Accomplish More by Refusing to Accept Your Usual Excuses

August 3, 2010 at 5:11 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, Productivity | Leave a comment

Woman belaying

This works best when you're not dizzy, nauseated, or dehydrated.

Because I’m depressed much of the time, I procrastinate a lot. I devote a shameful amount of mental energy to either badgering myself into action or, more often, talking myself out of it. Since I got out of the hospital this last time, I notice that I divide my motives for inaction between lame, shuffling excuses and near-irrefutable reasons.

I’m simple, and if I’m not paying attention, I can easily dupe myself with an excuse along the lines of, “I just don’t feel like it right now — maybe after I’ve eaten something….” If I’m on my game, though, I can bring myself up with a round turn and scold myself out of that sort of absurdity. As a result, lame excuses don’t present a serious problem.

Reasons that appear excellent on the surface present a much greater danger to happiness and productivity. I started paying attention to this issue a few days ago when I was preparing to go climbing. There are always excellent reasons to avoid rock climbing: It requires concentration, and I often feel distracted and irritable; it can be tiring, and I often lack energy; success and failure are highly public, and I am inclined to self-consciousness; there’s a small but real risk of death or serious injury for myself or my partner. I recognize, though, that none of these constitutes a real reason to avoid an activity that I love and excel at. My main reason for not getting to the gym? Feeling nauseated or dizzy.

You may cry, as I do, “But that’s an excellent reason! What if you got sick or fainted while you were on belay? You could kill your climbing partner! Nausea and dizziness are symptoms of dehydration — it would be very bad to climb while you’re dehydrated!” And so forth.

The thing is, nausea and dizziness are my main anxiety symptoms, and anxiety has paralyzed me for much of my life. If I refuse to climb — or go to church, or practice yoga, or whatever — whenever my stomach is upset, I won’t do any of these things often enough to make a difference. I’ll spend my life firmly planted under my bedclothes, whimpering. For other people, gastrointestinal symptoms are a sign that they should take it easy. For me, they just mean that I’m anxious. If I don’t accept the small risk that I really am sick, I’ll never get really good at climbing, or at anything else that presents a serious challenge. I can’t afford to accept an excuse that would serve for another person.

The good news is, the last few times I went climbing, I did it in spite of really rotten stomach cramps. Of course, I stopped noticing the pain after I climbed a couple of routes. I managed to stay focused while on belay; I didn’t faint, drop the rope, and allow my partner to fall to his death. The moral of the story? If I want to function, let alone excel, I need to push past even my most sensible excuses.

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.

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.

How Much Can I Control My Moods? In Which I Turn Back to God

February 19, 2010 at 5:18 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, Dealing with Mania, My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems, Wellness | Leave a comment

St. Augustine, Bishop of HippoFor me, the question above torments me at times; the answer seems to change from day to day, whiplashing me from guilt to hopelessness to a fragile hope.

When I did a swan-dive from mania to depression on Sunday, the speed and seeming inexorability of my descent awed me. When I’m depressed, I flog myself to stick to even the mildest wellness routines. When I ascend into mania, everything that I ought to do is effortless, a pleasure. I walk, socialize, and pray without thinking and with enjoyment. I see God working in my life. And just as I’m leading a more or less blameless life, the depression crashes back over me, and I’m like King Canute in the fable, commanding the waves to turn back. Canute wets his feet; I drown. God turns his face from me.

Yesterday, despite withering guilt, I left work sick. I’ve been missing too much work lately, but I felt that I couldn’t stay. To my intense humiliation, when I told my section head, I wept and shook so hard that she escorted my to the nurse’s office and refused to let me drive home until I’d spoken to him. Oh, God. My madness on display for the whole section to see.

As I set off on my commute — so much more pleasant now that I have my lovely and perfect Charger — I suddenly knew what was wrong. On Saturday, when I was still incandescent with mania, I’d had an encounter with a friend that shook my sense of myself. I used him, he used me back, and we both left feeling alarmed and frankly repelled. I didn’t feel precisely guilty, but I know that I had harmed him and the relationship, and that I would have to talk to him about it. This came to me with the force of a religious revelation; in fact, it was a religious revelation.

Typically I will suffer any indignity or commit any crime without apology if either will help me to avoid initiating a Relationship Talk. In connections of all sorts, more than anything I dread finding myself in the role of Demanding Woman. As a result, I am easily controlled. If anyone accuses me of “drama,” I fall right into line. My most recent boyfriend, God bless him, caught on to this quickly and used it remorselessly. At the very end, his sudden, bizarre descent into cruelty would have plunged any rational woman into hysterical rage; he branded my mild attempts at rational communication “drama,” and I cut him off entirely rather than play out the role of Dido.

Imagine my dread, then, when it came to me that in order to ease my depression I would have to call a meeting and express my needs clearly. Yikes.

The meeting itself proved instructive (he was free to stop by immediately, since like every last one of my friends, he’s been laid off). It’s strange — for all that I loathe them, I’m good at difficult conversations of all sorts. I cruise through critical evaluations at work, for example, watching myself respond without a trace of defensiveness and formulate a plan for improvement on the spot. I carry out these plans, too. Accordingly, my supervisors come away with a higher opinion of me, and I become a better employee. So I conducted myself well with my friend, and he responded with relief and similar candor.

As we spoke, I realized that he had been waiting for me to set the tone for further interactions. If I’d accused him of horrors, he would have accepted the charges; if I’d said that our bad behavior fulfilled me as a woman and begged him to treat me accordingly, he would have made every effort to do that, despite his instinctive revulsion. I approached the incident with calm curiosity, explored the issue with him, then set a new bottom line for our interactions. I expected him to reject my request out of hand, even to end the friendship. We’d discussed numerous times how we wanted to treat each other and be treated, but I’m not naive, and I know that people will often express a desire to change only to reject every opportunity to do so.

Imagine my pleasure, then, when he agreed to my suggestion with relief. I expected him to hate me for telling him what I wanted; I’d behaved as if wanting anything at all was a cruel imposition. He’d done the same, which led to a hilarious-from-the-outside waltz in which we tried to discern each other’s wishes, and to lead accordingly.

So my depression lifted markedly. Somehow knowing that I can control it humbled me as much as the feeling of total helplessness that I’d had earlier in the week. I responded with near-indignation, asking God (who had turned back when I approached him), Wait, does this mean I have to do the right thing, even when it’s hard? And that I don’t need a therapist to tell me what the right thing is? If my mood depends upon conducting myself well, it’s worse than I thought.

Since last week I’d suspected that the my campaign for perfection was trivial. Getting off the Internet and leaving my cell phone at home delighted me independent of mood; whether I dutifully walked, for example, depended entirely on my preexisting mood. The latter is trivial, the former profound.

Another humbling reflection: I know what I need to do to feel better. Typically it’s the very thing that I am sure will leave me a Bad Employee and an unloved outcast. I’ve adopted certain habits because I believe they stand between me and oblivion. As I discovered when I quit my antianxiolytic, the only way I can find relief is to let them go. Hm.

So, yeah, I need to re-read St. Augustine’s Confessions and reacquaint myself with that brilliant and very human saint. Perhaps, in a characteristic burst of irrelevancy, I’ll discuss them here.

Love to all.

When It Comes to Mood, Is It Better to Fake Happiness?

February 5, 2010 at 2:42 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems | 2 Comments

Tragedy Mask

I may prefer tragedy, but in the business world, people like a feel-good family look.

So here’s the question of the day: Is there any value in heroically faking a good mood?

I began by thinking, no, if only because I’m a lousy actor. Even people who know me only casually can tell immediately whether or not I’m depressed. Some people lack perception, or have an investment in ignoring my mood, but overall even when I’d rather not talk about it or would like to hide it out of pride, most people can easily tell how I feel. (The sad fact is, a coworker who sometimes stops by my office to chat recently asked me if I’d had a death in the family — he couldn’t think of any other explanation for my very apparent misery. Oh my.) If this is the case, why should I even try to hide it?

There are two excellent reasons, I think. First, evidence exists that faking good feelings can boost your mood. Simply smiling, for example, will tend to lift your spirits even if your grin feels like a terrifying rictus.

What’s more, constant moping can threaten your professional standing. Your friends may tolerate it, but it’s reasonable for your colleagues to expect that you be cheerful and willing to help out. Perhaps in a perfect world everyone would bleed with tender compassion for everyone they meet, but they don’t, and expecting them to is just another instance of “I shouldn’t have to…” thinking.

Let me define that train of argument. I’ve heard friends say, “I shouldn’t have to dress up to see clients! I work in a casual industry!” or “I shouldn’t have to cover my tattoos!” Well, sure. People should see beyond appearances and judge you on your behavior and professional ability. But they don’t. So why create ill-will out of some perverse sense of entitlement?

Further, I admit that I judge people unfairly every day. When people are consistently even five minutes late for meetings — not to mention 20 minutes late to work in the morning — I feel that they’re showing disrespect for me and the company. When people make incessant personal phone calls, I take it as evidence that their lives are out of control, and I question their professionalism. I think these conclusions are reasonable. But a woman who wears tight clothes or too much perfume is just as evil a menace. So, yeah, I don’t resent demands that I demonstrate a positive, can-do attitude. (Though I refuse to multitask.)

And I’ve realized recently that my grim demeanor may affect my professional life more than I know. Let me offer a couple of illustrative instances.

1. One of the engineers in my aisle never smiles or meets my eyes when we pass each other. On some level, I feel that he doesn’t like me. But, um, I never smile or look at him either. So who’s the unfriendly one?

2. Even worse, my office mate has taken to squatting one door down with our tech lead. This, despite the fact that I’m scheduled to move to another building entirely in a couple of weeks. She’s a veritable model of unprofessional leakage of the personal into work hours, but I still feel hurt. True, when her friends visit I keep my eyes glued to my screen and click away. And I have been seething generally lately. But I never wear intrusive perfume or play annoying music, and since these are my pet peeves, I feel that refraining makes me the model office mate.

When I’m honest with myself, though, I know that I have been a little black rain cloud for months now, and that I’ve probably huffed and flounced during her endless socializing. I may well look pointedly at my watch when she walks in late from 20 to 45 minutes late every day. So by her standards, I’m unpleasantly arrogant. If she were to complain to our section head, it would pose a real problem. Our boss calls us “The DM Team,” and upper management carries on a non-stop propaganda campaign to encourage fairness, respect, diversity, and team play. I can sneer and mock all I want, but by doing so I risk my reputation as a can-do team player, and in our line of work that reads as poor customer service.

In short, I will defend to the death my right to snarl and snap in my personal life, but I don’t think it’s especially defensible at work.

All of that leads me to conclude that it would be to my advantage to make more of an effort, even if that means setting quotas for smiles and conversations struck up.

The good news is, I find myself smiling spontaneously around the test and software engineers. My obdurate hatred of Mission Planning is even beginning to melt. So perhaps I’ll feel less need to fake it once I move in with them permanently.

Love to all.

Tap Into Your Own Wisdom

January 12, 2010 at 4:25 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, Goal Progress, My Fascinating Mood | 1 Comment

When you fall into a rotten mood, it’s easy to feel as if you need the advice of a shrink, or even just a wise friend. There’s something a bit disingenuous about that, though. In truth, you almost always know better than anyone else what you most need to do to improve your situation. Accordingly, I’ve lately been asking myself a series of questions, beginning with, “What would I tell a close friend who was in the same situation?” This proved most effective this past Sunday.

Sunday morning I was thoroughly depressed. I felt hopeless and helpless by 4:00 a.m., and typically my mood starts out at its peak and deteriorates from there. I managed to keep my wits about me, though, and I did think to ask myself the magic question. The answer was simple: If a friend told me that she was feeling the way I felt, I would cuddle up to her and tell her that I loved her and believed in her, and that she was important to me. In short, I didn’t need a list of 29 Things to Do on a Rough Sunday — I needed a human connection.

I wish I could say that I thought of a friend who would do that and burned up the phone lines calling her for help. In fact, the only people in town who would do that for me are my mom and dad, and I felt too ashamed to ask them. So I resorted to my next magic question: “What is the problem here, and what can I do right now to change things?” Because, you see, part of my misery stemmed from the conviction that nothing would ever change, and that I would live a gradually dwindling life ending in a death that would pass completely unremarked. I love my cats, but I never forget the fact (or urban legend) that they would begin to eat me as soon as they got hungry.

Seriously, though: I’m haunted by the thought that when my great-uncle Bob and my paternal grandmother died, we didn’t hold funerals. That’s partly because they both were atheists who wanted to be cremated, but it was also because attendance at either event would have been thin at best. They were brother and sister, of course, and they both had been politically and socially active. My grandmother attended two Democratic Party conventions as a delegate, and knew two Presidential candidates and one Supreme Court Justice during her day. In the end, though, they were both terribly shy and proud, and they couldn’t bring themselves to take the simple steps needed to keep them from living their last years in terrible isolation. My great-uncle did actually kill himself (I’ve written about him in my blog).

Their fate demonstrates to me that it is possible to shrink away from human contact entirely, with tragic results. Therapists often act as if the worst never happens, and your problems stem from a negative mindset rather than your true circumstances. This is real life, though, and actions do have consequences. In my case, I can see myself becoming so isolated that any family members who survive me decide to skip the funeral. If I continue to act as I’ve been acting, that’s a likely outcome.

After entertaining this diverting thought for an hour or so, I pulled myself together and tried to define the problem in the most concrete possible way. I set out this month to improve my existing relationships, but that’s a pretty foggy goal, and I find myself hard-pressed to measure whether or not I’m actually meeting it. In order to come up with something more measurable and attainable, I needed to revisit the roots of the problem.

One clue stems from something that annoys me about self-help books. They’re based on the assumption that you’re stressed, depressed, anxious, whatever, because you don’t have time to meet all of your social commitments, what with the constant demands of your spouse and kids. I’m sure this is a common difficulty, but it’s not mine, and I’ve been very frustrated recently just trying to find a book that acknowledges my reality. At work, I’m overstimulated and overwhelmed, but once I get home, I’m lonely and, at times, bored.

I think this problem is more common than people like to admit. Technological overload is not the only modern problem; one that’s just as characteristic and serious is the breakdown of social ties. Plenty of people are estranged from their parents and siblings and dependent on the Internet and long-distance phone calls for much of their social contact. After all, the more frequently you move, the more friends you leave behind, and for the shy among us, it’s very hard to establish a “support network” (I hate that phrase) in each new city.

Rather than dwell on demographics, though, I needed to define precisely, practically mechanically, what keeps me from connecting with people. I think it’s this: I don’t really know how to befriend people, or even how to make conversation in a lot of situations. If my coworkers are gathered around eating birthday cake, for example, I have no idea how to join them gracefully, and I imagine them all falling silent when I creep up. I find the idea of asking a likely coworker to get coffee with me puzzling, to put it mildly, and I know that it’s not as simple as blurting out an invitation at a random moment.

So clearly I need to start with something basic and concrete. I wonder, I thought, if there are any books on how to make friends? I need some sort of primer on social contact that will take me through step by step so that I can set simple goals and enjoy immediate success. Though I was sure it would be no use at all, I went to the bookstore to look for such a thing. To my surprise, it exists: business consultant Debra Fine has written an excellent book called The Fine Art of Small Talk.

And, strangely, reading it really, really helped. The suggestions are detailed and practical, and now I feel like I can set goals and reach them. The problem isn’t, “No one cares if I live or die.” Instead, I’ve reframed it as a skill that I’m lacking that I can develop if I simply apply myself. So I read the book and set a goal (smile and meet the eyes of 10 people at work every day for three days, and pick four conversational openers to have at the ready). I still feel pretty dragged out, but I genuinely feel some hope.

I’m happy to note, too, that yesterday I met and surpassed my smiling goal easily. I also deployed my small-talk line. I was chatting with an engineer, one of the few people who comes to my office to talk, and just as the conversation lagged, I thought to ask, “So, are you working on any New Year’s resolutions?” That revived the conversation nicely.

Love to all.

In Which I Compare Myself to Alexander the Great

December 26, 2009 at 6:46 am | Posted in Creativity, Dealing with Depression, Philosophical Problems | Leave a comment

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

Most other great generals acknowledge that the Macedonian King Alexander the Great was the conqueror’s conqueror. Perhaps the best measure is the simple fact that his conquests covered the known world. He kicked every butt that was available to kick, from other Greeks to the Persians and back again. He died at 32, partly as a result of wounds that he received in battle, and, not surprisingly, his heirs couldn’t hold on to the immense and disparate lands that he managed to acquire.

Though he devoted his brief life to making war, Alexander was far from the stupid bully or killing machine that you might imagine. His tutor during childhood was Aristotle, and he seems to have been an apt pupil. Even today, we use the phrase (or I use the phrase) “Alexandrine solution” to refer to his stunt of slicing through the famous Gordian knot with his sword rather than bothering to untangle it.

Even so, Alexander’s skills didn’t really lie in statesmanship; he may have settled into a wise and just ruler if he had lived longer, but he devoted his short life to making war. That’s probably why Napoleon Bonaparte and Hitler admired him so. And, indeed, it makes sense to ask why we should admire him at all. Conquering the known world is a dubious enterprise at best, involving, as it does, a staggering number of deaths and casualties. He did bring Greek culture to the East, but if I were living in the East at the time I wouldn’t have felt particularly grateful for the gift.

That said, I find myself admiring Alexander much as I admire the Romans. From this distance, it’s easy to forget about his brutality, and to admire his skill, drive, and bravery. Here’s a funny thing, though: Alexander suffered from bizarre mood swings. Much of the time he labored under some pretty hefty notions of grandiosity. If he hadn’t been king and a brilliant general, his conviction that he was destined to rule the world would have been downright bizarre. As it was, he managed to get others to buy into his crazy schemes, and the result made history.

Historians also record bouts of what seems to have been severe depression. He would sulk in his tent for days on end, refusing to come out or see anyone, and probably thinking, “So I conquer the Persians? And? So?” He indulged in drinking bouts that weren’t unusual for that time and culture, but that would put contemporary frat boys to shame. Despite all that, he always did emerge, ready to fight on.

And that’s why I meditated on Alexander the Great for an hour or so yesterday. Sure, his enterprise was arbitrary and destructive, but it drove him, and it changed history, perhaps even for the better. If the Big Question is “Why bother?” Alexander’s answer did make some sense. Since I don’t have an army at my back, there’s no danger that I’ll get carried away and follow in his footsteps. I can see the point, though: you bother for two reasons. First, it beats sulking in your tent, and second, because your skill has turned into a calling, and you really can’t stop.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that writing has saved the mind of more than one scribbler. People don’t write because they figure they’re going to top Homer and Ovid (well, Shakespeare did, but again, it’s a case of grandiosity meets ability). They write, as Harlan Ellison said, because they can do no other. If I do launch a Grandiose Plan, I will be doing it partly to give myself something to write about, to gain enough stature in my own mind to justify sharing my jottings with the world.

I sat down this morning with little notion of what to say, and I haven’t really said much. But I’m chipper, and feel a sense of accomplishment nonetheless. So, yes, one of my best pieces of advice is this: Devote yourself utterly to a craft, whether it be art or war, and let it carry you through those long, bleak stretches.

How to Get Through a Wretched, Wretched Day

December 25, 2009 at 5:58 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, My Fascinating Mood, Productivity, Work Life | Leave a comment

This Monday, the 21st, was one of the roughest days of my life. I had a brutal weekend during which I struggled to get out of bed and brush my teeth, and come Monday, I wasn’t feeling much better. In fact, I was feeling mentally and physically shot.

I had the shakes for some reason, my back ached from staying in bed for three days (note to self — bed rest is the worst possible thing for middle-aged aches and pains), and I was thoroughly derealized and depersonalized. Emotionally, things were as bad as they could be. On the cognitive front, I had the attention span of a five-year-old boy who hasn’t taken his Ritalin, and even the most commonplace thoughts were arriving and leaving at an annoying drip-drip-drip pace.

Oddly, I had been briefly — very briefly — hypomanic on Friday, calling folks on the phone and chatting away in a manner that at least I found most amusing. Or perhaps I was simply acting normally and the contrast was so stark that I felt hypomanic. In any case, a brief spell of hypomania makes depression that much more difficult to weather because you really feel — or, at least, I really feel — that destiny intended you to live in this heightened state, and that you’ve been robbed for the last year or so since you last tasted it.

So, yeah, I was struggling. Going to work and staying there was was quite simply one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. This is sad in itself, because going to work is such a simple, basic act, and a part of me thinks “Good Lord, is this the sum total of my aspirations and abilities? Laboring mightily to see through a few trivial tasks at a job that is, let’s face it, largely administrative?” The answer, it would seem, is a humbling yes.

Right about now you’re probably asking yourself, “Wow, Dr. RandR, how did you accomplish this amazing feat of endurance?” Well, I’m glad you asked, because I’m about to give you some Pretty Darn Good Guidelines for Soldiering Through What Seems to Be an Impossible Task. Hang tight, here we go.

1. I’ve said this before, but it does bear repeating: No big goals. Break everything down into the tiniest imaginable steps, and work your way through one by one, refusing to think about the overwhelming whole. So in addition my master to do list, which, as usual, I populated with all sorts of ambitious projects that I had neither the intention nor the ability to carry out, I prepared a step-by-step list for each task that I absolutely had to accomplish, and I crept through my duties bit by bit in turn.

2. It helped that we had an urgent data delivery, and that none of my coworkers seemed inclined to help to get it out. I mean, if I were carted away to the looney bin before their very eyes, or they had proof positive that I was lying in a coma following a tragic car crash, I imagine someone would have stepped up to the plate. But as long as I was hovering around like a rain cloud, or at least likely to show up, everyone made it clear through their actions that they were too busy to help — and some were — or that they simply didn’t want to. So I was able to carry on in a martyred fashion about how if I’m not there to do things, they simply don’t get done.

A side note: a funny feature of my job — some would say a kafkaesque one — is that I have as little power as it’s possible for a creature with a pulse buried in a large, bureaucratic organization to have, and yet screwing up my main function by missing a data delivery actually carries severe penalties, both for me and for the organization as a whole. For the company, it can mean substantial fines and, in the long run, fewer widget contracts. I actually benefit from the sense of importance this gives me. If my job were entirely futile and pointless — I’ll refrain from pointing out specific functions at work, but trust me, they exist — I really wouldn’t be able to carry on at times. So I’m grateful for the bit of importance that I do have.

3. I’m not in the habit of speaking in an encouraging way to myself, but, boy, did I lay it on thick this week. At least one station in my head remained firmly tuned to the positive thinking channel: “It’s OK. You can do it. You’re going to be fine. You can do this. Just a little more. It’s really going to be OK.” It reminds me of the way I coached my car when the transmission suddenly stopped working the other day. A lot of, “Come on, baby! Just a little further! Let’s get through this one intersection, shall we?”

4. I flatly refused to think ahead to the future, or to ask any of the Big Questions. I’d been asking the Big Questions all weekend — “What am I doing on this planet? Why is there so much suffering in the world, and specifically in my skull?” — and — surprise, surprise! — I hadn’t managed to dredge up any persuasive answers, so come Monday I summoned all of my considerable powers of denial and refused to engage in any cheap existential philosophy. No big questions, just small tasks. No future; just the paper and pen, phone and computer before me.

5. I told myself again and again how proud I would feel if I managed to get through the day. I thought, “Heck, if I can sit upright and look busy for eight hours while feeling like this, then I can conquer the world!” And you know, I do feel proud. I’ve encounted a few stretches in my life where all I could do was slog through with very little hope, encouragement or pride, and I do pretty much manage to tough it out.

Taken together, these strategies did work. I doubt that they could work for months or even days on end, but luckily I did feel a bit better on Tuesday, so I didn’t have to test their efficacy over the long haul. I mean, I think I will eventually have to ask at least a couple of modest questions and discover some sort of purpose to drive me, but Monday was not the day for that, and I wisely refrained. As so often happens with depression, things did get a bit easier, and it was no longer such a superhuman struggle, say, to brush my teeth.

One consequence of my lost weekend is that I’ve had to skip Christmas. The window for buying and sending gifts and cards has closed, and I’m left reassuring myself that I will give everyone on my list random gifts throughout the year when they least expect it. Certainly not on their birthdays, since I always miss those. Perhaps in July, when the holidays seem so far away, and look alluring and not simply stressful.

One thing I did decide on Wednesday, my last day of work before the blessed, blessed holiday shutdown, is that I need a Grandiose Plan for this blog, and by extension for the rest of my life. Here’s the idea I’ve been toying with: what if I become the ideal mental patient? After all, I don’t follow a lot of my own advice. My diet isn’t horrible, but it certainly doesn’t meet FDA guidelines. The only exercise that I’ve been getting has been climbing the stairs at work and trudging back and forth to remote corners of our absurdly huge building. I’ve been slugging away at the coffee, which all the experts agree worsens mood disorders over the long run. I’ve stopped praying and attending church. And so on.

So I’ve been thinking: what if I really clean up my act? I don’t have to run a marathon, but I could revitalize my yoga practice and get the recommended minimum 20 minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week. I could eat more fruits and vegetables, behave as if I haven’t childishly withdrawn my faith from God, and so forth. Obviously, I couldn’t do this all at once. If I did, I would probably be assumed into heaven body and soul like the Virgin Mary, and that would have unfortunate consequences at work and for this blog. (I’m guessing that they don’t have internet connections or cell phones in the afterlife. No TV, either.)

Even so, I’m almost ready to concoct a grand scheme for self improvement just as an experiment. Would I actually get measurably better? Or is it true that mine is a hopeless case and there’s no point in buying spinach just to see it wilt in my refrigerator? The benefit of this approach is that it’s purely experimental. I don’t have to believe that it will work in order to do it. That helps, since I’ve been having a bit of a belief problem for the last several months.

It would also make for good reading — better reading than relentless whining about my sad lot, which others already do much more eloquently on other blogs (well, their lots, not mine). It would prove amusing for others, if not for me. And it might just work. All of the science and clinical evidence suggests that I would improve to some degree. Perhaps the clincher is this: it may be a matter of life and death. I’m genuinely not sure that I can go on like this, so I don’t have much to lose.

So, yes, a hopeful, ambitious, apparently unquenchable corner of my soul has been urging me to concoct and at least try to carry out a Grand Scheme. Watch this space for further developments. Or for more relentless whining. Or, most likely, for both.

Love to all.

Odds and Ends for Your Delectation

November 15, 2009 at 5:55 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, My Fascinating Mood | 2 Comments

The last two weeks have been damn rough, in case you haven’t guessed. I’ve been largely silent because my mood fell off a cliff two weeks ago, and I have a hard time saying anything at all when I can’t say something nice. There are so many excellent bipolar blogs in which the authors share their anguish eloquently — here I am trying to remain realistic but upbeat, and upbeat hasn’t been a part of my repertoire for the last several days.

This morning I reread this entire blog, partly hoping to benefit from my own advice. Such good suggestions. If only I had the power or conviction to follow them, I’d be well on the road to recovery. As someone — I think William Styron — once wrote, depression is annoying to outsiders partly because when you’re depressed, if someone put a pill that would instantly cure you across the room, you wouldn’t — couldn’t — bestir yourself to pick it up and take it.

When I came to my shrink talking of hopelessness and helplessness, she took the usual steps: we restored a medication that I’d dropped, then she lectured me on wellness. I wanted to smack her, which leads me to wonder how many of you have wanted to smack the Pollyanna me on occasion. It’s odd, though, that someone with degrees in both psychology and psychiatry wouldn’t understand that when I’m depressed, I’m in no shape to reach out and establish a support network. She also chirped that having a spouse and children can provide insurance against severe depression. Thanks. If I should ever remarry, my chances of divorcing again are twice the already miserable 40-50%, and I have a genetic illness that precludes me from reproducing responsibly. I would expect greater sensitivity from one who often waxes earnest about the need to have compassion for my inner child.

(By the way, I know that bipolar people do have actual outer children — sometimes even deliberately. Some may even prove to be excellent parents. But it would tear my heart out to see a daughter or son of mine suffer the torments of the damned because I wanted the love, companionship and long-term eldercare that children can offer. I have always wanted children, but I will never have them.)

So. Friday’s head-shrinking conversation wasn’t tremendously helpful. The medication change seems to have worked, however — I am ramping up on my mood stabilizer again, and am already a good deal more sane, if still disgruntled.

So I’m back here, having suffered a reminder that the advice that I give here can be fruitless when one is truly, crushingly depressed.

I took notes as I re-read: here are some of the fruits of my self-review.

I must blog more resources on the health care reform bill that passed the House. I actually had a chance to meet my Congresswoman last week and thank her for her “Yes” vote. Digression of misery: She is so impressive — such an excellent extemporaneous speaker, so charismatic. And a year younger than me. Grr. I used to be impressive. In fact, I’m still a damn good speaker. But, oh, sometimes I would give anything to have my whole brain back. These cognitive deficits are humbling, humbling. In any case, I will make a point of rooting up some resources for those of you who have a little time to kill by mastering the details of a bill that is, apparently, longer than Richardson’s Clarissa, a novel that took me two weeks of eight-hour days to complete when I was studying for my qualifying exams.

2. A tough question: What can you do, what hope can you nurse, if your life has not been a happy one, and it seems to be getting worse, not better? That’s a hell of a question, but it’s the one that I ultimately face. I feel like I need to think that one through in these pages. There may not be an answer, or it may be the wrong question entirely, but I need to at least take a whack at it over the next couple of days.

3. It is beneficial and easy to keep a gratitude list. Studies show (doesn’t that assertion just make you bristle?) that people who regularly and explicitly count their blessings gain from the exercise. So. You don’t need to do it every day, but every now and then sit down with paper and pen (or laptop and keyboard, or iPhone and finger) and list 10 things that you’re grateful for. Here are mine for this morning:

1. My lovely and excellent cats.
2. My exceptionally cool dad, who ran in the eights yesterday with his home-built race car. That is to say, he topped 150 in the quarter mile, roaring down the track in just under nine seconds. That’s fast, and it’s a tribute to his amazing, self-taught engineering skills. Mom, Dad, email me a photo that I can attach — I’m that proud.
3. My outstanding mom, who quilts, paints, and has so mastered Suduko that she is entirely over it.
4. My sister, who forged the way for both of us to become Christians, though admittedly of very different denominations.
5. My garden, which is small and shabby, but which is still an amazing creative outlet.
6. A Beacoup Conge, the local bead store. Every time I go I see new and vintage beads gathered from around the globe, and the helpful and talented staff often warble along with the radio out of sheer high spirits. The bead store is definitely one of my happy places.
7. My thesaurus. My journalistic training has drilled me in avoiding the temptation to deploy the same words over and over. Therefore the thesaurus lives right here by my desk, and I’m not afraid to use it.
8. The Central Arts Collective, which has a wall of art under a hundred bucks. I recently bought a delightful framed photographic print by an artist who composes brilliant abstractions by shooting close-ups of rust and other forms of weathering. He was so happy to sell the work, and I was so happy to buy it! If you can buy, beg, or steal original art, do.
9. I am trying to add “my job.” It’s sort of a dysfunctional relationship, but I know that the structure and the social challenges are ultimately beneficial.
10. The New York Times, which I read free online.

As often happens, I am tempted to go beyond 10 items. So a couple more:

11. The sunrises and sunsets here in my hometown, which really are remarkable. Visitors are knocked speechless, and even natives will call to each other and crowd outside excitedly during an especially amazing show.
12. Root candles, which smell delicious and are actually made by a several-decades-old privately held company that manufactures ecclesiastical candles as well as ornamental ones. When I complained about poor wicks in one batch of votives, they responded to my indignant email with personal concern and sent me a free candle in my favorite scent, Victorian Fantasy. And how’s that for an evocative name? Because of the folks at Root, I live in a permanent cloud of Victorian Fantasy.
13. The teachers who drilled me so mercilessly in grammar and other aspects of good writing. Talent is nothing without craft, and this blog is the result of decades spent honing my craft.
14. My iPhone. I know it’s shallow and consumerist to have a love affair with an expensive gadget, but it’s so attentive that I’m pretty sure it loves me back.
15. Pandora free streaming radio and the music genome project that makes it possible. I’m listening to my station, Music for Cats, right now. Through my iPhone.

And as I reflect upon my position — sitting in my condo, listening to my homegrown radio station, within earshot of loving cats (why does Julia make those weird grunting noises all the time? I can hear them from the next room), with art on the walls and the internet at my fingertips, I feel that perhaps everything will be all right. It’s true that I have no kids, no husband, a precarious grip on my profession, and a bad migraine, but I really do have a lot of cool blessings. Bringing them to consciousness occasionally is an excellent exercise.

Another random note from my legal pad: “My conversation with Mom and Dad about the genetic causes of bipolar disorder. Possible evolutionary advantages?” Now that’s a post I may well never write. My interest in sociobiology is limited at best, based as it is on equal parts speculation and wishful thinking.

Next: “Optimism mood-tracking software.” Um, yes, that. I sort of fell of the wagon — I usually do when things get bad, it’s that whole overwhelming business of having to mouse-click on an icon — but I will get back to it! I will!

More: “How amino acids, vitamin B, and fish oil are working.” Not well, thanks. Though the nasty cracks at the corners of my lips healed once I started seriously supplementing B vitamins. Otherwise, though, these supplements appear to be an expensive boondoggle.

“My programmable thermostat — status.” Oh, right. Well, I haven’t learned how to program it, but I did figure out how to run it like a regular thermostat. The first step was remembering to flip the circuit back on. From there, everything else was a piece of cake.

“The relief I experience — and don’t experience — while kidding around” at the disabled people’s group at work. It’s very freeing to be able to crack jokes about disabilities, and disabled people are generally the first people to get off a zinger when conversing among themselves. However, in our group I am one of a very few people with a hidden disability, and the only person I’m aware of with a serious mental illness. This gives me a bit of a sense of restraint. After all, being legally blind, for example, doesn’t automatically grant understanding and empathy for those of us whose thoughts are so very deeply weird. So I enjoy the company of my wry disabled work friends, but I remain conscious of a certain difference and distance, too. I can’t know what it’s like to have a visible disability, though I understand intellectually that the discrimination is outrageous. At the same time, they can’t know my daily struggle to render myself acceptable to the more normal folk around me. That desperate and always unsuccessful effort exhausts and alienates me in ways that I can’t even begin to explain.

That’s enough for now. As usual, just when I thought the springs of inspiration were at the lowest possible ebb, I find myself filled to overflowing with commentary and, yes, complaints. I think I will go make another bead project now.

What Little I Know About Motivation

November 8, 2009 at 8:50 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, My Fascinating Mood | Leave a comment

I know very little about motivation. I am, however, deeply intimate with its opposite, acedia, a feeling of jaded exhaustion so destructive that it’s considered a sin.

Acedia. Yes. The jaded sense of exhaustion that comes over me on a Sunday afternoon, and that can easily persist all week — or for two weeks — if I won’t or can’t put in the hard work needed to shake it off. When I’m depressed, which is most of the time, my default mode is physical immobility and a blank stare. It’s a huge effort to move, speak, and, at times, to look up. I get some relief when I’m actually engaged in a task, but as soon as the task ends, I lapse into a sad stillness.

I have dozens of gambits to lash myself into action, and I’ve recounted many of them here: breaking down a task into its smallest possible elements, setting a timer for 10 or 15 minutes and working just for that time, performing the elaborate anti-procrastination rituals found in The Feeling Good Handbook. At work I struggle constantly to stay active, to avoid falling into that silent, dazed stare which normal people probably find creepy. The thing is, when I get home from work, I sometimes resent hugely having to flog myself further to get anything done in my private life. I get tired of essentially tricking myself into action again and again, for all of my waking hours. Sometimes I long to just stare and let misery overwhelm me. The sensation this creates is painful, but it’s also easy, and sometimes I just need to do what’s easiest.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been unable to act much at home. Sometimes I manage to fool myself into some sort of activity, but more often I’ve just been drifting — falling asleep, or just lying in an agonizing daze from which I cannot seem to extricate myself. I did finally manage to shake this mood off on Friday, but I admit that I’m afraid of today. It is Sunday, and I can feel the abyss of inaction right there next to me.

So here’s a brief memo to myself. I hope that I will be able to cling to these words for the next several hours, and that they will buoy me up.

1. There will be times when you feel motivated and excited, but those times will be rare. Treasure them. It might be a good idea to jot down a few notes on what brought the enthusiasm on, and to see if you can reproduce it.

2. It doesn’t really matter all that much what you do, but you do need to do something. A week ago, I wrote on a loose scrap of paper: “Drive to La Encantada.” Then, several lines down, “Why?” Do not ask this question. While your actions shouldn’t be entirely random (in other words, you should have goals and pursue them), you needn’t choose the “right” thing to do. Driving to La Encantada might not be the optimum thing to do on a Sunday afternoon, but it beats staring at the wall. You can agonize all day about which item on your to do list is the thing that you need to do, the thing that will cure your unhappiness. Probably all of them can, or none of them. You can become absorbed in just about anything — even in walking around a pretentious rich-people mall like La Encantada. Human beings are meaning-making creatures, and you will construct meaning and even a smidgen of joy out of anything you do.

3. It doesn’t matter if you do the thing well. Of course, that’s not entirely true — at work they will probably insist upon some basic level of competence — but when you’re on your own time, you can afford to suck, to struggle, and to fail. You need not avoid activities simply because you might not be good at them, or the product might be less than brilliant. In other words, embrace making an ugly necklace.

4. You do not feel yourself into working. You work yourself into feeling. It’s not reasonable to expect to start every task with a rush of enthusiasm. Sure, when you’re hypomanic you’re overcome with excitement over every chance-met chore, but this is not your normal state of being, and if you wait for this state to descend over you, you will waste your life in a weltering pool of inaction. So act!

I feel that I should polish this a bit, but I’m losing momentum as I write. I think I will simply publish it, hoping that it will do some good as it is, and knowing that it’s better than not publishing at all.


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