Tag Archives: depression

Walking with the Black Dog

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The problem with pain is figuring out what to do about it. Do you take a pill to make it stop? Do you fix what’s causing it? Or do you learn to live with it?

The problem with the Black Dog is the noise it makes when it’s tearing your heart with its teeth. It muffles nuance; the tune pain plays on your heart-bones-breath emerges as random notes, dissonant and jangling.

Black dog in the dark

I could take a pill – put the leash back on the Dog. I still have plenty – at least a month’s supply – and my doctor would willingly give more. Here’s how the argument goes (I know it well, having used it often on others): “If you had diabetes or a heart condition, wouldn’t you take whatever pills were necessary to control it?”

The problem with that argument is, it’s specious. If you have diabetes or a heart condition, the first act of a sane person is to change the way they eat, move, sleep, live. The TV commercial narratives – glowing visions of super-sized burgers and greasy pizzas followed without a pause by ads for aspirin and Tums, Lipitor, Prilosec and metformin, always with the soothing reminder to “talk with your doctor” – those are the ravings of a crazy person.

I may walk in the dark of an imaginary tunnel with an invisible black dog at my heels, but I’m not crazy. I’m on a mission to find what’s real – friend or enemy, loss or gain, joy or pain. I’ve rejected the phantasmagoria that lie in pill bottles. I want to grieve real loss, fear real terrors, fight for what’s really good. And laughter – the kind that makes the fat on your belly jiggle … It’s been a while; I need to remember how that’s done.

So here we are, the Dog and I, still walking together and now deep within the tunnel. How deep I can’t say; how much further we have to go I don’t know. Sometimes a crack in the roof lets in a beam of light, a breath of clean air. Sometimes in the darkness the Dog leaps, knocks me to the ground, sinks its teeth into my flesh – and when that happens it makes no difference whether or not I scream, because in the dark we’re alone. So far, I’ve yielded sometimes and fought back sometimes, and I’ve learned that, either way, sooner or later the Dog is sated. It comes back to heel, its breath steamy on my left thigh, my fingertips resting on its head, and we walk on, watching for light, hoping for joy.

Let’s talk. Do you live with depression, anxiety or some other mental illness? How do you deal with it? And, as you deal, how do you identify and give priority to the things that are most important to you?

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At the tunnel mouth, waiting for the Black Dog

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Where do I begin? With the Tunnel I’ve avoided for half a century? Or with the Black Dog that bites my ankles and drives me toward it?

I begin today. I choose to walk into the dark with the dog at my heels.

Tunnel mouth

In February I turned sixty. In three days time I will be sixty-and-a-half. It’s time to figure out what to be when I grow up.

Hah – that’s a cute start to a blog post, right? A little zing, a perky finger to convention, a zap of wry, dry, slyly self-denigrating humor. But, unfortunately, not true.

I know what I want to be – I always have. I even know how to get there. What I don’t know – what I haven’t figured out in forty years, five months and twenty-eight days of trying (the first twenty years it didn’t occur to me “trying” was involved; I still believed in the magical inevitability of I Am) – is how the fuck to make myself keep walking all the way to the destination. (I even know there is no destination, only an unmarked trail through the dark, but I must take it or go nowhere.)

So. Sixty years old. Three-quarters of my life. (Yes, I know it might be only two-thirds, and it may also be sixty sixty-oneths – but three quarters of my grandparents and all my parents made it to their eighties, so that seems a reasonable number to shoot for. Assuming I don’t absent-mindedly shoot myself before I get there.) I spent the first quarter daughtering, the second quarter mothering, the third quarter wifing. Now what?

To be clear, while the daughtering has ended and the mothering is only occasional, the wifing continues. The Hubbit and I ignored our twentieth wedding anniversary a little over a week ago. Random factoid set: Traditionally – insofar as something started less than a century ago can be deemed traditional – in the UK and the US the twentieth is the “china” anniversary. For reasons I haven’t bothered to research, the Chicago Public Library designates it the platinum anniversary. Flowers and jewels are also mentioned.  (I love Wikipedia, don’t you?) So, if we’d been a traditional couple, even marginally romantically inclined, the Hubbit could have escorted me to the antique mall or the art show to buy a big china mixing bowl to replace the one he broke a few years ago and that I still miss every time I have to make do with the greasy-smooth plastic one, or he could have showered me with asters or bedecked me with emeralds. In return, I could have given him pretty much anything from this store, since one of the first things he ever told me about his personal life philosophy (and in twenty years I’ve never seen him stray from it) is that it’s impossible to own too many tools.

What I asked for – in our/my own style of non-traditional romanticity – was that he repair the motor on the boat so that we could once again float down the Columbia, I nude but for a book and he sternly watching our dangling fishing lines. (He used to threaten to pull my line out of the water if I didn’t learn to take the fish off the hook myself, until he realized I was there to be naked in the middle of the river and really didn’t care about the catching part of fishing). I wanted to remember what it was that made me want to live here, so far from Africa. You see, I fell in love with the man first … but it was the river that sealed the deal. We don’t have rivers like the Columbia in Africa.

In any case, I would have settled for a conclusive repair to the septic pump. In return, I promised to clean the house. Neither of us delivered, and in the end it was easier to pretend twenty wasn’t a big deal. Twenty-five years, now – that’s a quarter century. That’s silver. Surely he can get both the boat and the septic fixed, and I can get the house clean, within the next five years.

To get back to my original point: in the context of a lifetime, looking at one more (potential) twenty year stretch, I find myself thinking … this one’s for me.

I started pondering this post a few days ago. (I should have written it then, before brain fog descended, muddling my thoughts and tangling my fingers.) I started writing it early today. (I should have finished it right away, before the dark began to suck me into itself.) Now I’m finding it increasingly difficult to write coherently. Tears dam up behind my cheeks, and the pressure of holding them back makes my face ache. When I look back, trying to make sense of how I got to this place, I see word soup. Fragmented ideas, fractured phrases. They drift just out of reach.

When I read this post again, I will hate it. I will be compelled to edit it. But I will write it anyway, I will say what I have to say as simply and clearly as possible, and I will post it without delay even though I can’t remember why I must, or whom it’s for. It is my yawp.

This is what I have done: I have stopped the drugs. Prozac, Bupropion – it’s been nice to know I could put a leash on the Black Dog, but I want to see what happens if I let it run. Will it turn and devour me? Or will it go fetch – and if so, what will it bring me? And Adderall – it was such a relief to have a diagnosis, an official Label, to paste over a lifetime’s worth of fumbles and failures. Such a victory to think more clearly, to say I would do something and then actually do it.

We – my doctor and I – juggled the drugs until I got to a place where I could actually tell when I was fucking up. Sometimes that made it possible to not fuck up, but even when it didn’t, the experience of actually seeing what my brain was doing was revelatory.

Until it wasn’t. I still create to-do lists, which I edit and organize and reorganize compulsively, in between staring at the wall and playing sudoku – which is what I’d much rather be doing right now, by the way – mindlessly organizing numbers rather than trying to organize my own thoughts into a coherent … what the fuck is this? Explanation? Description? Record? Take a deep breath. What am I doing? I’m trying to write – no, I am writing about where the first six months of the next, maybe last, maybe twenty years of my life have brought me: to the mouth of the Tunnel, to the lair of the Black Dog.

Here, I think, are my options. I can go back to the doctor and have her increase the dose, or change the prescription, or … whatever occurs to her. If I do that, I’ll feel better. The Tunnel will disappear in a puff of fairy dust, and the Black Dog will curl up at my feet like any old Labrador.

And then?

How will I grow up if I never walk through the Tunnel? What can I be if I don’t learn to run with the Black Dog?

So. I have quit the drugs. The next step, which will take me in through the tunnel mouth, is to quit eating.

No, not permanently, for fuck’s sake – I’m not committing suicide. I’m fasting. I don’t know how long for … five days? Forty? As long as I can. I have to go through the hungry and find the burn and then get hungry again, and after that I will eat.

As for the reasons … I was going to write about those but you have Google – they have to do with energy, and ketosis, and autophagy, and cleansing my body of all the toxic crap that (I suspect, and who are you to say I’m wrong?) is off-gassing into my meat my bones my brain.

I remember now why I had to write this. It’s because this is going to suck, mainly for me but also for anyone near me. I may not be a lot of fun to have around. I may have to stop talking. I may not be able to listen. I may not be entirely reliable. I may have to hide under a blanket, or in the closet with the light off. Girl Child and Twiglet, Ngalitjeng, Wonder Woman, Kuja, Parri, and of course my own Hubbit: I have to make this journey, and I don’t know how long it will take, and you can’t come with me and I can’t talk to you about it – except, perhaps, here, where I talk to anyone in the world who happens by.

Don’t call me back. I have to find out who I can be. And if you see the Black Dog with my heart between its teeth, that’s okay. You know I’m good with dogs.

Black dog

Here we go again

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I’m superstitious about new year, and doubly so when January 1 falls on a Monday. So it bugs me that I’m not more excited about this one.

No resolutions. Not one. For the first time in my life as a self-aware human being, I am not starting a new diet … giving up a bad habit … launching a new budget … changing how I dress … or in any other way aiming to do, think, feel or be anything other than the person I’ve been for the past 363 days.

No, I’m not depressed. That is, of course I am, but I take mind-altering drugs for that now, so any downward-pressing sensation in my brain/heart/lungs/gut is merely the detritus of feelings past, best ignored until it leaks through a crevice, trickles into a crevasse, and drips into the primordial soup that nourishes my crocodile brain.

crocodile brain

I’m just … Oh hell, this is the year I turn sixty, so naturally I’ve been doing what many of us do when it dawns on us that the road ahead is shorter than the one behind: I’ve been reconnecting with old friends through Facebook. And I keep bumping into people who are living my life – mine – the one I staked my claim on back before all this adulting started. They went ahead and figured it out – lost the weight, acquired the poise, managed the money, got the stuff, rose as unstoppably as bubbles in a glass of champagne.

Meanwhile I frothed out of the bottle and splashed onto the table.

See, I’ve always thought of myself as the maverick, the joker, the outside-the-boxer who would one day ascend to my full amazingness (by methods undefined probably involving writings of passion and brilliance, but also acts of courage and, of course, wisdom) and astonish everyone who ever didn’t invite me to parties or wrote “could do better” on my report card.

Turns out that instead of a maverick I might be merely disorganized. Turns out that while I’ve been concocting a work history so random that it makes prospective employers flinch and back away, my non-maverick former fellows have, step by patiently consecutive step (or maybe by many wild leaps – how would I know?) made pictures, earned PhDs, transformed communities, invented medical techniques, won awards, walked with lions, built businesses, climbed mountains, published books.

I’m not proud of this part but I’ll tell you anyway: it made me angry. I felt bitter, dissatisfied with my life. Every story I haven’t told, every place I haven’t been, every challenge I haven’t met, every opportunity I’ve fumbled – that was all I could think of as I compared myself with these new old friends. I felt like a mouse in a corner while they were Smaug on his hoard.

Smaug hoard.gif

To summarize, I’ve been sitting on 2017’s butt and glowering, while 2018 and sixty and a lifetime of wtf-was-that? hurtled down upon me like a drunken locomotive, and really if one’s crawling beggar-like up the steps to Death’s door, dreaming up yet another set of new year resolutions seems … well … a little pointless. (As does unmixing metaphors. Consider this bit as the verbal equivalent of Smaug’s hoard.) I decided I wouldn’t bother to think about it.

But one has to think about something.

So I’ve been stocktaking, wandering through the cluttered warehouse of my life.

Oh, who am I kidding? I don’t have a warehouse. At best, I have a storage unit. And I don’t “wander through it” – I clamber over the old suitcases and cardboard boxes in which I hoard my stash. Heaps here and there are evidence of past efforts to sort, organize and discard old dreams, hopes, plans, ideas, assumptions. I kick them aside and keep searching. This is not a time for sorting; it’s for appraising. Is there anything here of value?

I find concepts unpacked, half-assembled, and discarded. Stories unwritten, half-written, written but untold. Relationships left out in the weather and faded beyond recognition. Promises I never decided not to keep. I find lists – so many lists – to do lists, goals and action plans, names of people I said I’d pray for, great books and extraordinary places. I wonder how much of my life I’ve spent writing lists. Everything I find tugs at me, whispering “Finish me! Fix me! Read me and check things off!” but I yank myself away. Not now. This time is for assessing. Is there anything here that’s complete?

The process is exhausting. I long to find a saggy old chair, wrap myself in a comforter, and lose myself in a book. But not this time.

This time, I look.

And here, and there, and also over there I see the gleam of treasure. It’s not where I thought it would be. It’s not what I planned to collect, yet here it is.

I’ve raised a girl and set her loose to change the world, her way. I’ve made a school and out of it built a family. I’ve strung together words in ways that make me smile. I’ve said “until death do us part”, and I haven’t killed anyone, and we’re still holding on. I’ve taught, and I’ve learned. I’ve been afraid and stood firm anyway. I’ve pulled a lot of dogs out of sad and sent them back out into happy. I’ve planted trees that grow. I’ve loved when I’ve been empty. I’ve forgiven every hurt. I have seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched. I have been, and I still am.

And I’m not dead yet.

So what thoughts have you carried with you into this new year? 

 

The imperfect power of lists

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It feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest and I can’t breathe.

No. It feels like a fist clenched around my heart, witch-claws digging into meat that struggles to beat.

No. It feels like an itch – a million separate itches in every cell inside my skin, too deep to scratch, although grinding my teeth helps.

No. It feels like no. It feels like urgent – hurry – too late. It feels like loss. It feels like quickquickrunaway! It feels like weep, bite, refuse, fail. It feels like hide, disappear, do not be.

Distressed woman

I am a maker of lists. On my phone, with a linked copy on my laptop, I have Evernote, and it is full of lists. There are several shopping lists, and a list of organic ways to deal with pests, and a list of natural cleaning products. Most important, though, are the to do lists. They are like gears – I engage them, and my day, and thus my life, moves forward.

  • There is my list of things to do every morning, and
  • another list of things to do every evening, and next to each item on both these lists are seven boxes so that during the week I can check things off as I do them, and see that they have been done. That gives me pleasure.
  • There is a list of chores I’m supposed to do every Monday/ Tuesday/ Wednesday/ Thursday/ Friday/ Saturday/ Sunday, and another for JFMAMJJASOND. They have check boxes as well.
  • I also have a list of things I want to do as soon as possible
  • condensed into a list of things I want to do this week (which I check off as I do them, to delete at the end of the week)
  • and backed up by a list of things that aren’t urgent but I want to do them someday, so I write them down in order not to forget them
  • and then there’s a list of improvements and projects I want to get done around our home and our farmlet
  • and a list of topics I want to blog about
  • and a list of characters in the book series I started writing just before I got stuck.

The lists stopped working about last November. First, I signed up for NaNo, and instead of starting something new I decided to have another whack at the novel I started writing the last time I tried to do NaNo, and for a while it was kind of like magic because suddenly the characters and the story line coalesced. Then it went from magical to miraculous, because I realized I didn’t have only one book; I had an entire series, something that would be fun to write, easy to sell – not great literature, but fuck that. I used to think I had a Great Novel inside of me, but now I just want to finish writing something that people will pay to read. So for a few joyous days I wrote and wrote, and it was wonderful and glorious and happy and enough.

But the gears locked up and I got stuck. Sometimes, looking back, it feels as though I’ve been halfway stuck for years. Scrolling back through this blog there are so many posts about new beginnings and fresh starts and shined-up resolutions – years of take a step, drag a leg, take another step, drag the damn leg again. And at some point around about November, I stopped. I began to sleep nine, ten, even twelve hours a night. It was never enough; I was always tired. I told myself to eat better, but I was too tired to cook. I told myself to take Argos for walks, to stretch in the crisp crunch of snow and oxygenate my blood with clean, cold air, but it was just too damn hard to get out of bed.

insomnia

Every morning I peer at my phone (scrunching my left eye shut and holding the phone a few inches from my stronger right eye, because to put in contact lenses I must get out of bed, and I don’t want to get out of bed, not ever – it always feels impossible to push the dogs and duvet aside until impelled to do so by the pressure in my bladder) and I look at my to-do-every-morning list, which I have pared down to the bare bones of home functionality. I pick three things to do. I tell myself that if I do those three things I can stop for a while, reward myself before deciding what to do next. I think about what I might use as a reward, to motivate myself to get out of bed and begin. And then I click on Cortana and read the news.

Sometimes it takes three or four hours just to get up, clenching against leakage as I hobblescurry to the toilet for the lovely relief of the first pee of the day.

depression-entropy-definition

How soon dishes pile up on kitchen counters and dirt coats floors and tables. Vegetables compost in the refrigerator, sheets turn gray, blankets smell of dog, piles of laundry consume all the socks and underwear. Some days a to do list yields a joule or two’s worth of energy, but it’s like pushing ectoplasm or blowing away a miasma. You can burn it off and, briefly, catch a glimmer of clarity and order, but the miasmic ectoplasm always oozes back. The only escape is via the secret garden of another book, and another, and just one more.

About two weeks ago I was fingerchatting with my bestie, Twiglet, on Skype, and I started to cry. I wasn’t especially sad – in fact, chatting with her always lifts my spirits – so I wasn’t sobbing or even feeling a need to blow my nose, but after a while it occurred to me that the steady flow of tears down my face wasn’t entirely normal. And then I remembered times in my life that this had happened before, and what I had done that helped. So while I was waiting for Twiglet’s response to something or other I had said, I called my doctor’s office and made an appointment. “What is this for?” the appointment-making person asked. “I don’t think Prozac is working for me any more,” I said, as my voice wobbled unexpectedly like a finger-clutching toddler walking along a wall.

I saw the doctor on Friday, and now I’m weaning off Prozac and have started taking Wellbutrin, and the pharmacist said I should expect to feel worse before I feel better. Specifically, she asked: “Do you have someone to talk to if you have suicidal thoughts?” so I passed that along to the Hubbit. He’s not much of one to be talked to, being more a fix-it kinda guy and also deaf, but he knows which of my friends to phone.

And, you know, I guess it must be working, because I’m dressed, and instead of obsessively clicking round and round between Facebook, Lumosity and the latest piece of insanity spewed from the White House, I’ve written this blog post. It’s not about a topic from my list, but I wanted to write something, and then I did it.

It feels good.

 

 

 

Running ahead of the storm

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When I came home in mid-February, I was exhausted but optimistic. Marmeee was okay, for a couple years at least, probably. The Old Buzzard was losing his marbles but at a rate of only two or three a week, and his Alzheimer’s medication had transformed him into a happier, pleasanter person than he’d been in years. It was good to be back in Washington, and not too painful to be gone from my people in South Africa.

It didn’t matter that we were seven weeks into the year. I named 2016 My Year Of Reclamation, convinced that 10-and-a-bit months was all I needed to finally, at last, once and for all, turn my life around. This was the year I would have a productive vegetable garden, get serious about training Argos the Madcap Malinois, lose weight, start riding again, get our finances under control, and clean my house from top to bottom and end to end. I had a great idea for a series of fun, lightweight (but, of course, also thought-provoking) novels and I was going to start writing every day, and make money from it. And blogging. I promised myself I’d start blogging regularly every week about my fascinating life and amazing insights – you know.

collapsing like a house of cards

House of cards. (Source)

Yeah. That was the plan. I even signed up for Evernote and started a whole new super-efficient system of to do lists.

Plans are like card houses. You build them ever so carefully, handling each card with the most delicate touch as you add it to the structure. And then someone opens a window and a draft blows in and all your cards go flying.

So here it’s the end of July, and I’m looking back at the year to date and shaking my head and wondering what the fuck happened. I have been in such a horrible funk! I’ve been gobbling my way through books, most of them lightweight, easy reading or stuff I’ve read before – because even the most two-dimensional borrowed life has been more appealing than the one I’m living. I’ve been eating way too much crap, and suffering the usual consequences. All I’ve wanted to do is sleep, and when I do I wake up tired.

Depression? Well yes, but I’ve had reasons to feel sorry for myself, even without tripping over the Trump of Doom or Shillary every damn time I log onto my computer. (Seriously, America? I cannot believe that’s the best we can do!)

First, in February I accidentally overstayed my US passport’s welcome in South Africa by a whole 22 hours, and was declared an Undesirable Person and forbidden to return in under 12 months.

So then I tried to renew my South African passport, and learned that I had accidentally forfeited my South African citizenship by becoming an American citizen. I’m still trying to figure out why this was devastating, apart from the practical difficulty it caused. As someone who fears and distrusts the patriotic impulse, I should simply shrug it off with a casual “Whateverrr” … but in fact I feel robbed, and also homeless, and I’m sorry but the Land of the Free just can’t get my heart soaring the way it does under an African sky.

Then my precious Marmeee went into a downward spiral. Just before I left South Africa the oncologist told her she probably had a couple years to live … but apparently without me there to keep reminding her of this and force-feeding her chocolate milkshakes, she just … got tired, I guess. And then she died. And because of the bloody bullshit with my passport, I couldn’t be there to hold her hand. I know this was a “God thing” – I’ll explain why in another post (probably) – but it still aches.

I did manage to get through the border in time to help with her memorial and to figure out What To Do With Increasingly Dotty Dad, but while there I got sick with a deathwish-inducing flu that I didn’t shake for nearly a month. It made the 25 hour trip back a lot of fun.

Before I left we got the Old Buzzard into a home – a pleasant, homey sort of place – but instead of continuing to dole out his marbles one or two at a time he started throwing them away by the fistful. In a matter of months he went from affectionate, forgetful and occasionally grumpy, to aggressively uncooperative, to unwilling to walk and unable to speak coherently. He died a couple weeks ago. I’m not going back for the memorial, which is this coming Saturday … there’s no point, really. Today I have to write a tribute to go into the order of service, and I have no idea what to say.

I haven’t been able to grieve either of them. And mixed up in all that unexpressed grief is another deep sadness over the loss of my brother. He’s still walking around, breathing, saying things to people … but somewhere in the middle of everything else that’s been going on I learned that he hated me, has hated me for more than 30 years, has badmouthed me to people I care about – and they believed him. His claims about the way I treated him, his perceptions of who I am, have been woven into the fabric of our family dynamic – and until a few months ago I had no idea of it because the one person he never spoke to about it was me. I learned that the man I thought he was didn’t exist, the relationship I thought we had was a figment of my imagination. He has morphed from the sibling I loved most deeply and missed most painfully (even while he made my eyes roll) into The Stranger. Even if the latest nastiness “blows over”, the kind of confidence borne within mutual affection is gone. Trust is broken, and the loss feels like a death.

Sailboat in front of a tsunami

Fleeing the tsunami. (Source)

So grieving has become complicated, and I’m trying to stay ahead of it for now. Every now and then I feel tears starting to well up, but … I’m so busy, you know? If I could run away for a few days, just me and my dog, maybe then … but right now my to do list is simply too long. I don’t have the time – I don’t have the capacity – for a tsunami.

Oh – and I nearly forgot: earlier this month the Hubbit broke his arm. He tripped over his own feet, but of course he blamed my dog. Then he insisted he didn’t need xrays, didn’t need to see a doctor – so of course he ended up needing surgery. And bad tempered? Let me tell you, my guy is a generous fellow. When he’s in pain, he shares it. We all get some. So even though I got to say “I TOLD YOU SO” on several satisfying occasions, life would have been better if he’d managed to stay vertical.

Oy … this post has turned into quite the pity party. I’m sorry about that. I’ve been gone for a while, and I thought some sort of explanation was in order.

Also, here’s the thing – and I need to write this down so that I can come back as often as necessary and read it: I know that tsunami is coming. I know I can’t escape it. But I am reclaiming my faith in God – not that I lost it, but I’ve been angry, confused and resistant. I lost myself for a while. That book series I mentioned? It still looks promising, and every day I see my heroine more clearly. I like her a lot and hope you will too, when I set her loose upon the world. And the weeds didn’t completely win in my veggie garden this year. I’ve found tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower and onions lurking out there.

As for right now this minute … I’m here, right? I’m blogging, aka writing. I’m not sure why that matters, but it does. It gives me hope.

In other words, to hell with the funk – this is still My Year of Reclamation.

So … how’s your summer going?