neon orange sign spelling change in cursive letters

I Want to Be a Quitter: Thoughts on Growth

Counterintuitively, stubborn determination is a trait that really holds me back. When I start something, I automatically lock myself into seeing it out, even if I don’t like it, am bad at it, or if any number of valid reasons for stepping away from something crop up. So, the thought of doing something new comes with a flood of anxiety about entering into something I would never allow myself to quit. I worry about doing a bad job, letting people down, disappointing myself, ruining something, etc., and ultimately being trapped in a role that doesn’t fit. So, I’m tempted to never start at all. It’s rather paralyzing.

But doing something new is not necessarily forever. You can quit things, and it’s ok. In fact, movement and growth can come from quitting, as taking new opportunities frequently requires that you let go of something else. It inherently results in change, and although change is uncomfortable, it’s how we grow. And so, I want to be a quitter, and despite the negative connotation of the word, I want it to be like one of those positive affirmations that I never say to myself in the mirror.

“I’m a QUITTER!”

I’d say, and then do some fist pumps and charge out of the house, ready to quit some things so that I can start anew, flush with the knowledge that if those new things go awry, I can quit those too. I don’t want to quit everything, of course – I just want it to be easier for me to accept risk and not hold myself to impossible, permanent standards.

I quit a job with no warning, once. In fact, I quit on the first day. It was such a terrible fit for me that the discomfort of quitting something was nothing compared to the prospect of working there every day. I called after going home and explained that, having experienced the job for a day, I definitely would not be able to do the job in a safe, satisfactory way. And it was fine! In fact, they thanked me for being frank with them. I felt awful for wasting their time, but in hindsight, it was 100% the right thing to do. Quitting was good.

For some reason, that experience has not completely impressed upon me the non-world-ending nature of most quitting scenarios. Just the possibility of encountering something I end up wanting to quit still causes me a lot of anxiety. But logically, I know that for the kinds of choices I make in my daily life, nothing catastrophic would happen if I chose to change things. Even in the worst-case scenario, my life would be likely be altered, but certainly not threatened. People are resilient. I could make it through the bumps of quitting, just fine.

If only I could just quit my dedication to not quitting things.

black therapy dog with pointy ears laying on side raising head with one eye closed while covered in dry grass

My Unofficial Therapy Dog

I’ve started bringing my dog to therapy. Does she sit with me and look patiently into my eyes while I cry? No, definitely not. She spends 10 minutes wandering around, smelling the smells of the week with great vigor. She pokes the diffuser with her nose, sticks her whole head in the trash can, and squeeeezes behind my therapist’s chair to not-so-sneakily smell her belongings. Then, she goes back and forth between the window and relaxing on the rug, ears perked up, listening for outside sounds. She comes over to me for pets and cookies every once in a while, but mostly, she’s just nice to have around as my unofficial therapy dog. She’s completely oblivious to my human problems. Looking at her blissful ignorance during therapy is like a brain palate cleanser.

You can’t help but wonder what she thinks of this development. Here we are, in this room we come to sometimes for no discernible reason. Pretty comfy. New smells since last week. 8/10. Would be better if I got second dinner. All that matters to her is that I feed her, walk her, and let her sleep at the foot of my bed. She’s a simple creature – intensely curious and frustratingly smart – but simple in that she really doesn’t need a lot to be happy.

She shares some of that innocent joy with me. She makes me smile every single day. It doesn’t matter how depressed I am – she does something goofy or sweet and has no clue that I find her antics ridiculous. Like how she leads with her face when encountering snowdrifts, or her exasperation at me taking constant photos of her, or the many, many hilarious faces of Sleeping Stella.

Sometimes, when I try to change something in my treatment(s), my depression says, “No, thank you.” Changing my medications has not gone well for me in the past, but I continue to clutch my personal dream of reducing the number of things I pick up from the pharmacy. I recently added a drug which required me to get off of something else, which overall, does not seem to have gone well. The options now are complicated and I don’t particularly like any of them, but I still have Stella! The routine, obligatory outdoor time, and turbo-boosted zoomies have done me immeasurable good. She demands my attention and action, and there’s really no telling her to just go entertain herself. Our walks are sacrosanct to her. No replacements. And no skimping on length, either!

This was part of my goal in adopting her, and it worked in more ways than just the responsibility of it. I thought that it would be healthy for me to be forced to get out of bed and do things, but that the emotional reward of that would come during my good times. I wasn’t expecting my unofficial therapy dog to be able to careen through the fog of my depression and make me smile every single day. A smile or laugh every day certainly doesn’t fix everything, but it’s something to be thankful for.

upside-down photo of woman and black dog lying next to each other showing movement in photo
“We’re snuggling! This’ll be cute.”

close-up-of-purple-bell-shaped-flowers-with-dew

Having Good Days with Depression

Every time I have a sudden improvement in my depression, I’m blown away by how much easier life is. When you live with something every day, you get used to it. It no longer catches your attention when your symptoms don’t stand out from the daily noise.

Yesterday, I had a good day. I called a friend, went for a run, attended a virtual writing group, and only napped for one hour! This is a dramatic improvement from recent weeks. I can’t believe that such a mundane day could feel so novel and exciting. Today, I woke up and thought, “What am I going to do today?” Not in my usual “I’m tired, every day is the same, and I’d rather stay in bed but I have to do something.” way. More of a “I could accomplish something today” way. I actually feel slightly enthusiastic about it. I’m looking forward to the near future but nothing in particular, which is a foreign feeling to me. It’s a kind of vague “the day is full of possibilities” feeling that is a dramatic change for me. I attribute this shift to a second ketamine infusion I had just a few days after my regularly scheduled infusion. The goal was to sort of trampoline-double-bounce me, and hooray – it worked!

I had a conversation somewhat recently about how easy it is to doubt yourself when you have a chronic, “invisible” condition. You might start to forget what “normal” feels like, which makes it hard to tell if you’re there or not. For instance, I often find myself questioning whether I’m being sluggish because of depression or because I’m not putting in enough effort. When you check in with yourself often (“Am I feeling better yet? Is _____ working yet?”) it’s easy to get bogged down in minute details and lost. But a sudden shift in my mood shows me that I can easily tell when I feel better. It’s a change that I notice right away. It’s somewhat validating, actually.

I also try not to dwell on the anxiety that this improvement could be short-lived. I’m accustomed to the very slow seesaw of my moods, which makes a worsening of my depression at some point in the future seem likely. It’s an exercise in mindfulness to focus on the day as it happens. Right now is pleasant and noticeably easier than just a few days ago. The future will unfold as it will, so I may as well appreciate the present.

Here are some things I appreciate: As I’m writing this, my dog is asleep with her head on my legs. I can feel her twitching as she dreams of canine life. I’m astonished at how much she helps me – how important she is to my mental health. I’m grateful beyond words for her. It’s almost noon and I am still awake, having made it several hours past my usual nap. I’m getting tired, but that’s ok. I’m going to enjoy the improvements and be kind about the symptoms that remain. I appreciate comfortable clothing, raspberry tea, and the flexibility my job provides. I recently learned that clams have internal organs but mussels do not, and I’m thankful for Wikipedia. I appreciate my curiosity, both for random facts and for how far I can go with this newly lightened mood.

small-songbird-sitting-on-white-surface-with-white-background

Working on Depression

Sometimes I feel like a bird that can’t figure out how to fly. I periodically get launched out of a cannon (in this metaphor, that’s ketamine), then flap and flap to no effect. I’m trying to make progress, but gravity is always there. Eventually, I sink lower and lower, just exhausting myself with all that flapping.

That’s how it feels, but I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. Yeah, ketamine wears off eventually, and yeah, my brain has a biochemical problem that means I can’t fix depression just by flapping. But the flapping is doing something. All that work I put into therapy and maintaining a routine and getting exercise must be functioning in tandem with the ketamine to push my little bird wings just a smidge farther.

I know this because my mood still dips pretty low sometimes, but on the whole, I’m in a better place than I was a few months ago. Perhaps it’s that I bounce back faster, now. Or maybe it’s just knowing that it won’t last forever.

And now, being able to look back and see that I’m flippity flapping on my own a little makes it just a little bit easier to continue. Chipping away at something day by day is tedious and frustrating, but all of that work adds up. If you can look back at where you were a little while ago, it helps to notice that you have made progress, even if it’s just in the personal growth or a skill you’ve learned or the support you’ve gotten.

Keep flapping, everybody.

drawing of landscape with tree and river and words about self-compassion

Art for Mental Health Awareness Month

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and Mental Health America has several initiatives to spread awareness during May. One of these is #mentalillnessfeelslike. Peruse different categories on their website, where MHA has compiled Instagram posts from people participating in the hashtag. It’s always comforting to find validation in others’ experiences.

The hashtag got me thinking about my own attempts to represent what mental illness feels like to me. This blog is mostly writings that describe my experiences with depression, anxiety, and their various treatments. So, for something different and a trip down memory lane, I thought I would take a jaunt through some of the art I’ve made on the topic of mental health/illness.

The following slideshow was my attempt to depict a strange sensation brought on by an antidepressant I no longer take. It left me feeling “better”, but in an artificial way, as if I could feel my depression just outside the boundaries of myself. It was sort of like being squeezed into a neutral mood that didn’t fit.

Depression 1Depression 2Depression 3Depression 4

And then we have The Potato Scale of Depression, born when I responded to “how are you” with “everything is mashed potatoes”. What I meant by that was that the world was dull, my senses felt mushy, and seeing past any of it felt impossible. The beauty of the potato scale is that it opens the door to describing your mood in a creative, silly way, while still communicating a serious topic. And, you get to have eye-opening conversations about how you and your conversation partner rank various types of fries. Of course, this is an abridged version of the scale; there’s a whole world of poorly-prepared potato dishes to choose from. (Soggy latkes, undercooked gnocci, etc.)

Potato Scale

Clearly, analogies are my favorite way to say how I feel. This next one is a good reminder for present me.

Balance

The rest are simply some depictions of what mental illness feels like to me.

 

collage-of-flowers-and-words-from-magazine-spelling-it's-going-to-get-better-with-watercolored-woman's-face

 

ink drawing of dandelion seed heads growing in grass

Observations From the Garden

I got up at 6 and walked through my routine because that’s what I always do, depressed or not. I fed the dog, made the coffee, poured a bowl of cereal, and then stared into it while the dog did her rounds in the yard. But by 8, I was beginning to wonder why I ever got up in the first place. So, back to bed with the window open and my blankets pulled up to my chin.

Lately, depression has overtaken my days with sleep and restless boredom. What time is it? Doesn’t matter; every day feels like a week. At night, the anxiety comes. I feel like I’m crawling out of my skin. Or like I want to reach inside my chest and pull out my lungs, let them spin out the twist in my trachea. Maybe then I could breathe.

To pass the time when the sun is up, I move between sleep and hobbies. Sitting outside in the backyard, my sketchpad page is still blank. Pen or pencil? I pick up the pen but am unable to draw more than a few dandelions from the scene I’m observing. A flock of house finches has found our backyard – it’s more dandelions than grass, and they’ve all gone to seed. The birds are foraging, bobbing their heads and moving among the unmown grass. One finch struts up to a tall dandelion, and, with an almost imperceptible flutter, attempts to perch on its vertical stem. The dandelion head begins to bow to the ground, and the finch rides the bending stem to meet the grass. Foot firmly planted to hold the flower down, the finch returns to bobbing and pecking.

There’s a sound behind me, and I turn to see a five-foot garter snake glide through the raspberry bushes, following a taste in the air. A busy robin chatters while it gathers last year’s grape leaves for nesting material. Stella digs a layer out of the hollow she’s claimed as hers, then situates herself in the cool dirt she’s uncovered. A hummingbird trill draws near, then it whizzes by on its frenetic journey. Everything around me moves, yet I feel like I’m in stasis. Animals and plants follow their daily rhythms, foraging, hunting, racing the sun to get enough calories, and I feel disrupted – out of sync.

I don’t know how to fix it. Usually, I keep up with my treatments — meds, therapy, ketamine — and simply wait for it to pass. I use what coping mechanisms I can—preferably the good ones, and let the turning of the Earth carry me from one day to the next. This time, I can’t help but feel the uncertainty of the time we’re living in. The disruption is not just to my mind, but to the world. When will this sense of weightlessness, of falling through empty space be soothed? When can we once again feel the ground beneath our feet, knowing by its predictability that it is moving us inexorably from today to tomorrow?

How Do I Love Thee? A Haiku About Meds

New bottle of pills

Contains capsules, not tablets

Let me count the ways

 

Three of my nighttime pills are tablets, and I like to take them all at once to minimize the horrible dissolving-pill taste as much as possible. One time, two went down but one got stuck to the back of my tongue and began to dissolve. It was like purifying the essence of every cruciferous vegetable and mixing them with charcoal, then pouring the horrific concoction down my throat. Immediately, my esophagus’s movement reversed direction and it took serious effort not to hurl right then and there. Instead, I had to force myself to chug water and think about anything but my poor tastebuds. To this day, the memory makes me shiver in horror.

And now, a change in the formulation of one of my meds means that I have received capsules instead of tablets. It’s the little things.

I Woke Up Cold: Thoughts From My Morning Coffee

I put on a scarf at 5:30 in the morning because I woke up cold. It seems that I’m always cold these days. Months remain before the crocuses poke through the soil and the robins start to chirp. Months of ice and salt, of bitter wind and cracked skin. Of waking up cold. I step lightly on the wood floor in the dark and flick on the kitchen lights. It’s time for coffee, so I follow the familiar steps: a new filter, two and a half scoops, and enough water for a full pot. I don’t mind waking up so early; it gives me time to start the day slowly. If I try, I can get another half hour before I’m rudely awakened by a paw to the face– Stella has limited patience. So in the end, 5:30 is peaceful and silent, and I can sit alone at the table with my coffee while Stella smells the early morning air through the crack between the sliding door and the frame.

This morning is grey; the trees are grey, the sky is grey, the grass looks nearly grey. I can already tell that today will be a sluggish one. There will probably be a long nap, and I will likely struggle through work, only to wander aimlessly from one uninteresting hobby to another. I wonder if the ketamine is wearing off, but it’s only been two weeks since my last infusion. I want to will myself into a longer interval between infusions because two weeks seems rather short. I argue with myself when it comes time to rate my mood for the day on a scale of one to ten. (I get an automated reminder text on my phone and send the number as a reply. The results create a graph that my doctor can see.) I have this urge to fib- to make it seem like I feel better than I do. It takes some effort to not lie, and I always get a small twist of disappointment and shame when I send anything below a five.

What will today be? A four? Maybe if I get moving, I can make it a five or even a six. But frankly, today is grey and cold, and I don’t feel like doing anything. My depression is not seasonal; it stays all year. I’ve noticed, however, that the quiet arrival of spring sometimes tows along my missing optimism. The return of new growth and green things makes me feel a little more ready to come out of my shell. Anticipation tinged with anxiety will begin to stir in me as winter comes to an end. Anxiety because there will be more to do, and I worry that I won’t be able to drag myself out of bed to do it. Anticipation because I desperately want to.

For now, I am lost in January. Sometimes, the best I can do is curl up in the cashmere blanket my mother made for me, still wearing my scarf, and sleep. And hope that I won’t wake up cold.

green-mug-with-steam-rising-sitting-on-side-table-with-rumpled-sheets-on-bed-in-background

Taking Stock of My Life with Depression

text about not having energy for anything
Not my meme. Not sure whose.

In my experience, severe depression creates a kind of tunnel vision whereby the non-essential tasks of life get shuffled to the edges and only the act of surviving can be focused on. It’s not that you don’t know what’s on the edges, you just don’t have the energy to expand your field of view and look directly at them. I’m in an increasingly healthy place right now, and I’m taking stock of the state of my life with depression. I always knew that I was “falling behind” in my self-imposed timeline. In fact, I’m acutely aware of how much time has passed without me accomplishing the milestones and achievements someone my age is expected to be doing. My life looks very little like what I hoped it would by this point, a fact that is heavy with self-judgment and regret.

I still struggle to believe that depression happened to me. That it wasn’t poor planning, laziness, or a lack of ambition that kept me from moving forward, but an illness. I think that there are two helpful ways of looking at this. In one, the state of my life is a result of severe depression, a disorder that has kept me from functioning at the level I used to. This view helps stop me from blaming myself for every perceived inadequacy and from expecting too much from myself too soon; I do, after all, still have a serious mental illness that requires daily management.

On the other hand, I try to consider the state of my life to be in spite of severe depression. I didn’t do nothing while horribly depressed, I fought for my life. I studied and graduated, I worked part-time, and I adopted a dog. I went to therapy and tried medications and pushed myself to do things when I just wanted to sleep. Most importantly, my life – even as a life with depression – has continued. The things that I consider important for young adults to do or have mean nothing if there is no life to be led.

If you’re struggling right now, give yourself some credit for the courage and persistence it takes for you to show up for yourself every day. There is no timeline.

envelope labeled 2020 with golden streamers and small potted plant

My Mental Health Resolutions

In December, I gave myself four goals to test before the new year rolled around. I wanted to give myself a chance to work on some (mainly) mental health resolutions without the pressure of an entire year ahead. It wasn’t wildly successful, but it wasn’t a flop, either.

These were my goals:

  1. Keep running, be able to go five miles somewhat comfortably: Done!
  2. Reestablish skincare routine: Sort of done! Currently on track, but it wasn’t a straight line.
  3. Start volunteering: Sort of done! I’m signed up to start in January.
  4. Begin relearning German: Not at all done! Yeah, nope. Didn’t even start.

Even though I didn’t check all the boxes, it felt pretty good to have a list of actionable goals. My overarching goal with all of them (except maybe relearning German) was to improve or support my mental health. In that, I think I succeeded! It was motivating to remember that I only had one month to make progress on my goals, which helped me not get complacent and stuck in bed with depression. As with any vague intention like “improve my mental health,” setting out some well-defined steps is vital. I needed to know where to start and how to do it.

2019 was really, really hard. I plummeted even further into the pit of depression than ever before and ended up hospitalized. I continued on my quest to find medications that work for me, and most of the time, I felt entirely discouraged and worthless. But, I kept going. I kept myself alive, and that was a huge accomplishment. Now, with the assistance of moderately helpful medications and much more helpful IV ketamine infusions, I feel like I’m inching my way out of my blanket burrito of sadness. To continue that progress, I’m aiming to carry on my mental health resolutions from December into the new year.

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year’s Eve and a wonderful year ahead.