Red maple leaves growing on tall branches against a white background

How Psoriasis Affects My Mental Health

I recently took my first dose of Stelara, an injectable medication known as a “biologic” that treats, among other things, psoriasis. I’m so excited, I could pop.

What is Psoriasis?

Psoriasis is an extremely visible autoimmune condition which results in red, inflamed skin with scaly white flakes. My immune system is attacking my skin, causing the affected skin cells to turn over at a dramatically accelerated rate (7-10 times faster than healthy skin!) The severity of my psoriasis can be seen not only from the outside, but from the inside as well. My bloodwork shows evidence of systemic inflammation, which puts me at risk of developing other illnesses, including psoriatic arthritis.

Treatment with Topicals

For the past 15 years, I’ve tried to make topical creams, ointments, solutions, and for a while, UV light treatments, work for me. Using topical treatments properly requires that you follow a schedule of twice-a-day application for two weeks on, two weeks off in various combinations of steroids, vitamin D derivatives, and whatever other prescriptions you’ve been given. It takes me about 30-40 minutes each time.

After about a week, I see definite improvement, which used to be incredibly exciting but is now a pointless exercise in bitter disappointment. As soon as I begin the recommended two-week steroid-free period or simply run out of motivation, my skin begins the infuriating cycle all over again, often worse than the last time. I have never had a period of complete remission.

A brown cardboard sign with white letters in cursive that say "feeling flaky?"
Yes, yes I am. (Spotted in a Safeway. Puff pastry, I think.)

Treatment with Biologics

I reached a tipping point. I don’t know what exactly pushed me over the edge, but I know that I can’t take it anymore. My psoriasis is “severe,” meaning at least 50% of my body’s surface area is affected. Topical treatments aren’t enough, so my dermatologist and I decided that Stelara is the best option for me.

Biologics like Stelara function by suppressing the immune system, which puts you at risk of infections and certain cancers, but the newer biologics are more targeted than older ones. They attempt to treat only the parts of the immune pathways that are going wrong, which reduces the impact on other immune system functions.

Take That, Psoriasis

It makes me anxious to include photos of myself in this post, but I’m tired of trying to navigate the steps I take to hide my skin. Do I dare wear something with an open back? Should I stick to shirts that go up to my neck? Better avoid dark colors so the flakes aren’t obvious.

Psoriasis has been squashing the self-confidence out of me since I was 10 years old. Knowing that I’ll likely deal with psoriasis in one way or another for the rest of my life, I’ve worked to derive my confidence from who I am rather than how I look, but it’s an internal conflict that I’ve never completely solved. I desperately want Stelara to work for me. It’s exhausting to be, on some level, constantly self-conscious. I can’t fully imagine how much of a relief it would be to put that behind me, but I also don’t want to forever be embarrassed about these years of my life. I don’t want psoriasis to win.

This is what I look like, and if you look like this too, know that you don’t have to fit societal standards to be confident in the skin you have.

A person's torso with large psoriasis plaques.

Living with Psoriasis and Self-Criticism


[In this post, I describe my feelings about life with severe psoriasis. I do not want readers who have skin conditions or any physical differences to be hurt by my self-judgments and insecurities. My words are about my experience only.]


It’s taken me so long to come around to the idea of taking a biologic because I blamed myself for not being more consistent with topical treatments. I thought that if I could just be more diligent, my psoriasis wouldn’t be so bad.

It was like boiling a frog; maybe I could have kept it at bay in the beginning, but it just got worse and worse. Eventually, I was so accustomed to it and so convinced that its severity was my fault that I chose to stay in the scalding water rather than get a lift out on a ladle. I also do this with my mental health; I must not be trying hard enough. If I just keep at it, I won’t need to accept more help. If that sounds completely unreasonable, it is – but it’s hard to change thought patterns like that.

Bottle it Up (don’t, though)

I’m 25 now, and my psoriasis is so severe and I’m so disillusioned when it comes to making a dent with topicals that I only use them “as needed” (in my view of “need”). When just twisting at the waist splits the plaques down to raw, bleeding skin and I can’t stand the torture of having unreachable itches in my ear canals, my motivation is briefly renewed. When it inevitably worsens again and I can’t manage it, I’m hard on myself for letting it happen then and all the times that came before. So in order to deal with despair over what I came to see as a failure to fix myself, I became an expert at avoiding the emotions of it. If I let myself fall apart every time I thought about it, I’d never move. It’s far more comfortable to disconnect.

The reality of living every day in this burning, itching skin is too horrible to acknowledge all the time. Instead, I bottle it up until it explodes. I can go long stretches of time feeling like I genuinely don’t care – as long as I cover it with my curated wardrobe of acceptable garments and don’t have too much psoriasis on my face, I’m really quite good at pushing it out of my mind.

But eventually, it’s like I catch a glimpse of it from a stranger’s perspective and am knocked over by the pure shock of it. It hits me suddenly and I break down into tears and fury and grief over how it holds me back and the hopelessness that it could be forever. I’m suddenly overwhelmed by how disgusting and ugly I feel – judgements that I try to keep beneath the surface, but which sometimes bubble up painfully. Then, I gather myself up, shove it all back down, and tell myself that self-pity is pointless. I basically close the Faulty Logic Door on the Emotional Vault until the next time it explodes. Super healthy.

Prioritizing Experience over Appearance

Despite the harsh messages I send to myself about my appearance, I still want to move through the world unhindered by social stigma. Lately, I’ve been pushing myself to wear clothes that make me a tad anxious and, with the exception of swimming, I never let it stop me from participating in things. I’m always worried that people will be rude or hurtful, but that’s rare and stems from ignorance, not malice. Some people stare at me and I occasionally get well-meaning but unsolicited and questionable advice from strangers, but I’ve found that the vast majority of people don’t even bat an eye.

Facial Psoriasis

By virtue of being literally on the face I present to the world, facial psoriasis is particularly hard to deal with. Everyone sees it and has thoughts about it that I’m not privy to. My fears that those thoughts might be judgmental and mean are hard to set aside.

I decided a long time ago that wearing makeup to cover my psoriasis was not worth it. Besides the issues of time, money, and probable skin irritation of heavy-duty foundation and concealer, my desire to fit in and feel confident bumps up against my belief that it shouldn’t matter. It seems like a step too far for me, but for others, it makes a huge difference in their confidence, so, to each their own.

Mild topical steroids and other prescription creams do improve my facial psoriasis considerably, but only for as long as I’m using them, which is sparingly. The skin on your face is delicate, and the decade and a half that I’ve spent using topicals makes me reluctant to risk the side effects of overuse or – God forbid – getting them in my eyes. That’s tricky for me, because I have psoriasis on my eyelids.

On the left is how I wake up during a period of average/low inflammation. With very gentle soap, some careful flake removal, and unscented moisturizer, I can sometimes go from that to the righthand photo without using a prescription cream, which I save for really terrible days. I tend to have wonky, uneven eyelashes because, during bad flares, psoriasis spreads along my lash line and causes sections of eyelashes to fall out.

A psoriasis plaque that looks like a smiley face
A different kind of “facial” psoriasis

Interference and Feedback Between Psoriasis and Mental Health

Stress is a common trigger of psoriasis, which is hard to fix because having psoriasis is pretty stressful. As my mental health waxes and wanes, my psoriasis follows suit in an awful feedback loop. The stress of depression makes my psoriasis flare, and the hit to my self-esteem certainly doesn’t do good things for my depression.

My mental health definitely gets in my way when it comes to skincare. Even if I didn’t have depression, I probably wouldn’t be able to keep up with the treatment routine, but when depression makes getting out of bed and changing my clothes difficult, you can bet that I’m not spending an hour and 20 minutes per day applying goop to the skin I hate looking at.

Overwhelm and Support

Depression and psoriasis are both chronic and painful, and they both take a lot of work to manage. Metaphorically, the overwhelmingly hopeless experience of depression feels like trying to beat back a chronic rash that covers your whole body using nothing but a little tube of ointment. Each is a monumental effort that seems to never end. I’ve learned that tackling difficult, stigmatized issues gets a little easier if you don’t do it alone.

Balancing Impacts

Lithium, which treats my depression and suicidal thoughts, has the unfortunate side effect of causing or worsening psoriasis. (Is that a cruel joke, or what?) I’m not sure how much of an impact it’s had, but I suspect it’s contributed somewhat to the progression of my psoriasis.

[Left: After a dedicated effort to clear my skin in time for a wedding in 2018. It was brief but wonderful. Right: A terrible flare in the cursed year that was 2020.]

Starting Stelara

Any time I spent bullying myself about my skin and my willpower was too long. This change is not a failure, but a success in finally allowing myself to accept help.

Stelara is a momentous step for me; I’ll admit it’s filled with a fair amount of bitterness about how many years I’ve spent suffering, but also acceptance, excitement, and hope.

A close-up image through a magnifying glass of a plant with small yellow flowers

A Strange Effect: The Ketamine Chronicles (Part 35)

The last time I had a ketamine infusion, my experience was dramatically bizarre. I have reached the upper limit of what is comfortable for me, so the infusion itself was intensely immersive. More unusual, though, were the days following the infusion. In hindsight, they were a touch disturbing.

Possible Mania After My August Ketamine Infusion

For a few days after the infusion, I frequently felt detached from myself, as if I were simply occupying another person’s body. Looking at myself in the mirror was unsettling, as my reflection was subtly unfamiliar to me. I slept very little – just a few short hours each night – and yet felt perfectly energetic and motivated. I busied myself with tasks that would otherwise have quickly lost my interest. Being still resulted in a pronounced worsening of my tremor and a building pressure to move. Similar reactions had been happening after ketamine ever since I started taking Emsam, an MAOI antidepressant. They started out mild and became more intense with subsequent infusions, especially after I increased my dose of Emsam. Thus, the last infusion felt far more impactful than its predecessors.

There were small black dots that began in the periphery of my vision but soon moved of their own accord across the space in front of me. They traveled incredibly quickly and in a manner not unlike insects – a creepy scuttling that startled me every time. It felt a little like the kind of jumpy sleep deprivation that results in a tense awareness of your surroundings, except instead of momentary startle reactions, it progressed into actual visual hallucinations. I somehow felt alert and productive, while also experiencing an odd disorientation that made time and recent memories disappear out of reach.

The silhouette of a person standing in a field in a thick fog.
Dimitar Donovski, Unsplash

If you’re considering ketamine infusions or are already getting them, I should stress that my odd reaction to the last infusion was mysterious and apparently unrecognized as a side effect. None of the mental health professionals I see had ever heard of it happening. For me, that means an unanswered question that makes me feel uneasy. For others, I hope that the rarity of what I’ve described is comforting.

The Following Days

When I came out of the strange state of what my therapist called “miniature mania,” I was initially unbothered by what had happened. But as I considered it in the following week, I became slightly disturbed by it. In the moment, I was uncomfortable due to the jittery, giddy feeling I had, but I felt otherwise like myself. Looking back, I’m not sure why I didn’t reach out to my doctor. It felt like I was in a fog that I didn’t know was there.

After a few days, the energy that the infusion gave me ended abruptly and I could feel myself sinking rapidly back into depression. My doctor isn’t sure why that was the case; even though the feeling of being impaired by the ketamine high was somewhat uncomfortable, it seems logical that its extension into the following days should have boosted my mood, not caused it to worsen. In any case, we decided that the combination of Emsam and ketamine was likely the factor to blame for the sudden decline of my mental health. Yesterday’s infusion was adjusted to a lower dose of ketamine and a planned reduction of my Emsam dose. We hoped that they had just been too much when combined at the levels of the last ketamine infusion.

Recollections of a Ketamine Infusion

The infusion itself was more comfortable this time, although it still pushed my limit. During ketamine infusions, my hearing becomes so sensitive that even the lowest volume of my music is too loud. The pump next to me chugs away, adding to the ambient noise in the room. Without thinking about it, I often turn the volume down on my phone, not realizing that I actually muted it until some time later when I start searching for the music that isn’t there. I haven’t been able to remember my infusions for the past couple of months, which, while not the goal of the treatment, was frustrating and unsettling. This time, I have much clearer memories of what I saw and felt during my infusion.

Familiar Water

A sunny landscape with a large blue lake, green vegetation, mountains, and a blue sky with fluffy white clouds
Photographs are my own unless otherwise attributed

Once again, I was visited by deep water. I started out by observing a landscape from above. There were trees and grasses waving in the breeze and woodland creatures going about their daily lives. I soon noticed, however, that I was not looking at a terrestrial scene, but rather an underwater ecosystem that bustled with aquatic activity. Fish darted around swaying seaweed and hid among rocky crevices. I watched for a few moments (or maybe much longer – who’s to say?) and then moved on to a different scene.

The other images of water are jumbled in my memory, but I remember being next to a tall building, looking up to the top. Water flowed over me and covered me up so that my view of the building was distorted by light and water. It carried a calm peace because it was a relief to stop straining to see the top. There was another, similar scene in which I was slowly submerged in water while looking up at the sky. I have another fuzzy recollection of being buffeted by waves until they overtook me and I was deep underwater, pressed on by the water on all sides of me.

A blue lake with mountains in the background and a dark sky at night

Stretching and Tangling

My other memories of what I saw and felt were centered around layers of earth-toned colors that I understood to represent landscapes. The layers stretched out like bubble gum, getting thinner and thinner while I felt the pulling as well, as if I were connected to the layers myself. At other times, I was tangled up in green vines, hopelessly lost in their confusing loops and knots.

Two natural pillars of red rock at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, Colorado

Layers of Abstraction

In between these scenes, I found myself being sucked into abstract, moving visions of colors and shapes. I felt completely absent at times, as if my body had completely disappeared. During ketamine infusions, I occasionally realize how strange it is to lose my attachment to reality. This time, I frequently forgot what was going on and would reach the end of a song or a scene in my mind and begin to wonder how long I had been immersed in my own imagination to the exclusion of all else. It was like a whirlpool, pulling me in after I got just a split second of clarity.

Tethering Myself to Reality

I experimented this time with the addition of a worry stone. I held it in my right hand so that I could move my thumb in circles around the center. I found it helpful in bringing myself back to the room for a brief moment, which offsets the overwhelming feeling of drifting away into the bizarre soup of my internal universe, never to be seen again.

A beautiful red and grey worry stone with a concave shape

Although I typically dislike not being in control of myself, the all-encompassing embrace of ketamine is hard to shrug off. I’m constantly in conflict with myself because on one hand, I’m uneasy about letting go of the threads that connect me to the real world. On the other hand, I feel so far away from the boundary between my mind and the tangible world that it seems too late to fight my way out. In those moments, I’m fairly content to never come back.

Going Within My Consciousness

Part of why these ketamine infusions are so intense is because there seems to be no space between my sense of self and what I’m experiencing. I watch it happen while being combined with it, my own essence bleeding into the experience. The visions exist in a realistic way in my mind, and I feel that not only am I observing it, I also am it. I don’t necessarily feel like I’ve traveled somewhere else during a ketamine infusion but rather descended into the very center of my being. Thus, the images seem to have always existed, with me now sinking inside them. It seems that I’m nearly undistinguishable from them.

An abstract swirl of blue and green paint
Joel Philipe, Unsplash

Insomnia Again

So far, I feel somewhat normal, except for a few remaining symptoms, including the unbeatable insomnia. I fell asleep after taking my nightly Trazodone, but even that couldn’t overpower the alertness for long. I woke up around 1:30 AM, made some tea, and sat down to document my memories of yesterday’s ketamine infusion. I managed to get a few more hours of sleep after staying up for a while. This morning, I do feel an inkling of the uncomfortable giddiness which flips back and forth with anxiety and dominates my memory of the days following the previous infusion. I also keep forgetting what I set out to do, becoming easily distracted with other tasks. It’s still a bit difficult to move my arms and hands without conscious thought; they get rather stuck if I leave them alone for too long, and my attempts to do some fine motor movements take a couple of seconds to recalibrate. Overall, the reaction seems to be more mild than the last time, which is reassuring. Hopefully, this one will have more of a positive effect on my mood than the last one did. Fingers crossed.

If you’d like to read more of The Ketamine Chronicles, start from the beginning or visit the archives!

a rushing river with white rapids and pine trees on the banks

Turmoil

Well, my family is going through some big changes, I left my job, I’m doubting my medication choices, and I have no idea how to write about any of it. I want this blog to be helpful to other people, so I try to at least be informative and destigmatize conversations about mental health by being open with you. Over the last few months, though, I just haven’t known how to do that.

In all of the turmoil with my family, I’ve done a lot of thinking about growing up, boundaries, and how to deal with a changing perspective. The prospect of writing about it has been bumbling around in my brain, but I haven’t yet figured out how to write about it in a generic way so as to respect my family’s privacy. When I think about writing about other things like my job search or my depression, I don’t know how not to simply complain about them – how to add something more valuable. I miss writing on here, but it’s so hard to restart that I’ve been overwhelmed at the thought of trying.

For honesty’s sake: I’ve been struggling with my mood. My last ketamine infusion was not helpful, I secretly stopped taking my medicine for a bit (don’t do that), and I’m awash in feelings about finding employment – being a burden, feeling underprepared and incapable, the pressure of time, the stress of having no income, etc.

Maybe this short post will help me break through the inertia and get moving again. I have an old draft that will soon be relevant due to an upcoming positive change(!!!), so I might publish that soon. Ketamine is tomorrow, and that will also be altered, so I might have something to share about that in the coming days. Thanks for sticking around or for reading for the first time; I appreciate all of it and I hope that I’ll get back into the swing of things here going forward.

Genevieve ❤

Abstract orange, red, and yellow paint bubbles on a black background

An Overdue Ketamine Infusion Report

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything about my ketamine infusions. My dose of ketamine is high enough now that, combined with the rather sedating anti-nausea medications, I don’t tend to remember much. I have still been getting infusions, though, and I hope that despite the lack of fantastical details, my experience can still be informative.

A Recent Ketamine Infusion

My most recent ketamine infusion was a slightly lower dose than it has been lately. I requested it because the upper limit of what we’ve tried makes me feel like my insides are getting too big for my skin. It creates an unpleasant feeling of high pressure that suggests an impending explosion. We’ll all just be sitting there, listening to the beeps and whirring sounds of the equipment around us, and then BAM – insides suddenly outside. I don’t think there’s a pre-infusion form for that.

The slightly lower dose, while still intense, was much more comfortable. I’ve noticed that, for me, the most prominent experience with higher doses tends to be the physical disorientation. I’m very preoccupied with whether I’m upside down or right side up, whether my eyes are open or closed, or whether I’m still in possession of any of my limbs. The about-to-explode sensation starts out something like how having restless legs feels, which is interesting because sometimes it’s difficult to sleep when I go home. I lie down and feel like I have restless… body. It’s like my muscles are on an automatic movement setting, and holding them still is deeply uncomfortable.

Ketamine’s Dissociative Qualities

In general, at higher doses of ketamine it feels like I leave my body behind but am periodically compelled to figure out where it is. I find myself much less aware of what’s happening, and because it’s hard for me to just let go, that confusion is somewhat uncomfortable. I’ll get all immersed in some spinning whirlpool in my mind and then realize that I have no idea what’s going on, what time it is, or where I am. I used to be able to move in and out of my ketamine dreams and the real world with relative ease. I could pull myself out of it and remember in an instant what was happening. At higher doses, the information is there, but it’s slow to come to me and I have to sort of fight my way over to it in order to remember where I am.

An abstract blue whirlpool of concentric circles
Photo by Derek Thompson on Unsplash

This is where the preoccupation with my physical location comes in. When I’m unsure of what’s happening, it seems prudent to first sort out whether I’m as backwards and upside down as I feel. There is, however, no way to verify that when you’re still under the influence of ketamine. So I just keep trying to reality test my experience with no satisfying answer. “I think my eyes are open. They feel open, but something tells me they’re not. Wait. What am I looking at? Is this what I would be seeing if my eyes were open? I don’t remember. Where am I?” It’s like I know where I am and that there’s nothing to worry about, but the answer is just barely out of reach and I’m slogging through knee-deep molasses to get there. It’s also interesting to note that my ability to think in words in my mind is significantly reduced at higher doses of ketamine. I might think the words, “Where am I?” in my head, but the rest of it is more a kind of conceptual thought that is hard to explain.

In comparison, lower doses were more visually trippy. I used to watch entire scenes play out like dreams – sometimes nonsensical, sometimes a little disturbing in hindsight, but often beautiful and occasionally profound. Things feel much more disconnected at higher doses. There are images, but I don’t remember much of it being distinct, fully-formed scenes or plots. Some of that seems to be connected to the type of music I listen to; I used to choose slow, gentle, classical music, something with a beginning, middle, and end that lends itself to creating cohesive images. But even that has become too intense with higher doses, so I tend to go with something even more chill, now – meditation music, usually. As far as I can tell, my visual experience these days is more about slowly shifting, spinning, zooming shapes and colors punctuated by bizarrely realistic images of mundane life.

Ketamine Feels Less Novel with More Experience

I suspect that although part of why I don’t remember as much of my ketamine infusions these days is the higher dose, part of it is that I’m more comfortable with it and am paying less attention to my experience. I used to have moments of clarity in my earlier infusions when I’d think to myself, “That was SO weird. I have to remember to tell someone about that.” And then I’d come up with a couple of words to describe the scene (which often became the titles of blog posts in The Ketamine Chronicles) and repeat them a few times in my mind so that I would remember whatever it was whenever I regained sensible thought.

Now, I find myself so apathetic that although I might notice when something really bizarre happens in my mind, exerting the effort to remember it just seems impossible. Instead, I just float along through my ketamine infusions, seemingly going both forwards and backwards in time, and arriving back in the room with half-materialized body parts and very little recollection of what I saw. I’m also less “with it” when we leave the office, which makes it challenging to hold the fading memories of what I saw during the ketamine infusion while also trying to walk to the car.

Abstract landscape with orange trees and blue sky with lines of movement
Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

Is It Still Working?

All in all, ketamine infusions still help my depression, even if I don’t remember as much of them. The value comes from the alterations that ketamine facilitates in the brain. I haven’t been experiencing the sudden improvement on the second day after an infusion that I used to, but I do feel a decline in my mood in the same time frame as always. I’m slightly uneasy about the possibility that that might be the power of suggestion; do I start to feel worse because I’m expecting to? It definitely feels different when it seems like the ketamine is wearing off. Like something changes in my brain and I’m less able to pull myself out of those negative mood states we all have, I lose motivation, and I start sleeping more. I’m still wary of my interpretation of that, but I’m really not sure how to determine what the real cause is. It seems like the improvement from a ketamine infusion is more subtle than it used to be. I’m not sure why that is, although it could be because some of my current problems are less biochemical and more unavoidable life stressors. With the addition of Emsam, I do think that my mood has been more stable, which makes the wearing off of ketamine feel a little less abrupt.

So, that’s everything I can think of to share in this post. Sometimes, it seems less entertaining to write about when I don’t have bizarre tales of fish weddings and oceans of corn to share. Nevertheless, it’s always interesting to compare infusions and ponder the factors that make each one different. As always, if you have any questions about what it’s like to get a ketamine infusion, want to share your own experience, or anything else, feel free to leave a comment!

An open laptop with the screen angled down and a bright swirl of colors being displayed against a dark background

How Sensory Processing Disorder Can Make Screens Unbearable

Twice this week, I surpassed my daily limit of 5 consecutive hours of screen time. This limit is one imposed by sensory processing disorder, and if I fail to adhere to the rules, there are unpleasant consequences. These include nausea, vertigo, and intense anxiety bordering on sudden panic.

My job as an editor is done entirely on the computer, and it’s very detail-oriented work. I have to focus intently on the screen in order to catch typos and fix grammar and punctuation mistakes. I also have to do a lot of tab switching and scrolling up and down as I add words and change headers. Some sensory stimuli, like bright lights and visual movement, bother me more than they might bother someone who doesn’t have sensory processing disorder. Taking long breaks – an hour or more – helps stave off the effects of digital screens, but when I spend too much uninterrupted or eventually, cumulative time looking at my laptop or phone, something gets mixed up in my brain. As a non-expert, I don’t know the precise details of what happens, but I do know that it feels TERRIBLE.

I start feeling some vague nausea around hour 4 of mostly continuous work. It spikes when I switch tabs or close windows- the little “whoosh” of a window disappearing into one corner is not something I notice at other times, but when I’m getting overstimulated, it makes my stomach turn. The light of my screen is physically painful to look at, so I turn it progressively lower as I go on. Scrolling is the worst; short vs. long makes a big difference, but they’re both bad. A long scroll makes the nausea much more severe and gives me an indescribably strange pulling sensation in my sternum. It’s something like how I imagine having a long, wet string pulled slowly up and out of your chest would feel. It creates an intense feeling of horror and high anxiety distilled down into the 1.5 seconds it takes to scroll from the top of a page to the bottom. Short-term panic. Something about the movement on my screen is powerfully repelling. The longer I push on past my limit, the more the panic sensation bleeds into the time around the scrolling.

For a little while, turning the brightness down low and wearing sunglasses helps, but eventually, even that doesn’t work. I take short breaks to press my feet into the floor and look at something stationary in the middle distance. I often close my eyes while scrolling, but this just prolongs the experience because I never scroll to exactly the right spot. If I’m typing anything, I look away from the screen. As the anxiety gets worse, I take deep breaths and pause to look elsewhere. My 5 to 10-minute breaks become time for me to lie on my back on the floor and squeeze my knees to my chest – trying to ground my frazzled nervous system.

A glowing blue laptop screen over a backlit black keyboard
Photo by Markus Petritz, @petritz on Unsplash

It became the worst it’s ever been this week when I carried on to about 7 hours of editing. The two hours leading up to the end were miserable. I was doing everything I could to make it through my remaining work, to the complete detriment of my body. I found myself involuntarily rocking back and forth after particularly awful scrolls, just trying to keep it together while my nervous system went haywire. My body was screaming, “HEY. DUMMY. JUST TELL YOUR BOSS YOU’RE SICK.” But I’m perfectionistic and had decided that it was my un-shirkable responsibility to finish all of it myself. When I did finally finish it, I barely held down vomit after booking it to the bathroom. I’m a dummy.

I wonder if it has to do with the blue light (I plan on trying some blue light-blocking glasses) or the frame rate of my screen. I haven’t been sleeping well lately, and I suspect that my sensitivity is heightened when I’m not well rested. Sensory processing disorder does weird things to my ability to handle multiple types of stimuli at once, and being tired just exacerbates it. In the same way that an escalator on its own is fine but an escalator after a busy day in an airport filled with noise and movement gives me vertigo, being tired makes handling the imperceptibly flickering light and movement of a laptop screen way harder.

I spent many years not paying attention at all to the way my sensory processing disorder impacts me. I knew I had it, but I told myself that I should be able to do all of the things that other people can do. So I minimized it in my mind. Despite having learned more about sensory processing disorder and having gotten some treatment in the form of occupational therapy in the recent past, acceptance is something I still need to work on. When simply looking at my laptop screen for too long has such debilitating results, SPD is something I should be considering more carefully. Pushing myself to the point of throwing up was extremely unwise and points to a general disregard for my own wellbeing. I didn’t want to inconvenience other people by being late with my work or shuffling it off onto someone else. And ultimately, I just did not want to admit defeat when it came to something as innocuous as looking at a screen.

I think I’ll try to reframe “admitting defeat” as “taking a really big hint from my body.” If it means living in a way that doesn’t leave me green with nausea and crying, that seems more like winning to me.

EMSAM-patch-packaging-with-label

I’m Mildly Depressed!

This is momentous. I took my regularly scheduled depression questionnaire and, instead of the “moderate” or “moderately severe” that it’s been for a long time, it said “mild” when I submitted it! I’m mildly depressed! Hooray!

I’ve been taking Emsam for a few weeks, now. I don’t think I’ve felt such a dramatic improvement in my depression since the mega-high dose of lithium I was taking for a little while or the times I’ve done several ketamine infusions in quick succession.

Again – *knock wood, toss a pinch of salt, do all of the superstitious things to avoid a jinx* – it’s still early. I’m nervous about declaring it a success because my positive track record with antidepressants has always been sadly brief. But so far, it’s been very, very nice to feel better. So nice, actually, that I think I’m tricking myself into glossing over the symptoms that remain.

As soon as I hit “submit” on my PHQ-9, I considered that I may have been a tad overzealous in my answers because of how exciting it was to not be selecting “nearly every day” for every question. Not that I don’t think “mild” is an accurate descriptor, I just might have fudged on my answers a teensy bit.

Every time I’ve experienced a sudden improvement in my depression, I get really excited to, you know, not be so depressed and I get ahead of myself. I seem to think that a large improvement means I’m fine now and should push myself to do all of the things that I’ve been struggling to do for years.

And I do this EVERY TIME. It gets me into trouble when I take a nap and then feel immensely disappointed in myself because I expected to be instantly, spectacularly healthy. I’m reminded of this comic by ChuckDrawsThings:

Antidepressants don’t fix all of your life’s problems, but boy, do they make it easier for you to go about fixing some of them yourself. It’s amazing that I keep thinking, “I should do XYZ” and then finding myself just doing XYZ. There is so much effort that goes into every tiny decision and step of my life when I’m significantly depressed. It’s kind of mind-blowing how much easier it is to function as a human person. Is this how other people feel, or is this just early excitement of feeling better? I’m afraid that it won’t last.

I do feel a little less awesome than I did in the last two weeks, so I wonder if starting the Emsam right before a ketamine appointment sort of trampoline double-bounced me. It is unrealistic to expect that Emsam will just make everything better forever, so whatever benefit I can have, I’ll take. I’m curious about my next ketamine infusion; will it double-bounce me again?

Not everything is fixed, but overall, I feel remarkably lighter than I did pre-Emsam. Conversation is easier, I feel like I laugh more, and I find myself once again delighted by the little things – figuratively and literally – like this tiny prickly pear I saw yesterday.

An index finger and thumb indicating the height of a small prickly pear paddle growing outside

I love dopamine.

Two women in a public bathroom passing a pad in a yellow and white wrapper between them

Let’s Talk About Periods and Mental Health

May is Mental Health Awareness Month! One lesser-tackled mental health topic (in my opinion) is that of periods and mental health.

Invalidation: Public and Self

We often see in media the idea that a woman on her period is “crazy”- invalidating language that means it’s ok for others to ignore her feelings. I think it’s important to recognize that the hormonal changes we experience don’t suddenly make us different people. I, for one, become rather cranky, but not because I’ve developed a new set of preferences and opinions; I just have a lower tolerance for irritation. A much, much lower tolerance. Things that at any other time would simply make me shake my head suddenly either make me briefly, intensely angry or likely to burst into tears.

I find myself downplaying the effects of my period on my mental health all the time. I think it stems from its temporary nature. I know that it won’t last long, so it seems silly to let it take up much space on my list of mental difficulties. When I’m seeing red because somebody put a spoonful of cooked rice in the dishwasher and ran it, I invalidate myself. I tell myself that how I feel doesn’t matter because it’s caused by temporary hormones and my reaction is disproportionately intense. And it is temporary and more intense than is warranted. But the reality is, it’s extremely uncomfortable to experience month after month. Each small instance of unreasonable mood swinging adds up to something with tangible impact.

But it’s ~Natural~

Having a healthy menstrual cycle is a positive thing! If women for millennia have been dealing with theirs, why should I let mine be a roadblock for me? I’m sure women millennia ago thought it sucked just as much as we do, if not more. Modern methods of dealing with it hygienically and the availability of painkillers probably makes menstruating a good deal more comfortable for us. (Of course, there’s a conversation to be had about poverty’s restriction of women’s access to these modern resources. Not everyone enjoys the comforts of disposable period products. Here’s a good resource for learning about period poverty.)

There are definitely positive ways of talking about periods; their position in the menstrual cycle plays a vital role in fertility and reproduction, after all. That doesn’t eliminate the damage that periods can do to our mental health, however. We can recognize the beauty of a natural, cyclical process while also shaking our collective fists at Mother Nature.

A grid of tampons wrapped in plastic with no applicators on a light blue background
Photo by Natracare on Unsplash

PMS and Depression

As many as 3 in 4 women experience PMS. Symptoms include mood swings, irritability, crying spells, social withdrawal, and a host of uncomfortable physical symptoms. That alone is more than enough to be impactful when it comes to a person’s periods and mental health. And what about people who have a mental health diagnosis in addition to PMS? According to the Office on Women’s Health, “Many women seeking treatment for PMS have depression or anxiety. Symptoms of these mental health conditions are similar to symptoms of PMS and may get worse before or during your period.”

Personally, I can say with certainty that when I’m really struggling with my depression, my suicidal thoughts and the urges to self harm are worst leading up to and during my period. In fact, my period started a few days into my hospitalization in 2019 – a connection that I only made later on. The effects of the hormonal changes may be temporary, but my period is a setback to my mental health on a regular basis. And with an extremely serious thing like suicidal ideation, any factor that worsens it is nothing to be dismissed. Sometimes, even when things are getting better, I have sneaky, destructive thoughts because of hormonal fluctuations.

In those cases, it is helpful to remember that my period is to blame and that it will pass. I have to strike a balance, though. It’s easy for me to bully myself into feeling bad about slip ups and setbacks because “it’s just my period.” Hormones are powerful and their effects are very real, no matter how temporary.

Managing Periods and Mental Health

There are many ways to manage PMS for a better relationship between your periods and mental health. Many people find that lifestyle changes through diet, exercise, and healthy sleep are enough to improve their PMS, but your doctor might suggest other options as well. Hormonal contraceptives can help even out the dramatic peaks and valleys of hormone changes. For some people, PMS rises to the level of PMDD, or premenstrual dysphoric disorder. This can be treated through a variety of interventions.

It’s unfortunate that conversations about the mental health effects of the menstrual cycle are reserved only for certain private settings and are kept to a quiet minimum. Periods are a fact of life for many people. We should be able to discuss them openly as a legitimate factor affecting mental health. A survey of 1,500 women found that 58% have been embarrassed about their period at one point or another. 62% of respondents were uncomfortable even using the word “period.” Thankfully, there are many initiatives fighting stigma and working to provide resources to women and girls around the world, and we can keep the conversation going.

How does your period impact your mental health? Have you experienced period shame?

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Switching Antidepressants: Emsam Update

I’ve been taking Emsam, an MAOI antidepressant, for a few days now, and although I can’t say that I feel amazing, I think I do feel better than I did before I started. The two weeks between ending Wellbutrin and starting Emsam were a struggle, but hopefully will be worth it.

Emsam comes as a patch that you wear for 24 hours and then replace with a new one. It’s an adjustment to not just plop some additional pills into my organizer for the week. It’s ever-so-slightly more labor-intensive this way, but I think it has been easier for me to accept than previous medicine changes have been. I have some kind of hang-up about pills and how many I need, so adding a new one always upsets me. Even though Emsam is a new antidepressant for me, it seems to have bypassed my usual judgments by virtue of being a patch. Perhaps my inner critic is secretly a child placated by cool stickers.

I’m noticing some insomnia, but nothing horrible. In fact, the napping that had returned when I stopped Wellbutrin has been reduced again. Sometimes I still attempt to take a nap because, well, my napping problem is partly fatigue, partly escapism. So even though I still try to pass a few hours by sleeping, it hasn’t been working since the introduction of Emsam.

As a result, I’ve been doing a lot of yardwork. The dandelions are quickly taking over the backyard. Luckily, endlessly repetitive tasks are my jam. I’m digging them up one by one, a byproduct of which is some unintended soil aeration! I also took down all of the rabbit fencing that I used to make our backyard fence taller because Stella was jumping it last summer. That solution did not work for long.

In fact, she jumped a six-foot-tall fence in pursuit of a squirrel the other day, so there really is no containing her unless she’s on a strong tether. Might as well get rid of the unsightly fence addition. She causes me so much anxiety sometimes, but she’s still a wonderful dog.

black-dog-with-pointy-ears-lying-on-blue-blanket-with-tongue-sticking-out
Blep

Historically, I’ve been mean to myself about napping because I tell myself I should be doing something productive with that time. Now that I’m not napping (pretty much), I have lots of time to get stuff done. And I’m still mean to myself. What a surprise.

In sporadic bursts, I’ve been searching for a new job for a while. I’ll get started on it, saving postings, updating things, applying to a few here and there, but not really dedicating myself to it because my current job is “ok.” I know that I’m avoiding it. It used to be that I’d be mad at myself for wasting time by napping. Now that I’m not napping, I’m mad at myself for STILL not tackling it, despite having plenty of time as a conscious person. Then again, it’s only been a few days since I started Emsam, and perhaps it will make things easier with some more time.

I’m attempting to heed my therapist’s advice about how a gentler approach is more effective and that no, you won’t become a stagnant blob of disappointment if you stop beating yourself up about your perceived lack of progress. I’m unconvinced, but I’m trying.

scattered-white-pills-in-upper-right-quadrant-on-light-blue-background

Goodbye, Wellbutrin. Hello, MAOI.

A week ago, I stopped taking Wellbutrin so that I can try Emsam, an MAOI. (I have to wait two weeks between ending Wellbutrin and beginning the MAOI.) I think it was good timing that my most recent ketamine infusion was around the same time I stopped taking Wellbutrin because I’m already feeling pretty terrible. I have the sense that without it, this change might have been even more abruptly bad. Maybe it’s a good setup for when Emsam just blows my mood out of the water, right? A nice contrast will really emphasize its effectiveness. One can hope.

It’s safe to say that Wellbutrin was holding my hypersomnia at bay, and now that I’m not taking it, I’m basically a koala. (They sleep 18-22 hours per day, and not because they’re high on eucalyptus – they’re just dedicating lots of energy to digestion.) It would be great if I could selectively dedicate all the energy I save by sleeping to something else, like hair growth. I could be a brunette Rapunzel in no time.

It is endlessly disappointing to me that I can’t seem to function very well without antidepressants. You’d think I would have accepted it by now. And yet, every single time I change one of my medications and experience a sudden worsening of my depression, I get all upset with myself for not being able to handle it.

I considered this move for a while. SSRIs and SNRIs haven’t helped me much, so branching out to an MAOI seems worth a try. Wellbutrin was clearly helping, particularly in the motivation department, but it was still less impactful than I had hoped. Eventually, I decided that giving up the motivation that Wellbutrin gives me in the hopes that Emsam will help me even more is worth it. It does kind of suck that I can’t go directly from one to the other, though. Two weeks sans antidepressant is proving to be challenging.

A big part of me wanted to just leave things the same and continue to try to build on the benefits of Wellbutrin through my own “natural” efforts. Something that I wrestle with constantly is my uncertainty around what I should expect of myself. It never seems right to say, “I can’t do X because of depression,” because it pains me to be limited by my own brain. So, I continue to struggle far below meeting my perfectionistic standards for myself and then am crushed when “I can’t do X because of depression” turns out to be somewhat true. I never allow myself any grace when depression slows me down.

So, in the end, I’m feebly trying to convince myself that trying yet another medication is fine because if I could have worked my way out of depression by now, I would have. It’s important to do the work I can do day-to-day. But, as anyone with depression knows, it’s tough to do the things that you know are good for your mental health when your mental illness won’t get out of your way. Not impossible! Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been exercising, keeping up with my job, trying to eat 3 meals a day – the works. But that can only get me so far, and most of it tends to fizzle out when I’m in a mental place like this.

I felt okay on Wellbutrin, but ideally, I don’t want to settle for okay. But if Emsam doesn’t work out, it is nice to know that Wellbutrin is something I could return to. For now, I’ll just keep working on my Rapunzel hair and waiting for Wednesday of next week, when I can begin my MAOI experiment.

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At the Bottom of a Well: The Ketamine Chronicles (Part 33)

I forgot to put on a scopolamine patch the evening before this ketamine infusion, but other than that, this one was packed with stuff intended on making the ketamine more effective. Cimetidine, magnesium, petocin, some anti-nausea drugs, to be honest, it’s all a blur. It was “the kitchen sink.” Getting infusions of IV ketamine for treatment-resistant depression is kind of a balancing act. It works best as an individualized recipe, and it seems that mine is always changing.

I don’t usually start out my ketamine infusions with chit chat, but this time, I spoke to Sarah for a couple of minutes before closing my eyes. What we talked about, I no longer remember, but it was casual and light. When I did close my eyes, I had the sense that this infusion might be a gentle experience at the surface between lucid and zonked. I was very wrong. I think that focusing on my conversation with Sarah diverted some of the weird sensations of ketamine from overcoming me, but they hit me later.

Sand and some lessons about depression

I remember a lot of sand. I was in a desert near some ancient stone ruins, and the sand was shifting like a river in the sunlight. I was on the ground, watching a snake struggle to squeeze between a crack in the stone building before the sand could drag it down. The snake succeeded, turning into a blooming flower as it rose up from the river of sand.

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Photo by @wolfgang_hasselmann on Unsplash

At some point, I was looking down a long tunnel into the ground – like a well – at some people on the other side. But as I strained to see who they were, I realized that I wasn’t looking down, I was looking up from the bottom. The people far above me leaned over the edge to gaze down, and the walls of the well crumbled into sand and buried me in darkness. It was quiet. It was something of a relief.

These experiences of being buried or of drowning are never frightening, but they do evoke a certain hopelessness. I used to have whole infusions dominated by water and the feeling of sinking, but lately, that theme has been absent. This theme of sand is different, but it feels much the same. I wonder if it has to do with the state of my depression at the time. In thinking back to the last few times I had a water-based internal experience, I do remember feeling similarly to how I feel now. I’m treading water, still moving a little in the direction of my goals, but I’m decidedly denser than my surroundings. Sinking would be so much easier than pulling myself upwards.

When I’m drowning or being buried in my ketamine infusions, it feels completely out of my control. The forces of water, sand, or perhaps depression, in this metaphor, are simply overwhelming. I think that my perception of depression is manifesting itself as unbeatable natural forces in my ketamine infusions. Most of the time, it doesn’t seem hopeless to that extreme in my real life, so it’s interesting that that’s how it comes out in my ketamine appointments. But, maybe that’s the only way my mind can conceptualize it in that setting.

In my visual experience of ketamine, depression feels like sinking alone in the dark, open ocean. It feels like being buried in sand at the bottom of a well, while people far away can only watch. But in reality, it’s neither of those things. It’s an illness that, like others, can be treated. Reality is clouded by depression, and it’s easy to forget how turned around I can become in my own mind.

Is the ketamine infusion over? Should I get up now?

At the very beginning of this ketamine infusion, my doctor pointed at the photo on the wall across from me and said, “We’ll just see if this starts moving.”

“I’m not supposed to have my eyes open,” I replied, referring to our frequent conflict in which I open my eyes and stare at various entrancing objects while he patiently reminds me over and over again that I’m supposed to have them closed.

“That was a test. You passed.” He laughed.

And then at some point in the infusion, I proceeded to leave my eyes open for what felt like a really long time.

In my defense, I was confused. I opened my eyes because I thought the infusion was over and that everyone was waiting for me to get it together. Let me tell you, trying to fight ketamine while it’s still infusing into your bloodstream is pretty impossible. I kept thinking that I needed to get up and walk to the car, and that seemed utterly beyond my capabilities.

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Photo by Michael Dziedzic @lazycreekimages

I vacillated between anxiously willing myself into wakefulness and resigning myself to living the rest of my life in that very chair. Words can’t describe how disoriented I was. Every time I blinked (which wasn’t often and was probably more like a short time with my eyes closed), the room seemed to change somehow. It was wider than I remembered, then it was taller, then the picture was farther away, and everything was tilting to the side. I couldn’t understand why it was taking me so much longer than usual to regain my faculties.

I distinctly remember thinking, “I wish someone would just tell me what I’m supposed to be doing.” That thought gave me some satisfaction because after all, how could anyone get frustrated with me for being slow when they didn’t even tell me that I was supposed to be speeding up? “That’s *their* problem,” I thought. Having convinced myself that transportation to the parking garage was not my concern, I stared at the wall with the photo of the wolf and the goat and found that there actually were three frogs hidden in there, too. I occasionally thought things like, “What time is it?” or, “When did we start?” or, “Which way is up?” only to realize that the answer would mean nothing to me and there was no point in mustering up the energy to ask.

After some amount of time that may have been five minutes or five hours, I was told to close my eyes and that there were eight minutes left. Oh my God, what a relief. “How long did I just spend thinking I needed to get up? No matter, now.” Somewhere in my mind, I found some wry humor in my ability to carry my anxiety about inconveniencing people into Ketamine Land. I guess it follows me everywhere.

After that, I spent some time thinking about oobleck, which is a non-Newtonian fluid often made in middle school science class composed of corn starch and water. It moves like a fluid at rest, but solidifies when you exert sudden force upon it. I felt like I was surrounded by oobleck. Or maybe that I was made of oobleck. Things were flowing like a lazy river when I let go and rested, but when I tried to move, I found myself glued in place.

The eight minutes that were left when I closed my eyes instantly shrunk down to about twenty seconds, and then before I knew it, I was back to searching the inside of my brain for control of my limbs. I got my coat on, missed my face a couple of times trying to put my glasses on, wobbled out the door, and successfully made it to the car.

IV ketamine for depression is different every time

The rest of the day passed uneventfully. I was interested to see if the reintroduction of magnesium into my infusion would result in the wild limb jerking that happened the last time we used it, but thankfully, it didn’t. The bizarre afternoon I had that time has continued to be an isolated event. This time, I slept for most of the day, got up for dinner, then went back to bed. I think. To be honest, I don’t remember the details, but I know that it was fairly mundane.

Every infusion I’ve had has been different, which is why I find it so interesting to write about them. Even my experience once I get home tends to change, and I can’t always pinpoint why. Sometimes, I go about my day – working, writing, walking the dog – and sometimes, I just crash.

It doesn’t even seem like a wackier or more mundane experience correlates with any particular result. At least, as far as I can tell. Maybe there are just too many factors for a clear pattern to emerge.

For the time being, I’m planning some more changes to my medication regime, trying not to nap too much, and carrying on with tiny clams.