A Great Phrase from The Happiness Project

March 20, 2010 at 1:57 am | Posted in I Hate the 21st Century, Links | Leave a comment

I love Gretchen Rubin’s name for technology: the cubicle in your pocket. So true. I’ve detailed here how I’ve been trying to use technology strategically. When I have the luxury of limiting online time, I enjoy myself immensely. I find, however, that most days I simply have to mow through a lot of work that I necessarily accomplish at my terminal. Also, if I’m depressed I don’t care what I stare at blankly — a computer screen is as good as anything else. Despite these issues, I’m committed to using technology more selectively.

Speaking of which, I simply must get off. I’m bored of my hunching-over-my-laptop sore back, and am ready for a revitalizing-my-yoga-practice sore back.

Two more quick notes: What with one thing and another, I’ve been connecting more with people at work. I had lunch with my friend Robin (the surreptitious progressive) and with a colleague from my company’s association for disabled people, and arranged to have tea on Sunday with my two favorite data managers. I even hung out with some of the cool IT folk while they did a weekly audit of a couple of laptops that I hold. I’m even in the beginning stages of a crush on one of the software engineers (I haven’t looked at his left ring finger yet — he probably has two wives and 10 kids). So, yeah, more in-person contact, less on-screen living.

My Intensive Outpatient Program has been a remarkable success. I find myself oddly reluctant to find happiness, however. On some level I feel that if I get better now, I have to feel guilty and responsible for not having done so sooner. Ugh.

A final note: my sister will be in town next week with my niece and nephew in tow. Yay! I love them so.

An Intriguing Link on Email, and a Quick Progress Report

March 19, 2010 at 2:44 am | Posted in Links, Productivity | 1 Comment

Here’s an ebook on how to use email consciously. I can’t vouch for it — I haven bought it yet — but it fits with my attempts to be learn a more conscious approach to new media.

I’m sorry to be so scarce in this space. I’m attending an Intensive Outpatient Program at a local hospital, and it’s just tremendously beneficial. I’m waking up a lot later, though, so it limits my writing time. If it continues to be helpful, I’ll probably continue to struggle to write. The weekend is coming, though, so perhaps that will help.

Love to all.

Briefly Noted

March 17, 2010 at 12:49 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I started my intensive outpatient program last week, and it’s, um, intensive. On Monday I was away from home between 6:00 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. I’ll be posting less here, then, since I really need to preserve my energy and attention. My apologies.

In other news, I’m taking two meds that are notorious weight gainers. I’m constantly hungry, and I’ve put on seven pounds so far. The gentlemen of my acquaintance seem pleased, and I like what I’m seeing. I was getting a little gaunt. It’s easier to pull off extremes of thin before your 40th birthday. I figure I’ve got at least another 10 lbs to go before I need to throw on the brakes.

That’s all.

Love to all.

I Don’t Wanna Feel Better, or, The Perversity of Depression

March 13, 2010 at 3:30 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, My Fascinating Mood | 1 Comment

Strawberry-rhubarb pie

How dare you suggest that I might enjoy this pie?

Lately I’ve been thinking about a disturbing trend: When I’m seriously depressed, I actively resist simple strategies that would help me to feel better. A friend of mine emailed me a story that captured this very human perversity perfectly. He writes:

Okay, I am depressed. How do I know this? Because of my 3-year old nephew.

[My nephew] loves pie. I think he loves pie more than anything else in the world. He is a pie junkie. If my sister tells him that there is pie for dessert he will do almost anything to make sure that he gets it.

But then there are other times… there are times he will refuse to eat even a small fraction of his dinner, even if it is a dinner he would normally like. When told he won’t get pie unless he eats some chicken, he will yell, quite falsely, “I don’t want pie!” After he is then informed that okay, since he doesn’t want pie he won’t get pie, [he] will throw himself to the floor, crying and screaming.

So he’s on the floor, and my sister calmly tells him he is welcome to have pie after he eats just a little chicken. The choice is his. Somehow, this just makes things worse. He digs in his heels. Next he is told that it doesn’t matter if he wants pie, he is going to eat some chicken. No TV, no toys, no bed, no leaving the kitchen. [He] has no choice but to eat some chicken. After 30 minutes of stalling, stammering, everything he can do to delay the inevitable, Nathan swallows his sixth bite of chicken and is offered a slice of pie. He accepts, grudgingly, and downs his pie silently. This is not the pie he wants. This is the pie of defeat.

As an adult, I’m both parent and fussy toddler, and therefore the struggle is even more tiresome: I know that taking a walk, say, consistently makes me feel better, but I’m so overcome with a certain depression-specific apathy that I choose depressing activities over ones that will almost certainly energize me. The problem, I think, is that it’s tiring to make even the simplest effort, and though I often feel better while, say, walking, the depression comes crashing back over me once I’m done. A temporary mood lift doesn’t seem worth the effort.

The previous makes some sense. As I write, though, I’m conscious that there’s a more pure perversity at work, too, a flat-out rejection of simple pleasures. Another friend who comments in this space likes to recount an exchange we had 10 or 12 years ago. It went a little something like this:

Me, grudgingly dressing on a winter morning: Damn it, my jeans are still wet.

Him: Why don’t you iron them dry? They would be nice and warm and dry then.

Me, in a tone of flat contempt: Bullshit.

Of course, warm jeans are delightful on a chilly winter morning. But I didn’t want to be delighted, and I felt insulted at the suggestion that a trivial material comfort might ameliorate my exquisite suffering. Or something. On certain days, this perversity pervades everything. I don’t have anything especially clever to say about this tendency, but I have wanted to note it for several days now. So, irritating, self-destructive tendency noted.

Here’s some happy news: Last week I started an intensive outpatient program at a local hospital, and so far I’m loving it. Good thing, since it entails nine hours a week of therapy, including stress management techniques, mindfulness exercises, and the like. More on this later, including an observation on the one thing that did annoy me about the first session.

Love to all.

OK, So I’m Easily Amused

March 9, 2010 at 6:33 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

If you take a look at the picture that leads off this story in The New York Times about the “immense subtlety and beauty” of Alexander McQueen’s final designs, you, too, may snicker, “Hmm. Apparently a use of the word ‘subtle’ that I’ve never before encountered.”

That’s all. I just had to share that.

I apologize, too, for the dismayingly fragmented nature of this morning’s post. Oops.

The Perversity of Depression, Neat Odds and Ends from Cool Blogs, Yet Another Drug to Ask Your Doctor About

March 9, 2010 at 3:38 am | Posted in Links, The Heath Care System | 2 Comments

Sprouting plant

Here I go again, hoping away.

The author of If You’re Going Through Hell Keep Going is on to something in this short post about the comfort of depression. At the end of a hard day — or, really, any day at all — there’s nothing I like more than snuggling under the quilt my mom made me and playing rain noises on my iPhone. My bed is a lovely place to be. My head, not so much.

Gretchen Rubin has compiled a list of the top 10 myths about happiness on her blog about The Happiness Project.

Doesn’t the word “happiness” start to look strange if you study it?

Another thing: I find it hard to read the excellent blog The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive because the author is so damn perceptive. Here she publishes two pieces that weren’t originally intended as blog entries. In the first, she reflects on the difficulties of being on the “other side of the bedside divide” — that is, on being a mourner or comforter rather than a sufferer. She gives some personal history in the second short essay, and muses on the significance of getting a diagnosis after years of considering herself “mental” (a nice British word) rather than mentally ill. The life she’s living is not at all the life she imagined for herself.

A year or so ago, yoga played a huge role in my life. My home practice was almost bizarrely advanced, and I dreamed of becoming a certified yoga instructor so that I could bring the delights of a regular practice to my sedentary colleagues. One bright morning, though, I stopped, probably because I was working 12 hours a day and spending my remaining waking hours in the company of a boyfriend whom I loved deeply.

Of course, it’s not unusual to give up important disciplines when working this hard. This time around, though, my avoidance of a deeply satisfying process gradually blossomed into a bitter and totally irrational conviction that I couldn’t do yoga no matter how much I might enjoy it. I would consider going to a class or simply starting out with a sun salutation or six, and I would feel, not my usual laziness, but a perverse certainty that yoga was now somehow beyond my power; I’ve noticed this problem in connection with other pastimes that bring me happiness, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I’ve puzzled and puzzled, but I can’t figure out why I began to think, not that I didn’t want to do yoga, but that I literally could not do it. The thought made me sad, but I really had become certain that a beloved activity was beyond my power. That’s the perversity of depression, folks, and it’s discouraging as hell.

Naturally I always knew that I could do it if someone held a gun to my head, and I did recently overcome this bizarre reluctance, mostly because I’d developed a chronic backache that contributed to my crappy mood. The minute I unrolled my yoga mat and dropped into a forward fold my body yelped, Good Lord, this feels wonderful! Painful, but wonderful! My whole body ached for three days after I performed the mildest of routines, but I broke through my mental block effortlessly and became hooked on yoga euphoria again.

This depressive perversity has taken over other aspects of my life — praying the Liturgy of the Hours comes to mind — and I have no idea where it comes from or how to counter it. It may be that understanding is the booby prize; despite what they teach you in therapy, merely having insight into a problem does not much help me to change. Insight is always very nice, but it’s no substitute for judgment, and I return to William Styron’s all-too-accurate observation: When you’re depressed, you wouldn’t creep three steps to pick a pill that might cure you entirely. This drives me and others batshit — it’s insidious, dangerous, and true without a doubt. In consequence, my capacity for suffering far outweighs my ability to help myself.

Is this another one of those entirely normal aspects of the human condition that seems unprecedented to me? Please do comment.

Another sign of hope returning: My admittedly silly fantasy of learning Latin. Talk about perverse — I’m more or less accomplished in three languages besides my native tongue, but nothing will do for me but to read Ovid and Augustine in the original. I’ve hired a tutor and bought armloads of textbooks even though I know that it’s unlikely that I will follow through. So, another truism about the human condition: As Alexander Pope observed, hope springs eternal in the human breast. (The brilliant literary critic Murray Krieger (he of the hilarious and touching baby blue polyester suits) used to tell us that just about every threadbare English expression can be traced back to one of those three sources. I would add a more recent fourth: Winston Churchill.) A part of me knows that I’m almost certain to disappoint myself again, but, darn it, I’m driven to try.

Another one of those almost entirely irrelevant observations that I’m sure you’ve all come to love: The Eyes of Stanley Pain is the best album in the entire world, and today I feel compelled to share it. I especially recommend “Suni C” and “Base Metal.” The lyrics to the former both frighten and move me — they seem strengely manic-y. Here’s the matching video:

And here’s the video for “Base Metal”:

This song makes me profoundly happy, perhaps because of the looped background sound of rain.

One last note: Alarmingly, the new shrink I tried had stocked his waiting room with brochures hyping Concerta, a drug intended to “manage the challenges of ADHD.” Get a load of these quiz questions:

1. How often do you have trouble wrapping up the final details of a project, once the challenging parts have been done?

2. How often do you have difficulty getting things in order when you have to do a task that requires organization?

3. How often do you have trouble remembering appointments or obligations?

4. When you have a task that requires a lot of thought, how long do you avoid or delay getting started

And so forth. For the whole quiz in all of its delicious absurdity, click here. I’ve created a shorter version:

1. Do you have a pulse?

2. Do you have health insurance?

You’d better ask your doctor about ADHD quick, before you fall behind in the competitive global marketplace. Never mind the following black box warning: “Concerta should be given cautiously to patients with a history of drug dependence or alcoholism. Chronic abusive use can lead to marked tolerance and psychological dependence, with varying degrees of abnormal behavior.” What do you want to bet that bored lab monkeys self-administer this drug?

That’s enough for now. This is one of two draft posts that I’ve been avoiding for days, and I’m looking forward to hitting “Publish” though the writing continues to suck.

Love to all.

An Excellent Suicide Prevention Resource, Plus Whimsical Notes from a Happy Mind

March 3, 2010 at 2:04 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, I Hate the 21st Century | 1 Comment

Praying Mantis

Like praying mantises, academics eat their own.

After reading Susan’s latest post to If You’re Going Through Hell Keep Going, I paged down to find the links that she recommends for depressed people who are considering suicide. That’s how I stumbled on Suicide: Read This First. This excellent resource considers the following idea: “Suicide is not chosen; it happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain.” I’d never heard that formulation before, and I think it’s brilliant. The best way to avoid suicide is not to strive fruitlessly to cheer up, but rather to increase one’s resources until they outweigh the pain.

And speaking of resources, I’ve finally taken concrete steps to replace my psychiatrist. I have appointments today and early next week to give two new shrinks a try. I’ve wanted to do this for months, but have had no idea how to go about finding a doctor who shows up on time for appointments and reads the package inserts before giving me sample medications. For once it only took one call to set things in motion — I just got in touch with the Employee Assistance Program counselor for my company. I’ve used our concierge service to find cat sitters and an accountant, but I’ve always felt obscurely that I couldn’t hope to get help with a nasty task like hiring a shrink. After an hour-long appointment I felt such renewed hope that I sent the counselor flowers. It was that good.

In fact, yesterday was one of my few normal days. Halfway through my work day I thought, “Hey, it’s not so terrible to be here!” When I’m depressed I carry my misery everywhere; when I’m normal I’m capable of enjoying the challenges and rewards of both my private and work lives.

I found Jonathan Meade’s latest post to Illuminated Mind provocative. I was all ready to get riled after reading the headline: “Choose Not to Fail.” As it turns out, he makes a valuable point. All too often, we decide to try to do something rather than to succeed at it. When you choose to succeed, you’re almost unstoppable; when you merely try, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

I’ve experienced the power of choosing not to fail in my own life. I started grad school with a couple of material disadvantages compared to the other members of my cohort, all of whom hailed from Ivy League universities, and many of whom already had an M.A. (They almost certainly had better grades coming in to grad school, too, since in many ways I’m an indifferent student.) When the director of our three related programs addressed us, his remarks reminded me of an old Far Side cartoon in which an adult praying mantis tells a crowd of hatchlings, “Of course, most of you will be eaten.” Right then and there I swore that I was going to kick ass, take names, and come out with a doctorate. I thought, If nothing else, I’ll live the life of the mind for several years. Almost a decade later I was the first of a dozen little mantises to graduate.

Now, you may object, “Sure, you got your degree, but it was a perverse thing to do.” Well, yes, my goal could have been better chosen, and I now routinely encourage the occasional Ph.D. candidates I meet to drop out before it’s too late. I am proud that I succeeded against rotten odds, though, and even though my education hasn’t proven practical, having it has illuminated my mind beyond measure. To give a simple example, when I walk through a museum, I recognize the various gods, heroes and saints that paintings portray. Having a nodding acquaintance with the Western tradition has animated philosophy, literature, and history for me. I didn’t stay in the field, but I did get what I wanted out of my academic career.

I can think of one other possible objection. Getting my degree was a bloody struggle — when I think back, I marvel at the death-defying feats it required. At the same time, I’m pretty sure I was never fated to coast along happily. The Furies probably would have chased me down any path I chose.

Even a moderate helping of education brings a certain amount of indigestion, of course. This brings me back to the reckless deployment of “whom” that I described yesterday. It’s occurred to me since that we ought to have a sort of national licensing board for pronouns, a United States version of the Academie francaise. No more “Her and I went to the bank,” or “She’s the friend that I love the most.” I’m thinking that the Pronoun Control Board would issue licenses in a tiered system, much as the Motor Vehicle Department allows you to apply to drive anything from a common car to a big rig. Most people outside of New York and San Francisco have to pass a driving test; we should approach learning to write with the same seriousness.

Of course, creating such a board would have its own perils. Whoever first acts as “They” would almost certainly pack the board with pretentious conservatives like William Bennett, and we’d end up like the French, who still have no feminine-gender nouns for many professions.

Perhaps it would be better to settle for a less ambitious scheme.

Sea Monkeys

Sea Monkeys may be a promising corporate morale-booster.

Mandatory desk-side cultivation of either Magic Rocks or Sea Monkeys might exercise a similar civilizing influence.

There you have it, folks.

Western Civilization Continues to End

March 2, 2010 at 5:07 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

So the other day when I went to visit our IT people about a hardware order, the guy assigned to our program said, “Yes, I wonder whom is responsible for ordering that?” I found this attempt at gentility strangely winning.

In Which I Pass on Gossip about a Few Famous People Who May Be Mentally Ill

March 2, 2010 at 5:03 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Famous Bipolar Folks, In the News, Links, The Heath Care System | Leave a comment

Mental Illness Image

Just one of the many sensitive portrayals of mental illness on iStockphoto.com.

Over my Christmas break I read with interest Nicholson Baker’s provocative history of World War II, Human Smoke, in which the author assembles an impressive pile of evidence suggesting, among other things, that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the bombing of German civilians for three months before Hitler began his air raids — in fact, there’s a good deal of evidence that the British government used both explosives and chemical weapons on native populations as a sort of dry run for the forthcoming World War. This runs counter to conventional wisdom, to say the least; Churchill is revered partly for his prescient insistence on Hitler’s intransigence. In Baker’s book, he comes across, um, poorly, looking essentially like a bellicose nutjob. Indeed, even his most admiring biographers acknowledge that Churchill relished war and probably wouldn’t have flourished if he’s been named Prime Minister in peacetime.

Baker’s book set off a fascination with Churchill that I’ve just began to explore. My first stop was Gretchen Rubin’s Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, since I thought her recent book The Happiness Project was downright genius. Here’s my thoroughly idiosyncratic take: though Rubin’s biography doesn’t investigate the issue, it provides a good deal of evidence that this British wartime leader was at least as bipolar as I am.

In fact, if Churchill wasn’t manic-depressive, I’ll eat my hat. He suffered from black periods of depression (which Rubin does discuss), and when he wasn’t depressed he seems to have lived a life of mild mania. For example: He was a spendthrift; he drank like a fish; he was grandiose from childhood forward; he had poor impulse control; he couldn’t shut up, and lectured his associates and fellow world leaders for hours at a time (a tendency that he shared with Hitler). I’m not the first to have put two and two together — a Google search on “winston churchill bipolar disorder” draws a whole series of provocative hits.

(By the way, Rubin’s book promises both to introduce the reader to Churchill and to comment through its form on the genre of biography. The latter is the sort of enterprise that might well annoy me, but Rubin’s lack of pretension combined with genuine erudition save the day, and it’s an excellent book.)

So, yes, Winston Churchill, for whom I still feel an irrational admiration.

Once I Googled Churchill in connection with bipolar, I felt moved to check on Peter Gabriel as well. He’s got a new album out, and I’ve long had a vague idea that he has some sort of mood disorder, since years ago he wrote the deceptively simple “Lead a Normal Life,” a moving song about psychiatric hospitalization, of all things. In fact, the untitled album that fans call Melt contains sympathetic interior monologues from a set of thoroughly mad characters — perhaps the best is “Family Snapshot,” which dramatizes an assassination attempt. (I know, I know, that sounds like a misguided subject for a song. That’s what I think every time I start to listen to it. It wins me over every time.) Sure enough, many commentators have suggested that Gabriel is manic-depressive. Ha-ha, I say — we are poised to take over the universe.

By now you may be asking yourself, What on earth is she driving at? Um, nothing really. Churchill and Gabriel have been on my mind lately, that’s all. Naturally Adam Ant is always on my mind, since he’s openly mentally ill and probably as queer as a three-dollar bill (and, no, I don’t mean gay). I’ve played “Friend or Foe” countless times and thought, “Yes, that’s it exactly! I am Adam Ant!” (I am also Marilyn Manson, but that’s another story.)

In other news, The American Psychiatric Association has posted a draft of changes to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) on the APA home page. Readers can comment on these changes through April 20. The diagnoses in the DSM drive insurance reimbursement, among other things, so they are, of course, tremendously controversial. Over the last several days, John McManamy for Knowledge Is Necessity has been issuing a multi-part report card for the sections of the DSM that address depression and bipolar disorder. His analysis is polemic, to say the least. Given the current public debate concerning treating kids with powerful psych meds, yesterday’s polemic post on pediatric bipolar in particular will ruffle feathers. Whether or not you ultimately agree with McManamy’s analyses, he bases his comments on years of reporting on mood disorders, and his undeniable expertise shines through.

In Which I Free-Associate about the Wisdom of St. Augustine

March 1, 2010 at 5:09 am | Posted in Philosophical Problems, Spirituality and Religion | Leave a comment

St. Augustine

Here's my man St. A, looking sheepish, if not repentant.

Even before I began my convoluted path to conversion, I adored St. Augustine. When I first read him as an undergraduate, I was struck by his deft parries of common arguments against the existence of God. It’s a bit like reading Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics in that he prepares the ground for serious philosophical work by setting to rest a series of persistent, fruitless claims. (Naturally people still pull out the same hoary old objections because they presume to know what Christians believe without having read a single sentence of Christian theology.)

I even went so far as to devote the longest chapter in my dissertation to detailed analysis of his famous defense of nuns who had been raped during the Gothic sack of Rome, since he essentially established the definition of rape that prevails today among feminists and non-feminists alike.

St. Augustine also gave me an opportunity for one of my few witty comebacks: When I was in grad school, every now and then someone would criticize me for devoting so much attention to an “ancient white male,” and I would get the smug pleasure of reminding them that Augustine was a native of North Africa and thus almost certainly black (the racial map in 400 A.D. was different enough from ours to render that distinction meaningless, but it’s always fun to tweak the earnest.)

I recently started re-reading his deservedly famous Confessions. This volume is typically considered to be the first autobiography, and it’s amazingly rich. I particularly recommend Book VIII, “The Birthpangs of Conversion,” in which St. Augustine utters one of the most famous short Christian prayers: “Give me chastity, but not yet.” Aside from being intrinsically funny, I love this prayer because it captures the essence of the struggle to surrender to God’s will. That is, we long to turn ourselves over to God body, mind and soul but can’t quite let go of our favorite sins.

It took me 90 minutes to write the above introduction, which has robbed me of the time to unpack a couple of quick quotes. I’ll return to these, then:

“Let [critics of Christianity] rejoice and delight in finding you who are beyond discovery rather than fail to find you by supposing you to be discoverable”

And a favorite of mine: “For you have imposed order, and so it is that the punishment of every disordered mind is its own disorder.”

Paragraph of tangential chatter — feel free to skip:

The Prolegomena only rates four stars on Amazon.com, compared to five for Hegel’s Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit and Volume I of the Hong and Hong translation of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. Fair enough. I’d like to meet the guy who’s too erudite to splurge on a fifth star for Volume II. Come on, give Kierkegaard a little credit — he wrote the whole tome by hand in eight months.

Kierkegaard is in good company, though: the latest edition of J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words scores an anemic four, and the most recent edition sports a truly hideous cover design. Let’s see how Friedrich Schlegel is holding up.

Oh, my. No reviews. Not even of Lucinde, which is pretty spicy stuff.

Love to all.

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