On Healing, Dreams, and Emotions

I am struggling today. I woke this morning from a dream I can’t remember still somehow feeling sad and melancholy about it. This has been happening to me a lot lately. One of the side effects of the sleep medication I take (a must, if I hope to actually get a restful night’s sleep) is that I very rarely ever remember the dreams I have — which is a pity, because as a creative type I’ve been known to have some truly remarkable dreams. Unfortunately, said medication does not prevent me from experiencing the emotions that remain once the last tatters of the dream are blown away.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve dreamed. A lot. And vividly. Dreams that inspire rich, soul-quaking emotion. But always, almost without exception, the memories of those dreams flee the moment I open my eyes, leaving only the ghosts of their emotions to linger in my heart and mind a while longer. I’m nearly certain that most of these dreams are attempts of my sleeping mind to process the pain of my daily, waking life. Sometimes I’m able to conjure an image here, an impression there that give context to the emotions I’m experiencing. But as often as not, all I’m left with is pain without cause, loss without substance.

I hope as time passes, as my new medication becomes suffused throughout my system, as my therapy and support group sessions become more regular, that my wistful dreaming will become less frequent. I’m working hard at developing a new mental image of myself and who I am — and I feel like I’ve made some small amount of progress in that regard already this past week. I hope new understanding will begin to supplant the uncertainty and fear and despair I have felt for so long.

I have more hope now than I’ve had in quite some time and an awareness of a much broader and more diverse support network than I ever knew was available. Thank you, so much, to all of you who have lit candles and come alongside to help me through the dark. It means so much more to me than I can ever say with words.

Four Days in a Psych Ward

Just a few days ago, I was released from the hospital after a four-day treatment program for severe depression and suicidal ideation. This was my first inpatient hospital stay of any kind, and while I wouldn’t exactly describe it as being fun, it was extremely helpful and beneficial. Without it I’m not sure I’d even be alive right now to write about it.

Depression

I’ve battled depression for years. I’ve chronicled some of my experiences here and on Facebook and Twitter. It’s not a condition I’ve ever been particularly shy or embarrassed about. I’m a firm believer that we need a more open and honest discourse about mental health because so many people wrestle with it on a daily basis.

Over the past few years, my mental health has experienced a steady decline. My depression has become more persistent and acute, and anxiety has joined with it to make my life a daily living hell. These conditions have challenged my life, which I nearly took, and my faith, which I gave up. It has put significant pressure on my family and my work life, as well. This is not uncommon for people who have dealt with prolonged mental illness.

Had it not been for the intervention of a friend who grew concerned about me, who called me at the end of a weekend where I’d been trapped in my own bed and urged me to get help, who made all the arrangements for me to get into a hospital to get the treatment I needed, I probably wouldn’t be here right now. She literally saved my life, so close was I to making a terrible and irreversible decision.

And I didn’t want to go. All I wanted was to die, to relieve myself and my family of the burden that was my psychosis. At least then I could have peace, knowing that my family could actually move on and have a better life without me dragging them down. In my mind freeing them from the cancer of myself would greatly outweigh the horror of losing me to suicide.

But that was depression’s voice talking in my head, lying to me, convincing me of my worthlessness, reminding me of all the poor coping methods I’d chosen and bad decisions I’d made. Depression is a disease of the brain that alters the way you think, the way you see the world, the way you see yourself. It twists and distorts things so that you can’t determine fact from fiction. Reality loses purchase, and what seeps in instead is a view of life that holds no hope because it is full of unending pain and misery and despair.

I’m thankful for the voice of my friend, who was able to cut through the din long enough to get me out of bed and into a hospital, where I could get the help I really needed. It took four days, including several hours of talking with therapists, and a fairly significant change in medications to help me get to a better place mentally and emotionally. I still have a long road ahead, and pieces of my life that need to be picked up and reassembled as best as possible. But I actually feel stronger now and up to the challenge before me.

I know this won’t be the last time I face depression head-on like this and look down into its great, black belly. But I hope that when that happens, I’ll remember that I’m really not alone in this, that there are others out there willing and able to come alongside and help me.

Fiction: Beautiful Insanity

He is a tiny man. Under four feet tiny. Balding pate. Small eyes. Round, tortoiseshell glasses. Tattered brown suit. Nothing to look at, certainly, not that anyone is looking.

He glides through the crowd, clearing a path without word or gesture. People move aside for him, unaware. A corner of his mouth is quirked up in a bemused, crooked smile. His eyes are distant, focused on an image only he can see.

“Close, close. So very close,” he titters, his voice a sing-song. His fingers creep under his coat, and from his breast pocket he pulls a key, blue and cold as the winter sky. He holds it up between thumb and forefinger, and now his eyes finally seem to focus on something tangible. He giggles.

There you are!” he moans. “So lovely.” He leaps, somersaulting in mid-air, landing lightly on a young woman’s shoulders. She doesn’t notice. He jams the key into the top of her head and twists sharply, then leaps off and bounds away, laughing madly. The visions he just unlocked in her mind will haunt her the rest of her life.

Fiction: Gods of Dirt

There were things we worshiped before the new gods. Things of the dirt. Things of the dark. Things that moved and swarmed and crawled in the spaces beneath our feet. We feared them, even as they ignored us. To them, we were the worms. And less than worms. We were the creatures that merited none of their attention. And if one of them did happen to notice one of us, it was as a god taking notice of a flake of its own skin as it fell away into the void. 

It mattered not at all. For they were gods in their own right, beings far older than we, far more ancient, far more unknowable and strange. They were the true rulers of our world, the true power. And for that we feared them.

So we overthrew them. They had done us no harm, cast no evil over us. But so great was our fear of them, of what they could do, of what they might do, that we deposed them, cast down these benign gods and disrupted the circle of life.

We replaced them, of course, but gods made by human hands are no true gods at all, are they?

Happiness, That Strangest of Strangers

I felt happy today. So of course it took me a while to recognize it for what it was. I noticed the extra energy first, the increased sense of motivation, the additional drive. My pain levels were the lowest they’ve been in months. The first half of my morning just melted away effortlessly. I was as productive as I’ve ever been and more focused than usual.

It didn’t occur to me until I was working on a couple of Grid Diary entries a few minutes before my counseling appointment that I recognized my positive mental state was something more than ordinary, that it was more than just the bump in my Wellbutrin prescription from a couple of weeks ago finally coming to bear on my brain chemistry. It was here, when I tapped the tile to log my mood as ‘Happy,’ that I realized the feeling as genuine.

This is what happens when true joy and contentment are experienced only rarely. When the sun burns away the clouds, it’s almost blinding. It took my weary eyes a while to see true.

The difference between happiness and depression, that gap, it’s so wide that the happiness itself almost feels like a mental disorder, like mania. On the inside I was bouncing off walls. My mind, my heart, they were ping pong balls, launched at high velocity to bounce wildly off the walls of my soul. It was its own kind of madness, but it was also euphoria.

And almost — almost — that understanding doomed my joy to die. You see, depression has been such a lifelong companion that it has become entrenched. It has dug into my heart and soul and mind, and it is incredibly adept at sabotage. Here, in this moment, I wanted nothing more than to ride this wave of exaltation, and my enemy wanted to tear the wave out from under me. The lies it whispered in my ear were the same insidious lies it has whispered to me for years.

“You may as well stop enjoying this. You know it can’t last.”
“This is frivolity. Happiness is an illusion. Life is not joy. It is pain and suffering.”

But for a wonder, depression held little power over me today. Its lies were weak and ineffective.

So, today has been one of the most pleasant days I’ve had in a good, long while. I certainly hope it won’t be the last.

Happiness, don’t be a stranger. You are welcome here anytime.

Fiction: Shade

Night clings to the forest like a shroud. The darkness is nearly absolute, the silhouettes of the trees only just a hair’s-breadth deeper black.

The sounds of life are everywhere, however. The chirps of insects and the calls of nocturnal predators. The sounds of movement originating from creatures perfectly adapted to life in the black.

Distantly, a light blooms, but grows slowly larger, nearer. It floats above the ground, weaving among the trees, despite its obvious ethereal form. It is a shade, the spectral afterimage of a sentient lifeform not-so-recently departed. The shade is oblivious to its surroundings, of course. Its meanderings are more reflex than the result of any conscious action.

As the shade drifts by one particularly large oak, its glow momentarily illuminates a small, bulbous husk. There’s just time to see a seam in the husk pucker before the shade glides by, returning the husk to darkness.

But then, a low, sustained intake of breath arrests the shade’s forward movement for just a second — and then it begins to drift backward. The husk comes into the light once more as the shade is pulled closer. The husk’s steady inhalation intensifies, halting the shade’s movement altogether. Streamers of ethereal matter pull away from the shade, spiraling downward to the husk, where the seam has parted just enough to engulf the streamers, trapping them inside.

The shade’s form begins to stretch and distend as the husk draws it in. Bit by bit the shade is pulled into the husk, until finally, nothing remains. The forest is plunged into full night once more.

Then, the sounds of the forest grow quiet and still. They are replaced by the sound of the husk, slowly chewing.

Fiction: Death, Unstay Thy Hand

I can tell the Wellbutrin is doing its job. This is the third individual item I’ve written in as many days, which I think may very well be more than I’ve written in the last year. I also have story ideas spilling out my ears, which is also something that hasn’t happened in a good, long while. That said, I do want to put a disclaimer right up front of this story — and a trigger warning — given the content of my last couple of updates. The story below is not in any way a reflection of my current state of mind. It is just a partial answer to a “What if…?” question that popped into my head a couple of days ago. Like most of my stories here, this is a Ficlatte piece and so is inherently limited in its length. It’s a vignette, if you will, of what could someday be a much longer story.


Death, Unstay Thy Hand

I have taken my own life more times than I can count. I have slashed open my wrists, bleeding out in minutes. I have fired bullets into my brain. I have poisoned myself. Stood in front of moving vehicles. Jumped from high towers. Drowned.

And yet, my body resolutely refuses to remain dead.

No matter how many times I die, no matter how many different ways, I always return. Sometimes in a matter of minutes. Sometimes within hours. Or weeks. The longest death I have experienced was eight months, and even then I returned. It is as though Death itself has evaluated me — and somehow found me wanting.

I have given up all hope. Life has become unbearable, and I can find no respite, no solace in it. What peace I had hoped to find has eluded me. There is no rest to be found even in those brief periods between life because, for me, they pass in an instant.

Death has stayed its hand, and so I live in everlasting torment.

Morning Routine

The alarm goes off for… what? The fifth time? Sixth? I’ve lost track, partly because I have a tendency to sleep through alarms. I can recall at least two before this, though, so I’m sure there are a couple I “missed.” Without opening my eyes, I reach over and hit the volume button on my phone, silencing the alarm for another snooze cycle. I don’t intend to let it yell at me again, but still it takes a moment to get my brain prepared for the day and to get my body moving.

First thought: Well, I actually slept through the night.

Second thought: And yup, my head still feels weird. Definitely still some Wellbutrin in my system.

I half-open my eyes to look at the digital display of the “normal” alarm clock I keep on the dresser next to my bed, the one that exists solely so I don’t have to actually move when I need to see the time in the middle of the night.

Third thought: Guh. It’s 6:00. My alarm is always set for 5:15 so I have time to get up and feed animals before getting the rest of the household moving. Snooze lasts nine minutes each time, so that makes it… I groan as I force myself partway out of bed. I rub my eyes, trying to force the sleep out of them. Crap. It’s too early in the morning to be doing math.

I slip out of bed and grab the pills off my dresser I’d set out the night before, downing them with a quick swallow of water. The first two of my daily medications. The first two of my wards against insanity.

I grab my clothes in the dark and slip out of the room as quietly as I can so as not to wake either my wife or my son, whose room is right next to ours. Athena pads out of the bedroom next to me, her claws clicking on the wooden floor. The house feels chillier than normal this morning, despite the fact that the furnace is running, so I realize it must be colder outside than it has been since that cold snap we had a couple of weeks back.

I get dressed in the bathroom, Athena watching me patiently by the door. “I know,” I mumble to her. “You’re up next.” We walk through the kitchen together, and I unlock the door. Athena slips past me quickly, off to do her business. She’ll have food waiting for her when she comes back in, and that’s when I’ll slip outside and get the farm animals fed. I grab my morning tab of Wellbutrin from the counter while I wait.

My head is starting to feel a little better now, which is good. I’ve been worried that the Wellbutrin would have me crawling out of my skin again, but it looks like my body might acclimate to it alright for now. I’m hoping to get ahold of the clinic today and get my first appointments set up.

Athena appears on the other side of the storm door, and I let her in. She goes straight to her food bowl and starts chowing down. I leave her to it, grab my coat and flashlight — ’tis the season, I think — and step outside into the brisk morning air. It’s time to get this day started.

Baby Steps Toward Mental Health

This tiny tablet is the first step of the next stage of my search to find mental wellness. (How sad is it that I kinda love the color?)

Wellbutrin

Those of you who also suffer from mental illness may recognize that little pill as buproprion, an off-brand of Wellbutrin. This is the second time I’ve been on this particular medication, but last time it was also the only antidepressant I was taking. I eventually had to switch off of it because it made me feel like I was coming out of my skin. Now, it’s been added to my psychotropic cocktail as an augment to the escitalopram I’m already taking in order to boost my psychological energy. Less than 24 hours being back on the Wellbutrin and my skin is already a little twitchy, my head feels like it’s on fire, and my eyes feel like they could just come tumbling out of my head at any point if I turn too quickly. (But! I’m actually getting things done, and that’s not nothing.)

And still, I’ll take that over the sense of despair and despondency that has clung to me for more than a year now.

I have, in the past year, been the closest to suicide I have ever been in my life. Doing battle every day with feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing eventually takes its toll. The sense of isolation wears on you, grinding away little bits of who you are over time. I’ve been close to giving up more times this year than I can count. Early in the year, I even resorted to cutting — just shallow scratches with a razor blade; I’m not a complete masochist — my hands and arms. I know. It’s not terribly common for a white male in his mid-30s to start cutting himself. But it allowed me to deal out, in small doses, the kind of punishment on myself that I felt like I deserved. It was a short-lived habit, but I’d be lying if I didn’t still have days where I want to cut on myself some more. The pain and heat from those cuts gave me a measure of control over the way I felt and therefore had a paradoxically therapeutic effect. I could stave off the worst of my depressive episodes by parting the skin on my arm — just a little bit — and give myself a tiny reprieve.

I’ve been spiraling for months. The counseling I was in during the first half of the year helped — until I had to back out of it because it was becoming difficult to keep appointments due to increasing busyness at my new job. Literally all the energy I had every day went into my job in an effort to keep from losing this one, too, so the subsequent exhaustion at the end of every day made it easier to justify to myself making poor decisions in my home and farm life, decisions that have negatively impacted my family and my relationships with those around me.

Hence the reintroduction of Wellbutrin into my life. Two very close friends encouraged me earlier this week to visit my family doctor again to see about modifying my medication. Yes, the Wellbutrin still makes me feel odd and a little manic. But after the apathy of the past year (and more), this is far preferable. Per my doctor’s instructions, I’m also working on getting in to see both a psychiatrist, for long-term maintenance of my medications, and a clinical psychologist, because sometimes talking about your troubles with someone who can be objective is a solution, too.

I’d be lying if I said I wanted to do any of this. I hate that any of it is necessary, that I can’t just fix myself and be done with it. But I can’t, and I need help from people more equipped to keep me on my feet. I’m nervous and scared, but maybe also a teensy, tiny bit hopeful, too. Just the fact that I’m writing this down at all is an improvement. I haven’t felt like writing much of anything for more than a year. As much as the Wellbutrin makes my skin crawl, it does seem to give me a little more of myself back, and for that I’m grateful.

Little steps forward, people. Little steps.

Fiction: Fog

“Ain’t natural, Karl.”
“‘Course not.”
“Fog’s ‘sposed to burn up in sunlight, not pile up against the edge of a man’s property like it’s beatin’ on a wall.”
“Ever’body knows that, Carl.”
“Yeah? Well somebody ‘parently forgot to tell ol’ man Hemp. Ain’t natural.”
“Ya’ said that already.”
“Well, mebbe that’s ’cause it bears repeatin’.”
“How long do ya’ reckon it’ll be ’til it burns off, Karl?”
“Thar be a question with a diff’cult answer, Carl. Seems like that there fog sticks around a little longer ever’ day. ‘Fore ya’ know it, it’ll be hangin’ ’round all day and all night.”
“Lordy, Karl. Ol’ man Hemp’s gotta be quakin’ in his polished boots right now.”
“Mebbe. Or mebbe he’s the one done brung it on hisself now, ya’ think? A judgment from the good Lord Hisself.”
“Ya’ think so?”
“Aw, hell if I know, Carl. But you see anyone else around with a danged cloud parked on their lawn?”