one of those Mexicans. And white privilege is racist because white privilege assumes that physical characteristics and mannerisms can tell you what a person is like inside.

All Americans make such assumptions. It's simply part of our culture. I'm racist. You're racist. If someone was raised in the United States, he or she is racist. It doesn't mean we're bad people. It just means we've learned this short-hand for making sense of a society that contains countless cultures and sub-cultures. But it's a short-hand that's so outdated that resistance to it has become too loud to ignore. All we Americans are racist and it's past time to change so that black men in their 50's and older don't have triple-check to make sure they're entering the right building through the right door at the right time of day so no one thinks they look suspicious. Because that is a bullshit way for anyone to live.

Let's take the sting out of the word "racist." Let us all examine our white privilege. Let's start dismantling the assumption of race wherever we happen to be, even though we're not in Ferguson, Missouri USA, facing M-16A2 rifles and armored vehicles.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Depression unhinges you from reality

When you find out someone died of cancer, do you wonder how they could have hurt their loved ones by doing that? Do you suspect they took the coward's way out? Do you think, "But he had it all: money, marriage, great kids, a successful career. Why would someone like that develop cancer and die?"

No, I doubt you'd respond like that to a death by cancer, but those are the reactions that many people have to a suicide.  In the United States some form of mental illness affects about one in five people, but Americans remain in heavy denial about it. We'd rather believe someone is an incomprehensible jerk than accept that he had an emotional disorder. We prefer that view because we feel great prejudice against the mentally ill, assuming that they're violent and dangerous. This reflects our ignorance. People who live with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, chronic depression and other mood disorders are no more violent than anyone else. If we're dangerous to anyone, it's to ourselves.

I've struggled with depression for decades. I suspect my first depressive episodes were in high school, but I didn't receive a clinical diagnosis until my mid-30's. I actually felt relieved to learn what my problem was. So that was why I felt so hopeless and angry all the time: I was depressed. I willingly began the process of working with a psychiatrist to find out what prescription drugs worked for me. As the months went by and we figured out what helped, the gloom gradually lifted until I stopped thinking I'd be better off dead. Eventually, I even regained cheerfulness and enjoyment of life.

Since then I've gone up and down, even while on medication. For some people, depression is caused by prolonged stress, grief, loneliness or other life circumstances. But for those of us with chronic depression or depression as part of bipolar disorder, it doesn't need a trigger at all. Like other chronic conditions such as migraines, back trouble and insomnia, sometimes we can point to a reason that the problem has come back and sometimes we can't. It just is.

If someone tells you, "I've got a bad cold," you don't ask, "Why?" But that's what those of us with depression often hear. If I say, "I'm depressed today," friends often want to pinpoint a problem that can be fixed. They don't understand that my depression isn't a feeling; it's a mood disorder. It means my chronic condition has flared up and all I can do is manage the symptoms.

One thing (of many) that's difficult about living with depression is that everyone thinks they know what it is. Because everyone's had a bad day or felt gloomy about something, they think they've been depressed. We misuse the term. If someone notices a scratch on their car, they might say, "Well, that's depressing," when what they mean is that it's sad or discouraging or angering. But those are emotions. Depression isn't an emotion. Depression is a host of symptoms that are bigger than an emotional reaction to a single thing.

Depression is not an emotion. People responded to Robin Williams' death with sadness, grief, and feeling devastated. Those are emotional responses. In contrast, hearing about Robin didn't evoke any emotions for me, but made me think about times when I wished my life would end. Late in the day I began to think that if an incredible person like Robin Williams could pack it in, then what am I doing here? By evening my eyes glazed over and my mindset shifted into that familiar I'm-here-but-I'm-not. Instead of going home for dinner, I lay on a park bench and tried not to be me. I wanted out of my skin, out of my brain, out of my existence. Getting up and walking felt too hard. Being felt too hard.

For me, those are symptoms of depression. Fortunately, they didn't last and by morning I felt better. Like many other people, I used to think depression just meant feeling bad. I thought depression meant I needed some happy pills so I could stop crying and wanting to die. It wasn't until I got married that I realized that depression is also delusional. Only in close relationship with someone else did I get some perspective on what my mind was doing when depression took over.

Depression actually changes the way I perceive reality. People can say nice things to me all day long, but I won't hear them. Any external encouragement gets drowned out by the opinions that live in my head. So what if I'm pretty? I'm clearly a loser who can't get a man to love me. So what if I'm smart and funny? I can't even cheer myself up. So what if people enjoy my company and love to be around me? If I were really worth anything I'd have a better job/be thinner/be married/be capable of getting through a damn day without falling apart. When I'm depressed, I envy dead people who have been excused from the table and no longer have to worry about anything. When I'm depressed, I want to curl up and sleep until I become someone else. I hate myself. Looking in the mirror shows me a fat, ugly person no one could ever want. When I'm depressed, I resent ever having been born.

The delusion gets worse when death starts to look like a great idea. It's been over a decade since the last time I felt that way, but let me tell you: wanting to die was NO indication that I'd stopped caring about my friends and family. Wanting to die didn't mean putting my needs before theirs. In the delusion of suicidal depression, death looks like it meets the needs of all concerned. Sounds crazy, doesn't it? It sounds completely nutjob to think your family or kids will be happier without you, right? Sure it does because you're not in the grip of depression. But death really does look like the perfect solution when your perception of reality has become completely twisted by your mood disorder.

Depression doesn't mean having a bad day and suicide doesn't mean you've decided you're more important than the people who might be affected by your death. Suicidal depression includes believing that everyone will be better off without you, that you just don't matter much, that your death will actually make the world a better place. That level of depression means your existence has become nothing but your pain and the pain you believe you're causing others. Major depression means becoming someone who doesn't believe their life is worth much.

Unless you know what bipolar disorder or depression are like from experience, don't judge anyone's actions while they're in it. Americans must learn more about mental illness, especially as it affects more and more people with every generation. It can cause an unhinging from reality that leads to devastating decisions because the person isn't in his right mind. The millions of people who suffer from mood disorders need understanding and much more support than we usually get. It's just as inappropriate to hold a mentally ill person responsible for their suicide as it is to hold someone responsible for their death from Alzheimer's disease. Both suffer from conditions beyond their control.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Depression is much deadlier than "the blues"

There are many people who suspect death might be better than life. Not all of us run the (one-way) experiment of suicide, but doubting that life is worthwhile is a much more common outlook than the media would have us believe. Most of us simply never talk about how much we long to take the place of people who die of illness, in combat, or on the streets, especially when those people have children to raise and we do not. 

I wish Americans would accept how much pain there is for many of us, just in daily life. We hear about suicides such as Robin Williams' and are shocked every time. Robin had biplolar disorder. When will we face the reality that mental illness is extremely widespread? When your world has narrowed to the pain of simply being alive and your only goal is to end your agony, then yes, suicide is a solution. It's a solution to the problem of being alive.

People who hold Williams’ responsible for the pain he has caused his wife and family show a fundamental lack of understanding of bipolar disorder, part of which is major depression. Depression isn't just having a bad day. The distortions of depression unhinge you from reason. No suicidal person ends it because she/he no longer cares about loved ones. “Selfishness” doesn’t apply to depression the way many Americans seem to think it does.

But Americans are too squeamish to accept that a large number of people live with bipolar disorder. We naively offer platitudes and logic to convince the despairing that life is worthwhile. We hope that calling out "Don't give up!" will fulfill our responsibility to those who need so much more. We think depression means feeling blue, only more so. We fail to grasp that depression can become dangerously delusional so that the person can’t help himself and truly can’t see any other way out of the pain.

No matter what your experience is, try to step outside of it and consider that life is too hard for a lot of people, and those people need much more support and care than they get. We’re your friends. We're in your family. Stop denying the prevalence of mental illness, the evidence of which is plainly before you every time another one of us drops.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Welome Back, Period!

I recently stopped taking birth control after six years. I had started it only to control cramps because the pain of menstruation had gotten so bad, I was calling in sick. On birth control, I still got periods every month, but they became pain-free and asymptomatic. I stopped thinking about them.

A couple of years later another symptom showed up that became increasingly difficult to live with: feeling overheated and perspiring excessively. This daily feeling of being uncomfortably warm persisted in summer and winter, no matter how cold. Seeing an Ayurvedic practitioner this past June finally got me the results I'd been dreaming of: I no longer feel so warm all the time! It's a gradual process of getting back to normal and I'm not there yet, but I'm SO much more comfortable this summer than last summer! (I'll do a post on Ayurveda, but in short it's a 5,000 year old system of preventive medicine and health care. It's from India.)

What made the difference? Adjusting what I eat and drink, adding just one herbal blend to my daily routine, using coconut oil as my daily moisturizer and stopping the birth control pills. The combination of all of these things has turned my life around. I have hope that I will be able to comfortably wear shirts with sleeves this winter!

This month, for the first time since 2008, I'm enjoying a natural period. Yes, I said enjoying because I'd forgotten what it was really like. It's nice to have a reason to take it easy, not get exasperated when my concentration dips, take extra naps and lay off the yoga poses for a few days (recommended by Ayurveda). But when the cramps came back yesterday, I started swallowing ibuprofen and hoped they wouldn't get as bad as they used to. Then I had to go to the store for more.

I considered my options as I stood in the painkiller aisle (why painkiller? Why not a word that actually evokes relief like comfort pills?). I remembered hearing that Tylenol is actually quite dangerous if you don't take it exactly as instructed. I remembered a recent conversation during which a friend had said that aspirin still works perfectly well for most pain, but the drug industry that pushes ibuprofen has tried hard to make us forget that. I also know that ibuprofen use has risks that I don't like.

Rows of ibuprofen and Tylenol products filled my view. Where was the aspirin? I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen it. What would it look like? Then I saw it: Bayer. Aha -- it lived!

Next to it was the generic store brand, so I got that. Aspirin sure has changed since the last time I noticed it. No more clear plastic bottle with powdery pills. Now aspirin has the same easy-to-swallow coating as everything else and I don't have to worry about it crumbling. I tossed some back when I got home and was happy to find that they really took the edge off my cramps. The discomfort didn't disappear entirely, but then this morning I realized I wasn't taking the full dose. I'm sure that with the full dose, I'll have no problems at all.

So I'm happy to report that I have my period back without the out-of-control pain of years ago! I've got my trusty aspirin for the cramping and that nice fuzzy-headed, tired feeling that means it's time to slow down and take extra good care of myself. The Ayurveda book I'm reading suggests spending one's period not doing yoga poses, but to "rest, read and relax as much as possible." Perfect! I love that. I'm so glad I started seeing Karen, my Ayurvedic practitioner. With her guidance I've cooled my body down and become reaquainted with that lovely part of the month when I can give myself a break on -- well, just about everything. At the age of 48 I don't have a lot of menstrual cycles left, so I'm going to cherish them while I can.