You know you’re depressed and down and out of good ideas when you actually stop and contemplate mailing a letter to the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, to ask him what he thinks of Donald Trump. And then think “… and how the Kardashians fit into his societal analysis. I should ask him about that too.” I’m bored and depressed in part because two consecutive out of town work trips got called off. I like to keep busy. A bored Jay is a sad Jay. On the positive side, our efforts to save electricity have worked so well that Green Mountain Power just mailed us back $245 because we’d built up such a balance with our set-in-August annualized monthly “budget plan” payments. I suspect our next budget amount is going to be a lot lower when next August comes. And we just got a heat pump installed today for our enormous living room. That will definitely help lower our heating oil bill and the air conditioning and dehumidifying will be great come the summer. So we have that going for us, which is nice.
I’m in New York City this week doing training. Carole is back home starting her third week of unemployment.
I didn’t post at the time, because it was a hard and troubling time, but yeah, Carole lost the job she’d had since June of last year because of one too many times getting caught using computers for non-work purposes. She’s been really depressed because of that. The job in question was the best opportunity she’s had in years; the company has a strong pro-recovery culture, but I guess there are limits to their understanding. Carole’s had major depression her entire adult life and she’s used silly little games like Freecell and Spider Solitaire and Sudoku as a way to forget, even for a little while, how rotten she feels. I guess that’s much of the same reason why some people drink to excess.
She’s been doing 12-step meetings every day via phone and text — meetings with groups of people who, like her, have an addiction to online gaming. Some of the people she interacts with are the sort who lost their jobs and apartments and stuff because they couldn’t stop playing World of Warcraft, and others are more like Carole, playing mindless games like Freecell for hours out of sheer depression and compulsiveness. Much like alcohol, compulsive gaming seems to have at its source a desire to make the real world go away. Severe depression sucks.
I wish her the utmost luck. If she can really arrest this habit of hers, she can make a go of a real career. For the last 19 years, almost all of the jobs she lost were lost due either directly or indirectly because of compulsive computer gaming. 🙁
But on a more cheerful note, we still have excellent cats. We have four: our tortoiseshell Starlight, who is 13 years old or so, our gray tabby Huck, who’s around 9, and the two blackies, Marie and Jacquie, both around 3. Marie is shorthaired but very plush, and Jacquie is long-haired and very skittish. Starlight doesn’t get along with anyone but Huck. Mainly it seems to be a battle of wills between her and Jacquie. I don’t know if it’ll ever get better; I think Jacquie was abused before she wound up at the animal shelter and she has PTSD or something. Starlight can get along with Marie if Jacquie isn’t around, but together, they seem to gang up on her.
It must have been somewhat sunny today in Vermont because mid-afternoon, Carole found Huck and Marie and Jacquie doing this:
The frustrating thing about depression is that it’s often caused by flat-out messed-up biochemistry but is nonetheless attributed to various real-world causes, both by the depressed person and by those around him or her.
Why is that frustrating?
Well, since you can’t wave a magic wand and make the chemical imbalance in your brain go away, it’s easy to focus instead on what the depression does to your thinking instead, and unfortunately, that doesn’t actually help much. It’s like searching for your dropped wallet under a streetlight instead of in the dark alley where you dropped it simply because the light is better. You’re not going to fix anything by worrying and worrying and worrying about what you believe to be the root causes. In fact, you’ll probably just make things worse.
I know I’m depressed. I know that this is probably biochemical, the result of unfortunate heredity. My maternal grandmother had severe depression as well as other mental health issues and spent a lot of her life institutionalized (and let’s face it, mental hospitals in Depression-era Florida weren’t all that great). My father has had a tendency to go to bed and pull the covers over his head pretty much the whole time I’ve known him. It was almost automatic that on his birthday he’d feel unloved and disrespected … and boom, he’d be in bed in a dark room in the middle of the day. Other members of my family have similar issues. There’s no real mystery as to why I’m depressed.
Depression takes hold of a person in various ways. I tend to have severe procrastination problems when I’m depressed. I find myself hanging around work well past the time everyone else has gone home, often just disconsolately web browsing, and then I go back to my hotel, gobble something without paying it much attention, and go right to bed. When I’m at home, I put off chores I know I need to do and know that I’ve meant to do for some time, but I just can’t get started. I lose my temper when a family member takes out their frustrations on me; I feel really wronged by that in a “don’t-I-have-enough-to-feel-bad-about already?” kind of way.
I don’t walk around crying and sobbing, acting out the stereotypical behavior of a depressed person — but I’m depressed nonetheless. Everyone tells me that I should get more exercise. It’s a vicious circle — when you’re super-depressed, you don’t want to exercise. It’s very hard to break out of this cycle, no matter what medication they put you on. No combination of pills is going to make 100% of problems go away.
But here’s the thing: even though I know that my depression has metabolic and biochemical roots, it’s so incredibly easy to attribute it to various external factors.
To say, in other words, “I’m depressed because I have basically zero friends who I can just go hang out with. I’m depressed because being on the road for work all the time means that I’m no more likely to get an invite to a Halloween or New Year’s party than I am to get an invite to the next Presidential inaugural.”
Or to say “I’m depressed because of a failed relationship 25 years ago that, at the time, was unbelievably important to me, and that I’d give anything to patch up, and where, unfortunately, the other party seems intent on ignoring every apology I’ve ever tried to send their way.”
Yes, when I’m depressed — when I’m really down in the dumps — those thoughts find fertile soil in my gloom. I’ve been brooding about the second issue, above, for literally 24 years… and I’m not likely to stop anytime soon.
When you’ve spent as many years cycling through waves of depression and regret as I have, you wear ruts in your thinking, if you’ll accept a somewhat strained analogy. You get so used to fretting about things you should have done differently all those years ago and wishing for a second chance that your mind turns to that path almost automatically. I suspect that even if someone came along and gave me a magic pill that would eliminate all the biochemical reasons for my depression instantly, I’d still feel bad about what happened way back then simply because my brain doesn’t know how to do anything else.
And that’s very, very frustrating. It’s very hard to break patterns of toxic thinking and acknowledge that your depression isn’t externally sourced. If you can come to grips with the fact that it’s biochemical in nature, sometimes you can stand up, look yourself in the mirror, and say “I don’t have to be a prisoner of biology. I can do the things I need to do. I can act like a non-depressed person would act. Even if I am actually depressed.”
But as long as your brain keeps trying to blame the depression on all the baggage you carry around in the attic of your mind, and that’s what your thoughts always turn to, it’s so damn hard to replace that way of thinking with a new, healthier line of thought.
There are days that I simply can’t get up the energy to do much of anything. Days when I have a long list of things to do — enjoyable things, even — and yet the whole day goes by, nothing gets done, and I look back and go “okay, what exactly happened there?”
It’s not that I curl up in a fetal position in bed. I just sit down at my computer, start loading web pages (news, sports, Wikipedia, random stuff), and then it’s eight hours later and I’ve told myself a dozen times that I should get up and do stuff, and then I open one more page and and and …
When I’m at work, my job entails delivering technical training to customers across the USA, usually in person, but sometimes via WebEx from my office in Vermont. I get enough of a lift out of working with people on interesting technical topics that the depression doesn’t have as much of an opportunity to get its hooks into me. I generally enjoy what I do. (I’ve been in my current job since 1998 — and I prefer a job with all the travel to a job that keeps me stuck in a little office five days a week, 48 weeks a year. The travel isn’t actually what depresses me. If anything, variety cheers me up.)
But then, at night, when I go back to my hotel room, instead of going down to the fitness center or out on the streets for a run, I camp out in front of my laptop, doing email, surfing web pages, and so on. Dinner is room service or I order out — I almost never go to a restaurant. (Eating out on your own when you’re traveling for business is one of the most depressing experiences imaginable. You sit there at a table by yourself with a newspaper or your smartphone or whatever and watch all the families and couples and groups around you and wish you weren’t the lonely solitary weirdo in the pack.)
I can repeat that cycle endlessly. The weeks just fly by in a fog of work, zoning out, sleeping — lather, rinse repeat. I fly home, I fly back out, I do chores (cooking, laundry, shopping) in between, and one year gives way to another. I’ve become a master procrastinator… there are things I’ve literally wanted to get around to for years now that remain undone.
I’ve started putting on weight, a few years after getting down to 180, I’m back up to 220, which is only 20 pounds shy of the most I ever weighed. I should be going out and exercising and getting myself back in running shape, but after doing a pretty good job running the first half of 2013, I’ve really slacked off since. I keep on saying “tomorrow.”
The most I can say in my defense (not that anyone is actually leveling a finger at me for wasting my entire life) is that I don’t zone out in front of the television and that I’m very responsible about keeping the house clean and food in the refrigerator for my wife. I don’t put off or avoid things that my conscience tells me are absolutely necessary.
Before you ask: yes, I’ve seen a therapist, although my work schedule got so busy in the second half of 2013 that I never managed to squeeze in an appointment. I should try to find time to get back in for a session sometime soon. And I am on antidepressants: citalopram and trazodone. And I know regular exercise would probably help with the depression. But it’s kind of a vicious circle, obviously: if I was exercising, I wouldn’t be depressed, but I’m depressed, so I don’t exercise.
Last year I didn’t really take any vacation to speak of until December, when I wound up taking the whole month, more or less, off — and since my wife, Carole, was working, I mostly sat around the house staring at the wall. I did chores; I cleaned and fed the cats and did laundry and cooked, but I never went to the gym and I never did any of the blogging about last year’s Susan G. Komen breast cancer walks that I wanted to get caught up on. And then the year was over, and my long staycation was over, and I’m heading back out on the road tomorrow to start a week-long business trip. The whole month of December is just one gray blur.
I’ve tried to figure out why I’m so depressed. Why I’m stuck in this months-long funk. There are theories, some obvious, some not.
It could be purely biochemical. It might have nothing to do with external factors. My maternal grandmother was hospitalized for depression and other mental illnesses for a sizeable chunk of her life (don’t look for awesome cutting-edge psychiatric care in Depression-era rural Florida). But I’ve generally been happy-go-lucky, almost offensively so, all my adult life. I say ‘offensively so’ because one of my obvious flaws is my impulsive, act-first-think-later way of behaving that’s annoyed the hell out of a lot of people. I’m an extrovert. That’s why I get energy from being around people all day, training, teaching, and running my yap. Kind of a weird thing, isn’t it: a depressed, stuck-in-a-rut extrovert?
It could be due to stress. I have a lot of work-related stress that I think I take in stride; I’m on call to deliver an awesome training job, week in, week out, never mind the people and the personalities in the room. I basically can’t take sick days when I’ve traveled two thousand miles to deliver a class onsite at a customer, a customer who’s paid a lot of money for me to be there. In fifteen years, I think I’ve taken a sick day about three times — once for a cracked molar, once because I went to the bathroom at lunch and threw up and couldn’t be sure a repeat wasn’t impending, and once because … well, I don’t recall. But often, my job is like that of an actor — having to be perky and enthusiastic and totally into the role of helpful and all-knowing trainer, no matter how I feel or what’s going on in my life.
It could be due to the number of acquaintances and friends who are battling breast cancer, people I’ve come to know and love through my Komen breast cancer walks. It absolutely wrecks me for days when someone I know loses their battle. So many wonderful people, so much more deserving of a full, happy life than I am, have been robbed of that opportunity by a brutal, stupid disease.
It could be due to my family situation. I lost my mom a couple of years ago, and my father’s had a broken hip and a massive stroke (from which he recovered beautifully, I’m delighted to say) just this year alone, and my wife has a lot of issues that I don’t really want to bring up here. This isn’t about her; it’s about me. Suffice it to say that I haven’t always been very good, to say the least, at keeping myself sane and safe when she’s having a bad day, or week, or month, or …
But of late I’ve been wondering how much can be attributed to my having an excellent, if selective, memory. Specifically, a memory well honed for recalling my own screw-ups and shortcomings.
Here’s a question for you: how many of you, reading this, would want photographic recall of every day of your school-age years? From first grade through twelfth grade, with every embarrassing, awful failure, faux pas, and fiasco vividly recalled in Technicolor and four-part harmony?
That’s basically where I’m at. I grew up in Blacksburg, Virginia, the son of a professor and a library director, and I remember that childhood well. I look back every day on my behavior from about the time I was in first or second grade until the time I went off to college, and even after, and kinda wish I could go back and just smother myself with a pillow. I was an ass.
I was hyperactive in elementary school. A major dweeb in middle school. A bored, lazy jerk in high school who never did homework, had the social skills of a stunned newt, and never got the girl. (I doubt there was a single girl, period, who thought I was cute, let alone worth giving the time of day to.) And I remember vividly dozens of things I did, so inept and clueless as to be absolutely, completely, cringeworthy, things that I’d give a great deal to be able to erase from ever having happened.
I had a childhood that wasn’t exactly pleasant, even without the major-league idiocy on my part. My father had a violent temper, a temper that we kids seem to have inherited (although at least I’m aware of that fact, and am doing what I can to work on it). We lived miles from town and consequently had no friends — everyone else at elementary school knew the kids from their neighborhoods, but I was always an outsider. And even into my high school years, I didn’t have a social life; in the unlikely situation where I’d gotten a girl to go out with me on a date, I probably wouldn’t have been allowed to go; the car was for going to school, going to work at Hardee’s, and going home.
So yeah, I wasn’t exactly socialized. I might as well have been home-schooled for all the learning-to-play-well-with-others I did in my formative years. And let me tell you, it showed. I’m particularly embarrassed by how I behaved in marching band in high school, a raging tornado of puberty-fueled desires and absolutely no concept of what was appropriate and what wasn’t.
Christ. As I sit here typing this, I’m frankly surprised that people didn’t just put me in a sack weighted down with rocks and heave me in the New River.
Now, don’t let me give you the idea that I’m sitting here having a little pity-party. Far from it. I have tried to get my life in order and live like the person I want to be, but then my memories of what a loser and a failure I was resurface and I want to curl up in a fetal position. I’m not asking for sympathy and I’m not pointing a finger and saying “it’s all my fault; I was misunderstood.”
I think it really all comes down to the Eighth and Ninth Steps. (I’m not an alcoholic and rarely touch alcohol; I just happen to be aware of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and allied groups.) Namely:
“8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”
“9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
I’ve got a long list of people I’ve harmed. The list stretches on past the apocalypse of my school-age years and into my college years and the years since then. (Despite my blathering about my youth in Blacksburg, I’m not saying that all the bad crap ended with graduation. It’s not that I’ve been a paragon of self-control and probity since turning 18; I’ve just cut back the imbecility to a low roar.) The problem is that it’s extremely hard to make amends to people who’ve grown up, gotten their lives together, had kids, matured, moved on — and you’re stuck reliving the misery of past embarrassments. It’s not as though you can call someone up, someone who may not even remember you, and say “Back in fourth grade, I mutter-mutter-mutter and I’m really sorry.”
Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt, you know?
But I am sorry and I do wish I could make amends. I just don’t know where to start.
I do know that I need to do the best job I can of being the best person I can, here and now, in the year 2014, no matter what baggage I may be carrying around with me. I’ve made plenty of mistakes as an adult, too… but on the other hand, those are the kinds of mistakes where you can make amends. There’s still time, when tempers have cooled and the smoke has cleared to say “I’m so sorry. That was all my fault.” It’s another thing to be remembered by hundreds of people your age as the most extraordinary jerk to ever come down the pike, and yet, have no opportunity to do anything about it.
I suspect that the desire to show that I can be someone other than the fool I was once is a major contributing factor to all the work, such as it is, that I’ve done in the last six years to help fight breast cancer. There are thousands who’ve done much more than I have — I know that — but at least I’m trying to do something that matters, to show that I’m not a complete waste of space and air.
I know that, technically speaking, depression is a form of mental illness. And I know that mental illness isn’t widely respected as a real form of illness. People who are depressed get told “Just cheer up.” If that. And I know that I’m suffering from the symptoms of that illness when I spend whole days unable to get myself in motion to do anything because I just feel so bad. I know that I do need to do more to take care of myself, to exercise, to practice self-nurturing (the phrases you pick up when you read about mental illness!), to try to find the silver lining in every cloud.
I know that there are people reading this who are probably going “Jay! We knew you back then. We’ve forgotten all that stuff. It’s all in your head.” And my response is “Yeah, maybe so. But knowing that doesn’t make the shame and the regret just vanish.”
In the end, it’s hard to say exactly why I’m so abysmally depressed lately. Maybe some of it is genetic and biochemical. Maybe some of it is stress and isolation and family problems. Maybe a big chunk of it is due to my shame over what a twerp I was, and sometimes still am. But knowing all that doesn’t provide the solution for how to make the depression go away. I have millions of questions. I have no answers.
Since my last blog post on furrs.org, life has been … frustrating, to say the least.
My father’s doing MUCH better, thank you — that’s not one of the frustrating things. He has recuperated very well from his emergency hip surgery in mid-February. He got over the delusions that he was plagued by post-surgery and he’s gotten to the point that he can walk without a walker.
I’ve been struggling with severe depression, absolutely unrelated to Dad. There have been days that I sat at my desk in my office for four hours after quitting time, just aimlessly web-browsing and thinking “I should go to the gym and run” and then, once finally in the car, just heading for home and crawling into bed. I’m taking citalopram and trazodone every day and seeing a therapist a couple of times a month. I know that the trazodone has been not so good to a lot of my friends because of the drowsiness factor, but that’s actually why I’m on it. I gave up coffee a couple of years ago (and try to avoid caffeine in general) and that really improved my sleep, but there have been too many nights when I lie awake, fretful and restless. The trazodone helps with that… much more so than the Ambien they had me on a couple of years ago.
My depression is biochemical in nature. It’s (probably) not due to life stress, although there’s certainly been plenty of that. The depression waxes and wanes even when life conditions stay constant. I’m aware that my body is fighting my brain and saying “DO DUMB THINGS. OVEREAT. DON’T EXERCISE. SIT HERE IN YOUR OFFICE AND FEEL SORRY FOR YOURSELF.” It’s one thing to know that and another to actually be able to fight the urge.
On another front, I was going great guns on running at the start of the winter. My speed was increasing and I had gotten to the point that I no longer had to walk at all during a 5K session on our local indoor track. I ran in the Shelburne Spring Fling 5K on the first day of spring and did amazingly well — I finished in 28:27, by far the fastest time I’d ever had at that point in an actual road race.
Then metoprolol happened. I’ve been concerned about my high blood pressure for the last year. Prior to last May, my blood pressure was pretty amazing. Then ugly personal events happened in May (which I may never blog about, but they were pretty bad), and my blood pressure went straight through the roof. We tried lisinopril, which gave me a bad cough, then switched to losartan, which helped somewhat, but not a huge amount, then added hydrochlorothiazide (a diuretic), which also helped a bit, and then there came a day when I absent-mindedly checked my blood pressure at work and got a reading of 190 over 120 or something. And I freaked. And next thing you know I was on metoprolol, which lowers your blood pressure by turning you into a heavily sedated zombie of some kind. I liked what it did for my blood pressure, but when I tried to run after about a week of metoprolol, I found myself running 5K in thirty seven minutes. I could barely run at all. Most of the distance was spent walking. I felt like I was on heavy anesthesia.
I had a choice — I could punt on any thought of running, or I could opt out of the metoprolol. I decided that I didn’t want to have healthy blood pressure at the cost of feeling winded when I climbed a flight of steps, and simply stopped taking it. It took a few weeks to get entirely out of my system, but I seem to finally be “back”. I’m back to the point where I can run 5K on an indoor track without stopping to walk at all, and I’ve run several sub-30 minute 5K distances in a row in the last week. Today I had my personal best time ever at that distance: 27 minutes, 50 seconds. First time I ever got below 28 minutes.
Now I need to start working on distance… upping the distance run to 10K and beyond. Fortunately, spring is finally coming to Vermont and that should be possible.
But with every step forward, there’ve been multiple steps back. Our dear little cat, Thursday (it’s short for ‘The Cat Who Was Thursday’, a reference to a work by G.K. Chesterton) has been very very sick lately. She started avoiding food and showing no energy whatsoever last week, and I insisted on taking her in to the vet (Carole initially though that she was just being finicky). Turns out that she’s essentially suffering from chronic renal failure and her BUN and creatine levels were unbelievably unhealthy. They kept her for about 48 hours on an IV and got her back to the point where she had an appetite and would take solid food. But we’ve been giving her subcutaneous fluids and potassium and an antacid and an anti-nausea drug, and that’s helped a bit, but today she’s been back to refusing food. We think it’s because of mouth ulcers — she’s got bloody ulcers in her mouth and occasionally drools blood… and I suspect that it just hurts too much to eat. We’re going to beg the vets tomorrow for something to help with that.
We know that she may get to the point that she’s “better” and can live for a year or two more. Friends with cats in this sort of condition have gotten their pets past the hump and to a stable condition. But on the other hand, if Thursday’s quality of life doesn’t improve (case in point: she’s not cleaning herself and her fur is matted if we don’t wash her ourselves) and she just lies around feeling too sick and ill to move, we may have to make a very hard decision. I know many of you have faced that same decision in the past and some of you may be thinking “it’s cruel to keep her alive and in pain”, but again, lots of cats have faced this and mostly recovered. We don’t want to give up hope yet. Thursday has been with us 15 years and we love her very much.