I Am Not Alone (Part 3 of a 3-part series)

Disclaimer: I’m no doctor, therapist, counselor, or genius. If this post about hope in the midst of depression and anxiety and related mental-health experiences is in any way true for you, know that it might be uncomfortable to read in the first place, but much more importantly, that reading it will not, cannot save you from your troubles. What you need is not a word of empathetic support from a fellow mortal with related experiences but genuine professional help, just as it’s what I needed first. Come back and visit me if and when you’re ready. If you don’t have any such problems, hurray for you! And read on anyway, because you might be able to help another person if you know better how she or he is living. Everyone’s truth matters, even when we don’t agree with or share it.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll shout it again and again from the rooftops: ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥     ASK FOR THE HELP YOU NEED!     ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

When you’re feeling strong enough to do it, fellow struggler, I want you to ask for, and find, the help you need. A friend wrote me after reading the previous two parts of this post series, quite rightly asking: “As someone foreign to what you describe here, I’m wondering whether you’ve ever found it beneficial for two people who are both despondent to work together. Can the shared despondency do some good, like two negatives making a positive?” My short answer (strictly my opinion, of course) is, Yes and No. Feeling alone in sorrow is, ironically, almost universal, but the feeling ignores the reality. Being reminded we’re ‘all in it together’ can help. Mutuality of support and dependence can be useful, but only if genuinely committed on both sides to the wellness and well-being of self and other, and only in partnership with those qualified to help. Wallowing and giving up hope together is no better than doing so alone. Find the counseling, student resources center or person at your school, workplace, or community services center, and get in contact. Do a little research to find out what’s affordable or free, and accredited, in your area. Make an appointment, and be sure to tell the person with whom you make the appointment that your need is anxiety and depression related and therefore time sensitive.

Stand up for yourself enough to insist on getting the help you need. I was really, really lucky that the counseling center my doctor sent me to visit had trained ‘triage’ telephone operators who could determine how urgent it was that we patients get in and guaranteed an appointment within a week or even 24 hours, depending on the situation. We all know that for anyone who is suicidal, only genuine emergency care will do: a suicide prevention hotline, phoning 911 [the American universal emergency phone number], or heading to the hospital is essential. But knowing that the assessing operators at my local mental health center were trained to spot the differences gave me a little needed comfort and the strength to wait 24 hours more.

Meeting with this counselor won’t be an instant solution for you, though, honestly, getting through the first step of making the contact was for me by far the hardest, bravest thing I ever did, so everything after that seemed progressively easier! I cried and sniffled and howled through the phone call, through the days (weeks) leading up to the appointment, through the drive to the appointment—wondering if I could go through with it, though I’m delighted, if that’s the right word, that I was too afraid and embarrassed to cancel and inconvenience the stranger I was going to see—and I wept through the majority of the first appointment, too, even though I had little that I believed was so urgently, impressively scary or important-seeming to say or do. That’s the nature of the beast, isn’t it. I think it’s useful, when you decide you’re in need of help, regardless of feeling ready or courageous enough to seek it, to have a few little strategies for taking the starting steps. A checklist, if you will, can make the attempt at something so large ever so slightly less daunting. From my own perspective I can offer some possible options.

Think of others. The world shrinks incredibly when one is depressed and anxious. It’s all I can do, in the midst of it, to consider that I’m not the lone creature in the entire miserable universe. But realizing that my misery spreads invisibly to others, like any kind of infection, helped me, albeit incrementally, to decide I had to make a change somehow. I could at least drag myself to strive toward health for others’ sake when I couldn’t muster it for my own sake. The one ‘trick’ that still helps me the most often is one I suggest you try even before you manage to go out and get professional help: Focus your energy, however infinitesimal it may seem, on doing whatever itty-bitty-teensy-weensy thing you can do to help someone else through a struggle. I wrote about this technique that my mom taught me in a previous blog post, and it still regularly saves my shaky hold on sanity in stressful situations where I’m not actually alone, especially at social events, which are big stressors for me. Give it a shot a couple of times, and give yourself permission to ‘play the part’ of somebody cool and confident (at least cool enough to admit to a stranger that you totally lack confidence) and you’ll be amazed, almost invariably, how much it can help you. I’ve managed to get through events crowded with intimidatingly high-powered, celebrated politicians, artists, and social giants, in countries where I spoke little or none of the local language, by doing this. I’ve also learned along the way that many of the aforementioned intimidatingly powerful persons turn out to be just as needy and insecure as I am, merely better disguised!

Build a DIY support network. It’s a network only if you think of it going out as well as flowing in: you’re not only asking for help but offering it, and though you don’t believe you have enough resources for your own puny self, working to give some to others will show you better what you can do. It’ll be a hard slog, since so many depressives, like me, also fight social anxiety, and either (let alone both) can make it mighty hard to openly discuss deeply personal things like our mental health. Doesn’t even sound possible, does it? But it is. Dare to test the theory; you already know that you’ve got nothing to lose.

Commit to wellness. Sit down with at least one supportive person, preferably a loved and trusted one if you have any such thing. A fellow struggler, a professional, even a total stranger whom you deem trustworthy, might offer support, and that can be useful, too. Find one, or make one. Say to your supporters how much it means to have them on your side and that you will do whatever you’re capable of doing to help each other go through this process, knowing that you’ll all fall down on the job but you will not quit trying, because you owe it to each other as much as to yourself. You might not believe that fully yet, but I promise you it’s true. Even those who think themselves insignificant and invisible aren’t; what affects them for worse or better affects all of the lives around them similarly. If you can’t seek health and happiness for your own sake, try to do it with the idea that you can aim to improve the lives of those around you by being happier, healthier, and better able to assist them through their own difficulties. Imagine your improved health and well-being first as a fantastic, romantic ideal, then as a remote possibility, and then as a goal, and you’ll have a better shot at accomplishing this amazing thing than you might guess.

Take a first step. Make the first appointment you need, even if you don’t yet know how deeply you do, with the mental health counselor or resource person. GO. If this is someone who can see you and your supportive companion together, it might make it easier for you to approach at least the first meeting if you’re there to encourage each other. The first session or two will likely be little more than figuring out your current state of being and understanding your “baseline” in any case. Be bold, and assume that you will be helped by this process, even though it might not seem so at all times, and persist doggedly. Fight for your life. Ask your professional helpers straightaway: Please tell me about all of the FREE resources you can share with me [us], refer or recommend for my needs, so I won’t have the added anxiety and depression of finding something that helps, only to be denied it for financial reasons thereafter.

Commit to continuity. Follow up, whether it’s with this same person/center, or someone/where else that’s recommended. Do your homework. A counselor should be teaching you how to assess your own situation and what you can do to have a positive effect on it, whether it’s through making lists, keeping a simple journal (your blog or diary will certainly qualify, in many instances), doing some reading, learning to meditate, doing a small amount of exercise, adjusting your diet, listening to music, or something else entirely. Do the work. It might be laborious or even painful, but every bit you get through will be something you can cross off your list of struggles.

Reward yourself with your healthiest and most affordable pleasures every single time you feel you’ve made one atom’s-worth of progress. Don’t worry about falling down on the job again tomorrow, because you will. Know that when you’ve rewarded yourself with an honest “hey, I didn’t think I could manage that until now, but I DID IT!!!!” followed, perhaps, by doing the Snoopy Dance or wallowing in an hour of reading from that really trashy, sappy book that always makes you feel like hugging the universe a little, you will be more inclined to get back up and do the work again as soon as you’re able. Keep hunting for your Happy Place among your matrix of matrices. [Have I just coined a phrase?]

If all else fails, take the time to look at your reflection in a window or mirror on occasion and practice smiling ever more genuinely and convincingly, while saying to yourself in your silliest Stuart Smalley impression: “Kathryn Sparks thinks I’m cool. And she’s really amazing, so who am I to argue with her?” Because I really do know how tough it is to be one’s best self and I truly admire all who manage to do the hard work it can take to move in that direction in difficult times.

You do matter. Your well-being matters. Your relationships with fine people (me, for example) matter. Peace and joy to all of us.


Photo: I'm Only Human

I’m in the Support Group for “I Can’t Help being Human” (Part 2 of a 3-part series)

Disclaimer: I’m no doctor, therapist, counselor, or genius. If this post about hope in the midst of depression and anxiety and related mental-health experiences is in any way true for you, know that it might be uncomfortable to read in the first place, but much more importantly, that reading it will not, cannot save you from your troubles. What you need is not a word of empathetic support from a fellow mortal with related experiences but genuine professional help, just as its what I needed first. Come back and visit me if and when you’re ready. If you don’t have any such problems, hurray for you! And read on anyway, because you might be able to help another person if you know better how she or he is living. Everyone’s truth matters, even when we don’t agree with or share it.


Digital illo from a photo: Depression & Anxiety Cloaked the GardenI’ve recently met a new friend who is dealing with levels of anxiety and depression that sound like where I stood about a decade ago. It makes me both sorry for her struggles and incredibly glad I don’t have that same weight to carry consistently anymore myself. Depression and anxiety, especially the kind of chronic or recurring stuff, both work differently for everybody I know who deals with them, but one characteristic that I see pretty universally is that they can’t be cured or solved purely by smart practices. Real anxiety and clinical depression are inherently opposed to logic. They flatly refuse to listen to reason, and that is what makes us feel afraid, angry, useless, and without options.

It doesn’t help that some people who have never dealt with similar things can be ignorantly dismissive and believe that if we just shut up, pull up our socks, and get over ourselves all will be right in the world. I may know a perfect solution to my mental health problems, or a whole slew of solutions, and be able to imagine myself accomplishing the rescue flawlessly in my mind, but even if the means to that end is sitting less than an arm’s length from me I don’t have the clarity, will, or energy to make like a Nike commercial and Just Do It, not even if I sit staring at the conveniently available means all week long. Another classic and frustrating aspect of deep depression is that it saps us of energy, strength, and will to such a degree that we’re robbed of both clarity and the drive to do what we long most to do, even for the sake of those we love most dearly. It’s no wonder depressed people feel useless—they have been robbed of all of their power and hope, and worst of all, the culprit lurks right inside and can’t seem to be evicted.

When one’s brain or biochemistry can’t process the facts of the situation in sensible ways, the natural instinct is to curl up in a fetal position and hide from everything/one, including oneself. For me, when I’m in the middle of an acute anxiety attack or even a period of general anxiety, my rational brain can still assess the present situation quite neatly and spell out all of the logical explanations—what I could do to solve what’s making me anxious, and why I would be perfectly safe to just let go all of that discomfort—but I’m immobilized by anxiety instead and only feel more afraid, sick, confused, and as a bonus, tremendously guilty for “not taking my own good advice.”

It sounds, frankly, ridiculous to anyone who’s never experienced it, and even to me when I’m not stuck in an attack. But it’s the reality, and it’s awful. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether your life is good, with whether you’re smart, lovable, or desirable, or are surrounded by supportive people or wealth or any other grand resource you can imagine; you can have all of those things in abundance and still fight depression and anxiety. I have had a great life, with very few major causes for even normal kinds of sadness (you know, those well-known major stressors like the death of a loved one, changing jobs, moving to a new home, and so forth), yet when I finally ‘crashed’ with clinical depression in my 40s, I learned that I had probably had not only previous periods of severe depression in my life but also chronic anxiety all of my life. The lack of obvious causes or catalysts for the existing state in an otherwise pretty charmed life only further confirmed my doctor and therapist’s diagnoses—in my case, of an inherent chemical imbalance that various “triggers” simply helped bring to the surface periodically and that, over time, became harder to manage without both counseling and medication.

This may all be TMI for a non-sufferer or casual passerby, but I think it helps explain a few rather useful things. Again, these are my own thoughts and experiences, not yours. Only you can find your way through them.

Those who do experience various forms of mental illness are far from alone. I happen to believe that mental health, along with all sorts of other aspects of personal health and identity, is not merely a ‘spectrum’ of states or conditions, but a cloud of them, a thick and rich matrix in which each of us is created. That in any one person, his, her, or my place in all of the matrices of physical and mental health, skills and interests, sex identification, attitudes and beliefs, and the many other aspects of humanity that make us our individual selves shifts gradually but constantly, however the pace may vary from one time or characteristic to another. If I multiply all of the changes within one such self-identity matrix by how many different matrices of personality can make up the whole and how much they are likely to shift their Me point of intersection over a lifespan, it seems entirely probable that everybody hits the occasional crossroads of whatever for them qualifies as less than prime mental health and well-being.

I’m a firm believer in daring to ask for help, whenever/wherever you possibly can, starting with your counselor and/or doctor; find better suited ones, if the ones you have aren’t helpful! I know as well as anybody how near-to-impossible it is to ask for help, and it doesn’t matter if the reason is insecurity or lack of self-worth or sheer tiredness. It’s just that I also know that my life and sanity have been saved more than once by those little moments of supreme effort it took for me to humble myself and crawl toward help. I could sit around singing infinite maudlin verses of ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen‘ or, as I always tended to do, wear a mask of pretension that everything was just spiffy, but no matter how much anybody else loved or cared about me, they couldn’t read my mind—how I expected them to when I couldn’t read it myself, I don’t know—so nothing would have happened if I hadn’t just let go of all my ‘should’ ideas and asked.

Treatments vary just as much as bodies’ and minds’ uniqueness differentiates us. It’s hard work to find strategies that help us individually, but it’s the only path I’ve seen whose light at the end of the tunnel isn’t that of an oncoming train. Somebody else’s quick fix or longterm “cure” isn’t necessarily what will serve my needs. I love life in a whole different way nowadays than in my earlier years, thanks to stumbling into and muddling through the process of finding what was best for my situation.

It is a lifelong process, make no mistake. For me, it means I will probably always be on medications in addition to checking in with my doctors occasionally. One of my doctors opened my eyes about this, first overcoming my resistance to medicinal intervention by explaining to me how much the current varieties differ from earlier forms of antidepressants and their ilk in terms of long-term safety and efficacy, and then keeping close watch to insure a good ‘fit’ for me.

On one visit, I asked the doctor whether, feeling so much healthier and better, I should start weaning myself from the medication. “How do you feel?” she asked. “Great!” “Do you want to feel different from ‘great’?” [Me, grinning and shaking my head NO.] “Then why would you stop taking your medication?” Duh. “Come and see me if things change for the worse.” Ten years later, I noticed I was slipping and feeling the old, familiarly dark fears and discomforts creeping in on me and suffusing my sense of self. My current doctor—we’d moved to another state, meanwhile—agreed I could add incrementally to my current dose. Barely ten days later, back to my New Normal. My sense is that depression and anxiety, like alcoholism, are states of imbalance that aren’t curable but can and may be managed over time with consistent care.

I understand very well the resistance to meds that comes from feeling like one has lost a certain amount of emotional depth or dulled some personal distinction when medicated. Yes, I have experienced deep, and superb, lasting joys from my earliest years when not in the abyss, and sometimes I do think that my emotions since ‘entering recovery’ might be slightly duller in general than before, but I would not trade a single second of what I have now as a healthier person for that tiny, shiny bit of edge, if it really is gone. Once the right meds kicked in for me, and it wasn’t instantaneous, I knew that I was my REAL self in ways that I had never, ever experienced before: able to feel normal pain, fear, sadness, or worry without the absolutely constant sense that they would never pass or that each one meant sure disaster.

I could ride in a car without the conviction that every other car approaching mine was aimed directly for me. I’d always known, objectively, that they weren’t, but I couldn’t stop that irrational inner sense from warning me endlessly that they were. I could now plan to meet a new person and not have to spend a number of days before it feeling physically ill and crying and being sulky and short-tempered because I was so terrified of meeting her. If I tried to learn or do a new thing and didn’t get it perfectly on the first try, it wasn’t an indictment of me as a human but a teachable moment of setback.

Now, when I shed tears, they’re not in the uncontrollable flow of incurable grief but born of a sadness that even in its midst I know will abate in time. Or, thank goodness, they’re sometimes tears of joy. Because not only is my life still good, now I can genuinely feel it. I wish the same for all people. It’s why, as an avowed non-expert, I still feel responsible, compelled, to answer when asked out of the darkness, ‘Is there anyone who knows me?

More tomorrow, friends…

Is There Anyone Who Knows Me?

This is the first post of a three-part series on depression and anxiety, so if that’s an off-limits topic for you, I’ll see you again on the weekend! But it’s really intended as a series on hope from someone who has been-there-done-that and loves life in all of its complicated craziness as I know it now, on the other, generally sunnier, end of the tunnel. Today, for your contemplation, a meditation based on a true story of fear and loneliness and the possibility of triumph through one faint but persistent call for help.Photo + text: Under Sea, Under Stone 1

Photo + text: Under Sea, Under Stone 2


My subject in today’s poem is identified as a woman, but mainly because the pronoun ‘her’ fit the text that was already emerging in the sonnet. In my heart, the subject is meant to honor all of my friends and acquaintances [regardless of persuasion] who have battled, or are still battling, their way up from the abysses of fear, anxiety, depression, abuse, or any form of personal darkness, whether inwardly generated or externally imposed. What you have done, and are doing, is powerful. What you can do may be more than you, or I, or anyone can possibly yet imagine. Continue your journeys upward, my friends. Sing from the branches of the Tree of Life for a change. Newness can be a beautiful thing!

From Her Grave

Arising from the heart of silent night,

the poignant voice of one whose singular

accomp’niment was always, only, her

own shadow, takes the unaccustomed flight—

Ascending, she now meets the morning sun

and hears at last a sound she’d never heard;

the brilliant singing of a splendid bird,

a song that chases shadows, ev’ry one—

And hers, along with all the shadows, flies;

now wakened, she is free to wholly shed

her residence in shade among the dead

and fly up, singing gladly, to the skies—

So freed, she dares to trust her new-fledged wing

to raise up others from their dark to sing.Digital illustration: Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life

A happy, healthy and hopeful New Year to everyone!

My Misfit Brain

Digital illustration: My Brain is an Alien

A Holistic Journey

One sunny afternoon I went to a family and friends’ celebration, and I wanted the earth to swallow me whole. I’d that very week been diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety; nobody there knew. Those at the gathering were celebrating religious and political beliefs that were virtually opposite to my markedly less conservative views. I was invited as a relative, and never knew if they really thought I shared their views or if it just didn’t matter. There was a lot of Bible reading, text interpreted to support favorite right-wing politicians. Many emotional speeches on the rightness and beauty of the group’s beliefs also implied that divergent views were stupid, evil or both. I wished I could disappear.

Mental health problems are inconvenient, messy, embarrassing. Incompatible philosophies and tastes, maybe even political or religious views, are sometimes socially acceptable as matters of personal leanings. But being exceedingly depressed or anxious?…

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Tough as Nails

Photo: A Little Rusty, Maybe

I may be getting a little rusty and weathered, but I’m just happy to be aging.

I’m managing to age. I’m glad. Though I’ve never had such a deep fall into my depressive and anxious episodes as to become suicidal, I’ve had times when I feared it might be hard to keep living, instead retreating into agoraphobic hiding in perpetuity. Those times, I am so very thankful, have been rare. They’re long past, too.

A couple of months ago, though, I had the first of some subtle indications that my longtime sense of shining wellness might have some tiny cracks forming in its foundations. A creeping unease entered into my confident good cheer. When I was first diagnosed and treated back then for my anxiety and depression, I had the strange sensation of learning what it felt like for my symptoms to recede, one by one, and as they did, I realized that the way I’d felt and the whole way I’d understood myself for all of my life before then, was in large part a collection of symptoms. Underneath it all was a different, happier and healthier self I have relished getting to know as I was unmasked by this progress.

I won’t lose that self again readily. I made tracks for the doctor’s office to talk about my options, because I don’t ever want to be held prisoner in that not-me state again. We’re checking my general health, the doctor and I, and plotting a course for reinforcement of the new-and-improved me while combating those things that threaten in any small way.

My greatest reassurance comes from living with the life partner who never ceases to love and support me for better, for worse, in sickness and in health. Backing him up in the task are the many relatives and friends upon whom I also depend. But I’ve come to realize that I have another resource on which I’ll be depending in this adventure. Surprisingly, that defender is me.

See, I understand now what I didn’t and couldn’t back in the day: I could never have made it to my first depressive crash and subsequent healing if I weren’t pretty tough inside. I have always thought of myself as shy, timid and easily cowed, but the truth is that if everything that seems ordinary and normal to other people in the everyday scheme of things—meeting a new person, answering the phone, taking a class—seems infinitely harder to a person with anxiety disorder or the chemical imbalance that causes chronic depression, then I must be stronger than I thought.

I’m planning to win. I don’t expect it’ll happen overnight, let alone permanently, but with my personal army at my back and the right attitude and resources of my own, I think I have a good shot at it.

Photo: Tough as Nails

For a marshmallow, I’m actually tough as nails.

Ripple Effects

Community is a pool, a lake, an ocean. Having people around me means that every little atom of what I think, feel, say and do has the power to touch all of the lives peripheral to mine. That is immense responsibility. Unspeakable power. I may feel small and even rather insignificant in the scheme of the greater universe, but I know from the way that little things thought, felt, said and done by others move and shape me, regardless of whether their sources are famous or not, well-known to me or not.Digital illustration: Ripple Effects

Now that I’ve sensed the probability of my slipping toward a new round of depression and anxiety, I know full well that it’s important to me to arrest the slide and reverse my direction in order to sustain my own health and well-being. But I know, further, that it matters for the good of others whose lives intersect with mine, and that is a set of challenges and needs that should matter to me at least as deeply as my own. Yes, it matters to me if it matters to you. I’m nowhere near perfect or heroic, but I’d like to be as decent as I can manage. Even a small stone, skipped across the surface of the water, can create quite the motion in the stillest pond.

Bring It On

There’s that old saying about how ‘it never rains but it pours,’ and while I often think it’s true that troubles and trials seem to come in number rather than singly, I also tend to think that’s the sense we get because everything subsequent event’s difficulty is magnified by the one that preceded it. And of course, in a more literal sense, since moving to Texas five years ago during a period of general drought in the region, I would be inclined to say that it seldom rains enough here, let alone pours. Much as I might find minor inconveniences and even annoyances brought on by a rainy day, the more so if it’s stormy, I am glad enough of the needed moisture that I don’t hang onto any grudges against nature’s outpourings. Even on that persistently blinding, bleary day of storms when I took my turn driving toward home at the end of last year’s summer road trip I was more grateful than hateful regarding the dousing we received, and that’s going some for a nervous driver like me.Photo: Rain Storm on the Road

I am reminded these days, though, of the original frustrated character of the proverb and am working not to get sucked down into such a mode myself. There have been little hints from my mind and body that perhaps the decade-plus of grand good health and wellness I’ve enjoyed upon being treated for and generally freed from depression and anxiety and the nasty physiological symptoms thereof may be, like the moon in a spooky campfire tale, on the wane. I’ve avoided thinking about it much not only because it’s an unpleasant prospect in itself but also for superstitious fear that just contemplating such a thing makes it more possibly true. And at first, it was just those little, nagging bits of something that I couldn’t quite define as backsliding: a hint more tension when riding in the car, a touch more touchy about unimportant problems in the day-to-day, a stomach-ache when I get worried about a deadline….

But when we were at the airport the other day, waiting to board a perfectly ordinary flight to go to the familiarity of our own home after ending a week of (for me) unfamiliar and exciting travel that should have been the tough part of the equation if there were any, I had the horrible experience of an emotional meltdown in a panic attack. It’s been so many years since I had one that I almost didn’t realize what was happening and thought I had simply gotten a sudden illness of a more ordinary kind, and that would be irritating enough in its own way, but when I did connect the dots and know that I was losing all sense of control and well-being, the drop down that well was swift and obliterating. I am relieved that it was a relatively short-lived event, and I doubt many around me knew anything untoward was happening, but inside, I was a morass of terror, unable even to speak in quiet gratitude to my spouse for his patience. In the end, I got on the plane and, once there, cocooned with my scarf and went to sleep as quickly as I could, and that was that.

The speed and intensity of the attack, however, were enough to convince me that it’s now time to see the doctor and discuss what to do before I fall as far, and for as long, as I had in the past. I have no use for being that powerless and miserable shadow of myself ever again. I hate feeling almost perpetually nauseated, often breathless or dizzy, ice-cold and then broiling hot and then ice-cold again. I loathe feeling like I will burst into absolutely unwarranted uncontrollable crying at any moment. I abhor feeling like a useless baby. I despise feeling so sick and enervated and exhausted that I can barely lift my arms, no, can hardly croak out a word without wanting to keel over. I reject that version of me!

During our lovely week in Puerto Rico, it rained one day in the intense and intimidating and glorious way that a tropical shower can do. It was pouring thoroughly enough that we waited until the hardest pounding let up a little, popped open our umbrellas, and headed out knowing we’d get good and wet. I was glad of wearing both quick-drying summery clothes and open, flow-through sandals, because even with our umbrellas in full bloom and the rain somewhat lessened, within about two blocks’ walk we were seeing rivers race down the street and right on up over our feet. By the time we stopped in a coffee shop not so many minutes later, we were pretty damp all over and soaked up over the ankles. It was warm weather, and the rain dried very quickly indeed, and of course we long for that sort of bounty for our Texas landscape, so we rather enjoyed the novelty of it all. But I’ll admit that even knowing that the rain’s a tiny price to pay for the generous greenery of the tropics, I was delighted to see the sun again as soon as it arrived.Photo: Rainfall in San Juan

I can’t say what is the benefit of going through the floods of depression and anxiety. I can only hope that at least it teaches me to be more mindful of the many blessings I do have and to fight my way back up and out toward them as quickly as I possibly can. Perhaps, if I’m lucky, I will also be more sensitive to others’ struggles when I have been reminded how hard it is to keep perspective when one’s own brain and body absolutely refuse to bow or to cooperate with the tiniest and simplest, most logical of requests. All I can say for certain is that I am not planning to lie back and take it. You’re gonna rain on me, eh? Bring it on. Getting out my umbrella, yes. Digging up every resource I can find or imagine, done and done. Climbing up the side of the well with my own fingernails if I have to, rather than falling farther into it, see ya on the other side, pal. Bring it on.

Suicide without a Corpse

digital illustrationMichelle, a writer I greatly admire, just offered a post on her blog, wherein she details some of the characteristics of her daily experiences in life as a person with depression. As always, she makes me think. It’s not simply that I, too, am such a person—albeit one whose version of depression is as unique, individual as hers and everyone else’s—but that there are a few aspects of depression that, if not exactly universal, are amazingly common. First of these is that being sad is not depression. Sadness is to depression about like a paper cut is to getting an ice pick stuck in your eye.

I will not belittle the paper cut, real or metaphorical. Pain of the physical and the psychic sorts will always be relative to our own experiences and our own moments, and pain of any kind is inherently unpleasant and undesirable. That, I think, would be hard to argue.

But I might also say that it’s less accurate to equate sadness with depression than to call being sad, however jokingly, being “differently happy”. Sadness is a passing, ephemeral experience of the sort where the last scoop of one’s favorite ice cream flavor has been dished up and handed to the person just before her in the queue. Depression is when she has the dish of that flavor sitting right in front of her and not only doesn’t have the strength to reach over and take a spoonful of it to eat, she thinks she isn’t a good enough person to do so, if she can form such a solid thought at all, and if there were a super-powered sleeping pill that could put her peacefully to sleep forever sitting right next to the ice cream and she longed beyond words to die, she mightn’t have enough strength to reach over and take the pill either.

Suicide is a hideous thing, if you ask me. It’s tough enough that anyone would hate or fear her life and self to the degree that she sees no alternative but to end it, but of course she either knowingly accepts whatever horrible consequences her death will have on the entire rest of the universe, starting with the people who love her or she is no longer capable of recognizing that there are such people or consequences or caring about them. Beyond that, it inevitably is simply messy in the practical and logistical and legal senses. Someone will have to clean up after the fact, and the suicide doesn’t or can’t care that this will require others to deal with her corporeal remains, the legal messes she’s left behind, the tasks unfinished, and most of all, with the incurable suffering that follows when survivors realize that they couldn’t save her, might indeed have been utterly forgotten by her in the abysmal darkness of her depression.

Every individual’s best response to depression is as different as his or her version of the ailment. I am one of those whose unique combination of depression and other physical and emotional characteristics and components resisted all non-medical interventions until despite my vigorous resistance to the idea of chemical treatment I learned that that was the only useful method for me. Rather than diminishing my sense of self, it allowed me for the very first time in my four-plus decades to experience what I now believe is (and yes, probably always was) my true self. It still required being dedicated to a variety of other forms of non-chemical rehabilitation and therapy; talk therapy, meditation, and my practice of various arts and exercises mentally and physically that please and heal me all contribute to my wellness along with my meds.

I was fortunate in a way that many clinically depressed people are not: I never seriously contemplated committing suicide. I would go so far as to say that I considered it as a rather detached philosophical argument, inwardly, but I never reached the point where I so lost my will to oppose the idea of killing myself that I could let go of all the external reasons not to do so, those messy consequences others would have to undo or survive. If I valued myself so little as to want to be dead, I suppose it could be said that at least this made me think it would be that much worse of me to impose so terribly on those around me for something that wasn’t directly their problem. This sort of tautology clearly says to me that I wasn’t in imminent danger; I was busy arguing myself out of something that I didn’t really have the strength to do anyhow.

What I didn’t recognize in the midst of all of this soliloquizing was that I was committing a form of suicide, if an invisible one. True, there would be no stinking remains turning into human soap and sliming the rubber gloves of some poor janitor, no internecine paperwork to be sorted by attorneys and opportunists. But the burden on the world around me would have been just as heavy, the struggle of my loved ones just as inexorable, if I hadn’t rather literally stumbled into the intervening care that brought me to this lovely resolution where I find myself dwelling so comfortably today. Because, in my depressive brain fog and fear and self-loathing and ennui, I was rapidly forgetting how to be alive. It’s quite possible, I discovered, to die without stopping breathing, without even losing all conscious thought. A walking coma, an animate death is entirely possible in the midst of true depression.

And for that reason, I am all the more grateful that by virtue of being surrounded by people who helped to guide me in that direction, combined with being blessed, lucky, fortunate, or whatever combination thereof you prefer to name it, after my years in the dark I fell into the combination of elements that conferred a kind of wellness on me that I’d never known before. I am among you today not just as a happy and contented person, full of gratitude and amazement at what a good life I have, but also as a testament to the unfathomable differences and distances between existing and living, between something indescribably yet terribly akin to sleepwalking through life and waking up every day a little bit more…alive.

In a Very Hot Place

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Not to shed crocodile tears, but don’t you feel sorry for my pain?

In the humid human jungle, there is a rapacious beast that cheerily attacks and devours the happiness of many a poor body.

Menopause. Yessiree, I’m sufficiently past the mid-century mark to be personally acquainted with the joys of middle- and slightly past middle-age. I managed, thanks to magical genes or good luck or some jolly combination of the two, to enter into the mysterious temple of Menopause well ahead of the dull-normal average age of 51. I guess my body just couldn’t wait for the fun. Forty years old? Yay! Sure, I can go right ahead and get on that crazy train.

My doctor thought I might just be a fanciful young’un, imagining I was wandering into menopausal territory at the tender age of forty. Until I described my hot flashes. She already knew about my newly accomplished slide to the bottom of a depressive slope, a thing that (while it is seldom developed in complete isolation from other qualities or characteristics of health issues) can sometimes also be a symptom of menopause. She was not one of those dismissive, demeaning doctors who would’ve opted to imply that I was some kind of hysteric or stupid person. So she did a little checking into my state of being in other ways and lo, what I was experiencing was indeed early onset menopause. Or perimenopause, to be more medically precise.

Anyway, I’m now well past a dozen years of this fun and am still here to tell the tale. What’s particularly interesting to me is that it’s not wildly improbable that I’m, well, okay. I think I might’ve bought, at least a little, into the popular mythology that makes menopause universally into a horror of monstrous proportions. I will never minimize the true suffering that some women experience during menopause, a very real horror. But me, I’ve spent over a decade in the strange land of menopause, and I’m still ticking along.

One thing that I have working in my favor, besides that I have relatively few symptoms and lots of blessed good luck, is that I have great support. I have always existed in the midst of a family, friends and acquaintances where topics of real and everyday importance are generally discussed in real and everyday ways. No big deal. Imperfections, illness, death, human failings, and yeah, menopause. These are all realities and unavoidable. Sometimes painful, sometimes inexpressibly difficult, ugly, terrifying, awful. But in all of that, normal. So why would we be so foolish as to pretend otherwise, to let them loom, magnified, as the sort of thing we can never name, let alone discuss, with others who are statistically likely to have shared the experience and might even have wisdom to share in how to survive?

I’m trying to be smart about protecting myself from the bone density loss that is typical of many women in menopause, taking supplements and keeping active as my doctors have recommended. As an exercise hater, this one isn’t easy for me. I do keep current with monitoring and treating my depression so that I am sad only what seems to me a pretty normal amount and about pretty average things, not depressed in extreme and unhealthy and perniciously persistent ways as I was before I began finding the right health regimen of counseling and medication to keep me on a better path. I use extra skin moisturizer and the occasional application of hair creme rinse because despite having been an almost magically oily youth (and having had to battle high-grade acne as a result) I do find that in my advancing years I now have fairly dry skin and hair.

The big annoyance that remains for me is that my internal thermostat broke when I turned 40. My body forgot how to regulate its own temperature, so now I can go in a matter of seconds from the freezing Undead-body temp I was so long accustomed to experiencing in pre-menopausal years to the miracle of my torso becoming a microwave oven and right back again in a few minutes. Sometimes many times a day. This fun, for thirteen years and counting. And yet I am not a wreck.

The best defense I’ve found thus far is a simple little device that is a hybrid of that grand old invention, the hot water bottle, and the slightly newer iteration of the athlete’s curative bag of ice, a flat water-filled-sponge-containing rectangular envelope thingy that goes by the euphonious rapper-appropriate name of Chillow (trademark registered) and can be laid across my overheated midriff when I can’t seem to get my inner temperature moderated. It’s no cure, but it helps, and help is far better than misery. Even a good old fashioned accordion-folded fan fluttered southern belle-style beats undue discomfort.

I would never be so self-indulgent or ridiculous to call my sufferings massive or anything nearly as important as those of women who endure the real pain possible with menopause and its related conditions. That would be both silly and hypocritical. I’m average, plain and simple and normal, in this experience, even when I’m not exactly on the middle line of the statistical charts. But I can assure you that if you are heading into menopausal territory or someone you know is on her way, there is a path through this particular jungle and you need not be devoured by the beasts met along the way.

See you on the other side of the [very sweaty] swamp.

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If the jungle is ruled by a hippo, is it a hippocracy?