How I Track Mental Health Symptoms

My therapist has been encouraging me to track my depression and various contributing factors for years. I’ve tried several apps, journals, and charts, but I always drop the practice after a little while. Eventually, I identified why those tools never worked for me and used that information to make my own system.

Why Motivational Journals and Apps Don’t Work for Me

I understand why a system with lots of elements appeals to some people, but I tend to find them discouraging – the opposite of their intended effect.

My Depression vs. Positivity

Whenever I tried an inspirational/motivational journal, I quickly lost interest. I’d open it up to mark down that I felt like a person-shaped vat of cold, unsalted mashed potatoes. The list of weekly goals I hadn’t met would be staring up at me. Some inspirational quotes would arrive in my brain through the filter of my depression, limp and meaningless. Over time, I began to avoid them, knowing that the initial excitement of setting up a shiny new tracking system would sour.

Apps Aren’t It, Either

Apps have the advantage of offering daily reminders, but if the app is structured like the previously discussed journals, a cheery notification that it’s time to check in only distances me further. I really wanted apps to work for me, and I’ve been consistent with them for two or three weeks at a time, but I always abandon them eventually. They’re too complex, they ask me too many questions, or they document more than what I want to track.

Mood Scales and My Problem with Numbers

Number-based tracking scales usually include too much choice for me and don’t allow for flexible indecisiveness. A 1-to-5 scale just paralyzes me. What if I say “3,” but I’m really a “2?” That would be catastrophic, obviously.

Perfectionism

Maybe it’s a vestige of perfectionistic test anxiety, like I have to choose the “right” answer and be consistent in my interpretation of the scale or else anyone who looks at my data will get an inaccurate sense of my mental health. So instead, I just stop using them. When there’s no data to look at, I didn’t do it wrong!

So in the end, I decided to go with what my therapist suggested in the first place (I must be exasperating when it comes to tracking), and just made my own system to track my mental health.

My Method for Tracking Mental Health Symptoms

I wanted something straightforward, easy to use, and without the frills of a motivational journal. I got a completely blank, unruled journal and a set of stencils. I found these stencils online by searching something like “bullet journal stencils.”

The Mood Tracker

Each hexagon represents a day, which I’ve drawn a line through to depict AM on the top and PM on the bottom. I chose three colors to be “good,” “blah,” and “bad.” This way, I only need to pick a color and fill in the shape. If I can’t decide on a color, I can mix two of them together or shade the shape according to how the day progressed.

I also write small notes every now and then for medication changes, ketamine appointments, and other factors. I like that the bare minimum for this system feels doable for me but isn’t so scant that it’s uninformative.

The Medication Tracker

The medication tracker is similar to the mood tracker in that each section represents a day of a month. The inner row is morning and the outer circle is night. I picked a color for “Yes, I took my meds” and a color for “No, I didn’t take them.” It does help me to see how frequently I’ve missed doses, partly because the perfectionist in me hates to see too much orange.

I keep the journal and the colored pencils in my nightstand so they’re easy to get to and I don’t have the excuse of already being in bed when I remember to track.

How It’s Going

I’ve been consistent with this method for a little over two months, which is probably the longest stretch I’ve ever gone with tracking mental health symptoms. I can’t say that anything groundbreaking has come of it yet, but it is interesting to confirm some of my expectations.

I’ve tried and abandoned so many methods that I don’t think I showed my therapist my journal until I had been using it for a month. I didn’t want it to be yet another dud in a long line of tracking tools. So, I kept it to myself for a little while and am only just starting to assess its usefulness.

Just like with any mental health-tracking method, there are gaps in the data that become evident over time. I’ve been adding symbols to my mood tracker for things like self harm and my period. It’s becoming more complex, but I think the fact that I decide when to add those symbols rather than having a dedicated section for them works well for me.

That said, I’m considering adding a way to track more factors, such as appetite, sleep, and exercise. I don’t want to make it too complex, but I might have the habit established enough to expand my system without abandoning it.

There are tons of ways to track mental health symptoms and factors, and you can find many of them detailed online. What way works best for you?

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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.

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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.

Search & Rescue Elephants and Other Therapy Tidbits

My mental health has once again taken a turn in a not-fun direction, which I attribute to some recent medication changes. So, instead of sitting here thinking, I should write something. I can’t think of anything to write, and then putting down anything I do write as being the worst drivel ever to appear on my screen, I’m going to take you on a little diversion.

Did you know that an elephant’s sense of smell is twice as strong as that of a bloodhound’s? (C, that documentary led me astray. Google says twice, not four times.) This is what I said to my therapist the other day in one of my many futile attempts to distract from the topic at hand. We’ve also discussed, among other things, a documentary I watched called “Octopus Volcano,” how scallops have eyes, and what “horse” is in ASL. Usually, when I share a fun fact like this, there’s a brief exchange, and then she goes, “Well, that used up about a minute and a half.” And then we’re back where we started, just a little more entertained. This time, I think we probably used up, like, at least three minutes with the elephant fact. It may have been the most productive time-wasting fact I’ve ever pulled out of my sleeve. We got going on a train of thought that I think has some incredible real-world promise.

Just imagine: search and rescue ELEPHANTS. The police force brings out the specially trained sniffer elephants in super-wide trailers. They step down, decked out in vests that say “DO NOT PET. I’M WORKING,” but the vests are really just tarps secured around their bellies with bungee cords because the elephant service vest market just isn’t there yet. Soon, they’re working in airports, sniffing for bombs and drugs. All floors have widened stairs and elephant-safe ramps, and next to the dog relief areas are rooms with piles of dirt for the pachyderms to toss over their backs. Retired sniffer elephants spend their golden years relaxing with their family herd with frequent visits from their old handlers, revered as heroes for their invaluable contributions. I think we’re on to something, here.

“Sir? Sir! This is a service animal. Please don’t feed her the limp lettuce off your hamburger.”

Is this a breakthrough? Did I have a breakthrough in therapy?! Yeah, yeah, it’s not about me, but a striking realization is a striking realization. Elephants are the next sniffer dogs. Maybe they’re not as motivated to please humans, and they do need to eat a tremendous amount of foliage as they travel great distances throughout the day, but I think those problems could be overcome with some creativity. There really is no limit to what you can take away from therapy.

Non-sequitur segue! Other problems that can probably be overcome include my current difficulties with changing my clothes and eating and getting work done and my general depression problems. Titrating down on an antidepressant can be tricky. I’m trying to figure out whether this dip in my mood is because this antidepressant was helping me more than I thought it was, regular old withdrawal, ketamine wearing off, or any number of other variables. I suppose time will tell. Let’s persist in our efforts to overcome wacky, theoretical elephant scenarios and the challenges of living life.

P.S. Good luck to the Google algorithm in trying to figure out what the heck this post is about. 🙂

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Anxiety is Keeping Me Awake

And I love it. Well, “love” is too strong, but I have distinctly positive feelings about this change in my depression. From the outside, it may sound amazing to take a four-hour nap every day. Living it is a different matter. When you’re absolutely exhausted all the time and you crawl into bed simply because you don’t want to exist as a conscious person anymore, it’s not rejuvenating. When you go to sleep because you just want the day to be over and at least that way, you won’t perceive the passage of time, it’s not indulgent self-care. Instead, it’s just a black hole siphoning days, weeks, months of your life away from you. So, when you suddenly have every precious second of the day to be awake, it’s wonderful – and a little bit uncomfortable.

Wellbutrin is what’s still making me anxious – a side effect that Google says goes away within a week or two. Not so, for me, although hopefully, for a more complex reason. When I started taking propranolol, a beta blocker, to counteract the anxiety and jitters, I hoped that I could start to really enjoy my improved motivation. I’ve been mostly feeling like it arose solely as a product of anxiety that propels me from distraction to distraction. Instead, I encountered a strange result. Two propranolol per day had minimal effect, but three made me so shaky that I struggled to type or to use a spoon. This is weird, and not at all what’s supposed to happen. Perhaps I had a paradoxical reaction to it, but it’s hard to say. As for the anxiety, my psychiatric nurse practitioner theorized that the addition of Wellbutrin made for three medications in my list that deal with norepinephrine. I was making too much of it, essentially leaving me constantly primed for fight or flight. I’m now tapering down on one of those meds in preparation to increase the Wellbutrin.

Although the anxiety is improving, it still keeps me from napping most days. It’s that odd combination of being tired and full of energy at the same time. I want to close my eyes and rest, but it kind of feels like my trachea is the size of a large straw, and I can feel my heartbeat in my ears. It’s a tug-of-war between depression, which still votes in favor of sleep, and anxiety, which votes for frantic activity. Consequently, many of my days feel much longer than they used to because I’m unable to sleep. I’m still not as interested in my, well, interests as I used to be, so although I have this itch to be active, nothing seems quite right. The anxiety is also not nice, but it is a novel experience to be conscious for an entire day. There are so many hours to pass!

In an example day, I’ve:

  • fixed my clogged bathroom sink
  • drawn some potted plants
  • accomplished my part-time work in one sitting
  • refilled the bird feeder
  • took the dog to the vet
  • *perused the web for “doggles”
  • went for a walk

There have been some recent days that included naps, but on the whole, I’m pleased with my daily awakeness. Now to try not to go too far in this direction and become more anxious that I’m only doing very minimal activity and it somehow feels like a lot to me. Don’t. Over. Think. It.

*Doggles, or dog goggles, are on my shopping list because my dog, Stella, habitually develops eye infections, likely in the course of her high-speed, full-contact dog park outings. The doggles are for her to wear while we play fetch, silly as that is. But hey – ten bucks for doggles, or $180 for each vet trip? They also look awesome.

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It’s hard to get photos of dogs playing that don’t look terrifying, but I swear, this is Stella and Tugs having a great time. Imagine how cool they would look with doggles.

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Changing My Depression Medication

It’s come to my attention that my depression medication doesn’t seem to be doing much. IV ketamine infusions are also doing less than they used to, unless it’s the case they they’re doing just as much but my brain is kicking its level of stubbornness up a few notches. Who’s to say what the cause is? Maybe it’s just the curse of 2020.

I got sidetracked. The point of this post is this: I’m about to start taking Wellbutrin, a medication that I tried a few years ago and really liked. I was only on it for about a week, though, because I promptly broke out in a blotchy rash that spread from my chest, up my neck, and all over my face.

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(the rash of 2018)

It seemed like a cruel joke played on me by the universe. The only oral antidepressant I’d ever tried that made a sudden, discernable difference in my depression is one that I’m allergic to.

Cut to now – I’m once again finding myself floundering in the soupy mashed potatoes of my depressed brain, looking for some way to change things. I’ve always carried a little bit of disappointment about my failed Wellbutrin trial, especially because I was taking the generic at the time. What if I wouldn’t have a reaction to the brand name version? Would it be stupid to try?

You know those prescription medication commercials that include a disclaimer like “Don’t take [name of drug] if you’re allergic to [name of drug],” and you’re like “Well, DUH?” I am now the person that those disclaimers target. To me, the risk of an allergic reaction is worth the potential benefit of taking Wellbutrin. I think it’s telling that when faced with the possibility of a rash, swelling, even anaphylaxis (unlikely), my reaction is “sign me up.”

I remember being so amazed at how motivated Wellbutrin made me feel. It was the only oral depression medication that’s ever given me that “I didn’t fully realize how depressed I was until I wasn’t” feeling. I was in my last semester of college when I took it. By that point, I had tried several medications and was struggling to get through the last few months before graduation. I was over the moon when I realized that Wellbutrin was working for me. It was SO much easier to get my work done and interact with people, even just for the few days that I was on it. When I got the rash, I stopped taking it abruptly, and the sudden changes did not do good things to my mental health. I had already been utterly overwhelmed by classwork and worn down by the near-constant suicidal thoughts that had plagued me for over a year. I canceled my trip home for spring break because I wanted to be alone, and I reluctantly started yet another combo of meds. I just remember the whole thing being bitterly disappointing. It was like Wellbutrin had swooped in, showed me how much easier everything could be, and then ditched me with the gift of an itchy, burning rash after just a few days.

So, I’ll take the chance of a rash if it means I might feel better. That said, if I let myself get too hopeful and the result is a letdown, I know I would feel incredibly defeated. I’m trying to temper my expectations. If I get a rash or if it doesn’t work, at least I’ll finally know for sure if it’s an option for me. I’ll write an update soon.

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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.