The Rat and the Pellet, or, Why I Often Prefer Brooding in a Dark Bedroom to a Stroll in the Sun

A fine rat
Now where did I leave that damn cheese?
I remember reading somewhere (that is, I would like to tell you an apocryphal story) that if you give a rat a pellet when it steps on a lever, the rat will step on the lever whenever it is hungry. If you don’t give the rat any pellets, it won’t try the lever a second time. If, however, the lever only produces a pellet occasionally, the rat will jump up and down on that lever until it dies of exhaustion (the rat, not the lever).

People repeat this story because it neatly explains a problem in the human psyche. That is, Why do we pursue activities that typically end in frustration? The question and the rat came to mind while I was taking my stroll around the neighborhood yesterday morning. I perversely resisted taking my walk, then started enjoying it almost before I crossed my lawn. The sky was blue scored with tattered white clouds, and it was chilly — perhaps 55 degrees. Pigeons flew in formation. I thought, Why did I think that I would rather take a nap? Strangely, I think it’s because naps only work about ten percent of the time. That is, for every nine times I stare at the ceiling and absently pick my cuticles bloody, there’s one lovely, healing nap. So I jump on that bar daily.

In contrast, I have never once regretted going to a yoga class. After classes, I feel practically high, and I can feel the unkinking in my spine. Though the benefits of walking are mild by comparison, they’re still consistent. I love to get outside and look at things, particularly at the way tidy and shabby houses alternate in my neighborhood.

For some reason, the irregular reward appeals to me more than the consistent one. Every time I get a pellet, I think, Damn, what I need is a bigger, tastier, newer pellet — better keep jumping. I think this is perfectly normal, though self-defeating.

Sociologists have a name for the economic version of this: the hedonic treadmill. Work stresses you out, so you buy several gazingus pins. Once you’ve gone into debt acquiring the shiny but entirely useless stuff that bores you almost as soon as you buy it, you have to work harder and longer to pay off the gazingus pins you already have, and to buy more. No amount of gazingus pins will ever be enough, because they don’t address the fundamental problem: Your job stresses you out. (I owe the phrase “gazingus pin” to the authors of Your Money or Your Life, the best personal finance system that I don’t follow.)

If this is true, then changing habits is not a matter of depriving yourself of much-needed, hard-earned rest. Rather, it means retraining yourself to pursue the more consistent result. It’s more effective to look forward to the benefits of a new pursuit than it is to flog yourself with the consequences of your old habits. I didn’t learn yoga because I was afraid of losing muscle as I age; doing it made me feel good. The same goes for every good habit I’ve ever pursued, from praying the Liturgy of the Hours to cutting down on refined sugar.

I’d like to veer off course now to tell you all how glad I am to have escaped academia. It’s not just that there are no jobs in my field; it’s that succeeding in academia requires a tolerance for boredom of truly epic proportions. A friend of mine who remains in the game reminded me of this when he reminisced about when we took a date of mine to session at the Modern Languages Association convention. Half an hour into the first presentation, Greg was literally hunched over in his seat clutching his head in despair. We’re not talking pen-tapping or staring out into space — no, every line of his body spoke of the deepest anguish. My friend and I go off into gales of laughter whenever we remember that. The presentation wasn’t especially horrible, as academic presentations go. The author simply read 20-odd pages of jargon-larded prose about, say, the Frankfurt School in a rapid mumble. And it was followed by three more like that.

At the university where I got my doctorate, three-hour seminars of solid lecture were the norm. In my second year I sat through a talk on the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit that clocked in just shy of six hours. That professor, who was more amusing than most, was regarded as a lovable eccentric, not a possible source of deep-vein thrombosis. I do have a reasonably good understanding of Hegel, but my main memory of that evening consists of picking salt off of a couple of pretzels that I happened to have, and arranging the granules into triangles on the conference room table. He had the original German and two, perhaps three, translations (English, French, and, I seem to remember, Polish). I wish I were exaggerating, but I am absolutely not.

Heck, there were times in 90-minute classes when I would have paid to be transported to that seminar. I remember one gentleman who would murmur about, say Kant and the mathematical sublime, pausing occasionally to pat his face with a handkerchief and refer us to the critical work of Peter Szondi. I never met anyone who could make the least sense of anything he said that semester. If he hadn’t had a particularly coveted accent, we might have rebelled. As it was, we nodded, took notes, and relied on each other to crack the texts.

Another professor got a sincere round of applause on the last day of class for changing out of his usual suit of baby-blue polyester. (He was actually a wonderful, wonderful teacher who had the gift of regarding first-year graduate students rabid with their own knowledge with gentle patience.)

But I digress. The point here is that the terrors of corporate PowerPoint pale when compared to a typical academic talk. At a corporate pep rally you can scoff and jeer quietly. When you’re helping to reframe the discourse surrounding, say, irony, you have to persuade yourself that you are engaged in a crucial pursuit. You’re thinking, Well, you can’t pick apart the entire tradition of Western philosophy without breaking a couple of eggs.

In six or seven or eight years they pack you off to teach composition at a community college in Nebraska where the students decorate their papers with emoticons. Your friends, who are teaching adjunct at four far-flung colleges in Southern California (that’s called “freeway flying”), tell you how proud they are that you got a job. Meanwhile, you’re busy getting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the sheer weight of 80 students’ illiteracy each semester, plus research and administrative work. The whole time, you think to yourself, “Yes, but I am saving Western Civilization one comma splice at a time.” Uh-huh. You and your unfortunate kind will never prevail over the internet, texting, and TV.

Oh, and the reward? If you’re very, very good, and publish a couple of books, you may be permitted to do this for the rest of your life. Harlan Ellison, that master of invective, once said that writing screenplays in Hollywood is like climbing a pile of excrement to pluck a rose at the top. By the time you grab the flower, you can smell only shit. Exactly.

Well, that’s a very bitter rant. I adored graduate school, and wish that life were like that. Every day when I walked to class and looked up at the vultures soaring overhead, I would think, Wow, I’m really here, at the absolute epicenter of critical theory! A shameful admission: As an undergraduate I took a 16-week course where we read nothing but Conrad’s novella, The Heart of Darkness. I loved it, and came to dream of spending a lifetime engaging in Socratic thrust-and-parry. I should invoice the professor for the amount of my student loans.

I’m happy this morning. I am looking forward to my walk, and to hanging out with my parents and talking on the phone.

Love to all.

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How to Get Through a Wretched, Wretched Day

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.

Book Review: Unclutter Your Life in One Week

Unclutter Your Life in One Week
The cover of Erin Rooney Doland's excellent book on organizing.
In case you hadn’t guessed, I am a huge believer in being organized, and in self-improvement in general. Nothing jazzes me quite like a complicated project that promises me a bright, shiny new life of simplicity and ease. On a more practical level, I believe that bipolar folk need to have good systems in place to keep us functioning when depression strikes.

Imagine my delight, then, when I read a review recommending Unclutter Your Life in One Week, a summary of wisdom from Erin Rooney Doland’s Unclutterer blog. I ordered it immediately, even though I thought I didn’t really have a tremendous amount of clutter in my home. How could I? I moved into my lovely new condo at the beginning of May, and purged crap madly before packing.

Of course, I do, indeed, have a good deal of clutter at home and at work. Why, my excess beauty supplies would keep a small village clean and preened for a month; my file drawers at work are crammed with outdated papers and office supplies that past data managers have bequeathed upon me, including, to my dismay, transparencies for overheads (which demonstrate that people bored each other well before PowerPoint) and printable labels for floppy disks.

Once I realized how dire the situation had become, I plunged into Doland’s program, and found her advice to be excellent. I would give one caveat: the agenda for each day is crazily ambitious. Unless you want to bog down and get discouraged, I suggest that you set aside two or three weeks for the dramatic cleanup that she recommends. I’m also a believer in incremental rather than dramatic habit change, if only because I’ve committed to so many radical new plans only to discard or simply forget them in the hustle of daily life. Again, I recommend that you allow several months to implement all of Doland’s cool systems.

The book is divided into separate chapters for each day of the week, each one focusing on a different area of the home and office. She begins by telling you how to clean, simplify and organize the area, then gives a system for maintaining your progress and streamlining the activities associated with the area. So, for example, Monday is devoted to tackling your wardrobe at home and your desk at work, and to setting up a “reception station” by your front door that will give you a transitional zone that will keep you from bringing clutter like loose change and unopened mail into your home.

I tackled the wardrobe project on Sunday, and am still working on it sporadically along with my bathroom. It’s Friday and I haven’t even touched the kitchen or living room. Of course, my wardrobe situation had become pretty grim. I love clothes and shoes, and tend to accumulate them willy-nilly without much regard for fit or function. Following her instructions, though, I managed to pare down my holdings and tidy the floor and storage bins. I haven’t yet established a routine for getting dressed, partly because that entails purchasing at least one big item — a full-length mirror. Also, Doland’s goal with getting dressed is to save time — she believes that it should take no more than five minutes — while I actually enjoy putting together the day’s stunning outfit. So I’m modifying her plan to make dressing fun and sensual rather than simply fast.

Doland provides examples of several wardrobe systems that could work, and encourages you to adopt one that you will actually maintain. This is a real advantage over programs like Getting Things Done that tend to seem elaborate, rigid, and overwhelming to us mentally ill folk. Again and again, Doland emphasizes that the goal is productivity, not maintaining a system for the sheer pleasure of being hyper-organized and precise. This is crucial, since I tend to use things like to do lists to procrastinate and engage in obsessive-compulsive checking behavior rather than as productivity tools.

All in all, though there are plenty of other systems out there (many of which I’ve tried), hers ranks in the 90th percentile, certainly. The same is true of her advice on emailing, filing, and running meetings — her systems are certainly not the only ones, and perhaps not the absolute best, but they are an excellent starting point if certain areas of your life have drifted out of control. Doland’s book rises above the competition because she breaks each project down into tiny steps and shows you exactly where to start on what could otherwise be an overwhelming project.

There are two odd omissions: there’s no advice on organizing storage closets (mine is quickly descending into chaos) or junk drawers (ditto). I can happily turn elsewhere for these, though, so it’s no big loss.

Overall, Doland’s book is a valuable organizing tool. Even if I only follow one-seventh of her advice, my quality of life will improve, and I’m all about quality of life. Too, this book showed up in the mail at just the right time: when I was digging out from a depressive episode and becoming discouraged by the disorder around me. I’m ready for some good old-fashioned goal-directed behavior, and Doland’s book has provided structure and encouragement. So buy it and jump in, or store it until you’re neck-deep in clutter and desperate for a cure.

Love to all.

A Rousing Speech Agitating for Humanity, Democracy, and Disability

Yesterday at work I gave my presentation about communicating about disabilities. It went very well — there were a lot of good questions and comments, and it was a lively group with a most dynamic manager. I sat through the rest of their staff meeting and came away thinking, Damn, I’d like to work for that organization. Their management is that cool.

After the presentation, I started to think about the next one, which I mentioned long, long ago in this space. In February I will be talking to an all hands for my product line. The program manager asked me to address a specific question: All other things being equal, why should I hire someone who is disabled who will need accommodations? The question is blunt, but, I think, fair.

At my company we talk a lot about the business case for diversity, and the party line is that a diverse group is more creative and better able to solve problems. (I almost wrote, “to problem solve,” an icky corporate formulation. I have this terror that I will spontaneously speaking and writing in nothing but Corporatespeak, and that I won’t be able to stop.) To be honest, I don’t know if that’s really true. As I wrote before, I’m not sure that female engineers are any more likely to come up with a fresh approach to a knotty problem than men are. It seems to me that it would make more difference where and how they’d been educated and what sort of work experience they had. That seems to lead to the gloomy conclusion that, all other things being equal, you should shun someone who needs to take the occasional Mad Day.

That’s wrong, of course. As I wrote in my previous post on the subject, disabled people bring a lot of unique qualities to the table, including resilience and determination. There’s more to it, though. I’ve worked in this metrics-driven environment for so long now that I’m a little ashamed to suggest that perhaps intangibles count as much or more than that which can be measured. I believe that it’s true though.

Take two average departments, or sections as we call them at my company. Give Group One a dynamic manager who is cheerful, treats workers with trust and compassion, and willingly works alongside them when necessary. This manager acknowledges her employees’ expertise, and she actively encourages them to experiment, make mistakes, and thereby devise true process improvements.

Over Group Two, place a crappy manager — not an outstanding tyrant, but just a technocrat who works poorly with people. Manager Number Two does not trust her workers — she insists on checking their work, and is incensed at every typographical error. She doesn’t think to compliment them when they do well, but never fails to criticize them publicly for mistakes both small and large. When they come to her with questions she huffs and rolls her eyes; if they present her with a problem and ask for the resources to solve it, she flushes red with sheer irritation. If one employee slacks off, she berates all of them in staff meetings, thereby giving the hard workers the impression that she sees them as one undifferentiated mass.

In our little mental exercise, award Manager Number Two with every sort of technical expertise, and a solid background at the company. Make manager Number One a relative rookie who is new to the industry. I still predict that Group One will always outperform Group Two. They’ll suffer less turnover, take fewer sick days, and enjoy higher productivity. Group Two will surf the internet every time their manager’s back is turned, and they’ll use up every sick day they have and then some. They’re probably more likely to get legitimately sick, too. Certainly they will hate their jobs and view the company that promoted Manager Two with suspicion.

What does this all have to do with disabilities? After all, probably plenty of disabled people are lousy managers or slack employees. My point is this: The intangible and immeasurable always matter, and they will out in the end. When the metrics come down, Manager Two will blame her lazy employees and say that it’s impossible to get good help these days; Manager One wisely understands that a section is only as good as its section head, no matter how experienced or conscientious the individual employees may be. At the end of the day, even though all of its advantages are intangible, Section One will prosper and Section Two will decline.

Here’s the thing: We’re hired because they need people, not machines or trained pigeons, to do our jobs. They need us to apply our judgment, empathy, compassion, wisdom, and creativity — our humanity — to every aspect of our work. Of course, along with those excellent qualities come our shortcomings. We take sick days. We get repetitive stress disorders if we don’t take regular breaks. We get bored and our minds wander. And, yes, some of us may need to take the occasional inpatient Mad Break. You can accept this fact and accommodate your workers when they need it, or you can treat human qualities as individual weaknesses and watch your workers stream away to join the competition. In a competitive industry — and ours is very competitive — it really does pay to treat your employees like full human beings. That’s true whether or not you can quantify the benefits.

The business case, then, is not for diversity, but simply for humanity. We all make allowances for each other all the time. In the end, the product ships, the cathedral gets built, the mural gets painted, and we create a little more of that odd product we call civilization. We do it because of our weak humanity, not in spite of it.

You can build a civilization using slaves who you treat as disposable bits of machinery, or you can encourage everyone to take responsibility, throw themselves into their work, and take a bit more of what civilization has to offer: leisure, security, comfort, happiness. The former is a dictatorship; the latter is a radical democracy consisting of citizens, not slaves.

Hm. I like that. It’s a bit over-dramatic, perhaps, but I really do believe that it’s true.

OK, enough. I have to go to the grocery store to buy roses.

Love to all.

Things Are Getting Worse, Not Better — What to Do? What to Do?

Over the last several days, I have been wrestling with a difficult issue: in three crucial ways, I am getting worse, not better.

Most people around me deny it, but I know damn well that my cognitive problems are getting more serious. I’ve gone from mild difficulties with word recall to forgetting that entire conversations ever occurred. This has led to several incidents at work ranging from embarrassing to near-catastrophic, and I am afraid — and I think this fear is realistic — that eventually I may not be able to work.

I’m also becoming more withdrawn socially, and this affects me in a couple of ways. First of all, during my depressed phases, I find it nearly impossible to carry out commitments I’ve made. For instance, if I sign up for a class, as I did at church, I know damn well that depression will prevent me from finishing it.

At the same time, because of my bouts of severe depression, I find it hard to maintain the social supports that I need. When I am truly down I simply withdraw. I can’t talk to people that I don’t know well or enter unfamiliar social situations. I don’t have a good social network now, and despite my best efforts, I don’t seem to be able to keep it together long enough to expand it.

All of this leads to a larger existential question which I will certainly not answer today, but which I’d like to pose to you, the readership: I think it’s fair to say that my adult life up until now has not been a happy one. I’ve been crushingly depressed, in and out of hospitals, and unable to maintain the sort of stable relationships that preserve sanity. Given that things are getting worse and not better, what kind of quality of life can I expect as I grow older? It’s unlikely that I will enjoy a fruitful retirement that includes a loving spouse, friends and hobbies, and travel. In fact, I’m facing the very real possibility that I may not be able to work to retirement age. If my life was unhappy at the height of my intellectual and social powers, what is it likely to be in the future? Tied to this is the question of what I have to offer potential friends or a hypothetical spouse.

As I said in my last post, both of those questions may be the wrong ones to ask if, as I suspect, the answer could lead to further depression. I don’t want to torture myself with unanswerable questions or insoluble problems. So I’d like to set the larger issues aside and start with a relatively concrete piece: my cognitive lapses.

First, what am I doing already to cope? Well, at work and at home I keep detailed lists of things to do, and this does help to prevent any given task from falling through the cracks. I’m also extremely organized. I do not count on memory to help me to locate files, for example — I just file them properly. These two strategies are not enough, however, since I tend to forget either that I’ve had a conversation regarding a particular issue — say, that I’ve asked the preparer about the status of a data deliverable — or I can’t remember what was said a day later.

So what else could I be doing? I could document every conversation that I have, or conduct all important conversations via email. However, the first is a little too obsessive even for me, and email is often not the most effective way to either get information out of people or get them to take action. So I’m not quite sure what to do.

When I don’t know what to do, I look for resources that will tell me. So:

1. If my shrink can’t help, maybe there’s a local therapist or psychiatrist who specializes in dealing with early memory loss. I can ask my therapist for a referral, and I can Google local resources.

2. I can also call the Employee Assistance Program at work, which is amazingly efficient when it comes to finding everything from cat-sitters to house cleaners. Granted, this is more serious than finding a good accountant. Nonetheless, it might be worth a try.

3. I also wonder if there are books that address these problems. I’ve never seen anything in a book on bipolar disorder, though the research shows that cognitive problems are inherent in the illness. People do have memory loss for other reasons, however: chemotherapy, normal aging, and the various forms of dementia being obvious examples. So it might be worth my while to search Amazon for books on coping with memory loss.

One thing is for sure: I can’t continue to pretend this isn’t happening. It’s a threat to my livelihood, and thus to the core of my identity; I need to confront it, and to try everything in my power to reverse or compensate for my cognitive deficits.

So here’s the plan: I will hit Google, the EAP hotline, and Amazon, and report on what I find. I will also continue to write about these three intertwined issues, as frightening as they are.

Work Life and Real Life

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.

My Worst Worry: What if I Get Laid Off?

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.