Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, July 31, 2017 6:50 pm

What I would like to do on my summer vacation

The summer of 1981 should have been so much better for me than it was. But it could have been so much worse than it was, too.

As Tony, who has his own take on it, describes, he and I were sharing an apartment in Chapel Hill, trying to hold down jobs while also raising as much hell as humanly possible. At least that was the plan. Go read his post; it’s worth it, and I’ll wait.

You back? Good.

As he says, I only lasted about a month. He’s correct that being a day laborer didn’t agree with me, but I’ll add something to that: With the exception of 1980, when I got to be a full-time disc jockey in air-conditioned comfort, I’d spent every summer for the previous decade doing manual labor in the hot sun or slaving over deep fryers in fast-food joints at Carowinds that either weren’t air-conditioned or may as well not have been. Hard physical work wasn’t the issue.

Another thing he’s not telling you, because he’s such a good friend: I bailed on him. In the middle of the night, while he was at work, leaving him in the lurch rent-wise. Without, as I recall, even leaving a note. It was a dick move, no question. But I did it because at that point, I saw that as one of only two options, the other being suicide.

Depression runs in my father’s family. In hindsight I had had symptoms as early as age 12, and I’d already thought a great deal about suicide, including exactly how to go about it so as to minimize the mess I’d leave behind for whoever found me, well before graduating from high school.

Many years later, I was talking with my mother about that, and said, “Well, son, it was the ’70s, everybody was crazy, and frankly, you just didn’t stick out all that much.” She was joking, but there was more than a kernel of truth to that. Even in my fairly well-off, fairly well-adjusted neighborhood, I saw and heard things.

And in 1981, the summer before our senior year of college, I was still 15 years from being formally diagnosed (and farther still from getting on the medications that have kept me alive). And there you have it: the context in which I experienced my worst depressive episode yet, without even the words to say what was going on.

Sure, some events in my life contributed. That spring I broke up with a woman, regretted it immediately, then couldn’t walk it back. The woman I started dating after that dumped me unceremoniously within weeks. I ran for three different positions in my fraternity and lost all three. I drew dead last in the frat-house room lottery, leaving me with no place to live for my senior year. My full-time deejaying hours, which I had been counting on to allow me to graduate from college with merely manageable student-loan debt instead of the bankrupting kind, got cut back by half. I’d have been having a tough time even without chronic depression. With it, I was lucky I lived.

So, yeah, I took off in the middle of the night, leaving what was supposed to have been an idyllic summer in Chapel Hill with my best bud to try to figure out which disastrous aspect of my life I was going to try to fix first IF I didn’t kill myself. And I left Chapel Hill because I figured the closer I was to home, the less likely I was to kill myself. I can’t explain that logic, but it made sense at the time.

Long story short, I didn’t kill myself — not because I got help, but because, by luck or fluctuations in brain chemistry or the grace of God or a combination of all three, the pit I was in got a little shallower. Not a lot, but enough for me at least to climb a little farther from the darkness.

Tony also was kind enough not to mention that we didn’t speak for months after that. I think I finally called him that fall because another friend of mine nagged me into it; God knows I was too ashamed to do it on my own. Let’s just say he was way more gracious about it than I deserved.

And, slowly, bit by bit, piece by piece — and, again, with luck, fluctuations of brain chemistry, and/or the grace of God — I started pulling things back together. A couple of my frat brothers who had won a room in the house ahead of me bailed, and the alumni board offered me the double room as a single to cut their losses. The chapter treasurer bailed, and the alumni board offered me that gig, too — an executive for what’s now Bank of America made the pitch in New Orleans later that summer at my frat’s national convention; I remember I was drinking tequila when he made the offer and I about snorted it out my nose. My social life, well, it took more time and more work, but long story short, I ended up having an uneven but pretty sociable senior year. And I got enough work hours back that by the time I graduated, my student-loan debt was still manageable even for a kid with an English degree.

I tell you all of this not to justify my behavior at the time, but as a kind of public-service announcement. Behavioral disorders — things like bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and so on — often manifest in really severe ways for the first time in people who are of college age. (I noted that my depression wasn’t formally diagnosed for another 15 years. Well, my generalized anxiety disorder, which in hindsight was manifesting quite nicely even in my teens, thank you very much, wasn’t diagnosed for another 32.) If you’re a college student, you need to know that. If you’re the parent of a college student, you really need to know that. I don’t recall that this was common knowledge in 1981; certainly, I didn’t know it, and I don’t think my well-educated parents did, either. But people need to know it. They need to be aware. And, particularly if such disorders run in the family, they should be on the watch for signs and get help, or see that a loved one gets help, when those signs become evident.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). And there are a lot of other resources on the Internet for people with these problems, or who think they might have these problems, that didn’t exist when I was 21. If you’re in the pit or think someone you care for might be, say something, do something, anything. I never believed that college is the best years of your life, but it shouldn’t be the worst, either, and God knows it shouldn’t be the end.

As for the idyllic summer month in Chapel Hill that Tony advocates, I long for it, too, and I’m fortunate to have a job now where, if he and I can get all the moving parts lined up, we might even be able to make it happen next year or the year after — to do 1981 over again and do it right this time. Or maybe that’s a pipe dream. The point is, we’re both here and in a position at least to see if it’s doable. As it is, this weekend or soon thereafter, we’ll be toasting 40 years of friendship, our wives with us and the shadows, at least for now, at bay.

Monday, October 10, 2016 6:27 am

You don’t have to feel like this

Today is World Mental Health Day. And if you’re depressed or anxious to the point of feeling suicidal, please, get help. Here is a state-by-state list of suicide hotlines.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled inanity.

Thursday, May 9, 2013 7:29 pm

Maybe Allie’s little piece of corn can explain it all to you

For those of you who don’t know me well and have occasionally wondered what in the pluperfect hell is wrong with me — other than being a jackass, I mean — I have struggled with chronic, severe depression on and off since age 13 and continuously for about the past 20 years. (There have been some other issues, too, such as manic episodes, during which I spent money I didn’t have and behaved in risky and hurtful ways that haunt me to this day, and generalized anxiety disorder, more on which in a minute, and even a touch of post-traumatic stress disorder. But depression, like The Dude, abides.) So, if you’ll keep in mind that her experiences and mine are not identical but are alike in many, many ways, I invite you to read Allie’s graphic (which is to say that it includes not only details but also cartoons) explanation of her depression at her blog, Hyperbole and a Half.

Now, Allie kind of implies that what I’m about to say about myself is also the case for her, but I may be reading too much into what she writes. At any rate, for me, the difference between depression and GAD is that the former makes me wish I were dead but the latter makes me actively want to do something about it. GAD is a relatively new development for me, at least to this extent. When it got really bad for the first time, last fall, I had done enough reading at least to know what was going on. Unfortunately, the psychiatrist I was seeing at the time prescribed medication that is the exact opposite of what I should have been getting for the condition, so I fired his ass on the spot. (In my own mind. All he knows is that I haven’t been back or been in contact. Interestingly, his office has never once tried to contact me.)

Problem was, the only way to get to see a new p-doc quickly was to go to the emergency room and thence to the local loony bin for a few days. That was bad, but not as bad as you might think if your only exposure is “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” For one thing, the food was actually pretty good. For another, the staff was quite nice. And I did get to see a p-doc who referred me to a new p-doc out in the real world whom I could see reasonably quickly (more on whom in a minute).

The down side, and this really was a downer, was spending several  hours a day in group. For one thing, I didn’t need group; I needed medication that would make my skin stop crawling and make me stop wanting to kill myself. For another, I am an introvert. For another, the dayroom TV was tuned to USA, which was running an NCIS marathon of which I only got to see bits and pieces. I love NCIS. and watching NCIS would have helped me a lot more than listening to the unrelated problems of a bunch of weird strangers whose problems weren’t like mine. Instead, they included everyone from recovering substance addicts to active psychotics, the kind of people who see sentient, carnivorous piles of Jell-O in the corners that no one else can see.

Me: “You know it’s not real, right?”

Him (not at all offended): “It’s not real to you, sure. And that’s OK. It doesn’t want you.”

(In hindsight, I sound like some of the people in Allie’s piece who were trying unsuccessfully and cluelessly to be helpful. But I actually asked the question out of curiosity; I was trying to understand. I neither knew nor cared whether asking would help.)

Long story short, the new p-doc got me on a pharmaceutical regimen that keeps both depression and anxiety in check. I haven’t been badly anxious but a time or two in the past couple of months; I haven’t been suicidal in many weeks, except once for, like, 20 minutes or so. I know I need adequate sleep, which I’m generally getting, and I know I need exercise, which I was getting up until I started grad school two years ago and will resume getting after comps next week.

Depression is kind of a big deal. In any given year, almost 7 percent of adult Americans have it, and of them, 30% have severe cases. No treatment works for everybody. It took me a year to find an optimum treatment, which worked right up until it didn’t; now, I’m on a medication that didn’t exist when I began taking depression medication more than a decade ago.

But, anyway, go read Allie’s story. Odds are, you or someone you know can relate.

Saturday, August 21, 2010 5:08 pm

Vitamin K, depression and stress

Filed under: Cool! — Lex @ 5:08 pm
Tags: ,

… and by Vitamin K, I don’t actually mean Vitamin K, I mean horse tranquilizer:

Ketamine, a general anesthetic usually administered to children and pets but perhaps best known as a horse tranquilizer, is also highly effective in low doses as an anti-depressant, according a study published Thursday.

Researchers at Yale University wrote in the August 20 issue of the journal Science that unlike most anti-depressants on the market which can take weeks to take full effect ketamine can begin to counter depression in hours.

“It’s like a magic drug — one dose can work rapidly and last for seven to 10 days,” said Ronald Duman, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Yale and senior author of the study.

The researchers noted that ketamine was tested as a rapid treatment for people with suicidal thoughts. Traditional anti-depressants can take several weeks to take effect, they noted.

About 40 percent of people suffering from depression do not respond to medication, and many others only respond after many months or years of trying different treatments.

I’m all in favor of pretty much anything that will treat depression effectively, particularly if it’s something that’s already out there and available in generic form. That said, the article kind of slips past something that I think is incredibly important right now — the kind of depression on which ketamine is effective:

The researchers found that ketamine improves depression-like behavior in rats by restoring connections between brain cells damaged by chronic stress.

Anne Laurie comments:

For all the attention paid to the delicate feelings of Wall Street banksters and other highly-paid criminals, being poor is one of the main causes of chronic stress, as well as contributing to many other sources (untreated medical conditions, bad nutrition, family dysfunction, dangerous living environments). And chronic stress will shorten your lifespan even when it doesn’t lead directly to suicide. But I can confidently predict that this study will lead to a spate of thumb-sucking (finger-wagging) articles about the “dangers” of allowing people who can’t afford six weeks at Hazelden to “self-medicate.” And a bunch of pharmaceutical funding diverted to coming up with a “boutique” (i.e., patentable) version of ketamine that can be marketed to Medicare users as a long-term mood improver…

Ayep. Because that’s just how our World’s Greatest Healthcare System rolls.

Friday, March 5, 2010 11:02 pm

“If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Lex @ 11:02 pm
Tags:

It is fitting that Charles Darwin is among the historical figures known or strongly suspected to have suffered from depression, because the existence — and persistence — of depression in the human species poses an interesting evolutionary question:

If depression is hereditary, and it tends to manifest itself in lack of interest in sex and even in suicide — two factors with a negative correlation to reproduction — then what evolutionary advantage has been associated with it that has allowed it to persist at a fairly high rate among humans? A recent Sunday Times article examines that question:

The new research on negative moods, however, suggests that sadness comes with its own set of benefits and that even our most unpleasant feelings serve an important purpose.

Now, where have I heard that before? Oh, yeah: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

Joe Forgas, a social psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has repeatedly demonstrated in experiments that negative moods lead to better decisions in complex situations. The reason, Forgas suggests, is rooted in the intertwined nature of mood and cognition: sadness promotes “information-processing strategies best suited to dealing with more-demanding situations.” This helps explain why test subjects who are melancholy — Forgas induces the mood with a short film about death and cancer — are better at judging the accuracy of rumors and recalling past events; they’re also much less likely to stereotype strangers. …

The enhancement of these mental skills might also explain the striking correlation between creative production and depressive disorders. In a survey led by the neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, 30 writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were interviewed about their mental history. Eighty percent of the writers met the formal diagnostic criteria for some form of depression. A similar theme emerged from biographical studies of British writers and artists by Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, who found that successful individuals were eight times as likely as people in the general population to suffer from major depressive illness.

Why is mental illness so closely associated with creativity? Andreasen argues that depression is intertwined with a “cognitive style” that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art. In the creative process, Andreasen says, “one of the most important qualities is persistence.” Based on the Iowa sample, Andreasen found that “successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down. They’ll stick with it until it’s right.” While Andreasen acknowledges the burden of mental illness — she quotes Robert Lowell on depression not being a “gift of the Muse” and describes his reliance on lithium to escape the pain — she argues that many forms of creativity benefit from the relentless focus it makes possible. “Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often inseparable from the suffering,” she says. “If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.”

And then there’s the virtue of self-loathing, which is one of the symptoms of depression. When people are stuck in the ruminative spiral, their achievements become invisible; the mind is only interested in what has gone wrong. While this condition is typically linked to withdrawal and silence — people become unwilling to communicate — there’s some suggestive evidence that states of unhappiness can actually improve our expressive abilities. Forgas said he has found that sadness correlates with clearer and more compelling sentences, and that negative moods “promote a more concrete, accommodative and ultimately more successful communication style.” Because we’re more critical of what we’re writing, we produce more refined prose, the sentences polished by our angst. As Roland Barthes observed, “A creative writer is one for whom writing is a problem.”

Are depression and creative gifts really connected, or, as the article puts it, “Does … despondency help us solve anything?” Research strongly suggests so, the article says. And if so, must the Cursed Creatives among us suffer to exploit their gifts, or does treating depression neuter their creativity? The article doesn’t really say. I expect the answer varies. I do know that some very talented, very disturbed people don’t get professional help because they believe (or, in some cases, have learned from experience) that treating the disturbance stills the gift. For them, on an emotional and psychological level and possibly on a neurological level as well, the creativity and the curse can no more be separated than can conjoined twins with a single heart.

Another quasi-related thought: Not all writers think of themselves as creative. For these writers, writing isn’t, or isn’t always, a problem to be solved. It’s something else — something they do because they can’t not do it, because it’s how they process their experiences or interact with their environment or just because they believe they’d die if they didn’t. If writers such as these who have mental illnesses are successfully treated, what happens to them if they are no longer driven to use what had been their main coping skill? Do they no longer need that skill, or are they just as vulnerable but now defenseless? And is there any way to know whether they’ll be safe before we disarm them, as it were?

Lots of questions, few answers.

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