In my Resting, In my Rising

I chase down cures in my dreams,
seeking the open office door,
the present practicioner,
but they’re never there, never open.

Test after trial, trial after tribulation
No solution in sight.
Tablet, pill, capsule.
Needle, scale, survey.

No magic bullet.

There are symptoms, there are diagnoses,
but no cure.
No point of origin to return to and restart.

I want someone to fill this hollow inside –
but the only cure is in there as well.
It lies at the core of me,
but I am so very tired . . .
and cannot wake from this nightmare.

Stuff We All Get

When I got married, I inherited a staggering amount of pharmaceutical office supplies. Some women marry into wealth. Some women carry a substantial dowry; others, a hope chest full of handmade linens and needlework. I got a cardboard box full of sticky note pads and ball point pens bearing the name of brand-name drugs. A distant cousin on my husband’s paternal side, a salesman for a pharmaceutical company, had a wealth of such products himself, to which I was now a party.

Not one to turn up my nose at anything free, I welcomed this surfeit of stationery. The pen on a lanyard came in handy as I made circuits around my classroom – not only did hanging it about my neck ensure I didn’t lose it, but the big block letters emblazoned along the side. You found an Androgel pen, you say? That’s mine. Unless there was another twenty-something female teacher with stock in Androgel, there was no doubt who the pen’s rightful owner was.

However, this example also illustrates one of the disadvantages of pharmaceutical swag. Your use of said promotional product could be construed as endorsement of said drug.

This wasn’t a problem with the note cube advertising Flonase. Nasal congestion and seasonal allergies don’t carry much of a stigma with them. No one cares if your nose is running or you’re snorting floral scented mist up it. Same with the cute little calculator whose flip-top lid schilled for blood pressure medication. No one will judge me for the inner cleanliness of my arteries.

But I always thought of my audience when I wrote a note on the Wellbutrin pad.

I didn’t want anyone to think that I actually needed an antidepressant; that I was such a frequent flier, I’d earned promotional prizes; that the ‘dealer’ and I were such good buds, I got benefits.

Forget that it doesn’t work that way. It’s not like filling the card of stamps at the grocery store of yore to earn a full set of ceramic dishware. One doesn’t get a sticker for each pill ingested. But I didn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea . . . whatever that meant.

Fast-forward nine years and I’d be fighting my own internal battle with stigma as I debated whether to go on low-level sertraline while I battled postpartum depression. I did. Don’t know which side of stigma won, but I started on the meds I’m still on today.

Today.

The day irony served me a big slap in the face.

The day my physician suggested I add Wellbutrin to my prescription regimen – because sertraline doesn’t seem to be cutting it; because I need a ‘lift’ in the morning to get me going; because while I don’t have ADHD, I need help focusing, prioritizing; because all my labs came back normal and there is no organic reason for my symptoms other than plain old depression and anxiety.

Whoop-ti-do-da-freakin’ DAY.

Four to five years after I started my first antidepressant. Two to three years after I finally (or so I thought) came to terms with ‘succumbing’ to the help of an antidepressant.

Seemingly light years away from that time when I humorously pointed out the name on a sticky-sided square of paper – thinking my worst worry was that people would mistake me for a person who needed medicinal balancing of her brain chemicals.

I have so much more to worry about now.

More to the Story

I spent an hour and a half sitting on the basement floor of my local library the other morning.  I’d found the general Dewey decimal neighborhood I’d wanted and set about meeting the locals.

One good thing about living in a small town on a frigid morning and rushing the library doors as soon as they open is that you have nearly the whole place to yourself.  I was the one who flipped on the banks of fluorescent lights as I descended the stairs.  I sipped from my travel mug of tea as I decided which books would aid me in my research journey.  I read nearly an entire chapter of one that I eventually set back on the shelf – one I’ll certainly return to, but didn’t match the goals of today’s project.

Today’s project is preventing postpartum depression.

Though I checked out nine books, welcoming jokes from the clerks at the front desk as to what kind of wagon I’d need to transport them to the car, none is about postpartum depression.  One is about ‘regular old’ depression.  Others have a few pages, maybe a section specifically about postpartum.  But not one of the towering stack I selected gave an in-depth discussion of postpartum depression.

In the online catalog of our state’s inter-library system, there were some, but still not that many.  And none that looked, on first glance, like they offered the kind of practical information and solace that a woman in the throes of postpartum would want or need.  I know.  It doesn’t take much to put myself back to that hopeless place I experienced myself.

I ended up checking out mostly childbirth preparation books or ‘how-to’ guides to pregnancy, which made my children, upon seeing Mommy read a book with a woman’s round belly on the front, very suspicious.  Two of my girls put in orders for a baby brother.  I asked my eldest if she’d want me to be pregnant, to which she said, no, but if you were I’d want a brother.  Only now do I see the irony in their thinking I needed to read another book about pregnancy after three times around the mountain.

Been there, done that.

But this time, I was trying to read these pregnancy preparation books with new eyes.  Having been through it and having had the experiences I did, what would help me do it differently?  Or more importantly, what support systems would have kept me from plunging into the depths of despair?  And how can I apply those to helping other women?

I was surprised to enjoy Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth (Ina May Gaskin) as much as I did.  I figured that title would be one I skimmed to find anecdotes or info pertaining to postpartum, but I am thoroughly enjoying delving into the personal accounts of unhurried, gradual childbirths.  I am rediscovering the empowering parts of my own labors and deliveries – the first two for their strengths and victories, the last for my eventual triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds.  With that last one as my capstone, I’d forgotten the positive parts of pregnancy and childbirth.  Remembering that gives me something to help women to which to aspire.

The disparity between parts of my own experience and beautiful birth stories brings into sharp focus those areas that can serve as triggers, flashpoints for distress and disorder.  And by beautiful, I do not mean perfect or idyllic.  As Anne Cushman says in The Mindful Way Through Pregnancy, “labor and delivery are wild and messy and animal and angry and bloody and painful.  The transcendent act of giving birth is made up of the earthiest of elements: bodily fluids, a hospital gown stained with blood and excrement, the bruises left on your partner’s arm by the agonized grip of your fingers.” (Piver 16)  All this is normal, to be expected.  That’s not what we need to worry about.  We (women, mothers, humans, physicians, therapists, ob/gyns, midwives) need to help women recognize when there is cause to worry.

So maybe sitting on the floor of my local library and freaking my kids out with pictures of the ocarina found in one of my books will help me figure out how exactly to do that.  As with anything, it’s all about dialogue.  Whether that dialogue comes through books at the library, blog posts, or conversations with doctors, expectant and newborn mothers need to know there’s more to the story.

Quizzical

 

Which character on Downton Abbey are you most like? What color represents your personality? What does your favorite fruit say about you?

Every time one logs onto his or her social media venue of choice, there is an endless supply of such quizzes. I admit, a few have piqued my interest. Perhaps it’s the ever present quest to find ‘my dream job’ that almost lured me into taking that one. But I never wanted to waste precious spare moments on such an endeavor and certainly didn’t want to link up my personal details with some outside entity. One quiz in particular that scrolled across my screen, however, hit me in a personal way even without relinquishing my information.

What mental disorder do you kind of have?

First of all, the qualifier ‘kind of’ is a slap in the face. Those who ‘full on’ have a mental disorder know there’s nothing ‘kind of’ about it. The questions dilute the struggles and pain of common side effects of these conditions, such as a misplaced pattern in a range of tiles. In a list of adjectives to describe oneself, the choices range from sad to crazy. One choice for the question ‘Are you an active person?’ is ‘No, I’m super lazy’. Is that how pop culture would describe the malaise brought on by clinical depression? I don’t think that’s how one suffering from it would. In a range of pictoral representations of one’s demeanor at a party, there are gross caricatures of stereotypical mental states. In terms of treatment, one question asks whether one would choose talking to a trusted individual or taking pills. Is that an either/or question? Is one any less noble than the other?

house party

After completing the quiz, here was my diagnosis:

 

OCD, or obsessive–compulsive disorder, is an anxiety disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts that produce uneasiness, apprehension, fear, or worry. You, while being completely healthy, know your fair share of disturbing and worrying thoughts. Don’t you worry, you’re perfectly fine. Just stop thinking.

Yeah, cuz it’s just that easy. Never mind that fact that I’ve never actually received such a clinical diagnosis, but to dilute overcoming OCD to simply ‘stop thinking’?

I get that I’m taking a silly quiz much more seriously than it was ever meant to be taken. I see the other quizzes in the side bar that invite me to find the decade I was born in or the quote that best describes my life. But forgive me for taking a possibly egregious offense to putting a real life daily-lifelong struggle alongside such drivel. Is this what we’re up against? The stigma surrounding mental illness will never be shattered with online memes like this. I’m all for humor, but this is the kind that pokes fun like a bully on the bus. This is not the release valve, instructive humor that is healthy.

Sorry if I’m ‘kind of’ offended.

 

 

It Just Makes Me Sad

News broke late last week that a California mother had taken the lives of her three children.  Conduct a man-on-the-street interview and you’d likely hear outrage, vile epithets directed at the monster who would kill her own offspring.  My own husband brought it up to me in a pained tone of voice.  He was disgusted.  It IS disgusting when such a thing happens.

But I’m not angry at her.

Horrible events like this make me sad.

Sad that three lives on the cusp were snuffed out.  Sad that poor defenseless, innocent babes were terminated.  Sad that the father had to watch his bloodied babies be carried from his home; that his partner in life, in giving life, was the one responsible.

Sad that no one connected to this woman perceived any threat of dangerous behavior. Sad that perhaps she felt she couldn’t express such feelings before it was too late for fear of judgment, backlash.  Sad that she didn’t know how to get help.  Or perhaps didn’t have such resources available.

Sad that things like this continue to happen needlessly.

We live in a society with a different-hued ribbon for everything – and things like this still happen.

And woman like this are still labelled as crazy.  I found ONE account that handled this story sensitively.  (Read here)

In the anger and outrage that follow such an event, it’s easy to point fingers.  Why was she left alone with the children?  Why didn’t anyone ensure she got treatment? Thankfully, I never experienced postpartum psychosis (nor has it been substantiated that this woman did); even still, I hid my negative feelings for fear of judgement as a bad mother.  I never asked for help because my struggles were so far out of the realm of a competent mother.  Would I have been more likely, then, to admit to homicidal thoughts toward my children?  Not something someone who loves and cares for their children – which all postpartum mothers do on some level – would readily admit.  Therefore, there may not have been warning signs of this impending tragedy.  Many postpartum mothers are uncannily adept at masking the turmoil inside.

So here’s the lowdown:

  • For all its awareness, we still live in a society where women are compelled to hide their unhealthy mental symptoms.
  • For all the coverage of tragedies such as these, a lot of people still cannot recognize or suss out the warning signs and symptoms of the mentally ill to prevent future scenarios.
  • For all the resources available, the paths to these therapeutic and rehabilitative programs are still unclear and/or blocked.
  • For a species that values nurturing, we are quick to throw a troubled and needy person under the bus.

There is work to be done, people.  It is sad that we cannot look each other in the eye and see the need in that person.  It is sad that we look away for fear that the beast inside us will be awakened by the raw reminder in front of us.  It is sad that, instead, we cannot look and see a solution, a way to lift up the depressed and rise together.

kids

May is Maternal Health Month

 

May is actually Mental Health Month. If you were hanging around these parts at this time last year, you’d know that all too well. Every day of May, I posted something germane to that topic: reflecting on my own struggles and successes, reviewing symptoms and warning signs, offering hopefully helpful resources. While I got increasingly more depressed the more posts about my own depression I logged, it was a valuable exercise. So much so, that I’ve decided to do a similar one this year.

Since the plot line of my mentally-ill life spiked with the birth of my third daughter, I decided to tighten my focus onto maternal mental health. In no way am I discounting any of the other myriad aspects of mental illness and/or health, but those surrounding mothering and the female hormonal system are an animal in and of themselves – a big, nasty, brutish, spiky-haired one, may I add.

Colloquialism has us turning into fierce mama bears when our children are threatened, but what of the threats that come from inside us?

This month, I hope to explore that and perhaps lay some of that hair back down.

Join the pack.

There are so many of us out there, even if it feels each of us is trapped in a dark cave all alone.

A general banner for Mental Health Month, but I chose the image of this woman alone on the beach because very often, our family is fine, we're the one (feeling like we're) struggling all alone; that there is something we must fix within ourselves before we can connect with the family.

A general banner for Mental Health Month, but I chose the image of this woman alone on the beach because very often, our family is fine; we’re the ones (feeling like we’re) struggling all alone; that there is something we must fix within ourselves before we can connect with the family.

 

SmART meets heART

When I was teaching, an art teacher in my building approached me with an opportunity to attend an institute on integrating the arts across the curriculum.  Being an English/Language Arts teacher professionally and a creative person personally, I jumped at the chance.

SmART Schools, the brainchild of Eileen Mackin, Ed.M, offered intensive multiple day workshops for educators of all genres showing hands-on ways to access all manner of information and curricula.  Ideally, an entire community or school system would ‘buy-in’ for the optimum effect.  At the very least, a team of teachers (one from each discipline, all assigned to a core group of kids) could attend together to align their methods.  That first year, one of three I attended, I was the sole participant from my team, only one of four total from my building.  Another year, two team teachers I worked very closely with came along.  Once, I convinced my entire team to come along.  While complete buy-in is ideal, even one practicioner of this method benefits children immensely.

While reading a novel together as a class, we created tableaus of images from the book with our bodies.  We acted out salient scenes.  We created dioramas, collages, 3-D sculptures.  We played ‘games’ that built community.  We ‘became’ emotions.  We fostered understanding in a non-threatening way.  Students who would never raise their hands used their arms and legs, their stance to make a statement about a theme of a book that would bring tears to my eyes.

Through art, they became the book.  They interfaced with the material in a way not possible by simply seeing the words on the page.  And they expressed themselves in ways that writing or speaking may not have made possible for them.  The text-to-self and text-to-world connections were now concrete, though they shook me to the core.

The PeaceLove Studio

The PeaceLove Studio

Fast-forward six years.  I no longer teach, though I value education and the arts as much as I ever did.  Now, however, my goals for education have entered the realm of mental health.  I discovered PeaceLove Studios, an organization I am fortunate enough to call local.  Their goal is to bring peace and love to the world through expressive arts, thereby eliminating the stigma attached to mental illness.  I’ve been following and applauding their work for over a year now.  A friend, lucky enough to work in a building that houses a mini-art gallery, told me of a PeaceLove exhibition there.  That was my first real-world experience with the organization.  But I’d been longing for a tactile experience with them, to see their space, see them in action.  Last night, with that same friend along for the ride, I had that chance.

PeaceLove offered a workshop called, “Story Shoes”.  Through decorating a shoe, you would represent the path you’ve taken; by inscribing a ‘footprint’, you would tell your story.  First, we engaged in an introductory discussion to get to know the other participants and to get us thinking on what story we’d like to tell.  I had flashbacks of teaching middle school again when we had to count off by twos for this activity 😉 but it gave us that sense of community and safe environment crucial for such an activity.  It also afforded us the mental preparation and space to enter into the introspection we’d need.

My shoe-sterpiece!

My shoe-sterpiece!

As usual, my mind processes surpassed my ability to articulate the many metaphors I laid out.  Surprisingly, my story came about more organically than I expected.  Instead of telling my entire life story, the items and way I chose to decorate my shoe more accurately represented my aura than one specific line of personal plot.  And I think that’s the perfect point to make about mental illness moving toward mental health and its acceptance.  Ultimately, it’s not about the details.  It is about the essence of the person and acceptance of him or her as a whole.

I think I learned more from the other participants sharing of their shoes and stories than I did in creating my own, too.  We set our shoes on a pathway of black paper that wound its way across the slatted wood floor of the old mill building, the flat footprints interspersed in relief with the dimensional shoes.  We walked that path together, with our varied experiences, our varied states of suffering or salvation.  I realized the power of getting outside the rutted paths of our brain to make true discovery; how a totally different use of our minds, our hands can give us that.  Glitter glue and feather and paintbrushes can free the emotions from the fear that dams them.  It happened subconsciously in a nonthreatening medium.

"On the inside, we may feel empty, but we've left our mark nevertheless."

“On the inside, we may feel empty, but we’ve left our mark nevertheless.”

I saw the same looks of pride and empowerment as participants explained their pieces and shared their stories as I did when my students opened up the world of the texts through their movements and creations.  I felt the same well of emotion, the same nod of the head affirmation of “Yes, exactly, I know exactly what you mean.  I hear you.  I feel you.  I am with you.”

I left with that same heady feeling of hope and peace and joy that only a truly transcendental experience with the arts (or nature or God) can give you.  Anything that helps people, especially those weighed down by mental illness, transcend their limitations and expectations is truly smart and a work of heart.

If you walked in my shoes . . .

If you walked in my shoes . . .

Maybe

At the beginning of May, I set out on a mental health mission.  May being Mental Health Month, I wanted to dedicate a daily post to a condition of, treatment for, and/or living with mental illness.  While my life is influenced by my own struggle with depression, and all of my posts are therefore colored by it, I wanted these series of posts to address mental illness and health dead on.  And with the exception of one day, I did it!  And learned some interesting things in the process.

What a month of blogging about mental illness and health will teach you:

  • Focusing on your depression and what it does to you everyday makes you even more depressed
  • I may have exhausted not only myself, but also those around me.
  • Daily blogging (I had previously blogged approximately two times a week) made this ‘stay-at-home mom’ feel like I had a purpose, a vocation, a “real” job.  I had set that schedule for myself and had to stick to it.  I made writing – something I truly enjoy – a priority.
  • Daily blogging made my house look like a pit.  Making my writing a priority pushed nearly everything else to the wayside.
  • I need to work on time management 😉
  • If you write it, they will come – eventually
  • There are a lot of super-supportive people who write incredibly thoughtful comments.
  • I feel your pain’, though overused, is not a pile of horseshit.  It is extremely powerful to connect with someone who has, indeed, felt your pain.
  • That I over-catastrophize (yes, I may be making up words again).  I missed one day in my blog-a-day-a-month challenge and a bushel basket of chopped potatoes did not come crashing down upon my head.
  • That given the chance to slack, I will.  June 1 rolled around and I let the rest of life come rushing back in.
  • That, sometimes to a fault, I engage both sides of an argument, an issue, etc.  I’m forever writing that big pro/con list in the sky, which may make me come across as wishy-washy, fickle, not knowing my @## from my elbow (compare the two previous points!)
  • That achieving balance is to continually adjust on the tightrope of life.  Urgh.
  • That telling your deepest, darkest fears and foibles makes you incredibly vulnerable – or at least feeling that way.
  • That people like to know they’re not the only one feeling that way.
  • That one month of posts is not enough to explore all there is to know about mental health and illness.
  • That although I started the month of May thinking these posts would be a departure from my usual in that they directly addressed mental health and illness, there really is no separating out depression from everyday life.  It’s the constant mantle on our shoulders, sometimes blowing lightly in the wind, sometimes soaking wet with rain.

So, now it’s back to operation ‘normal’, whatever the hell that is.  I did miss writing about my crazy adventures and travails as a mom.  I did miss writing something “positive” or life affirming (I tried during May, but felt like most of it was heavy).  I’ll be glad to write something that doesn’t make you think I loathe my children and the life I lead.  But I guess I won’t be giving up writing about mental health and illness; that is woven into the fiber of my being for better or worse.  Maybe I’m finally learning to live with that.

An Imperfect Porpoise

Balance.

The very word makes me twitch.

It’s supposed to be peaceful, magical, that neutral territory where the heart sings and your psyche lies in savasana.

That is, if you can attain it.

I’m forever striving.  I want to show that boulder who’s boss, shoving it up the mountain for good.  But if it doesn’t roll back over me on its way back down, it’s got so much momentum it just goes over the other side.

I lamented to my therapist that I just want to conquer depression.  I want to beat it into submission and be done with it.  I like closure.

2011-03-25-the-epiphany-of-sisyphus

Depression is not an open-close case.  It is full of decisions and appeals, a juggernaut of self-imposed juries.

For every bright spot, there is a chance of dark days.  For every low point, there is an arc of highs.  And sometimes it’s all over the road like a reading of the Richter scale.

Unfortunately (or not), this same concept applies to life.

Whether I like it or not, I have to take the good with the bad, the ups with the downs, the victories with defeat.

While Sisyphus has been the poster-child of my life as of late, a friend tried to introduce me to someone new. She said,

Here’s to imperfect progress–a gradual improvement of mood and attitude despite life’s natural ups and downs.

I’m trying to frame this in terms of my buddy Sisy and his vertical hangout.  I can’t.  A long, gradual slope comes to mind, maybe strewn with boulders along the way.  Or maybe it’s like that part of the trail where you hit the tree line and think the summit is just over the next hump, but it stretches on and on and up and up.  The view improves, but the trek is still arduous.

Rolling this new idea of imperfect progress around in my head, the words transmuted themselves into ‘an imperfect porpoise’, which not only made me laugh, but kind of fits.  I’m happy, but I don’t chirp like Flipper; can’t.  Some days I flit about the surface, skimming the waves, others I plunge into the depths.  And all the time, I like to turn words and things on their heads and see what comes about.  Porpoises are intelligent; I wonder if they over think things as much as I do.

What IS the porpoise of life, anyway?

What IS the porpoise of life, anyway?

“An Imperfect Porpoise” is my modern-day myth.  It is about the ever-elusive balance.  The disgruntled admission that this is what I need to seek, rather than domination or perfection.  And maybe that a moving target has less chance of being flattened by a boulder ;-).  Hey, old habits die hard.  This new guy and I are just getting acquainted.  Sisy and I go way back.  This whole life is imperfect anyway, right?

Destymie-ing Dysthymia

http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/Dysthymia.htm

 

The American Psychiatric Association defines dysthymia as depressed mood most of the time for at least two years, along with at least two of the following symptoms: poor appetite or overeating; insomnia or excessive sleep; low energy or fatigue; low self-esteem; poor concentration or indecisiveness; and hopelessness.

With all the myths and tragedies running around my head lately, it’s perfect poetic justice that the word dysthymia comes from the Greek.  And I’m starting to think that’s what I have.

My raison d’etre in this land of depression (or whose labor and delivery unleashed the beast) is now approaching four years old.  My depressive symptoms linger on.  They’ve certainly lessened, that’s for sure.  I no longer want to chop off my fingers, run out the door and never come back, or think I’m a completely horrible, terrible mother.  But like a thin fog that spreads layer after misty layer until the terrain is no longer recognizable, it’s lurking and oozing its way into the corners of my life.  On the days the sun doesn’t shine, I’m chilled to the bone, the damp crawling inside and refusing to leave.

Postpartum has passed the baton to dysthymia.

The Internet can give you whatever leverage you need to make whatever case you want so I can prove it.

Depression that begins as a mood fluctuation may deepen and persist when equilibrium cannot be restored because of poor internal regulation or external stress.

Postpartum = mood fluctuation

Poor internal regulation = my anxiety-ridden self

External stress = meeting the needs of three small children

Equilibrium null and void = deepened and persistent depression

I also never had the appetite or sleep disturbances associated with clinical depression, but have my fair share of “anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure), social withdrawal, guilt, and irritability,” which the American Psychiatric Association is considering adding to an alternative definition.

Nothing like self-diagnosis.  But if it’s an open and closed case of dysthymia, why am I not responding to treatment?  The article mentions recovery.  I’d like some of that please.

I think there’s a hole in the fabric of mental health for women beyond the grasp of postpartum, but still not functioning in a productive and positive way.  If a traumatic event, which birth and what follows can be, unleashes a maelstrom of symptoms that were lying just below the surface, what then?  What can we do for those women who don’t fit the textbook mold of either postpartum or major depression?

How do we destymie dysthymia?

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