Technology-Free Times

October 30, 2009 at 5:06 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

After my technology-free weekend, it’s been hard to spend the hours online that this blog requires. I’m on for nine hours a day at work, and this adds at least another two. That’s hard on my neck and shoulders. I have missed this outlet, though, and will be back with a full-length book review later today. I found Healing Depression and Bipolar Disorder Without Drugs interesting, although I think most of it is hooey.

More later, and love to all.


Miserable Headache, Internet-Free Weekend

October 26, 2009 at 4:25 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I decided to take this past weekend off from the internet, and, man, was it delightful! I got so much reading done, much of it for this blog. Expect to see a couple of new reviews soon. I would write more, but I have a crushing migraine.

Here are a few topics that I plan to cover in future posts: what percentage of bipolar people can work, and what gets in the way; how many bipolar people go without medication, and how well or poorly they fare; how to use your support system without overwhelming everyone; how to apply for SSI; whether or not bipolar people people should take antidepressants; how to keep the commitments you make while feeling good.

OK, off to lie down in a dark room.

Work Life and Real Life

October 22, 2009 at 5:09 am | Posted in Work Life | 1 Comment

I was re-reading my post on what to do if you’re laid off, and it occurred to me that there’s another step I/you could take: developing a more balanced life so that the psychological and social shock of being laid off would be lessened. I did have a life there for awhile, though it wasn’t precisely balanced. Now that I’m getting involved at church, it probably would be easier to survive losing my job. But I have a long way to go.

If you can work, don’t let it become your life, folks. It will never love you back.

Links, Including an Insightful Realization from If You’re Going Through Hell Keep Going

October 22, 2009 at 5:05 am | Posted in In the News, Links, Philosophical Problems, Sociability, Spirituality and Religion, Wellness | Leave a comment

The author of the blog above writes: “I think my moods have reverted back to the way they were in Junior High and High School – medium to low functioning, and petrified to be around people.” Oh, so true. It’s as if all of the social lessons I learned late in high school and during my undergraduate — which, let’s face it, weren’t many — have melted away, leaving me the same bundle of exposed nerves that I was at about age 13, the age of my first serious depression.

Another excellent post about social functioning comes from Knowledge Is Necessity, John McManamy’s comprehensive blog and website reviewed earlier in this space. He gives a great description of how difficult it is to control the social impression we make, and of how our hypomania, or just what feels normal can send people “backing for the exits.” Well put.

Also on Knowlege Is Necessity: a review of Judy Eron’s What Goes Up: Surviving the Manic Episode of a Loved One, a shocking memoir about the possible consequences of going off of a mood stabilizer.

I continue to be impressed with the excellent writing on Farewell Prozac. In his latest post, the author gives an intimate description, both of the lingering effects of the drug, and of his returning symptoms. Last night a friend remarked that some people need to take antidepressants all of their lives, and others should come off of them, and that it’s nearly impossible to know in advance which you are. I agree with that remark. Here’s hoping that the author of Farewell Prozac is one of the latter.

If You’re Going Through Hell Keep Going notes that antidepressant sales are up. Surprisingly, this is not because of increased diagnoses, which is what I assumed. Rather, people are taking them longer. I don’t know quite what to make of that, except to pass on my shrink’s observation that there are three elements to wellness with a mental illness: meds, social support, and spiritual development. In countries where antidepressants simply aren’t available, people rely more on the last two, and tend to do as well if not better than people in highly medicated Western countries. And certainly if I lived in a country with closer ties to extended family and a more structured approach to spirituality, I would feel more comfortable trying the high-wire-without-a-net act of going med-free. As it is, going off is not an option I would consider seriously, despite the most excellent support of my immediate family and of the most excellent congregation at St. Philip’s.

And that’s a good place to leave it. Happy Thursday, and the usual love to all.


October 21, 2009 at 4:25 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I haven’t been dealing specifically with bipolar disorder over the last few days. That’s partly because I’m tired of being bipolar, but also to help out the simply depressive (or even normal) among you. I will get back on track tomorrow.

The Lifehacker System To-Do List System Takes a Page from Allen, But Adds Valuable Twists

October 21, 2009 at 4:23 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I mentioned yesterday that I would go over the Lifehacker system for to-do lists. Like Allen’s Getting Things Done (which author Gina Trapani credits), the Lifehacker system offers unique components that will help you to avoid getting overwhelmed, which is my worst depressive affliction, and one of the biggest roadblocks to productivity generally.

Trapani’s main point is both simple and powerful: act as if your to-do list is a series of instructions to a personal assistant who is on the job for the first time. First off, she writes, “only put items on the list that you’re definitely doing,” which means that you should limit it to 20 items, and tackle anything that’s getting a bit stale immediately.

Also, taking a page from Allen, Trapani advocates that you write down only the next task for each project. She goes one step further by recommending that you use specific, action-oriented verbs: “Leave voice mail for boss asking about Project X status” rather than just, “Project X status.” You should also include any names, phone numbers, email addresses, or other information you need to complete the job, since even having to look up a phone number can cause you to procrastinate on a call you’re not eager to make.

She suggests logging your tasks to get a feeling of accomplishment; I simply keep all of my old to-do lists and review them when the time comes to provide evidence of productivity (annual rank-and-rating, for example). It’s a good idea to do this even if you’re not working, since depression often causes you to focus on the negative and overlook what you’ve accomplished.

The book’s next hack changed my work habits tremendously. It entails setting up your top priority task the night before so that you can come into work and complete something before checking email or getting sucked into any of a number of trivial chores. I block out an hour or two each morning to work on projects that require a high level of concentration, and I come in quite early (6:30 a.m.) so that I won’t be pelted with requests and interruptions during this time. Of course, my workplace is filled with early birds who often spend their early hours socializing, which annoys me. However, no one from my functional group gets in until 8:30 a.m., so I do have time to bang out some good writing or computing before the mad, shrieking portion of the day begins. This, too, is a hack that can help you even if you’re not working. If you have forms to fill out or read anything demanding, plan to hit it first thing so that you’ll have a sense of accomplishment before the day really begins.

You’ll probably want to adopt elements from both systems, and I recommend reading both books — Getting Things Done and Upgrade Your Life — if you’re serious about improving your productivity and beating depressive procrastination.

That’s all for now; as always, love to all.

How to Make and Maintain a To Do List (and Do the Items on It)

October 19, 2009 at 4:30 am | Posted in Productivity, Wellness | Leave a comment

Don't let this be your system -- you need better tools to acheive your goals.

Don't let this be your system -- you need better tools to acheive your goals.

I’ve been writing all along assuming you keep a list of things to do, but perhaps you’re part of the puzzling majority that just does things without writing them down.

Perhaps your memory is better than mine, or you prefer to let things slide, figuring that if you don’t remember it, it’s not important. There is some wisdom in procrastinating about certain items until history overcomes them and they no longer need to be done.

However, if you have detailed goals; if you’re bipolar, or just breathing; if you have a poor memory, or are just a little bit obsessive-compulsive; why, then you should probably keep a running list of things to do, and indulge yourself with the minor but satisfying sensation of checking them off as you march through your day.

You’d think there would be no particular trick to making a to do list. You get a pencil and paper, you write down everything you can think of, maybe you prioritize a little, and you get started. As it turns out, though, there’s a lot more to a to do list than just writing things down and doing them. If you really want to be as productive as possible — and for me, productivity is the Holy Grail of wellness — then it pays to learn a couple of tricks from the self-development trade.

I’d like to begin today with the best-known system, that of Dave Allen, the management guru who wrote Getting Things Done: That Art of Stress-Free Productivity, or GTD as his acolytes like to call it. The system includes several excellent elements, but overall is needlessly (or, rather, dauntingly) complicated. Here’s how it goes:

1. First, you keep a little notebook or PDA with you at all times, and every time you think of something you need to do, you dutifully write it down. I follow this rule, and find that it works well. Let’s face it: a lot of things that you need to do, you think of only when you’re in a particular situation. You remember that you need to get your oil changed when your gaze settles on your odometer; you remember to scrub the tub when you climb into a grimy one for the dozenth time (or, in my case, hundredth time). You don’t keep paper and pen in the bathroom, though, so the nasty tub ring nags at your subconscious without graduating to your list. Allen’s system helps to overcome this phenomenon, though it means developing the habit of bringing your little notebook literally everywhere and committing to writing tasks down the instant they occur to you, whether you’re meditating on the toilet or driving on the freeway.

2. Periodically — typically daily — you sit down and transfer all of the items you’ve captured to a series of lists. You distinguish projects — items with more than one step — from tasks, which have a single step, and you break these into two separate lists. Each project gets its own sheet of paper, and you list as many steps as you can think of for each project. Your list will almost certainly be incomplete because when you begin a major project, it’s almost impossible to see to the end. Once you’ve broken each project into tiny steps, you transfer the next little task or “next action” to your to do list. As you complete a task for a given project, you move the next task onto your list. The project/task distinction may seem a tad OCD, but it’s actually quite powerful, since most of us shudder and turn away when confronted with list items such as “Write dissertation,” or even “Work on dissertation.” Specificity engenders productivity.

3. There’s another step to all of this, alas, and this is where Allen loses me. He insists that you break up your task lists into mini lists by context. That is, by where you do them and what equipment you will need, so your context lists might include “Phone,” “Housework,” “Work Desk,” and “Online at Home” or whatever. That way, the thinking goes, when you’re in a particular context you’ll be faced only with tasks that you can do there. So when you’re sitting in a waiting room you can read or answer phone calls, and when you’re online you can do your banking or check in with your online dating site (or if you have a smart phone you can do anything, short of brushing your teeth, anywhere). I find this to be needlessly time-consuming and not, as they say at work, value-added, so I skip this step.

4. When you’re done with all of this, you do have some very powerful tools, but you’ve also spent an hour or more creating your day’s lists, as opposed to actually completing tasks. If you’re going to follow Allen’s system, it’s a time-saver to use either a web-based app like Toodledo (which is my fav), or to keep specialized paper lists like those found on the DIY Planner website. In fact, DIY has a GTD flow chart, which confirms my determination not to use the whole system — I hate processes so byzantine that they require a flow chart. Flow charts mean nothing to me. They might as well be random shapes labeled in Cyrillic characters.

If you’re depressive and easily overwhelmed, as I am, GTD probably isn’t the ideal solution. That’s why I was so excited to discover Gina Trapani’s Upgrade Your Life, a book put together by the widely worshiped founder of the rightfully famous site Lifehacker, which is devoted to a series of tips that make every aspect of your life speedier, simpler, and more manageable. I’ll cover Trapani’s streamlined system in tomorrow’s entry.

Love to all.

My Worst Worry: What if I Get Laid Off?

October 15, 2009 at 3:55 am | Posted in Finances, Resources, Work Life | Leave a comment

For me, there's something especially poignant about packing up the few little items that made your office seem like home.

For me, there's something especially poignant about packing up the few little items that made your office seem like home.

The times being what they are, I fear being laid off. In fact, you could say that I’ve developed a morbid anxiety about the subject. Two nights ago I spent an hour staring out into space worrying with my cuticles and fretting about whether, like about half of my friends, I will be let go. A part of me feels like this would truly be the end of my life. So much of my identity is wrapped up in my work that losing it would feel like losing everything. So what to do?

As usual, it’s list-making to the rescue. Here are strategies that anyone can apply:

1. My first concern would be paying my mortgage, but the same step holds true if you rent: get a roommate. I am lucky enough to have a two-bedroom condo, but during a bad recession (so bad that it might even be a depression) it’s not a bad idea to try even if you can only rent out the living room. I did that as an undergraduate, and it can work. Sure, it’s uncomfortable and it will affect your privacy, but it will also halve the amount you pay for housing. Before you start advertising, though, make sure that your landlord or homeowners’ association approves; otherwise you and your new roomie could end up in hot water.

2. Register for unemployment payments immediately. As I’ve said before in this space, unemployment is not a form of welfare — it’s insurance for which both you and your employer pay premiums. Many people are reluctant to collect, but it’s something to which you are entitled if you should be fired or laid off. It’s important to register right away, since there may be a waiting period. Also, you will be required to hunt for a job actively while collecting it, so dust off your resume and make a plan.

3. Contact all of your creditors, explain your situation, and see if you can get some sort of temporary relief from payments. It’s best to start this process early since, in my experience, qualifying can involve a lot of red tape.

4. Once money starts to run low, sell everything nonessential. Have a big yard sale and either prepay your bills or apply the money towards debt reduction.

5. If you are a homeowner and the situation is truly dire, you can rent out your place and move in with friends or family. This would dramatically lower your costs; of course, it would also represent a serious blow to your quality of life.

6. Register for whatever mental health plan your state offers as a part of Medicaid. If your state has a program through which you can be declared Seriously Mentally Ill, apply for it and be prepared to document your situation and past treatment thoroughly.

7. Start volunteering. Choose activities that play to strengths that you’d like to use in your next job, and spend at least a couple days a week doing them. For instance, if I were laid off tomorrow, I would offer to work on my church’s newsletter and website.

8. Sign up with temporary employment agencies and work at getting a permanent job that way. This has worked well for me in the past. I got my current, excellent job by temping and impressing my boss, and this isn’t the first time that’s happened. At the end of a recession, employers will often begin hiring by taking on temporary employees, seeing how they work out, and then making them permanent. Remember, though, that you should never have to pay a fee to any agency to find a job; the employer should be paying all fees.

9. Take classes online or at a community college on Excel, PowerPoint, and other commonly used software. Learning a new skill always pays off, sometimes in cold, hard cash, sometimes in your ability to find a job at all. I would take a class in web design, since most people who sell their writing skills are now expected to be able to maintain, if not create, company websites.

10. Most importantly, don’t blame yourself, and don’t dwell on anything that you might have done wrong in the months leading up to your layoff. Instead, make lists of the ways you succeeded at your last job. What skills did you pick up that you would like to use in your next job? You must have done well on some projects; list them. Remember, no job or relationship is a failure just because it comes to an end.

The moral is, I wouldn’t drop dead if I got laid off — I probably wouldn’t even starve or go homeless. The same goes for you if you’re working right now. Bipolar disorder makes it harder to find a job, and much more difficult to go without employer-provided insurance, but it’s still possible to survive these times.

And now for a change in topic: I’ve mentioned my programmable thermostat several times in this space. I’d just like to send a shout out to my dad for installing it when my feeble efforts ground to a halt. Next: programming that sucker. I’m sure I’ll be turning the air blue with curses.

Love to all.

Late Sunday Night Musings

October 12, 2009 at 2:44 am | Posted in My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems, Work Life | Leave a comment

Last night I wrote the following, which I’ve edited slightly for clarity:

Tonight, being bipolar feels like a curse. I think of how I must seem to my coworkers, what with my occasional disappearances, hiding out in my office during the wee hours, having that black scribble cloud over my head for months at a time — and I just feel cursed.

Strangely, as I wrote that I realized — or, rather, brought to consciousness — the fact that I have always believed on some level that I’m not bipolar, that perhaps I could just return to my self, that I’m really just putting on airs to be interesting. I think, If only I could go off of all of my medication, I bet that underneath is a totally mormal woman with a husband and two kids who play soccer for a local league.

I wish I were more articulate, more honest about the disease. I feel totally unable to approach my supervisor and explain what happened last week when I took FMLA. Mental illness scares people, and rightfully so. To say, “I wasn’t in my right mind — I was having peculiar thoughts” understates the case, but is still pretty creepy.

Tonight I wish that I could set down the burden for awhile: that I could go for a day without a pastel rainbow of medication, a week without this penetrating sense of shame, a month without a mood swing that feels like it might destabilize this fragile life that I’ve built. I would treasure a year of being able to make plans and carry them out in a linear, sensible fashion. I get so tired of suffering with days when I struggle to get out of bed, or when my mind flutters brightly and can’t touch down.

Right now, I want to plead with God.

As I was writing this, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord” was going through my head, so I took down the complete works and read several poems aloud. He based “Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord” on a psalm, and it is, for Hopkins, straightforward:

“Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
Wert thou my enemy, oh thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now leaved how thick! laced they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build — but not I build; no, but strain
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one word that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

Of course, being a Jesuit priest, Hopkins came considerably closer than I to spending life upon God’s cause. But last night I felt, as I sometimes do, that I am GMH, my beloved companion manic depressive comrade.

Love to all.

Links, Including a Haunting Post from Farewell Prozac

October 11, 2009 at 4:22 am | Posted in Links | Leave a comment

I’ve been really impressed with the quality of the writing on Farewell Prozac — check out this post that begins with a nuanced description of the weather, and segues into the malaise that the weather represents. It’s a great piece of Romantic writing, not in the sense of writing about love, but in the literary sense of using the landscape as an outward reflection of inward thought and emotion. And, of course, I find it fascinating because I just went on Prozac after an abortive fling with Pristiq. Farewell Prozac demonstrates that it takes tremendous courage — perhaps to the level of foolhardiness — to go off of psych meds.

When you’re in pain, even a quick laugh and very temporary relief can help. Along those lines, I offer Cute Overload. You’ve probably already seen it — it’s one of the most popular blogs extant, after all — but if you haven’t, check it out sometimes. There’s a mix of cute and uncanny that will both warm your heart and give you a sense of vague disquiet. In case you needed more of the latter.

I really like this post on The Simple Dollar on setting short-term goals. It should be clear by now that I’m a huge believer in having goals, and goals that are concrete, short-term, and realistic, given your situation. For instance, if you’re unemployed or on disability, it wouldn’t be wise to set yourself up for failure by shooting to land a job in a month — or even six months. However, you can decide to dust off your resume, volunteer for a couple of days each week, or take initial steps to learn a new skill. Or maybe you should be even more moderate and just aim to walk for 20 minutes a day. (That’s the first goal I set after my last serious depression, and I’m convinced it did me more good than any number of resolutions to find a permanent, full-time job.)

Another blog I’m liking: Prozac Monologues. Perhaps it’s because the author is an Episcopal priest; perhaps it’s because she’s so open and political about her major depression; perhaps it’s simply her open love of her partner and friends. Whatever it is, I find her strength inspiring.

More later, my dears. I’ve been hunched over this laptop for too long now.

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